BOOK REVIEW / Free and frozen music: 'The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism' - Ed. Geoffrey Rowell: Iken, 9.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE DOCTRINE of the Apostolic Succession, so genially derided by Macaulay in his review of Gladstone's early work, The State in its Relation to the Church, hardly taxes the historical imagination less than the notion of a tradition that somehow links the Venerable Bede with the Church life of modern England. The appreciative tittering of the congregation as the preacher zigzags from a recent encounter with a supermarket trolley to the doctrine of the atonement would surely puzzle and shock him as much as it would the other great figures of whom this book treats - Anselm, Wycliffe, Cranmer, Hooker, George Herbert, the Wesleys, Keble. And, come to that, would we listen in patient reverence while Bede addressed us at repetitious length on the importance of the date of Easter?

This obvious point is met with wisdom and learning by the Bishop of Ely, who happily quotes Hooker (the genius of Anglicanism if ever there was one): 'the harmonious dissimilitude of those ways, whereby his Church upon earth is guided from age to age, throughout all generations of men.'

To some this will appear a bland evasion of the difficulties. To others it will reveal the charity and the cheerful confession of personal limitation without which the Christian religion by the explicit statement of its foundation documents is to be counted dead.

Anglicanism, we learn from this work, is a term that dates only from the early 19th century, Ut ecclesia anglicana libera sit ('That the church in England may be free') - the phrase from Magna Carta has a purely territorial, not a confessional, significance. By contrast, to describe a man as an Anglican in the 20th century is usually understood to imply that he is a High Churchman, who would be generally sympathetic to the position expounded by Keble, in whose honour these addresses were delivered.

The Church of England tout court is a term that asserts a reluctance to define. Its principle is not to unchurch if it can avoid it. Its distinctive features have been the glory of its liturgical language, now trodden underfoot by a synodical multitude, and the riches of its hymnology, now generally abandoned in favour of barely metrical banality. Of the men (and one woman, Lady Julian of Norwich) here treated, George Herbert, the Wesleys and Keble himself are among the greatest hymn-writers, not only of England but of Christendom. The others were all authors of great, some of very great, distinction.

Bede became in his own lifetime, as he has remained, a historian of European reputation. Sir Richard Southern in his brief sketch of Anselm, the gem of this collection, claims that his 'body of writings, small in bulk though it is . . . forms one of the most vivid personal legacies of the Middle Ages'.

Whatever else it has been, the Church of England has been a learned Church, as this volume testifies. In this connection it seems a pity that a place was not found for Tyndale, the incomparable translator of the Bible, who is only now through the splendid editorship of Dr Daniell coming into his own.

Few Englishmen can have done more to shape the religious consciousness of their countrymen than he. When the echoes of Cranmer's Prayer Book and of Tyndale's unacknowledged contribution to the Authorised Version are no longer audible, and in the cadences of English prose, the genius of Anglicanism will be a matter for the archaeologists.