on 8 February 2013
This book is a short personal account of England's national church, its origins and character. It begins with a quick history of its establishment and its links with other religious traditions in England, Roman Catholicism, Non-Conformism and the Oxford movement through the ages. There's a description of the changing nature of Scruton's own membership of the Church of England - his teenage curiosity developing into full adult membership (he now plays the organ every Sunday morning in his village church.) The book ends with Scruton describing the erosion of the CofE's function as the custodian of English culture and heritage, rooted in social interaction, where actual religious belief was secondary and not even strictly necessary, towards a newer understanding of the church as a more determined evangeliser and communicator of religious truth in changing times. Scruton regrets this development.
Like all of Scruton's books, it is beautifully written but he is frequently prepared to sacrifice some of the truth for a punchy sentence and will happily include large generalisations, or smooth over historical facts, to serve his argument. This approach is counterproductive and, after encountering a few examples the reader may feel the need for more caution and to read Scruton as an occasional liberty-taker rather than a straight-up philosopher/historian. He is wonderful on church music, architecture and language - he has a deep awareness of the power of art and a gift for writing about it and explaining its power and mystery. He is reliably bad-tempered when discussing politics and society and any voices for a `moving with the times' approach to culture. He dismisses arguments for the equality of women and gay people in the church, as being based on a rejection of biblical teaching. At other times he will himself seem to reject biblical accounts and theological views on salvation, hell, and the trinity seem fairly idiosyncratic and unorthodox. Scruton clearly loves the church, but only to the extent that it aligns with his conservative principles - as a place of consolation and comfort that has grown out of the nation's culture and language. Where an understanding of the church goes beyond this, into articulating missions either for born-again evangelicalism, or for equality, rights and social justice, Scruton sees only the potential for damage to the ancient national culture he loves. And not all readers will share his view of our ancient culture - it wouldn't be quite accurate to say that his vision of English culture is from Trollope, the foxhunting squire, the village parson, God `making people high and low and ordering their estates' - but it wouldn't be that far off.
Scruton has expressed many of the same arguments elsewhere in his books on music, nature, sexuality, and politics and there is not much new thinking here for anyone who is already familiar with his views. It is however enjoyable to have these views discussed in the context of England's church, especially when it is so relevant to current events and decisions and when the its survival seems to depend to an extent on which of the paths that Scruton describes, it chooses to take.
on 8 January 2014
This is a very easy-to-read book for a philosopher! It's a spontaneously written account of his long-standing love affair with the Church of England, warts and all. If there is a certain degree of self-indulgence in the middle chapters, the first is a wonderfully clear and balanced exposition of how the Church he loves came to be the way it is. His explanations of theological positions is lucid and his emphasis on the balancing act the Church achieves between sacramental theology and worldliness explains its quiet, civilising influence. My copy is full of underlinings because he expresses things so well, -- ideas new to me and feelings I have never formulated so clearly. In what is a very personal book, I'm sure he speaks for many of us. It is brave of a philosopher to make himself so vulnerable - philosophy is a calling peculiarly marked by malice and schadenfreude.
Minor irritations: Maybe its very spontaneity has led to some carelessness. He says (but I'm sure he knows otherwise) that the Great (Cranmer's) Bible was Wyclif's, not Coverdale's version (p 32). He attributes the influence of the Bible on Puritanism in the Civil War to the accessibility to the King James Version without a mention of the much more radical Geneva Bible which was, early on at least, the preferred version for Puritan private study. In discussing Christmas, he seems to forget that just as Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection, Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation (p 126). There is no index - a sad omission when there is so much one would like to refer back to!
on 9 April 2013
Scruton paints an English nation perennially short on religious enthusiasm yet whose 'national church remains part of its identity and the key to its past'
This is a profound but admirably concise survey of the cross influences, political and theological between church and nation. He touches on Plato, Aristotle, Constantine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Knox, Wyclif, Cranmer et al and draws contrasts with Islam. There is a strong theme on rendering to God and Caesar and the significances of membership or identity.
A few phrases to give a flavour:
'the spectacle of the young queen as she humbly accepted what she regarded as a sacred duty', 'peculiar anglican dignity', 'appetite, the transcendental and the timeless', 'English scepticism and curiosity', 'the guilt that attends the proximity of the judgement of others', 'peace like war erupts from places in the human psyche that are outside the control of reason'
The byline 'a personal history' I thought was unnecessarily apologetic, the passages of personal and local experience conveyed more general sentiments.
Scruton has high church leanings. He does not say so but one feels theologically he would conclude with Newman that the English church finally fails the 'catholic and apostolic' tests it continues to proclaim. But so deep is our cultural debt, so crucial its contribution to national unity, and so beautiful its formulations in the English language, it deserves our loyalty.
on 3 April 2013
This book leaves me feeling that I don't know quite where Roger Scruton is coming from now, nor what its purpose is.
Scruton is, it must go without saying now, a very intelligent writer. (Sometimes one wonders whether he himself overrates intelligence.) And he probably can't touch a subject without saying something of interest. Nevertheless, I'm not sure what he is trying to do in this book or who he thinks he's writing for. Perhaps he's just musing on a subject that interests him -- but then he must have an image in his mind of those he would like to read those musings.
The historical background to the English Church given here seems accurate and unexceptional to me. There are some personal stories that are interesting, too. For example, we're shown Mr. Scruton Senior, an atheist, a socialist and a republican, who won't have a TV in the house, sitting watching the Coronation on a borrowed set with his wife, the two of them overcome by the spectacle and weeping. That tells one something about 1950s Britain and its people -- and something I think admirable.
In the larger picture, where is Scruton now coming from? A few years ago I recall his writing that human life was "a tragic flutter towards extinction". He would seem to have come a long way since then. Towards the end of this book he gives a brief statement of some reasons that might lead anyone in a theistic direction: that there is anything at all; that there is consciousness; that the world is intelligible, and so forth. All well and good, and though none of this amounts to proof, which is not to be had, these seem good reasons. Still, why not conclude thus and think in terms of something vaguely Platonic or perhaps pantheistic? As regards Christianity, Scruton's argument would seem to be that the incarnation and atonement make sense of his moral understanding and religious intuitions. This too is, I think, a good argument.
So why Anglicanism? Here I think one might say: The Church is now split -- which is something of an embarrassment -- however, perhaps the important thing is to worship at one's local church (the parish system) with one's local community. That would mean, in denominational terms, something somewhat different according to whether one is, say, an Englishman, an Italian or a Scot. (Not that matters of doctrine are unimportant, but, given that one is attending *a* Christian form of worship, they might not be more important than this.) I'm not sure that Scruton would disagree. However, over and above this he seems to find some value in Anglicanism as expressing something of Englishness, seen as valuable in itself. I'm not sure one would want to follow him very far in this direction -- or should if one did. In this connexion it's interesting to note that Scruton extends the meaning of the term "Anglican" somewhat unscrupulously. He seems to want to claim every English writer or artist seen as significant by him as an "Anglican". So Hardy, Pater and D. H. Lawrence are all identified as "Anglican". One wonders what the men in question would say about that! It seems an odd manoeuvre for a philosopher, since the concept is only extended thus at the cost of emptying it of meaning. By the time he's finished, "Anglican" seems merely to be a synonym for "Englishman".
Some reviewers in the press seem to have concluded that Scruton is recommending Anglicanism on cultural grounds rather than because he sincerely believes in Christianity. There are actually several clear statements of belief in the book that suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, and given what I pointed to above, one understands how a careless reader -- particularly one who perhaps skimmed the book rather than reading it -- might have come away with that impression. That impression would only be reinforced by the tendency of the author to offer sociological explanations from authors like Durkheim that seem to me to sit uneasily with those expressions of belief, since there are quite different premises behind them.
Scruton's attitude towards other religions is interesting. Islam he is strongly enthusiastic about, and refers to periodically throughout the book. He seems at least mildly approving of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, he is dismissive of Judaism, and indeed seems to have a definite if muted disapproval of it. This is strange inasmuch as Christianity emerged out of the matrix of Judaism, and the Church has always understood itself in terms of a history reaching back into that past. Twice Scruton describes the Jewish Law as "fussy". This seems a failure of imagination and sympathy, not made, for example, by C. S Lewis, who, referencing psalm xix, writes to a correspondent of
"... the characteristically Jewish feeling that the Law is not only obligatory but beautiful, ravishing: delighting the heart, better than gold, sweeter than honey ..."
One could say of the hedge of provisions erected around the Law by the Scribes by Jesus' time that they were fussy, but to say it of the Law itself? ...
Of course the Law is not enough, but then I doubt the prophets (or the author of psalm xix) thought it was. And, yes, Jesus does speak of the central importance of love for God and one's neighbour. But, then, when he does that he's quoting Deuteronomy.
In the traditional Christian view, Jesus didn't come to preach a new morality, but to suffer and die -- and rise again. (Interestingly, the 1662 Communion service, which Scruton elsewhere in the book rather unthinkingly lauds, prescribes the reading the of the decalogue: it's the 1928 revision, never ratified by parliament, that substitutes the "Summary of the Law".)
Again, Scruton dismisses the Jewish conception of Jehovah as a "tribal god". That probably was true at first (c.f. Elijah on Mount Carmel). But not later on. It's quite clear that the Jehovah of Genesis i is the Creator of Heaven and Earth. And as for universality (never fully realised, of course) in psalm 117 we have "O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people." One could multiply these references. Suffice to say: Scruton's claims here do not stand up to scrutiny.
The other remarkable point is Scruton's decided preference for the AV and the 1662 prayer book. Most writers who've been really serious about their Christianity have seen this language as now problematic despite its evident beauty. George MacDonald was advising his readers to consult the RV in his day; in the 1930s Charles Gore was recommending the translations of Moffat and Knox; later on, C. S. Lewis writes to J. B. Phillips that he has done an inestimable service with his translations and tells him to take no notice of "the 'cultured' asses" who will say he's spoils what the AV makes beautiful. Scruton never addresses this question properly, instead aligning himself with people like Melvyn Bragg, who don't believe anyway, and don't see the meaning in the text as important, so long as it sounds good. "Common Worship", in any case (and rightly), makes provision for a range of different services in different languages, traditional and modern.
There's much more one could say. It's an interesting book in parts, but strangely unsatisfying. It also seems rather half-hearted. I mentioned George MacDonald above. Now there's one of the most remarkable Christian writers of the past couple of hundred years. His romances are poetic and deeply moving; his "Unspoken Sermons" truly shattering. Perhaps it's significant that here's one writer Scruton *didn't* mention. I can't help wondering if it was because MacDonald took his Christianity all too seriously.
Up to the 1930's approximately half the population of England attended weekly Christian worship. BY 1950 this figure had fallen to 20 per cent. Today it is little more than 5 per cent. Of these, only 2 per cent attend worship in our national church. No doubt this is one of the reasons why David Cameron received a storm of criticism recently when he talked of this country being a Christian nation.
The decline in church attendance has led to the demolition or deconsecration of churches, the twinning of parishes and the sale of personages. The church's ministry has been totally transformed in a little over 50 years.
Professor Scruton's book is concerned with this change and the loss involved. 'Our Church' largely ignores the polemics of the so called 'New Atheists'. He argues convincingly that 'our national church remains part of our identity, and the key to its past' (Cameron's point). He proceeds from not just reason but from the psychological insight expressed in Psalm 51.
Scrutiny argues that the Church of England has been for over 500 years an article of faith and a form of membership. He believes one reason for its success is the fact it is Established., thereby subject to parliamentary oversight. Also important is the fact it was grounded in the whole of national life, not just rural and feudal. Above all, it was owing to the use of a common language accessible to everyone. Hence the importance of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
This excellent thought provoking book is full of wistful reflections As Scruton says something is being lost, and in front of our eyes. We are witnessing the demise of an instrument that enabled the poor and rich, uneducated and educated, devout and otherwise, to communicate their serious problems to one another. Professor Scruton regards this eclipse with sadness. So ought we.