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A Personal History of the Church of England
By Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2012 Roger Scruton
All rights reserved.
Religion, Faith and Church
Since the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 the English way of life has been often under the novelist's microscope. And we, looking into that microscope, discover that there is no more curious aspect of the English than their attitude to religion. While the Church of England has been all-important in shaping the lives of the English people, the Christian religion has been, since the late seventeenth century, only a subdued presence in their lives. If Jane Austen's young clergymen were training for the army rather than the priesthood, their relations with the women who assess them would remain unaltered. And if the livings and prebends, the bishoprics and deaconries, over which Trollope's characters so relentlessly strive, were lucrative situations in the entertainment industry, their social motives would hardly be changed. The philosopher David Hume remarked on the indifference of the English in matters of religion, and George Orwell repeated the observation in his wartime essay The Lion and the Unicorn. A modern observer could be forgiven for thinking that the Christian faith was some kind of mistake that the English once made, from the effects of which they freed themselves in the tumultuous civil conflicts of the seventeenth century. The Church that survived those violent times was one part of the system of English government, with no spiritual claims beyond the minimum required by social tranquillity. And the godless society of modern England, some might say, is exactly what we should expect, when the Church allies itself so closely with the State that it cannot afford the cost of religious passion.
Understandable though such an observation would be, it is not entirely accurate. The England that I knew as a child in the fifties was not godless. Most people declared some kind of Christian attachment, and churchgoing, though a minority pursuit, was not a target of ridicule. Those intellectuals who publicly questioned the dogmas of the established church were not evangelical atheists of the Richard Dawkins kind, but spirited agnostics like Jacob Bronowski, who conceded that they could not be entirely sure about God's non-existence, even if they were pretty sure about everything else. The Anglican Church was represented in school assemblies across the nation, and the Bible was widely read both in the classroom and at home. Most people responded to the rare official enquiries about their religion with the harmless formula 'C. of E.'. When, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Church stepped into the centre of public life, few people doubted its right to do so, and even the most grudging of unbelievers was moved by the spectacle of the young Queen as she humbly accepted what she regarded as a sacred duty, and in doing so made it sacred.
I was nine years old at the time, and followed the coronation ceremony on the black and white television that our maternal grandmother had provided for the purpose. Our father was a socialist, a republican and an atheist. Yet he too watched the ceremony, regarding it as the sole justification to date of this contraption through which the world of morons had intruded into our house. He and our mother sat in silence, sometimes wiping away their tears. The rituals and words that they witnessed embodied the spirit of England, for whose sake they had made their share of wartime sacrifices. Here were the robes and crowns and diadems, the bishops, deans and archdeacons, the Lords Privy Seal, Great Chamberlain, High Chancellor and High Constable, the whole pack of cards floating on words and music imbued with that peculiar Anglican dignity, which is the dignity of a people who can never witness a ceremony without thinking of the mess that will need clearing up afterwards. But for a precious moment, as the illusions stepped down from the looking glass and occupied our ordinary living room, it seemed that all the recent sacrifices had been worth it.
Such moments in the life of a nation are rare. But they have their counterparts in the lives of individuals. Like nations, human beings pass through times of transition and proof, during which they depend on a validation that must come to them from others. Birth, coming of age, marriage and death are transitions in the life of the individual that are also transitions in the life of the tribe. In premodern societies these moments are marked by 'rites of passage', which lift them out of our day-to-day transactions and endow them with a transcendental meaning. They are, to use T. S. Eliot's words, 'points of intersection of the timeless/With time': moments at which eternity is 'made manifest' in rituals that alert us to the fact that far more is at stake in our lives than the vacillating course of human appetite. It is only thus that we can become fully aware of eternal meanings, and those who scoff at ceremonies register their scepticism towards the transcendental, which can show itself publicly in no other way. It is undeniable that this scepticism is now part of the English character. But it coexists with a certain curiosity towards the transcendental, and a desire to imagine it on the English model, as a place where we might be at home – an eternal Wind in the Willows, governed by a ghostly pack of cards.
If we are to understand the Church of England as I and many of my generation have known it, we need to recognize that religion is not simply a matter of believing a few abstract metaphysical propositions that stand shaking and vulnerable before the advance of modern science. Religion is a way of life, involving customs and ceremonies that validate what matters to us, and which reinforce the attachments by which we live. It is both a faith and a form of membership, in which the destiny of the individual is bound up with that of a community. And it is a way in which the ordinary, the everyday and the unsurprising are rescued from the flow of time and re-made as sacrosanct. A religion has its accumulations of dogma; but dogmas make no real sense when detached from the community that adheres to them, being not neutral statements of fact but collective bids for salvation.
The very word 'faith' speaks to this position: it suggests that, beyond a certain point, we must trust in something, take something on trust, cease to look for proofs or to conduct experiments, but simply receive the certainties of faith by allowing ourselves to be open to them, and open also to the grace of God. Rational theology attempts to give an account of God, man and their relationship that is intrinsically reasonable. Such a theology we find in Augustine and Aquinas; in Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës); and in Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides). Those thinkers believed their separate faiths to be connected by chains of analogy and inference to a rationally justified picture of the world, in which the place of God and God's relation to man can be sketched in plausible outline. But they also believed that without the revelation, by which the fundamental bond of trust is forged, rational theology is useless. And about the revelation they did not agree.
For when it comes to the transcendental, trust is all we can give. Stories of idols and icons who are beaten when they fail to produce rain remind us of the absurdity of attempting to influence a supernatural power by offering merely earthly rewards and punishments. All we can offer is ourselves – to make a gift of ourselves; and that is precisely what faith consists in – the assertion that 'totus tuus sum', I am wholly yours. Mystics like St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and Rumi express this idea with erotic allusions and metaphors. Others are content merely to emphasize the connection between faith and trust, and between trust and surrender. Note, however, that 'islam' does not mean surrender to a conquering dictator, but the humble acknowledgement that, whatever you take for great, God is greater.
From faith springs prayer. You can believe in God without believing in the efficacy of prayer: such was the position adopted by Spinoza, for example. But Spinoza did not believe in the supernatural; God for him was simply another name for nature, conceived as a whole – a position that was at first condemned as atheism, and subsequently praised (by Goethe among others) as pantheism. As soon as you acknowledge the existence of a supernatural being that can have an influence over your life, either here below or in some unknown hereafter, prayer becomes inevitable.
But then there is the question: how do I pray? This question has preoccupied people from the beginning of recorded time. Early religious texts contain prayers that define the form of words, the epithets, and the kinds of requests with which the gods are rightly addressed. We have striking exammples in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Psalms, the Vedas and the Homeric hymns. And they all reinforce the perception that prayer is difficult, requiring special words, a special frame of mind, and an attempt to comprehend aspects of yourself that are hidden from everyday perception. Prayer is not simply asking for something: it is coming into relation with the supernatural. 'Just as in earthly life,' wrote Kierkegaard, 'lovers long for the moment when they are able to breathe forth their love for each other, to let their souls blend in a soft whisper, so the mystic longs for the moment when in prayer he can, as it were, creep into God.'
This 'creeping into God' is something that saints and mystics may achieve spontaneously, as infants crawl to the breast. But for the rest of us it is something we must learn. It involves a momentary withdrawal from the natural world, so as to project our thoughts beyond it. That is why special phrases, liturgies and hallowed language are necessary: they are the guarantee that we are addressing a transcendental Other, and not just talking somewhat pompously to ourselves. This is the difference between a prayer and a wish; and also suggests that the life of prayer is part of the collective surrender, the lapse into membership, to which every religion invites its following.
The great sociologists who put the study of religion on a scientific footing – Émile Durkheim and Max Weber – were aware of those thoughts, and did much to endow them with theoretical underpinnings. But neither of them took much notice of the Anglican Church or recognized its inimitable contribution to the national life of which it was, and to some extent still is, a part. In this book I want to explore some aspects of this unique institution, and to show what is at stake in its current decline. I write as someone who has throughout his life drifted in and out of his mother Church, and who still recognizes the Anglican Communion as his home. But I hope that what I say will be of interest and relevance to all who acknowledge the importance of religion in human life, and who have felt in themselves the trauma that our society is suffering, as its traditional forms of worship fade from public view.
The Abrahamic religions make demands of their adherents under the two broad headings introduced by St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans and deployed for purposes of his own by Martin Luther: the headings of Faith and Works (pistis kai erga). Faith is not simply subscribing to a list of doctrines, as though ticking the boxes of a questionnaire. Works are not blind obedience to a catalogue of divine requests. Faith and works take on their religious character when they fill the soul. Thus Muslims believe that the Koran is the word of God, revealed to Muhammad, and that all its imperatives are binding. They commit to witnessing repeatedly to this (the shahadah), to reciting the five daily prayers, to performing acts of charity (zakat), to obeying the fast of Ramadan and the rituals of pilgrimage. But those requirements do not make a pious Muslim. You must also bring God into your life. The commitments of faith and works must be constantly refreshed and renewed, as though you were coming for the first time to see the truth of the revelation, and the beauty of God's commands. And the equivalent demand is made of the devout Christian, who is required not just to repeat the forms of prayer and worship, but 'to walk in the way of the Cross'.
To bring God into your life is not a simple matter. Special words, special actions, special signs are needed. Faith is a form of consecration; but one person's consecration is another person's sacrilege. Swift, that model Anglican clergyman, wrote that no wars are 'so furious as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent'. The decision to bow or not to bow at the mention of Christ's name, to kneel or not to kneel at Communion, to make or not to make the sign of the cross – all such decisions have, at one time or another, divided Christians into warring factions, notwithstanding a shared belief in the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, and a shared acceptance of the great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.
Rationalists and atheists look on such disputes with scorn, believing them to be proof that religion rots the minds and the morals of those who adhere to it. But they tend to forget that wars of religion are the price paid for the peace of religion. Peace never makes the headlines, and occupies only a footnote in the history books. But peace, like war, erupts from places in the human psyche that are outside the control of reason. Rituals and doctrines become prominent in war because they are prominent in peace: they are the way in which we build trust between strangers, and a sign given from each to each that we belong together and can stand side by side in the face of our common danger.
This casts further light on the nature of faith. Religious beliefs shape the allegiance and coherence of a community, and opinions are judged heretical when they threaten to fragment the community. Hence, as Swift noticed, large differences of opinion are less threatening than small ones. When someone differs completely from me as to whether God exists, or whether there really was someone called Muhammad to whom the Koran was revealed, then I may feel that he is no real threat to me, since he is beyond the pale of my community. He belongs to another community and another faith, and the only question is whether our two communities can live side by side in a peaceful way – the question confronted in one way by the Ottoman Empire, in another way by European societies since the Reformation.
If, however, we agree about everything except whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, the result is a schism – the schism that split the Christian Church into that of Rome and that of Constantinople. And the smaller the difference the more intense the dispute. The Russian Orthodox Church was split in the nineteenth century around the question whether you should make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three – the dispute between the Old and the Young Believers. The dispute led to massacres and pillages, and fatally undermined the stability of Russia, preparing the way for the Bolshevik revolution. Likewise Sunnite and Shi'ite disagree over the succession to the Prophet, while accepting the same Holy Book, the same law and the same customs. This tiny disagreement, of no significance to an outsider, is sufficient to inspire genocidal warfare between those whom it divides.
When a doctrine or practice has become foundational to a community, it has been placed beyond question, and the person who continues to question it must be expelled. Religions aim for a state in which worship, ritual and doctrine are settled until the end of time. They aim to put themselves beyond history. If they have a history nevertheless, it is a history of excommunications. And to recognize this, while adhering to a faith of one's own, is hard. But this hard task is one that Christ himself imposed on us. The parable of the Good Samaritan instructs us to look for common ground, rather than the evidence of heresy. And it is partly in this spirit that the Anglican Church succeeded in reconciling the demands of faith and the imperative of national unity at the end of the seventeenth century.
Excerpted from Our Church by Roger Scruton. Copyright © 2012 Roger Scruton. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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