In defence of … Anglicanism

The Muse rallies to the Church Militant

It is perhaps too easy, when reflecting on the Church of England, for one’s mind to come back to Lord Melbourne’s supposed comments, later oft-quoted by Churchill and others. First, he may have mused that “things have come to a pretty past, when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of one’s private life”. Latterly, he is claimed to have said that “I must be considered more of a buttress than a pillar of the Church, since I support it from the outside”. Apocryphal or not, such is the nature of Anglican navel-gazing that it becomes only one short jump from that, to a certain Oxford Chaplain in the early 2000s making the astonishing claim (belied by the monotonous drone of its delivery) that “Anglicanism is practically atheism”.

(Never mind that Melbourne was a Whig, mocking the Tory Party at Prayer; nor also that Melbourne famously was involved in two sex scandals before his term of office was up)

Some may be surprised by the strength of my religiosity, given the rationalist leanings of my writing. However upon leaving Oxford I was at one stage minded to emulate my close friend in taking Orders at St Stephen’s House, even if one of my motivations was a very temporal love of the vestments. Anglicanism in particular burns strong within me. A good friend of mine recently decided that it was of little consequence to convert (in my mind, rather too glibly) from Lutheranism to Catholicism, citing the latter’s stauncher conservatism. This caused a rare rupture between us, and also provoked me to revisit then underpinnings of the faith that called to me all those years ago; because amidst all the clowning of recent decades that brought us everything from schism over gay bishops to payday loans, taking us from Thomas the Beckett to today’s Pound Shop iconoclast Justin Wellby, the underlying reasons for adhering to the Church of England, for all its faults, remain clear.

The first is theological. There is little point dwelling on the underlying arguments for or against Transubstantiation or Grace, or justification through “faith alone”. What you believe is what you believe; but it is important to focus on the fact that for all her bells and smells, Anglicanism is a cornerstone of Protestantism, which itself is, in the words of historian JM Roberts, “the closest thing England came to have as a national identity”. Whilst one can quibble about some of the liturgical and even ecclesiastical disagreements between denominations, the gap between Protestantism and Catholicism is much clearer and unbridgeable. And no amount of watering down of Anglicanism dogma changes the fact that it is not, even at its Highest, Papist.

The second is intellectual. Readers of this blog will note the importance I place on the need for intellectual coherence and defensibility. Of the various Christian denominations, Anglicanism is by far and away the most intellectually capable and rigorous. Arguably, the Church of England is the only mainstream denomination which sustains a robust intellectual tradition, and it is no surprise that we created all the intellectual lights of other denominations too as a result. At opposite ends, both Henry Newman and John Wesley started life in the Church of England before going off to renew Catholicism and found Methodism respectively. Anglicanism’s very Establishment is why this is true, and its interconnectivity with the institutions of education and learning are the evidence. And of course, Newman and Wesley were both intellectually vibrant whilst within the Establishment; and they both atrophied the moment they left.

Why is this important? Well, faith is all well and good, but intelligence is a gift from God also. As intelligent people, it is right and proper that we seek to square the circle between blind faith and the powers granted us to reason. The Divine Clockmaker demands not only belief in the clock, but an understanding of its mechanics. Therefore any religion which emphasises only the spiritual, to the point even of being anti-intellectual, is being irresponsible towards its adherents. The Catholic Church, of course, is successful amongst the global poor precisely because it aims for the spiritual lowest common denominator; it should be of no surprise that it is so warmly welcomed by cults that, for instance, worship rocks since Catholicism more or less engages in rock-worship itself. Only Anglicanism breaks out of this spiral and in a sense, we have been a victim of our own success. However this is a price worth paying.

The last, and possibly most important point, is civilisational. Outsiders will often mock the provenance of the Church of England as being the result simply of Henry VIII’s proclivity for divorce. To that I say: so what? Faith needs to be theologically coherent, as outlined above, but it also must come from and speak for a people. It is right and proper that the Anglican church is an expression of everything Britain and the Commonwealth is. It must reflect the identity and culture of the temporal powers that underpin it – its churches and cathedrals, its social mores, its language. It is entirely wrong to suggest that a Church should not be so specific as to be “local” to one culture or place, that is precisely what it should reflect. The more it is bound and tied to a geography, the stronger it is – much the same as government or currency. Its ‘exportability’ will then reflect the strength of that underlying culture – much like government or currency. And on this is the strength of its civilisational proposition, and its capability of being Universal.

Because I can say that we have pretty much the best of what every other denomination has, and more. You want bishops? We have a proper Episcopalian Succession. You want some Papal States? We have a whole Commonwealth united in Confessionalism under the King as Head of the Church. You want Protestantism? We practically invented Consubstantiation. You want Church Councils? We have the Synod. On top of all this, we have the pre-eminent choral tradition which puts Catholic services to shame – Evensong is basically one long concert and the Establishment means we have some of the best choirs, organists and composers. Last but not least – and perhaps the clearest expression of how Anglicanism is tied to and enhances the national identity from which it emanates and patronises – we have the linguistic contribution to English from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible.

Anglicanism is decidedly not atheism. Rather, it is the thinking man’s religion and it is, in concentric circles, England, Britain, the Anglosphere and the Commonwealth. The fact that urban liberals are too uninterested in faith today to recognise this, just as they were under Lord Melbourne and for centuries prior, changes none of this. The Church of England is one spiritual, temporal, ecclesiastical and liturgical whole. It is far too polite to demand being taken seriously; but anyone who disagrees with this is not taking religion seriously at all.

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