English gentlemen

Digby Anderson 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

One 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.

Authorized Version

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 gentlemen.

Not 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 never was but one perfect gentleman since the world began...and He was the Son of God.' After Our Lord the next candidate was St Paul: 'St Paul, in his speeches and letters, is the very model of a gentleman.' Too much? Then think about this. Yet another foreigner, Archbishop Goodier, in his The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, examines the heart of Our Lord in Holy Week and tries to identify its various virtues. Chief among them are courtesy and patient consideration, especially of his errant disciples. Courtesy is the virtue of the English gentleman.

Anchored in humility

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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