The Beauty of Holiness

Catholic Christians believe that the church is the visible presence of the mystical body of Christ on earth. The church mediates between God and his creatures because in our current condition we are not able to endure the presence of God himself unmediated. Scripture tells us that on two very important occasions – in the Garden of Eden and when God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – man gave clear proof that he preferred death over and against life with God. If it was simply a question of meting out justice, we would be finished. That Christ instituted his church on earth in spite of an original and ongoing betrayal is a sign of the divine mercy. It is a sure sign God is a being that desires to be known that he would seek to build a home in enemy territory. The real presence of the catholic church on earth is a sign that hope remains while company is true.

In Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England, Roger Scruton re-animates the history of the English church by reminding us that the church itself has a corporate personality, one impressed upon it by its divine author, and yet one with an unmistakably human face. When the English Church broke with Rome, Scruton explains, it was not simply the result of the ‘curious logic of Henry’s hormones.’ Other European monarchs had been granted divorces on specious grounds from the strict point of view of sacramental theology, a theology Henry VIII himself had defended, thus winning the title Defensor Fidei from Pope Leo X. Henry’s break from the church in England to found the church of England was not a rejection of Catholic dogma, but an effort to secure a dynasty, ‘the natural expression of an emerging sense of nationhood, and of the primacy of secular law and vernacular language in defining the obedience of the subject.’

The instability and bloodshed that followed was tragic. The execution of Henry’s wives, the Christian martyrs – both Catholic and Protestant – the wanton dissolution of the monasteries, and the English Civil War can be plausibly read as lamentable consequences of this break with Rome. While Scruton does not ignore the tragic upshot of this decisive moment in English history, he explains that the continuity of treasured English institutions like the monarchy and common law and the desire of a nation to be free from foreign interference could not have been guaranteed at the time without throwing off the papal yoke.

Personalities above all rely on loyalty if they are to develop and endure. It is the paradox of personal autonomy that it requires the recognition of something outside itself to flourish. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire after Constantine, Christian princes like Henry had looked to the Pope or to the Holy Roman Emperor to endorse the legitimacy of their rule. The church of the English did not set out to be, nor did it become, an Erastian church, Scruton insists. The monarch, the head of the English Church, is himself subject to the law of the land, a point about which the Stuart House needed some reminding in the seventeenth century. This is literally the case from a legal or constitutional point of view, but there is also an important symbolism at work here.

The authority of the monarch is something conferred, not by another temporal authority with political interests of their own – like a sixteenth century pope, or an ‘absolute monarch’ – but by right of conquest, negotiated consensus, and the providential oversight of a royal family, in spite of all its vagaries. The English political settlement, of which the English Church is an integral part, seeks to promote legitimate authority, not power usurped. Its web of loyalties and constitutive institutions make it difficult for any one power to emerge unchecked. It is the stuff a contrived enlightenment constitution can only dream of. Cynical historians will dismiss such history as cliché, but it is nevertheless a cliché that built the modern world.

The English Common Law reflects what Scruton calls the pre-political loyalty that is the condition of successful politics. The first priority of any polity is to promote the good will on which its integrity relies, a sense of neighborliness. Being a good neighbor is the basic premise of English Law – quite literally a law of the land – that mitigates against the various forms of catastrophe that follow as a matter of course in any human community where resentment festers. A wise legislator or legislating body will pass or enforce existing laws that encourage the spontaneous flourishing of human culture that emerges from the pursuit of a common good. The first duty of the politician is to make a space for the first person plural, the ‘we’ that transcends the ‘I,’ but that gives the ‘I’ his sense of purpose.

Successful institutions do not count every compromise as defeat, as the religious zealot does. Religious leadership leads to unstable government. Scruton recognizes that the English learned this lesson the hard way but it is equally important to recognize that learn it they did. The monarch sits at the head of the church as its worldly representative but its spiritual authority is devolved, filtering down through the archbishops and bishops to the country parson, the true face of the English church well into the 19th century.

Scruton acknowledges that as dangerous as religious men might be pulling the levers of power, the religious impulse is a permanent feature of human beings: we are herd animals who desire belonging above all. This impulse requires an outlet. Scruton takes the Hegelian view that this outlet needs to be mediated by strong, just, and tried institutions, arising at the level of civil society, but endorsed by a state made up of politicians, not clerics. Equally, Scruton explains, the Reformation channeled the English intuition that an absolute sovereign – whether it be of the papal, episcopal, popular, parliamentary, or enlightenment diktat variety – is fated to suppress anyone who lives under it. After the Glorious Revolution, the English Church tried to do its part to hold this hard won wisdom in trust: to channel religious feeling and give a space for the zealots – religious and secular – to say their piece without bringing the whole thing crashing down.

Scruton argues that the English Church has attempted to strike the balance Christ himself seems to recommend in the parable of the tribute money: Christians ought to give both God and Caesar their due. The English Church is part of Britain’s unwritten constitution that attempts to remedy the perennial problem that confronts the Christian pilgrim in this life. As he goes on to explain, Scruton does not believe that this remedy is by any means perfect – not now and not historically – and he acknowledges that a contemporary Anglican – both in England and abroad – finds himself in a particularly challenging bind, since it is difficult to distinguish the new secular, rights-based morality, promoted by the political class and enforced by the courts, from what much of the current leadership of the church preach and believe.

Nor is this a dilemma he pretends to resolve for a current member of the Church of England or for the worldwide Anglican communion, whose spiritual predicaments are analogous but different for political and legal reasons. For example, for an American the Roman Catholic Ordinariate offers a way to preserve the Anglican inheritance without demanding a change in political loyalty. This path is not open to the Englishman whose web of political, legal and spiritual loyalties are much more difficult to disentangle than a citizen of a country without an established church.

If the personality of the English Church has been shaped by matters you might call external, most importantly from the point of view of modern history by its break with Rome; and if this break was not with Catholic dogma, as Scruton claims, what defines the content of its personality – what is its beating heart? On this question Scruton is crystal clear:

It is the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible that the English Church held in trust, and which forms, in my view, the real essence of its religion.

It is very important to pay attention to Scruton’s phrasing here. It is not the content of the Christian revelation conveyed in these books that is decisive, but ‘the language’ that defines the religion. But how can this be? Surely this is where theologians should cry out in protest that this is merely the prejudice of a philosophical aesthete. Scruton was a professor of aesthetics, not theology. He would say that, wouldn’t he? This is philosophical elitism, not religious humility.

Scruton is happy to repay the compliment. In the presence of theologians, Scruton took a quiet pleasure in trotting out the remarks Aquinas is supposed to have made towards the end of his life: that his writings were as straw compared to what God revealed to him in a mystical vision. Theological hairsplitting has been the enemy of the church down the ages at least as much as it has been her ally, and the metaphysical propositions that are its currency have very little to do with the faith of the ordinary person.

We know Christ was a learned man, educating and disputing with the priestly class in his community the moment he emerged from boyhood. Why did he not jump at the tantalizing opportunity for a theological disquisition presented by Pilate’s question about the nature of truth? Scruton provides a kind of answer that helps to explain Christ’s restraint. The first instinct of the religious person, he explains, is to excommunicate heretics. The perennial hunt for the heretic in ‘matters indifferent’ reveals a deeper truth about humanity than the knowledge of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin ever could.

Scruton does not tease the theologian to escape or dismiss the importance of judgement. This is why he believes beauty is so important: beauty, like our Lord, judges. More importantly, beauty reminds us that even Christ could not escape judgement. It is the shallow person, he insists, that does not judge by appearances. For Scruton, the media of revelation matter at least as much as its content. Indeed, it would be more true to say that Scruton believes their unthinking separation will lead to the dissolution of both. In an age when the vernacular was of increasing importance for the ongoing vitality of the Christian religion, the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version proved that ‘English can match Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as a voice of Christian revelation.’ They live up to this lofty standard, Scruton explains, because their words ‘bow down to touch the things they refer to;’ they do not merely describe, they conjure.

Why does Scruton think the English of the Christian humanist conjures? His answer: this language evokes the real presence of the sacred in our midst. The sacred is Scruton’s philosophically catholic way of describing the divine omnipresence in history and our related need to belong to a community that recognizes that presence. All human cultures that preceded Christianity recognized the need for sacrifice to keep their community or tribe free from pollution. The genius of the Christian religion is that it has understood this need in a self-conscious way. Scruton thought the French philosophical anthropologist René Girard was right to point out that the sacred and sacrificial share the same moral root. Christians recognize that it is not the innocent outsider – a scapegoat – that should be laid on the altar but he himself, he who has erred and strayed from God’s ways like a lost sheep.

This Christian insight was a decisive moment for western civilization’s understanding of the meaning of art. Scruton invites us to think of a Christian image, like Mantenga’s Crucifixion. This depiction of Christ on the cross ‘redeems the horror it shows,’ that ‘most cruel and ugly of deaths.’ We need only observe our most fundamental prejudices and intuitions to see that beauty is closely related to the sacrificial, and that any attempt to reduce the sacrificial aspect of life to mere ugliness – true of real life pagan sacrifice of animals and human beings – is an incomplete picture that shows we have forgotten our culture’s Christian insistence that beauty signals redemption.

We will protect and sacrifice ourselves for the beauty of innocent life. The natural response to beauty, when we see a beautiful painting, read a beautiful poem, or hear a beautiful piece of music, is to be still in its presence. We invite others to share in it with us. Some will seek out its creators and guardians to take up an apprenticeship in beauty. Anyone with eyes to see and the heart to feel hopes to grow in the beauty of holiness. When communities grow up around beautiful and sacred things, they will make extraordinary sacrifices to protect and cultivate them.

This is the point of preserving the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version of the Bible to Scruton’s way of thinking. The language of those documents has been consecrated, inviting us into the heart of the Christian life that is ceaseless prayer. Christ found the strength to make a sacrifice of himself through the agony of prayer, ‘his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.’ Scruton does not expect that we live up to the godly standards set by mystics like Thérèse of Lisieux or ‘heroes of guilt’ like Kierkegaard. He praises the Anglican church for recognizing that a space also needs to be made for those who wish to be ‘on the right side of God with a minimum of effort’, those who wish to quietly grow in holiness in a space ‘where prayer has been valid.’

The Anglican priest Fr. Robert Crouse – whose students have done so much to promote Prayer Book Anglicanism in North America – would often remark that the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to turn a whole nation into a monastery. Scruton lends philosophical support to such an argument fitted to a post-Christian age, a time when the corporate personality of the church now plays a much diminished role in the life of the nation, ebbing further and further from the spiritual lives of the English. One might be tempted to say the retreat of the church from national life is an inevitable part of the ‘long, withdrawing roar’ of the sea of faith announced by Matthew Arnold, whose spiritual imagination did much to shape Scruton’s own religious sensibility that ‘makes room for every form of hesitation’.

Scruton is the first to concede cultural loss and recognize its significance, but he forbids permanent retreat into mourning, for that is the path to resentment, the path Christ taught us to renounce. The cultural inheritance of the English Church has not yet been stamped out and there are those – even those without an explicit faith – who recognize the value of this inheritance and are not prepared to see it washed away by the tide of modern life. The path of gratitude remains open to us, even if we’ve lost the faith that built the things we seek to preserve. Let us patiently blow gently on those embers, Scruton suggests, and hope against hope.

Sir Roger takes comfort in the idea that our secular age is a variation on a perennial theme – familiar to our Hebrew ancestors in exile as well as to the Hellenistic pagans hemmed in by Christian zealotry. Christians today have the opportunity to practice the kind of courage and ecumenism that animated Scruton’s own life as a teacher: all comers are welcome to ‘draw near with faith.’ Scruton insisted that Anglicans have inherited a sacramental church, one that had consecrated the life of a nation, ‘set down on the land, like an all-encompassing spiritual tent… its position secured by subtle straps of law and custom.’ If the resources are dwindling, Scruton’s vocation to our faith and culture is proof that they are not yet exhausted.

It may be true – it may even be beyond doubt – that the prevailing winds of our culture advocate the repudiation of every form of our Christian inheritance; it may also be true that the very fact that things have been done thus and so by our ancestors is sufficient proof to our zealous overlords that they ought to be overturned or forgotten. But the destructive path – again, I paraphrase Fr. Crouse, as much as Professor Scruton – is mere foolishness that cannot last. Our inheritance ought to be accepted with a spirit of gratitude, like a garden to be cultivated and then turned over to the young and energetic, for our children and neighbors to enjoy.

Scruton concedes that in the end we are mere pilgrims here: we are in but not of the world. We were commanded by our saviour to love our neighbours, but we ought to bear in mind that the person who issued this command was crucified for doing so, the price that was paid for standing in light of eternity that ‘shines from beyond this world’. His kingdom is not of this world because he has overcome the world, a thought that is both sobering and yet consoling. It was this sober consolation that Scruton sought to provide, a consolation that the English Church once offered and does so still where prayer has been valid.

James Bryson

James Bryson is a Humboldt Fellow in the Catholic Theology Faculty at the Ludwig Maximilian's University in Munich where he is writing a history of love in the tradition of Christian Platonism. Previously Dr. Bryson has held positions at McGill and Cambridge. He is the author of The Christian Platonism of Thomas Jackson (Peeters, 2016) and editor of The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury, 2016).

'The Beauty of Holiness' have 4 comments

  1. May 29, 2020 @ 1:07 pm Sudduth Cummings

    The intention of Cranmer’s prayer book was not to turn England into a national monastery, but to transform its people into a holy commonwealth of Biblically mature disciples through the daily worship using the BCP, and the godly instruction from the Book of Homilies as teaching sermons, a form of national adult discipleship formation.


    • June 4, 2020 @ 1:45 am James Bryson

      Thank you for this. To clarify the point: turning a nation into a monastery is not the same as instituting a ‘national monastery’. The point is less literal and more spiritual. Setting a daily rhythm of prayer guided by a liturgical calendar is, of course, inspired by the old monastic practice. Your point and Fr. Crouse’s are not mutually exclusive.


  2. June 4, 2020 @ 9:24 am Sudduth Cummings

    Agreed. Especially since his meaning was not a “monastery” as such or the strict monastic rules and daily schedule of the multiple services, but in the sense of a community under a rule of life to be a praying people. Cranmer enabled that growth by the genius of his two-fold Daily Office, the Psalter, a simple lectionary and the printing of the Sunday readings in the same book


  3. October 8, 2020 @ 7:57 am Ronique Breaux Jordan

    A “cradle Catholic” reads about the Anglican church thanks to a UK friend who introduces her to Roger Scruton. #theworldismall #whybeautymatters


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