John Burrows concludes that there is more to Englishness than mere xenophobia
SINCE THE introduction of women priests in 1994, we have read of this or that group of Anglican priests going over to Rome, accompanied by an appropriate number of laypeople. Some churches apparently, have had two eucharists – one Anglican, the other RC. What is equally intriguing is the far greater number of Anglo-Catholic priests and people who haven’t gone over.
Why do they stay – or we, for I am included? It cannot be dissimilarity of worship; one imagines that the in the shared churches, the two eucharists were pretty much the same. Of course, there is always the pull of the familiar, a disinclination to pull up your roots, and leave behind people and places. (Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars seems to attribute the success of the English Reformation to this.) But is there a deeper reason?
Roman Catholics wisely advise those thinking of converting to them to expect a “culture-shock”, and, having found this to be so, some have done the round trip. A culture, as Dom Gregory Dix pointed out in “Jew and Greek”, comes from a series of (often unspoken) assumptions as to what life is about – what today would be called “values”. He contrasts the untidy, pragmatic approach of the Jews and of the Bible, with the more logical, symmetrical, theoretical thinking of Greece and Rome. He shows how their arts, and their politics reflected this dissimilarity. What Dix would be less likely to admit is that western Catholicism has tended to be theoretical, like the Greeks, and Anglo-Saxon Protestantism more Biblical and pragmatic.
The pragmatist does not lack ideals, but is more concerned with attainable standards and everyday situations. (This is one of the things that makes some continental authors such difficult reading for us. The text is full of “-isms”, with few analogies or practical examples, after the Biblical and English fashion). Dix develops the contrast – the ancient Greek love of form, which the Jews denounced as idolatry. While the Greeks searched for a perfect constitution, the Hebrews saw themselves more in terms of relationships – with God and with his anointed king. Today Britain is one of the few countries without a written constitution. Historically, we have seen ourselves, less as citizens of an abstract state, rather as subjects of God and the monarch.
Culture, politics, and theology affect each other. So we should expect to find a similarity between the religious and the political. It is therefore fascinating to note how modern Euro-scepticism (an inaccurate term for hesitation about further integration into the EC) mirrors Anglo-Saxon reservations about the Church of Rome. True, there are differences (the British state has undergone no crisis like the Church over women priests). But the parallels are there.
To us, Continentals in general seem to find it hard to distinguish between theory and practice. They start with ideals and try to make the facts fit them. The political examples of this in continental Europe over the last two centuries are legion. In the same way, the RC Church (according to one of her own members) is beset by “Latin legalism and a tendency to build a huge structure on inadequate foundations”. For instance, large families for the laity, and a semi-monastic life for the clergy, may be ideal, but should clerical celibacy be compulsory and artificial birth-control forbidden? The ideals (good or bad) of the French Revolution, of Fascism, Socialism, Existentialism, and the new Europeanism, have all flourished in Europe, but had a much more lukewarm reception in this country. This became evident at the international socialist rallies at the beginning of the century. The Continentals deplored the “bourgeois” non-doctrinaire outlook of British trade-unionists.
You can see the different approach if you contrast our 1689 Bill of Rights with the French Declaration of the Right of Man of 1789. The first sought simply to remedy certain abuses of power in the government of Britain. The second pronounced abstract principles, applicable to every nation and every age. Or, contrast sixteenth century Spain, with its Inquisition trying to weed out covert heresy (People who did not hang out their washing on Saturday could be arraigned for suspected Judaism), with the mild compromise of the Elizabethan Settlement, and the determination “not to make windows into men’s souls”.
For the pragmatist, there are indeed things that cannot be tolerated, but beyond that people can do as they please. That is the principle of Anglo-Saxon Common Law. “The Englishman (and supposedly the Welsh, Scottish, woman etc.) needs no law to tell him what he can do”. But for the idealist, rules are not a necessary evil but a good thing – more and more rules, necessary to try to attain this or that ideal. Consider the torrent of EC regulations, or the complexities of the old Codex of Roman Canon Law. So, on the Continent we find positive legislation – a multitude of regulations telling you, not what you cannot do, but what you must do. According to Roman (Continental) Law, the accused has to prove himself or herself innocent, not the other way round. In the RC Church, scholars can be denounced to the Vatican, (in what appear to us highly secretive ways) and then have to clear themselves.
The natural human reaction to having too many rules is to circumvent them. This easily makes people cynical and lawless, if not corrupt. We are shocked at the way under-the-counter payments are accepted as a matter of course in some RC countries, when French farmers take the law into their own hands, or RCs disregard their own rules. Our tradition is one of the Rule of Law and a suspicion of bureaucracy – that you want the minimum of regulations, which you actually try to keep.
We are accustomed to plurality – various religious denominations in each place, and government diffused between borough, county, and Westminster. Cross the Channel to France and it is quite different – one church, not several, in every village, and centralised government. In the Anglican Church, authority is divided between bishop and Synod, vicar and PCC. Our system, political and ecclesiastical, may be less efficient, but it produces toleration and compromise necessary to proper liberty. According to our temperament we laugh, or are affronted, at European regulations telling us how long a banana is supposed to be, and are surprised or not when Roman Catholic priests get agitated at their colleagues who, in quite minor ways, do not toe the line.
The Continental way is authoritarian (despite their over-democratic legislatures) – supported by a masterful bureaucracy. The American and British system is more effective in keeping power out of the hands of the bureaucrats. We are not used to the heavy hand of the official (or bishop) just round the corner, however velvet the glove. We are surprised at the way even small matters have to be referred to the Vatican or Brussels. So follow many ways in which we are like America, not Europe. There are different attitudes to the military. We have our two-party system. At the moment in foreign policy, as so often in the past, Britain and America find themselves at one against an unsympathetic or hostile Europe. The English Channel does seem wider than the Atlantic.
Just as Britain has tried to combine monarchy and democracy, tradition and reform, so the Anglican Church (and Anglo-Catholics in particular) have tried to marry catholic theology and practice with a more Biblical and libertarian approach. Some would argue that, with Scriptural modern liturgies, and simplified Canon Law, the Roman Catholic Church is now following the same path. An outsider may be excused for asking how far these have brought about a change in outlook and culture?
The English Channel, the Rio Grande, and the tortured demarcations between the two communities of Ireland, are not just lines on the map; they represent two different ways of thinking. For the last four and a half centuries, Britain has turned away from Europe. We may admire her music and painting, or love French food. We may use the Roman Rite. We may have a regrettably condescending attitude to Americans, and to protestant Nonconformists. But our basic attitudes are still the Anglo-Saxon ones. To acknowledge this cannot simply be dismissed as “Little England” or xenophobic. One does not have to agree with the late Enoch Powell on race to admit that he had a point over Europe.
Cultures create their own blindness. Anglo-Saxons pathetically imagine that we can easily convert continental Europeans to our ways. British politicians talk of taking a lead in Europe, and some General Synod members really did believe in formulating the ASB that, if we retranslated the Lord’s Prayer, Rome would soon follow.
It could be argued that with the Empire gone, less respect for the Monarchy, with Church disestablishment on the cards, a new Bill of Rights, much more bureaucracy and positive legislation, we ourselves are becoming a “control” society, and like our European neighbours. Perhaps the days of Tudor independence are finally over. Or perhaps not. We need to think long and hard before aligning ourselves (politically or ecclesiastically) with a very different outlook.
John Burrows is Vicar of St Bartholemew, Ipswich.