examines the admirable aspects of Englishness and the morality
behind them, in order to identify the unique contribution that English Catholics
could make to Roman Catholicism
day a French reactionary political philosopher - I think it was Joseph de
Maistre, but cannot find the reference - was denouncing the evils of democracy
and rights. But the English have had elements of these from the Middle Ages,
pointed out his friend, and you don't denounce them there. Of course not, de
Maistre replied: they are fine for the English, in England. By today's universalistic
standards it is a very reactionary thing to say. It's bad enough
to be less than enthusiastic about human rights; it is far worse to believe that
the moral and political capacities of countries differ.
Consider another instance.
Acknowledging the Englishness of the English gentleman, the French critic
Hippolyte Taine said of his countrymen, 'We have not the word because [we] have
not the thing.' Reactionary or not, let us say it: certain peoples -the Jewish
people, the Classical Greeks and Romans, the English and even the French -each
have a genius for some different aspect of moral, religious or political life.
Indeed, one reason for the richness of Christianity is its incorporation of the
best in the Jewish and Classical traditions.
There is talk today of
Anglican Catholics going over to Rome in some corporate' way. This raises the
question of what such a body could bring with it that would make it a special
body within the Roman Catholic Church. What do we value so much in our tradition
that we would want room made for it in our new life as Roman Catholics? Some
Roman Catholics, no doubt hoping that its language could well have some effect
on their own oikish translation of the Mass, suggest we might like to bring some
of the 1662 Prayer Book. I doubt it. Most Anglo-Catholics dislike the BCP either
for good doctrinal reasons or for their own oikish cultural reasons. However,
there is a way in which the English of the Authorized Version and elements of
the BCP could be preserved by letting the new convert body use the English
Missal. That would preserve the AV in the Epistle, Gospel and Propers and the
BCP in the Creed and Gloria (slightly amended).
Again, it is said that Pope
Benedict has Lancelot Andrewes by his bedside and that the particular
spirituality of Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, Donne and other seventeenth-century
divines, being both English and Catholic, might
enrich the Roman Church. It is possible, though again I do not know many
contemporary Anglican Catholics who bother with the divines.
Why not, instead, follow
Taine's observation? He was not the only foreigner to admire the conduct and the
understanding of the gentleman in England. Before the laughter dies down, it is
worth pointing out that our greatest Anglican Catholic, John Henry Newman, was
very much an English gentleman. Much of that which is so admirable in his
character and conduct is explicable in terms of his gentlemanliness, at least
as much as his Catholicism - insofar as the two can be distinguished.
Moreover, Newman himself
thought much of the gentleman and in his Idea of a University made the
development of the Christian gentleman its prime function. It is impossible for
even the most modernist of our modern Anglican Catholics to look at the founders
and great fathers of their movement, the Stantons and Lowders, and not to see
tied to class
Many of the foreigners who
admired the English gentleman, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, understood one thing that was unusual about him. Unlike the French gentilhomme,
he had ceased to be tied to class and birth. It was his character that
mattered. Truthful, courteous, considerate, morally courageous and constant, he
may have embodied some of the best aristocratic virtues but he need not be, and
in most cases was not, an aristocrat. The 'lady' had a more complex history but
even there it was possible, by the end of nineteenth century, for ordinary
people to say of some good soul - of whatever origin - 'he was a real
gentleman'/'she was a real lady'.
The attributes of the
gentleman were moral, aesthetic and Christian. In an essay on the topic,
Caroline Moore quotes two nineteenth-century comments: 'There
The gentleman is only one
aspect of the accumulated moral understanding to be found among the English. The
English are known for their self-deprecation, understatement, diffidence, lack
of public emotion, for their irony and humour, for their cult of amateurishness.
These are part moral, part aesthetic. Some are manners or small morals. Even
that is instructive because manners are incarnational. They are embodied, to do
with real conduct, whereas the universalistic formulae of human rights are
abstract and disincarnate.
Newman himself said something
similar, praising the practice of local particularistic love above the 'absurd'
talk of 'comprehensive affection...loving all men... that is merely to talk of
love.' Moreover, the morality behind self-deprecation and understatement is one
of humility, yet another quality of the gentleman and of our religion. Even the
aesthetic aspect of manners is not to be dismissed. Traditional Anglican
Catholics wore good vestments, took care of their church buildings and the
sacred objects in them and cultivated good church music.
One must not make too much of this. The question, and it is one that has been sounding increasingly desperate, was whether there was anything in their tradition that Anglican Catholics could bring with them as a small gift on their trip to Rome - should they be invited. I think the moral sensibility associated with the idea of the gentleman, the cult of understatement and self-deprecation and traditional manners would be a rather nice present. The problem is whether modern Anglican Catholics themselves value these small treasures themselves, value them enough to offer them as gifts.
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