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Drawn by incomparable liturgy

08 March 2013

Richard Harries looks at the C of E's attraction for a philosopher

Our Church: A personal history of the Church of England
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books £20 (978-1-84887-198-4)
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use voucher code CT852)

AS THE title of this book suggests, this is a very personal history of the Church of England, and none the worse for that. In the first two chapters, Roger Scruton sketches out the broad outlines of that history, always enriched by his love of music, literature, and architecture, as well as politics, so that we see the emergence of the post-Reformation Church in a wide cultural framework.

He is concerned, above all, to show two things about the Church of England as it has evolved. First, it is an inclusive, tolerant Church, combining within itself both Calvinist and Catholic elements, and, with the Toleration Act of 1689, making a space for Nonconformity in this country. Second, it provides a religious home for people who are not particularly religious, which, since religious passions blew themselves out in the civil war of the 17th century, consists of the majority of English people. So, as he puts it, the Church of England emerged as "the spiritual representative of a people whose attitude to the Christian religion could be described as one of loyal indifference".

In the remainder of the book, Scruton reflects on the Church of England from the organ loft of the church in the hamlet of Garsdon, where Sunday by Sunday he plays well-loved hymns. For him, the Christian faith, and Anglicanism in particular, is not so much adherence to a set of beliefs, as habits of the heart shaping habits of life. Interestingly, he could find a firm theological foundation for this in words from Lord Williams's 2004 Romanes Lecture: "Living religiously is a way of conducting a bodily life. It has to do with gesture, place, sound, habit."

Scruton sets out his reasons for finding his settled spiritual home in a country church with a tiny congregation, and remaining in it despite the mocking laughs of the half-cultured despisers of religion who now form the vast majority of our opinion-formers. Besides the two reasons mentioned above, which he believes have entered deeply into English culture and identity, he focuses on the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. As much as the Arabic of the Qur'an, Scruton believes, they have given us a way of sanctifying the great moments and of life, as well as our deepest feelings of penitence and thanksgiving, in a way that is inseparable from their incomparable language.

All this is to be listened to with respect, appreciation, and enjoyment. But critical questions remain. Does he really think that even a significant minority of the English can now be won back to that language? If not, surely the Church has a duty to convey its message in the vernacular of our time, as Cranmer did in his? Has he really looked at modern translations of the Bible? The fact is that some parts of some versions are very good indeed.

Then there is his very partial reading of 19th-century church history. First, he badly underplays the intense seriousness of Victorian religion, and the impact that both the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement had on it. In 1851 "only" 50 per cent of the population were regular churchgoers; but that is a large figure, especially compared with the kind of attitude to religion reported, for example, by Jonathan Swift in the 18th century.

Second, the early Oxford Movement was "high and dry", not ritualistic. What worried its leaders was, first of all, the state's taking control of church appointments, and, second, the rise of theological and political liberalism blowing in from the continent. They were looking for a bulwark in the form of a strong and authoritative Church. In short, they had a vision of the Catholic Church as apart from, and claiming a higher loyalty than, the state. We see the story unfolding in David Newsom's classic study of William Wilberforce's children in The Parting of Friends.

Scruton turns a blind eye to this, because following Hobbes (whom he greatly admires, denying that he was an Erastian), he believes that in a life of unceasing conflict, including religious conflict, an ordered peace provided by the state must be our highest priority. So, whereas, for some of us, our vision is of a Catholic Church uniting past and present, the local and the universal, the seen and the unseen, Scruton's vision is of a peaceable state in which an Established Church does its best for the average irreligious ordinary English man and woman.

There are a few strange errors. In a list of hymn-writers, he presumably means Cowper, not Cowley, and, on page 65, Hooker, another hero, is presumably emphasising the incarnation against not Rome but the Calvinists.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an Honorary Professor of Theology at King's College, London. His new book  The Image of Christ in Modern Art will be published later this year by Ashgate.

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