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Mystic Chords of Memory in England (and Elsewhere)



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There are very few kind words spoken these days about the good old Church of England, so I am delighted to discover that one of the most prominent conservative intellectuals of the past few decades has just devoted an entire book to praising it. Roger Scruton, the acclaimed philosopher and polymath, has recently issued Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England, a short but rewarding attempt to explain just how this unusual institution has managed to provide spiritual nourishment over so many centuries. (It will be available through the U.S. version of Amazon in a month and a half; it is already available through Amazon.co.uk.)

Scruton understands the C of E as a religious institution very much rooted in a specific place and in the character of a specific people. “It is undeniable,” he writes, that “skepticism 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.” This typically English attitude has been both praised and condemned over the years as a “domestication of transcendence”; but it is, in my view, very close to the distinctive essence of Christianity, as a religion in which God becomes Man. God is by definition transcendent; in Christ, He limits Himself and becomes more approachable.

For Scruton, the Church of England is a place of sacramental access to this very approachable God. With its two great literary monuments — the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer — it stands with the Reformation in its view of the Word as the purest point of access to the truth about God. But with its emphasis on Sacrament as well, it also stands with its pre-Reformation forebears. At Scruton’s parish church of Garsdon, there is behind the altar an inscription reading, “This do, in remembrance of me.” Scruton comments:

The reredos is a reminder that this is a Catholic church, which dispenses salvation as a daily sacrament, and which turns our thoughts to remembrance. Those six words on the wall contain the secret of tradition. What matters, they tell us, is the past, its daily re-enactment, and the intertwining threads of memory that make the past forever present among us. Our lives are wrapped around the solid fact of Christ’s sacrifice like ivy around a stone. And when we gather on a Sunday it is not in order to judge the quality of devotion in our sinful neighbours, but to accept, for a while, the shortcomings that impair our weekday relations and to share the vision of an “eternal home.”

“The English know in their hearts,” Scruton writes, “that faith is in large part a human invention — the whole history of their Church reminds them of this.” And yet the intuition remains, that it is not entirely a human invention, and indeed that the most important part of it is a call from the outside. The Church of England has contained within itself people of great faith and people of great doubt, but all united in the presence of a transcendent Mystery.

In a moving passage, Scruton writes about his father, who was not an Anglican, and indeed was hostile to the Anglican Church — but who was nonetheless shaped by it:

All around was something else — not a doctrine or a morality but a call to membership. High Wycombe, where I grew up, was surrounded then by sleepy hamlets and half-vacant villages, each with its Norman or Early English church of flint and stone. And in these churches a peculiar silence had been stored, along with the embroidered kneelers and the Victorian altar cloths with their gold and emerald fabrics, like robes left behind by some visiting angel. You could not ignore these places. My father too was drawn to them, for he was a country-lover, a disciple of H. J. Massingham, who believed that the material progress that had benefitted the capitalist class had also robbed the people of their country, and if unopposed would rob the country of its soul. He sought out that soul in rural lanes and shady churchyards, where you could contemplate the beauty of a landscape made in the image of the Anglican God, who in turn (for an atheist like my father) had been made in the image of the landscape.

The sanctification of daily life — the elevation of the ordinary — is a central part of Christianity as an incarnational religion; and it took hold with Scruton père so strongly that it survived even his rejection of those rationally formulated dogmas considered most central by theologians. It is a fundamentally Anglican habit of thought to see “the point of intersection of the timeless / With time” in the sort of places hallowed by English memory. In this way, God is present even to those who honestly believe that they deny His existence. And it is an approach that is helpful not only to Englishmen and Anglophiles, but, by analogy, to anyone who can be open to the beauty and transcendence in the sanctified places of his or her own life. 



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