The quality of his despair
IS THERE A CHURCH OF ENGLAND? by C. H. Sisson Carcanet, £25, pp. 302 C. H. Sisson is in the sad and , uncomfortable position of a conformist, by temperament and conviction, who finds himself a de facto non-conformist. And 'non-conformity' — like 'democracy', 'individualism', 'rights', 'opinion' or 'con- science' — is a term of virulent abuse in these essays.
A melancholy long withdrawing roar sounds through the collection, as Sisson finds himself stranded upon the naked shingles of dissent. To be a member of an ' oppressed minority often boxes the dissi- dent into a grumpy paranoia; and Sisson's essays are crammed with talk of conspiracy. 'International gangs of opinion' and 'eccle- siastical clubs' rule the Church, while through it all there is the perpetual foreign threat from 'Popish non-conformists': the 'Roman conspirators . . . plan the destruc- tion of the whole edifice, political and social.' But just because one is paranoic doesn't mean that everyone isn't against one; and Sisson lays about him with such energy that it is a pleasure -- as well as sad and painful — to watch the twisting and flailing of his beached mind.
Since these essays are arranged chrono- logically, one can trace the growth of Sisson's disillusionment. In 'Church and State', written in 1957, Sisson argues for the importance of an established Church. Many of his arguments remain constant preoccupations throughout the book: there is the insistence that the Church is not apolitical, but that its proper stance should be to promulgate 'simple loyalty to the crown': and the correspondingly deep sus- picion that Roman Catholics are working • to undermine that loyalty: they are 'a minority biding its time', and 'not in their obedience bound to England'. But the premise of this article is that the Church of England is the norm, or at least the most numerically powerful and deep-rooted ecclesiastical organisation in England. If Roman Catholicism 'were as strong in England as our Church now is,' he remarks, then the State would have to define its relationship with what is ultimately a 'foreign power'. Nowadays,
however, the number of regular attenders in the Roman Catholic Church is larger than in the Church of England — to say nothing of Moslem or Hindu worshippers. By the end of the book, Sisson cannot be nearly as confident in his assertions that the Church of England is the Church of the English people.
This is not merely a matter of declining numbers. Sisson's ideal vision of England is of a Christian polity: the ecclesia anglicana is 'the centre of England', and 'the political exceptions which omit it are not merely incomplete; they are without middle.' Democracy, for Sisson, can be no substitute for religion (It was a popular majority which asked for the crucifixion). But as the book progresses, it is not just the secularisation of the State, but the increasing laicisation of the Church which Sisson bemoans. The Church, he holds, became terminally infected with the demo- cratic disease when it introduced self-gov- ernment by Synod. (And indeed, why should revealed truth be deemed suscepti- ble to popular vote?) In 1969 Sisson's answer to the question 'Is there a Church of England' is 'in some sense. . . Yes', flab- by, decayed and 'soggy' though it may be. By 1981, however, the answer is effectively 'No': . . . with the establishment of the Synod the Church of England has wilfully demoted itself from the station of a national Church, to which it is perhaps no longer called. Its voice has acquired a sectarian stridency.
Sisson's Anglicanism is stubborn and touching because he sees so clearly that his religion is local, rooted in a time and place, a history and above all a country. Roman Catholics like to patronise Anglicans as parochial: for Sisson, this is Anglicanism's crowning glory. 'A local habitation and a name' are for him 'of the essence of Chris- tianity.' He is Anglican because he is English. This is bound up with an equally stub- born resistance to abstractions. Indeed, the core of his faith in the importance of localised tradition turns out to be the belief that the individual mind is itself an abstrac- tion, an illusion. 'It makes no sense to talk of the individual mind. The individual body, perhaps.' Consciousness is deter- mined by particular cultures; freedom too is therefore an 'illusion.' It is unclear where this leaves the individual soul, which is not a word Sisson uses.
This gruff distrust of high-flown notions is self-consciously English. Sisson describes Coleridge, corrupted by German —foreign — studies as 'pursuing bubbles of ideas away over the horizon': his own habit is to burst the bubbles, and then find he rather needs them after all. In this way, his denial of the importance of individuality leads him — ironically, like some trendy and Frenchified post-structuralist— to a denial of originality, creativity and so on; which in turn leads to some trouble when explaining why poets like Sisson nevertheless have their place. Somehow, the notion of a 'person' with something to say creeps back in.
Of course, 'individual conscience' has no place in Sisson's religion. Like many of those who take their religious temper from the Caroline divines, he prefers to slur over the Calvinism which so strongly shaped the theology of our church in the 16th and 17th centuries. Only once is conscience allowed as a Good Thing; and this, of course, is when it is a stick with which to beat the Scarlet Whore of Babylon. Papal infallibili- ty, he snorts, 'is an absolute bar to liberty of conscience', which ought to be fine by Sisson. He manages to disapprove of it any- way, however, by blaming the doctrine of his other bug-bear: 'it is an invention ... of the democratic 1870s.'
It would be easy to make Sisson's atti- tude to Rome sound ridiculous as well as xenophobic. ('As late as 1605 Guy Faux and his friends showed, also in the most practical way, that loyalty could not be counted on in Papists.') But actually some part of me found these parts of his book horribly convincing. It is hard for an Angli- can not to think of Rome as alien, a power from overseas. To divide one's loyalties — temporal duties t& the prince, or State, spiritual to the Bishop of Rome — is to an Englishman uncomfortably akin to possess- ing a divided heart. It is of course difficult to think of situations where an actual con- flict might arise: a Liberation Theology Pope, calling for the smashing of all power structures, is a fairly remote possibility. Yet the loss of wholeness would go deep if, like Sisson, one has been bred with a
profound sense of the identity of the Church and commonwealth, as aspects of the same body, so that a failure to follow the prince in his religion partakes of the nature of schism.
Sisson's original attitude — 'Our Church, right or wrong' — compounds humility and arrogance, self-abnegation and triumphal- ism, faith and cynicism or even despair (the sense that 'whatever happens, I can never escape my roots'). By the end of the book, despair and its concomitant arrogance pre- vail. For what, after all, can a believer in English tradition do, if he feels that the Church that expressed the faith of his country has betrayed its heritage? For Sisson, there are no alternatives.