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Is God an Englishman?

Roger Scruton’s craving to belong.

Our Church: a Personal History of the Church of England
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books, 208pp, £20

The conversion of agnostic High Tories to the Anglican church is always rather suspect. It seems too pat and predictable, too clearly a matter of politics rather than faith. It is as though Anglicanism were an essential accessory, like a set of tweeds or a fashionable handbag, without which the English reactionary is inadequately kitted out. There is as much surprise in, say, Peter Hitchens declaring himself a Christian as there is in Jeremy Paxman joining the Garrick. How on earth could they not?

It is, to be sure, a lot easier to gain entry to the Church of England than it is to the Garrick. The conditions of entry seem about as minimal as becoming a Brownie. Don’t believe in God? No problem. Doubts about the Resurrection? Join the club. Switching from agnosticism to High Anglicanism is a problem only because it can be hard these days to tell them apart. You are more likely to be ejected from liberal Anglican circles for opposing women bishops than for claiming that Christ ran a brothel in Nazareth. Most modern capitalist societies get by on as little belief as they decently can, and the same is true of some of their churches.

Even so, it is not clear why any self-respecting Tory should cherish the memory of a suspected political criminal who hung out with crooks and whores, spoke out for justice and comradeship, and was done to death by the state for his pains. (The Romans reserved crucifixion for political offences only.) The Christian gospel also has far too little to say about sexual morality, not to mention marijuana, for the likes of Peter Hitchens. Indeed, like the ancient world in general, it doesn’t have our modern conception of morality at all. Like all Jewish scripture, it holds that you shall know that the realm of justice is at hand when you see the poor being filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. It does not see spirituality as a matter of vestments, incense and other-worldliness, but as a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the powerful. None of this is received wisdom in the shires.

So, it isn’t surprising that Roger Scruton’s history of Anglicanism has a good deal to say about pews, choir stalls, polished brass and embroidered kneelers, but very little about the New Testament. There is an account of Pugin but nothing about poverty. For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday. The point is not to change the world but to renounce it.

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen. Scruton believes that his country “is not just an ordinary place in time but one with a replica in eternity”. It would be interesting to know whether he thinks this is also true of Kazakhstan or the United Arab Emirates, or whether the Almighty has the same aversion to abroad as Philip Larkin. Religious faith offers us “a release from worldly impurities”, even though Jesus is presented in the Gospels as notably careless of the Jewish purity laws and ends up polluted (the Jews regarded crucifixion as a curse).

Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman – of stout, God-fearing yeomen, simple manners and plain speaking. He seems not to know that it was also a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture. His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles. We hear of the “adventures of the colonists and the merchant seamen”, which can be translated roughly as the plunder of India and the extermination of whole communities. The reader is invited to admire clergymen who devoted as much attention to their table as their clerical duties, and encouraged to elevate spiritual mediocrity over passionate conviction.

Like the postmodernists he detests, but unlike St John and St Paul, Scruton obtusely associates all conviction with dogmatism, which is why he feels at home in a church where you can believe more or less what you like. Truth, this former professional philosopher insists, should yield to compromise. Like the House of Lords, religion does not bear too close an interrogation, which, for Romantic reactionaries of Scruton’s kind, is a compliment rather than a criticism. What matters is not rational inquiry but what we feel intuitively in our bones. The Nazis believed much the same. Like most English Tories, Scruton is pained by displays of zeal, yet he exhibits a fair degree of it in the cause of rood screens, the monarchy and the public schools, which once produced “upright Christian gentlemen, who would administer the empire on behalf of the Queen”. And though he touts the spirit of Anglican moderation, he seems strangely reluctant to countenance such middle-of-the-road measures as, say, turning half the public schools into old people’s homes.

“I rejoice that the church to which I belong,” he remarks, “offers an antidote to every kind of utopian thinking.” Perhaps he missed those bits in the New Testament about the kingdom of God, which Christians believe will arrive at the end of history. For this high-minded study, religion is one thing and politics is another, a view from which Martin Luther King fortunately dissented. When Jesus urged those around him to give both God and Caesar their due, no Jew within earshot would have imagined that his words “the things that are God’s” meant raising your thoughts piously above a wicked world. They would have known their scripture well enough to understand that it meant protecting the weak, seeking justice for the oppressed and denouncing the fraudsters. Their God was one who had brought them out of slavery, not a spiritual ornamentation to the status quo.

Over the past few years, the works of this distinguished thinker have dwindled in intelligence. A few decades ago, he would never have perpetrated such limp banalities as “We should never underestimate the human need for membership. We are social beings, who are incomplete when we are unable to identify the community that is ours.” (One suspects that the author has his local hunt as much in mind as his parish church.)

Whatever his political views, this son of a socialist republican has produced, in his time, some extraordinarily perceptive work in philosophy, aesthetics and political theory. In the end, however, ideology tends to addle your brain. For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to them wholesale. At least he has discovered some kind of community in the process, as he rides to hounds and plays the organ in his local church. It’s just that one suspects this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to.

Terry Eagleton is distinguished professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. His latest book is “The Event of Literature” (Yale University Press, £18.99)