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A flawed but provocative and timely personal view of the CofE
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.