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"By now the Archbishop was on tranquillisers," noted Ian Hislop half-way through the third part of Canterbury Tales (C4). It was a line that might well have served as an epigraph for the whole enterprise, an enjoyable and often surprising history of the Church of England in this century. Of course, there's nothing like ignorance for making instruction taste better, and when it comes to Anglican history in the inter-war years I can't be the only viewer who essentially represents a vacancy waiting to be filled. In a very straightforward way, it was fascinating to learn, as you did last week, about the rebellion against tithing in depressed rural communities just before the war, a farmer's revolt which permanently soured relationships between church and congregation in some areas, and even led to the enlistment of the British Union of Fascists, concluding in a Wodehousian skirmish with the Metropolitan police. A number of pigs were arrested for unruly behaviour. It was intriguing, too, to discover the not-entirely-spotless record of the Church with respect to the Nazi party. One bishop spoke approvingly of the changes they had brought about, and described the Jews as "a not altogether pleasant element in German life".

As the enterprise came closer to home (including the Church's manifestly blasphemous suggestion that Thatcherism might not be the only true faith), it began to serve more as an aide-memoire than a revelation -- interesting for the way that it elaborated themes raised in the earlier episodes. And this week it became even clearer that the series hasn't just been an exercise in social nostalgia by a genial hobbyist. As we advance towards Christian Socialism's Thousand Year Reich it is more than useful to have the threads of social activism and moral admonition picked out of the ecclesiastical fabric.

The archbishop referred to was Flog' em Fisher, leapfrogged to the primacy over the head of Bishop Bell, who had the temerity to suggest that the bombing of German civilians might be a "wrong deed". This, it seems, was not what the politicians (or the country) had in mind when they asked for clear moral guidance from their churchmen. Not for the first time it raised the paradox that the Church must always live with - that, whatever they say to the contrary, the faithful much prefer to be told that what they are doing is right than to be told to do the right thing. Mrs Thatcher and her acolytes - so easily steamed up by the moral relativism of the Church when it came to sexual matters - turned out to be no better at swallowing the absolutist pill than anyone else when it came to charity or forgiveness.

Canterbury Tales showed you the Church of England's long, abrading education in this fact. From the public revulsion for Cosmo Lang's hard line on the abdication (theologically impeccable at the time and faultlessly egalitarian in its refusal to see a king as spiritually different to a commoner) to the storm of Tory protest that descended on Michael Ramsay's head when he declared his intention of proposing a bill to abolish hanging, Anglican primates were tutored in circumspection and caution. In the long union of Church and State the traffic has mostly been one way -- churchmen have learnt how to behave like politicians rather than politicians learning to behave like churchmen.

As a presenter Ian Hislop remained mildly inexplicable to the end (he never came clean as to whether he was eligible by reason of faith, though he concluded with an unsardonic "Amen" for the church's continued centrality in British life). Perhaps it was thought he would provide a puckish reassurance for viewers nervous about pious solemnity. But whatever the calculations behind his employment, he was rather good - detached, affectionate, obviously able to put a variety of venerable reverends at their ease. He was also, though this should hardly be surprising in a satirist, a subtly moral presence - indeed, rather more so than the vicars on some occasions.

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