TAG | Church of England
Whether or not God exists there cannot be much doubt about the existence of (to use a crude shorthand) a ‘God gene’, the innate propensity of most people to believe in gods and/or the supernatural and, at least to a degree, to base their behavior on those beliefs.
The fight of the Dawkins brigade against ‘sky fairies’ is thus, in most cases, a waste of time. What matters is not God, but the particular god that people worship. Whatever the sentimental, empty-headed or (hullo, Karen Armstrong) propagandists might claim all religions are not simply varying routes to the same ‘truth’. The difference between religions matters, and it matters a great deal. Some are benign, some are not, some leave the rest of us alone, some do not.
In that connection, it was interesting to read this in the course of an interview by Spiked Review with writer Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Enlightenment, an account, as Spiked puts it, of “that ‘150-year burst’ of intellectual energy that begins in Northern Europe after the Thirty Years War, and stretches up to the eve of the French Revolution”:
Several of the thinkers in The Dream… are quite rightly seen as pioneers or antecedents of forms of secularism, of the idea that church and state should be kept separate. Nowadays, when we think of the separation of church and state, we tend to think of it in terms of the First Amendment, where Americans hold that there should be no state religion.
But for the pioneers of secularism, church and state are not so easily parsed. Take Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for example. They’ve both been characterised as being in favour of the separation of church and state, of getting rid of a state religion. Yet, in fact, both believed that it was important to have a state religion. And that’s because they, like many of their intellectual brothers in arms, were concerned not with getting rid of state religion but with weakening the power of the priests, the power of institutional religion. They wanted to take away the church’s power and give it instead to the state.
That’s because, as they saw it, the best way of ensuring that religion didn’t lead to all sorts of trouble was both to police it, and to make sure that the state religion was peaceful, non-disruptive, and not run by these mad priests. So Hobbes and Spinoza ended up advocating state religion, rather than opposing it….
There’s something to that, especially if that state religion is mild, unassuming, tolerant– light on superstition and with a proper sense of its place: At its best the Church of England comes to mind.
From a Guardian interview with Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s neo-Thatcherite, euroskeptic UKIP:
He won a lot of Tory support by opposing gay marriage, chiefly because it was an affront to religious values. “Tolerance is a two-way street, and the whole equality rights agenda has come to the point of head-on conflict with religious faith,” he declares, as if such a conflict must de facto discredit the equality agenda. It takes some nerve to oppose gay marriage on religious grounds – while adding, “I know the Anglican church isn’t much good, but mind you, with that idiot having run the show for the last 10 years that’s hardly surprising. Couldn’t even clip his beard for the royal wedding!” – when, on closer questioning, it transpires Farage isn’t even really a Christian. He claims never to have thought about whether he will go to heaven, or even if such a place exists. “Never.” He goes to church four or five times a year, and thinks it plays “an important role in our society”, but as for believing in God, “I think there is something there, but that’s as far as it goes.” It sounds to me as if he’s agnostic. “Well you’ll have to draw your own conclusion,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed.
While I don’t agree with Farage on same sex marriage (live and let live, say I), the rest of this section of the interview is worth noting for the (presumably leftish) interviewer’s failure to understand that it’s quite possible to oppose something as being an affront to religious faith without sharing that particular set of beliefs. Farage quite clearly sees the Church of England (however flawed) as part of the tradition that makes the country what it is, an essential element in the glue that holds it together. Whether the rather wild claims on which it was originally based—first made in some foreign country two thousand years ago—were true is, of course, an irrelevance.
Iain Martin, writing in the Daily Telegraph:
The Church of England’s Archbishops’ Council, headed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has made a submission on Europe to the Foreign Affairs select committee.
It urges the Government to be more constructive and positive in its attitude to the EU, and warns that David Cameron’s “veto” last December cost the UK credibility. Leaving the EU would be a “travesty”, they claim. Quite a lot of Britons now disagree and think that leaving would be rather a good idea. But the Archbishops explain that they are speaking out because the C of E is “by virtue of its history a European Church”.
Good grief. If the Church of England doesn’t even understand the circumstances of its birth, then how can it expect anyone else to care about what it says?
The British politician, Enoch Powell, a British politician who took the role of the Church of England (if not necessarily either its beliefs or its clergy) very seriously, would have been unsurprised by the invincible ignorance of these archbishops.
Here’s what he had to say back in 1972:
The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.
That’s true, if one considers that Powell was writing in an English context: Henry went to his deathbed considering himself a good Catholic. His dispute with Rome was not over theology, but power. Henry wanted more of the latter (and Anne Boleyn too) but the underlying (and ultimately more important) question was whether England should be governed by English laws or those of some alien authority. Henry VIII, quite correctly, if for self-interested reasons, said that the law begins at home.
Back to Powell…
The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].
That was not something that Thomas Becket (not so surprisingly a traitor in the view of both Henry VIII and Charles I—the last Anglican saint) would have understood or appreciated, so good riddance to him. But Becket was at least Archbishop of Canterbury nearly four centuries before Henry VIII declared England’s independence.He has an excuse, of sorts. The current Archbishop, Rowan Williams, does not. The explanation for what he has said about Europe rests, as it has done so often throughout his disreputable and unpleasant career, in his willingness to put ill-thought, but fiercely-believed, dogma (usually of a leftish variety) before honesty. His upcoming resignation cannot come soon enough.
It was Winston Churchill (an agnostic, essentially) who famously said that he was not a pillar of the Church of England, but a buttress, ”supporting it from the outside”. I feel much the same way (I would still check C of E in a box if asked my religious affiliation), but that church is not what it was, except, of course, when it still is.
Andrew Sullivan brightens up this Sunday by linking to this marvelous Daily Telegraph obituary of the Rev. John Lambourne, country parson, rugby fan, Territorial Army chaplain and, quite clearly, a thoroughly good sort.
Here are some highlights:
As vicar of St Mary’s Salehurst, Sussex, Lambourne described himself as a “traditionalist” with no time for “all this modern stuff”, and his impatience with Church bureaucracy often exasperated his superiors in the hierarchy.
His sermons, meanwhile, were brisk (he claimed that no one could be expected to concentrate for more than four minutes) and notable for his use of sporting metaphors to explain complex matters of doctrine. The Trinity, he liked to say, was like a set of cricket stumps: from the bowler’s end they would appear as three; from square leg they would be seen as one…
Lambourne provided comfort to the sick and bereaved, and there were few people in the parish of Salehurst and Robertsbridge whose lives he did not touch . A major part of his ministry, however, was conducted over a pint at the local pub, where he encouraged all sorts of unlikely people to become regular churchgoers — even to attending “bring-a-bottle” confirmation classes.
One parishioner recalls how at one Midnight Mass, held after a convivial evening in the pub, Lambourne embarked on his sermon but soon found himself struggling with the word “vicissitude”. After three valiant attempts he gave up with a “we’ll leave it there, I think”. At the same service the following year he began his sermon with “vicissitude” and continued where he had left off.
Although Lambourne more than doubled the size of his congregation, filling his large medieval church every Sunday, people who turned up in church only at Christmas or Easter were never made to feel that they were falling short of the Christian ideal. He once observed in a sermon that a lot of people go to church without really knowing why and feel better for having done so; all were welcome whatever their state of belief or disbelief, and once people came to his church they tended to stay.
One exception was the journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, a great friend, whom he was able to coax away from atheism, but unable to prevent making his much-publicised conversion to Roman Catholicism. He was saddened by Muggeridge’s defection, he told an interviewer, but had replaced him with a nice St Bernard dog…
Andrew concludes the extracts he selected from the obituary with this comment:
Ah, yes, the Church of England, the greatest bulwark against religion humankind has yet constructed.
Not at all. At its best, the C of E—as personified by the likes of Lambourne (if we can put holy fools like Rowan Williams to one side)—is in some ways as close to perfection as religion—a man-made thing—can come to perfection, benign, kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma.
Not bad, not bad at all.
Blogging about the royal wedding over at the Corner yesterday, I noted that the C of E needed a little less church and a little more England.
Via the Daily Telegraph, here’s the sort of thing I meant:
Jerusalem, a hymn which has been banned, been an official anthem of the England football team and was once chosen by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown for Desert Island Discs, was hailed as one of the triumphs of today’s royal wedding.
And quite rightly so, the twinning of William Blake’s madcap, lovely words with a majestic, somewhat martial tune written—in the middle of the First World War—almost a century later, makes ‘Jerusalem’ one of the finest of English hymns (and there are plenty to choose from) and, for, that matter, a pretty good alternative English national anthem. Under the circumstances we should not, I suppose, be surprised that some clerics have objected:
The verses were banned in 2008 from being sung by choirs or congregations at Southwark Cathedral because the words do not praise God and are too nationalistic, according to senior clergy. The Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, advised guests at a private memorial service that the hymn would not be sung because it was “not in the glory of God”.
Jerusalem had been banned before by clergymen who do not believe Blake’s poetry to be Christian. In 2001 it was banned from the wedding of a couple in Manchester because the vicar deemed it to be too nationalistic and inappropriate to a marriage ceremony.
To repeat myself, less church, more England, please.