Englishness

Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England, Roger Scruton, Atlantic.

Roger Scruton, as well as being a well-known English philosopher, is also an organist in his local church in a little hamlet outside Malmesbury. Although he grew up in more hardline denominations, and after the usual teenage rebellious phase, he was attracted to the Anglican Church, freer perhaps in its beliefs, more solid in its traditions, more intertwined with notions of Englishness that Scruton is attracted to. After a long agnostic stage, Scruton has returned to the Church, and in this book extols the virtues of the Church and its links to English history, tradition, ritual and conservatism.

scruton

While his “personal history” is interesting, Scruton has certain assumptions, some of which are clearly problematic. Not the least is his assertion early in the book that Christ “clearly assumed” there was no conflict between Church and State. Now, quite aside from the fact that the ideas of church and state in Jesus’ time were so removed from our own that talking about them is very difficult, Scruton makes his assumption on the basis of Jesus’ words that we should “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. The second part of Jesus’ statement – “render to God what is God’s”, if one thinks about it for a while, makes it not so easy to argue for a strict separation. After-all, what is God’s? Everything! So in some circles of scholarship, Jesus statement is quite a subversive one. He places the God of the Jews above Caesar, shifting Caesar, who is meant to be considered a god, and to which allegiance must be owed, to one side.

Scruton suggests that religion should be in line with “national sentiments”. And as the Anglican Church is the state church, they should be in agreement. But what happens when they are not? Is the Church compromised by being under pressure to conform to the ruling political ideology? Are we to believe that political leaders will always respond to the chastisement of the clergy? Scruton has a nostalgic picture of the English vicar, as kind of sensible, confining “energy within socially acceptable bounds”, but the Anglican clergy have not always been the gentle middle ground. By going with the status quo, they were often complicit in its injustices. Scruton is clearly uncomfortable with the more radical elements of English Protestantism, yet he hardly convinces that they strayed from the core of the Gospel. They merely strayed from the sort of genteel, reticent, hierarchical Englishness that Scruton is so fond of.

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