Roberta Bayer, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at Patrick Henry College, and Board Member of the Prayer Book Society USA discusses the late Sir Roger Scruton’s book Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England*
One of the most interesting and prolific of conservative intellectuals in the English world wrote works on subjects ranging from art and aesthetics, to politics, philosophy and religion as well as wine and even hunting. He also wrote a book specifically about his love of the Church of England and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Our Church is a personal history that explains his attachment to the Church of England.
One might wonder at his purpose in writing this impressionistic, personal, and somewhat apologetic, book, which in large part seems to be rhetorical, but in part it must be to convince his fellow countrymen to love and protect their religious and cultural inheritance. English character, English architecture, English literature, politics and society, he argues, have been inspired by the beauty and holiness of the Book of Common Prayer, and the Church’s witness to the transcendence of God in everyday life cannot be reasonably separated from it.
Scruton’s personal faith grew with his acceptance that there are things real which are beyond question, and not simply subject to philosophical analysis. Worshipping with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in his parish in the village of Garsdon provided a segue to that realization. The practice of common prayer within the context of the liturgy of the BCP, the words of the King James Bible read in the course of the service, provide a refuge from this age of divisive political ideologies fracturing the English nation, and that was Cranmer’s intention. The Book of Common Prayer was intended to make a single culture, with common habits and customs, and a common language of religion shaped by the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.
Scruton has many followers among young conservatives seeking to escape the left-right ideological divide, and to discover again the transcendent. I observe this among my own students who speak highly of his documentary: Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, in which he argued that beautiful things are necessary to human life, to human happiness because they point to the transcendence which gives meaning to life. The human soul needs beautiful art and architecture, it needs religion in its public spaces, unhappiness is produced by our soulless and utilitarian planners who want to want to wipe any remembrance of the faith from the culture.
Scruton is not interested in discussing the theology of the Church of England. Yet as a description of his encounter with the faith, this book does not preclude further exploration of that theology. He prompts the reader to ask: how many people are attracted to the Book of Common Prayer in its original iteration because of its traditional nature, as well as its connection to beautiful liturgy and music, and its connection to the ancient faith? Is the rise of modern emotivist evangelicalism, the simplification of the historic language of the prayer book, the rejection of the great prayers of the Church of England as ‘irrelevant’ in fact a hindrance, a roadblock, to some who would otherwise enter the church? Is our race to embrace the success of ‘popular’ worship in fact turning people away from the faith? Are we failing to note that one fact, of which Scruton was so aware, that the world in which we live has failed to make us happy? Is there not a great need within the soul of modern to worship again with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer?
Excerpts from Our Church:
“The beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in the human psyche, and to neglect or abuse the one is to neglect or abuse the other. Hence liturgical words work on us as poetry works: not by spelling out what (if spelled out literally) would be the bald tenets of a system of belief, but by transporting us beyond the things of this world, into the timeless and placeless presence of the Creator.” (173)
To immerse oneself in the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer and Church of England is to look “upon the community, the nation and the history to which I belong through the illuminated window of the sacraments.” (128)
The sacraments “deliver another kind of doctrine from that which can be expressed in the neutral language of theology.” (173) “Those who see the controversy over the Prayer Book as ‘merely aesthetic’ are right – except that the word ‘merely’ misrepresents what is finally at stake. We seek for beauty in our lives because we know that beautiful things are meaningful – though with a meaning that cannot be put into words, since it is communicated directly or not at all. In a similar way we seek for sanctity in our lives because we know that sacred things are meaningful.” (173)
“You cannot read very far in English literature, listen very long to serious English music, or walk with your eyes open about towns and countryside without noticing that an enormous cultural effort has been expended on endowing England with an aura of home and redemption, and that the art devoted to this cause has leaned at every point upon a church that was doing the same.” (170)
“Hence we should not be surprised that, when the Church of England began to experiment with ‘alternative services’ in the seventies . . . it was the fellow-travelling intellectuals who made the most noise on behalf of Cranmer’s great gift to our nation. The Prayer Book Society, founded in order to ensure that the book was used at least sometimes in the church that had been built upon it, had the support of an array of secular intellectuals, including Christian agnostics such as Iris Murdoch and Alan Bennett, and the non-believing Jew Isaiah Berlin. For the lover of literature to describe the new services as ‘alternatives’ to Cranmer is like describing EastEnders as an ‘alternative’ to Shakespeare, or Lady Gaga as an ‘alternative’ to Bach.” (171)
Patrick Henry College
*Sir Roger Scruton, Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England, London: Atlantic Books, 2012.