BOOK REVIEW / One for all and all for one: 'Is There a Church of England?' - C H Sisson: Carcanet, 18.95

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The Independent Culture
AMONG the few articulate defenders of the Church of England, the voice of the poet C H Sisson is probably alone. Neither evangelical, nor Anglo-Catholic, nor liberal, it's a voice that's almost unheard of: the voice of Establishment. But it can take strange turns. Reflecting on Coleridge's On the Constitution of Church and State, for example, Sisson concludes with this remarkable confession: 'Faced with the unintelligibility of the language the church (now) speaks, I am of a religion in which to adapt Coleridge's phrase - Christianity is an accident; the religion of our fathers, or the mere patrie, of the spirits buried in the ground, of the religion of England, I cannot help it.'

Coleridge's phrase is 'a blessed accident', but he hastens to assure the reader that he means a Godsend. As Sisson adapts it, it sounds more like a mere circumstance. And clearly this is an account of the Church of England which no bishop, however conservative, could publicly offer. It might even be thought heretical. And it reflects the way the defence of tradition can be driven into novelty. For to speak of a religion in which 'Christianity is an accident' is to use a language that would surely be unintelligible to those 'fathers' who are appealed to.

Nowhere else in Is There a Church of England? does Sisson put it quite like that, but the sentiment hardly comes out of the blue. This is a collection of essays and reviews dealing with Anglican matters, written over 35 years. And what's most striking is that there's no process of disillusion. Since his late baptism in middle age, Sisson's opposition to the leading tendencies of the Church has been continual. The tone of dry exasperation is constant, neither aggravated nor mollifed by the years. And if there's nothing here on such recent questions as the theology of Bishop Jenkins or the ordination of women, or indeed on the 'Honest to God' controversy, then Sisson's case has always been constitutional, not doctrinal. And it's the most difficult kind of case to prosecute, one where the central issues are not disputed, but barely appreciated by the other side.

Take the controversy with which Sisson was most notably associated, the defence of the Book of Common Prayer against the Alternative Services Book in the late Seventies. Sisson hits out strongly against the fatuous 'modernisations' of the ASB. But these points, which could be dismissed as merely 'literary' or 'verbal' by its partisans, were in themselves almost incidental. The very existence of 'alternatives' was the problem. The cause was continuity and unity. 'The language of the books was a common possession, an aid to understanding backward and forward in time and, at any given time, to understanding between different classes and localities.'

And if you say that the Prayer Book had ceased to perform this role for anything like all the people of England long before the arrival of the ASB, this goes back to the heart of the matter.

Sisson looks back to, and in some sense forward to, a National Church: a state in which membership of the church, and of the nation, are identical. He sees, though, a Church which - in open contradiction of its own existence - is increasingly content to become a sect among other sects, or perhaps a kind of holy pressure group with special privileges. But 'must not the Church aim at including within its fold everyone in this country - however remote, not to say offensive, such a proposition must now seem?' For this is not an ideal; it is simply what the Church of England is.

The insistence that history doesn't leave us free is always one of conservatism's strong points: there are some things and some values about which we have no choice, because that's what we are. The Church of England can't just decide to depart from its foundations and find a new role - not without self- destruction. But this kind of argument does leave conservatives peculiarly exposed when history seems to take a wrong turn. And they often turn out to be distinctly choosy about the things about which we have no choice.

Sisson is unwilling to allow that the idea of a National Church is any more unreal now than it was formerly. 'There is a lot of cant in the pretence that we now live in a new sort of society called 'pluralist', as if people all thought alike before mosques and temples and other religions started popping up everywhere.' An imminent restitution of recusancy fines, then? Sadly not. The inclusion or conversion of other sects and faiths may be as 'necessary' as it ever was, but the prospect is, he admits, 'infinitely remote'.

But, one may say, this was all just an accident waiting to happen to this so accidental church. For what kind of Christian church is it whose mission stops at a national border? Simply, a church that is dependent on the power of a state. And it's true, diversity of belief need not in itself be a problem - if the right laws were passed and enforced. But when the state for its own reasons withdraws its support, as the British state has de facto done, then formal Establishment is not much of

a foothold.

Sisson sees all this clearly enough, though his emphasis is on how the church itself has urged the process along. He stops short only of acknowledging how fatal his diagnosis is.