Thursday, June 20, 2013

The View from the Organist's Bench: Roger Scruton on Anglicanism

I have heard of Roger Scruton as a philosopher who writes on beauty and is associated with tradition and conservative theories, in general, about society and economics. Last year his book Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England was published by Atlantic Books:

For most people in England today, the church is simply the empty building at the end of the road, visited for the first time, if at all, when dead. It offers its sacraments to a population that lives without rites of passage, and which regards the National Health Service rather than the National Church as its true spiritual guardian.

In Our Church, Roger Scruton argues that the Anglican Church is the forlorn trustee of an architectural and artistic inheritance that remains one of the treasures of European civilization. He contends that it is a still point in the centre of English culture and that its defining texts, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are the sources from which much of our national identity derives. At once an elegy to a vanishing world and a clarion call to recognize Anglicanism's continuing relevance, Our Church is a graceful and persuasive book.

Alas, Diarmaid MacCulloch  does not quite agree with that last sentence in the publisher's blurb. Reviewing the book in The Guardian, he begins with a statement of common experience and outlook:

I begin this review with a declaration of interest. Roger Scruton and I are rather alike. When very young, we watched our present queen's coronation on small black-and-white televisions, our first experience of the medium. We are both church organists, both distrust confident religious dogma and clerical pretensions, both love the Church of England in a grumpy fashion, and we have both been known to cultivate a fogeyish image on occasion.

MacCulloch comments that it's because they share so much in common that he cannot accept Scruton's version of the history of the Church of England, even if it is a "personal history":

A fundamental problem is that he persistently refers to "the Anglican church" throughout his account of its history since 1533, with a further implication that even before that, Anglicanism had always been sitting in the cupboard under the stairs, waiting for the pope to go away. Augustine of Canterbury, sent by Pope Gregory in 597 to establish Roman authority in the old imperial provinces of Britannia, would have been puzzled to learn that his mission had created such a body.

A millennium after Augustine, during the 16th-century reformation, we still couldn't talk about "Anglicanism" – only about the Church of England. Anglicanism really didn't take shape until some determined reconstruction in 1660-62. Previously, it was a "reformed" Protestant church of the European reformation – "reformed", technically, because it wasn't Lutheran – and it looked much to the reformed church in Zurich, a city that doesn't get a mention in Scruton's account, though Geneva does, excessively. The Tudor C of E lacked qualities Scruton admires: tolerance and an embrace of the "middle way". Its bishops ordered images and stained glass to be smashed, a regrettable vandalism that Scruton attributes to some vaguely characterised fanatical thugs called "Puritans". Tudor and Stuart England executed more Roman Catholics than any other Protestant church in Europe, and burned Anabaptists too, besides later dispatching quite a few Scottish Covenanters. The English church was not a "middle way" between the pope and Protestantism, because, as its leaders would brutally have made clear to Scruton, you can't have a middle way between the Antichrist and truth.

And MacCulloch continues, even though he apologizes for "breaking a butterfly upon a wheel" and does commend some parts of the book: "When he genuinely knows about something, other rewards appear: some enjoyably sensitive pages on the feel of a country church, church architecture generally, and some mostly accurate discussion of church music."

Read the rest here. Spoiler alert: MacCulloch does NOT approve of the Anglican Ordinariate.

UPDATE: In the headline, I refer to Roger Scruton as a church organist (as MacCulloch does when citing their shared experiences and views). This Telegraph interview includes some comments on Scruton's view and position while at the organ at his village church, ("All Saints church in the Wiltshire hamlet of Garsdon"):

So what’s the point of religion? “My faith – such as it is – is simply the old Anglican one. We don’t really know, but we trust, and we build a community out of that trust and we recognise as a central feature of that community the ultimate Christian sacrifice.”

His position is summed up by his place at the organ – halfway between the pews and the pulpit. “I can shut myself off and choose whether or not to listen to what’s going on. I don’t have to sing the hymns; I play them instead. My form of religious experience is very much that of an intellectual seeing things from a legacy of doubt.” He sympathises with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in whom he sees a similar “metaphysical doubt”.


  1. Neither one sounds like anyone I would like to know or read their books .

  2. I would like to read the rest of McCullough's review but couldn't open the link. I find his criticism refreshing, all too often nowadays historical figures are regarded without any reference to the actual times that shaped them. Thus, as your other post said, St Thomas More is presented as a champion of 'individual conscience' in a modern sense. Thanks for all the work you do on this blog, Stephanie, I've been following by e-mail for some time now and always find you worth reading. Greetings from Ireland, Marcella.

    1. Thank you very much, Marcella. Perhaps you can copy and paste this url to access the rest of the review:

  3. Thanks very much for the full link. Having watched McCulloch's tv history of Christianity I wasn't overly impressed with the man but his criticisms here were right on the money. I thought this quote was particularly striking: 'people kneel at the altar rail next to each other and believe completely contradictory things about the bread and wine they are receiving', especially as he and Scruton appeared to think the fact that the State Church is 'a church of irreconcilable paradox' one of its virtues. Thanks again for the link.

    1. You're welcome. I remember years ago when I worked at Newman University, Newman scholar Joyce Sugg came as a speaker. She was a convert from Anglicanism and had become a Catholic after she was told in preparation for Confirmation that she could believe that Jesus was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament--or she could think it was just symbolic. She said, if that church does not know for sure and can't teach me, what's it good for? She then took instructions and became a Catholic!