From its beginnings, the Church of England was first something of a political creation rather than a religious one. It was carved out of the Roman Catholic Church, once Henry VIII decided to make the break when the pope refused to grant a divorce or annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Spain. Its early years were marked by the tumult of the Tudor era – Henry and the dissolution of the monasteries and Mary’s attempt to restore Catholicism (including burning Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the stake in Oxford). Life was comparatively quiet for almost a century, until Cromwell took power.
The church weathered all that and more. But it has always had an official position within England’s (and Britain’s) governance structure, influence that helped to shape the Americans to decide upon on established church once the new country was born.
As Roger Scruton points out in Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England, the church has also been something more, even for those who don’t attend. It is a cultural presence in thousands of English towns, villages, and cities. C of E churches are a familiar sight, anchoring a locality in history, tradition, and community. This doesn’t mean that the church is a thriving organization in 21st century Britain; far from it. It represents tradition in a country that is knitted of traditions.
Our Church, first published in 2012, is not a history of the Anglican church. Instead, it is a personal reflection and meditation of how Scruton understands the church; why he, raised a Baptist, converted to Anglicanism when he was 15; what the church’s sacraments mean; and how being a member of the church unites him to believers like C.S. Lewis and R.S. Thomas, doubters like Philip Larkin and Benjamin Britten, and to atheists and agnostics like Robert Vaughn Williams and Paul Nash.
Scruton doesn’t tell a history but rather roams the history, art, and architecture of the church, writing with both affection and insight. He fully understands the problems the church but this is about what’s wrong and how to fix it. If anything, he has doubts about whether the serious problems the church faces can be fixed.
Roger Scruton is an English writer and philosopher who has published more than 30 books on philosophy, aesthetics, beauty, environmental conservatism, conservative politics, human nature, and other subjects. He’s also written several novels. He teaches part-time at Boston University and the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., helped found The Salisbury Review, a conservative political journal, and founded Claridge Press.
From my own experience, I can say that during the many times we have visited England, we have always included churches large and small on our itineraries – Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, the cathedrals at Canterbury and Salisbury, St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Westminster Chapel, Westminster Cathedral, the chapels at Merton’s College and Christ College in Oxford, and the churches of St. Mary-le-Bow, All Hallows by the Tower, and many others. The churches speak to England’s history and tradition, and they speak to England’s soul.
Our Church is a meditative, often moving account of one of the country’s most important institutions.
Top photograph: Interior of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London.