Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Nostalgia for the Church of England

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 clich├ęs. 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.


  1. Thank you for this post: I agree with every word. The decline of the Church of England saddens me immensely. Not long ago I was in Norfolk, where its old character lingers still, and where there are still Rectories and lawns among leaves, but elsewhere I think the picture is as bleak as you say. Likewise, when I worked for a few months at the Church of England Record Centre I found myself amid the relics of a vanished culture of serious and practical faith. We would have disagreed with them about various things, but we would have known how to disagree.
    I am reminded of the extracts from the Harpenden parish magazine that you transcribed a few years ago. In many ways their confident togetherness, Biblical literacy and dignified liveliness made unbearable reading.

    I can't stand the gloating of Catholics about it. Your fifth paragraph articulates perfectly why it is wrong, and why it shows as shallow an understanding of history as ever any Anglican did of the Reformation.

    My sadness at the C. of E.'s decline, and irritation with Catholic gloaters (as if, but for the effect of immigration, we wouldn't have a similar problem), is only strengthened by the knowledge that we might have achieved unity - once in the 1840s, when the Oxford Movement was so strong, and once in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a serious spirit of ecumenism, aware of the obstacles and prepared to try to overcome them, rather than a glib indifference. Unity now seems a very long way away. But we have to try, perhaps now to forge a proper friendship with Evangelicals, who now seem our nearest allies. And pray.

    1. Yes, I did think of mentioning the Harpenden magazine, but I thought it would be too much of a digression. The most extraordinarily touching thing about that magazine, perhaps, were the lists of baptisms, marriages and deaths. Because it was a parish magazine, they weren't as impersonal as TV listings; they were a little bit more fleshed out. It made the sense of loss much more palpable.

      Interestingly, some of the Oxford Movement hoped that the C of E itself would return to communion with Rome, and held out for that. I didn't know about the fifties and sixties spirit of ecumenism. In a way, I can't help feeling that the Catholic Church is partly responsible for the loss of the C of E, since the signals after Vatican II were so indifferentist. Catholicism was no longer a magnet pulling Anglicans towards orthodoxy. Or at least, not to the same extent.

    2. Yes - the Oxford Movement question was a point of tension for Pugin, who converted relatively early on but was then dismayed when an artistic and cultural division opened up between those who had crossed the Tiber and those who hadn't. His bread and butter, and a major motive for his conversion, was the English architecture and liturgy and furnishings and vestments, and the tide towards Roman, Italianate architecture in the English Catholic Church (see the Brompton Oratory in Kensington) left him stranded. But yes, at one point it seemed to many that visible union really was on the cards.

      By the 'fifties and sixties spirit of ecumenism' I mean events like Paul VI's meeting with Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury on one hand, and movements like Mary Whitehouse's and others' Clean-Up T.V. campaign on the other. Not long ago I read, and mean to write a blog article on, Mary Whitehouse book about the campaign. It gives the impression of a serious collaboration between the churches, and in the grass roots. Mary Whitehouse, a broad church Anglican, even gives the last word to Paul VI. Gestures like that are what I mean.

      So the ice seemed to be thawing at the highest levels of the Churches and in the ranks of the laity. I feel that, at the time, these things seemed significant not just because they were 'firsts' and novelties, but because people realised that a real effort had been made to overcome barriers. Later I think the barriers were simply brushed over - by both sides, as you suggest - which led simply to apathy, and now there are countless obstacles to unity.

    3. I look forward to that blog post!

  2. That greeting to "Rev" got me thinking of another (different) kind of comedy feat: the new Inspector sneeringly calling Father Brown "Padre" in every episode from the first one onwards in series 4. Not the same thing, but that´s how my mind wandered away.

    In the 20th century "spirit of ecumenism" in England, weren´t there also some interesting things like when Agatha Christie, as a faithful Anglican (I suppose), put her name on a list of support to the Tridentine Latin Mass?

    1. I'm not sure "padre" is actually disrespectful, but it depends on the context, I suppose. I've seen one episode of the show, but don't remember it that well.

      Yes, that's true about Agatha Christie. Quite a curiosity.