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Portrait of George Herbert

It is part of the genius of Christianity that it has been able to adapt itself to the needs of mankind in so many times and places. It has been able to take what is true and valuable in what men and women believed before they knew Christ, and use it to lead them to salvation. The more literal-minded and historically ignorant tend to get this backward. With all the vigour of a man discovering what all the world but he knew, such people tend to point out that Jesus was not born in December, and that pagans had a festival of fire and light then to mark the turn of the year; from this they conclude that Christianity was infected by paganism – the precise opposite of the truth. In such rituals, the pagan discerned dimly some greater purpose, and seeing the sun as the source of life, celebrated its slow return. The Church took over this festival and turned it to the celebration of the coming into the world of the True Light. Our faith has been simultaneously unchanging and yet developing. God’s redemption of us through the saving blood of Christ changes not, although through the teaching of His Church, our understanding of God as Trinity and His purpose for us develops continuously. The Church is, at once, universal and local; it meets us with a univeral message, but it meets us where we are. For those of us born and bred in England that presents something of a problem.

The English pride themselves on not having the sort of revolutions and civil wars which beset foreigners when, in fact, they just had them a good deal earlier and have bad historical memories. That is especially so for the greatest of revolutions – the Reformation, when a millennium of history was put on the scrapheap or up for auction to the highest bidder; if you want some idea of the scale of the destruction, think ISIS now. Monasteries which had been at the heart of the English countryside were destroyed and the monks scattered or killed; churches had their furnishings and altars wrecked, and the long-established patterns of worship were overthrown. From as early as the start of the seventeenth century, more liturgical forms of worship began to enter the English Church, and we can see that Catholic spirituality was never extinguished. But the revolution that was the Reformation did leave English Christians with a dilemma: the State compelled adherence to its version of the ‘one holy, Catholic and apostolic church’ whilst Rome, always acknowledged as the Patriarchal See of the West, took quite a different view.

To conflate personal faith with the national church is natural enough, but may not tell us very much about the spirituality of a people as reluctant to discuss it as the English. Part of the genius of Anglicanism has been its ability (until fairly recently, I would argue) to provide a home for different types of English spirituality – for everything from the Anglo-Catholics through to the Protestants. But that comprehensiveness came at a price – that of the lowest common denominator which, in the end, benefitted liberalism and may well have provided a dissolvant to Anglicanism itself. If things can be held together only by forms of words to which men and women can attach their own meaning, then effectively ‘church’ becomes a concept with no real meaning. Thus the English talent for compromise and accommodation, becomes not a means to an end, but rather an end in itself.