Today’s confirmation of a new Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded me that Roger Scruton has a forthcoming book entitled Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England. Knowing what I know of Scruton I’d be surprised to find him going to bat for even one of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and this interview seems to bear that expectation out. Scruton is a convert to Anglicanism, but he is also a Kantian, and so he believes that his attitude toward noumenal claims, including most religious claims, must be agnostic. His intention in the book is apparently instead to defend the historic place of the Anglican Church in English culture, to praise the beauty of its rituals and the quiet persistence of its wisdom, and to argue that nothing is likely to replace it.
It would be easy to satirize this kind of thing: stuffy Englishman likes his organ music and his beautiful churches, but doesn’t linger over all that business about sin and salvation. Such criticism has a place — though given that the aim of the criticism ought to be to encourage deeper engagement with the substantive claims of the faith, I doubt that satire is the most effective means. I will admit that I am myself sometimes tempted to cast a withering look upon this “cultural Christianity”, yet if I succomb to this temptation I lack charity. Why should I object when someone, especially someone as thoughtful as Scruton, though unable to assent to the Church’s doctrines nonetheless seeks shelter under her wings? Doctrine is important, unquestionably, but sometimes people connect with the faith through the chest rather than through the head.
It seems to me that Pope Benedict, by promoting certain liturgical traditions within the Church — I am thinking here of the special provisions he has made for the (so-called) Tridentine liturgy and the Anglican liturgy — is acknowledging that, quite apart from doctrinal questions, aesthetics carry real and legitimate weight, and that love for a particular liturgical tradition deserves respect, for it is largely by means of liturgy that we encounter the faith, and through the faith God. And so a man like Scruton, who loves to play the organ for his congregation, and who appreciates the eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer, and who seeks out, week after week, the restful poise of the Anglican liturgy, may in fact be more than a mere dabbler. In charity we should welcome him warmly, as good hosts.
At the end of the interview, when asked to play a favourite hymn on the organ, he chooses “Come Down, O Love Divine”, which I recall is someone else’s favourite hymn too. Let’s hear it again: