About an hour ago, I was watching a documentary about the British TV comedy Only Fools and Horses. My international readers might not know about this show. In various forms, it was broadcast from 1981 to 2003. It concerned two brothers who lived together in a working-class area of London, and who were traders on the black market. It was distinguished by its longevity, its working class ambience, and its intermittent sentimentality (one of its strengths, in my view). Like the fiction of Stephen King, it's one of these cultural treasures that are so omnipresent and familiar, they tend to be undervalued.
Watching this documentary, I was particularly moved by a clip from a Christmas episode. In this episode, the brothers donate a Christmas tree to a local church, one which stands beside the open-air market where they sell their goods. As one brother explains to the other, it was the custom of the traders to donate a tree to the church every year, but times were so hard in that particular year that they couldn't afford it. We see the younger brother donate a tree (an aluminum tree) to the vicar, familiarly addressing him as "rev". It turns out to have been a scheme by the older brother-- he now tells his customers that their tree has been "endorsed by the Church of England."
Watching it, I was overwhelmed by an emotion that strikes me quite often-- nostalgia for the Church of England, and for the place it held in England culture up until very recently. (This episode was from the eighties.) Attendance at its services has now declined to such a sad nadir that I can't even bear to look up the figures again, never mind link to any source giving them.
I'm often disappointed by the attitude of my fellow Catholics towards the Church of England's decline. Whenever I mention it to them, I tend to encounter triumphalism and derision. I think that's a shame.
As an anglophile, I can't help mourning the Church of England. Yes, we are talking about the church (or ecclesial community) of Henry the Eighth and Thomas Cranmner. But it was also the church of pre-conversion Newman, pre-conversion Chesterton, pre-conversion Ronald Knox. It was the church of Betjeman, Auden, T.S. Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Anthony Trollope, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and any number of other literary luminaries. It is the church of Roger Scruton and Peter Hitchens. The atheist George Orwell asked for an Anglican funeral, and the equally godless Philip Larkin haunted its churches.
When I think of the Church of England, I can't help recalling the words of Gandalf to Frodo. Anglicans will find them patronising, but I can't help that: "It would be a grievous blow to the world, if the Dark Power overcame the Shire; if all your kind, jolly, stupid Bolgers, Hornblowers, Boffins, Bracegirdles, and the rest, not to mention the ridiculous Bagginses, became enslaved." Sadly, this has now happened.
When I think of the Church of England, I think of weak-chinned curates, tea parties, garden parties, jumble sales, cake sales, hearty headmasters, hymns echoing in cold college chapels, fussy and effeminate bishops, bell-ringers, the Reverend Green in Cluedo...all the clichés. But somehow, all of this seems like the "saltiness" that salted England until it became as thoroughly secularized as it is today. Even a sprinkling of Christianity makes an enormous difference to a culture. I'm reminded of the scene in Trollope where a cleric resolves to have an argument with another character before his morning prayers, as he knows he will be too softened after having asked God to give him charity. Or the scene in Carry On Dick where the "Bow City Runners" refrain from arresting the Reverend Flasher (who they've learned is Dick Turpin) while a church service is ongoing. Or one of the brothers in Only Fools and Horses familiarly calling the vicar "Rev".
(I keep intending to write a defence of cultural Christianity. I will get around to it.)
As I was watching that scene, I was struck by a sense of almost unbearable loss, one I've become accustomed to. I feel it very often, and on all sorts of occasions. Earlier today, I was overwhelmed by it as I was reading the book about language death, mentioned in the previous post. Perhaps this is what makes me a conservative, more than anything else. I have no defences against it. It's devastating, when it hits me. But why should I care? What difference will most of these things make to me? All the same I do care, and I can't help caring.