One cannot help but feel reverence when entering an English cathedral, those cathedrals whose spires reach tentatively upwards towards the God to whom we all owe our existence. This feeling affects nearly all of us, and it is no coincidence that many of the young students who foray, naïve and atheistic, into the cathedral-cities of England to pursue university studies end up leaving those same institutions having found some variety of the Christian faith. Yet standing at the rood screen of Carlisle Cathedral recently, I could not help but be reminded of the reasons why I made the decision to leave the Church of England.
I am not the only one who feels as though England’s Mother-Church is weary – the truth is that it has been very weary for some time, torn spiritually asunder by its innate (and by no means unlaudable) desire to serve every subject of the Crown over and against the necessary demands of social and theological liberalism which seems inevitable for those wishing to fulfil that vision in the modern age. Christianity, being a religion which exhorts its faithful to leave behind the political scheming of the Serpent, and to cast one’s mind, heart, and soul upon God, naturally feels uncomfortable when it is told to accommodate political settlements. At the same time, nearly every Church was born of a political settlement, the Church of England not excepted. It is England herself in particular who has had to suffer the consequences of Henry VIII’s nuptial desires over the centuries, and the final, potentially destructive consequences of those desires do not seem far away. However, we shall return to the Church later.
When Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755, the public found something that more resembled a comic novel than a reference tool, which such varied and deliberately humorous entries such as: “Dull, adj., not exhilarating; not delightful; as in, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work.’” But a far more interesting entry captures Johnson’s politics: “Tory, n., one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a Whig.” Over and against his definition of a “Tory”, Johnson gave a characteristically laconic treatment to his political opponents: “Whig, n., the name of a faction.” One gets the sense that whilst Johnson saw the Tories as the defenders of timeless values, both political and religious, he had little time for the ideological (indeed, factious) Whigs. It remains true to this day that some of England’s most prominent Tory thinkers, such as Sir Roger Scruton, prefer to describe conservatism as an attitude which is explicitly anti-ideological, rather than as the ideology of a party, which conservatism’s opponents often subscribe to. Watching a BBC 3 introduction to the modern British Conservative Party the other day (which can be found here) I noticed that it listed “tradition, institutions like the Church and monarchy, and scepticism of revolution” as being “part of the Conservative brand.” Indeed, the Church of England has always played an important role in Conservative politics, but however often we might call the Conservatives the “Tories” today, the words of Benjamin Disraeli reflect the bitter reality of nearly two centuries of British Conservative Party politics: “In a parliamentary sense, that great party [the Tories] has ceased to exist.”
Political terminology is often bandied about, and in a polarised age where the aggressive populism of Labour’s Momentum decries the villainy of the supposed “Tories”, and the economically stagnant, socially bankrupt Conservatives decry in turn the dangers of socialism, it can be difficult to make sense of the way forward. Any suggestion of another way is either quickly dismissed or refused a hearing. Something has to give. For the Tory of Johnson’s description, who feels a deep connexion with both the history of his nation and his moral duty prescribed by God, it is easy to feel ill at home in the political establishment. One could choose to remain with the Conservatives, the “lesser evil” in Scruton’s words, and seek that Promised Land of “reform from within”, as many proponents of the internet’s latest High Tory phenomenon would like us to – this is a theory not dissimilar to the Red Toryism of Phillip Blond. Alternatively there is Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, a political project which seemed much more promising in the Miliband age, with Labour adopting the “One Nation” language of Disraeli and leaning (albeit imperfectly) towards the values of older Toryism.
Why should I go to the bother of promoting the Red Tories or Blue Labour if countless others have already done a far better job than I could have? Because neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party is following either route, nor does it appear that they will any time soon. The values expressed by the likes of Blond and Glasman are the sorts which outwardly appeal to any of the old Tory mindset: localism and community-based social projects without imposing state leadership, meaningful environmentalism without environmental sacrilege, public morality without public witch-hunts – it sounds wonderful. One supposes that a flaw in this ‘Tory-radical’ social system is that it is simply not popular amongst the establishment. The Conservatives have drunk up the free market kool aid and refuse to hear much else; equally the Labour Party fears that any shift towards what could be construed as more centre-right social values would constitute a return to Blairism, and that is certainly no place that any conservative or socialist alike wishes to go. So – if Disraeli was the father of this kind of Tory-radical politics, how can he have been so influential when, by his own prophecy, the Tory party had “ceased to exist”? We need to re-examine what it is that makes a Tory.
In the future, if some new incarnation of Tory-radicalism is to work, it will be utterly impossible to allow the term ‘Tory’ to become associated with the Conservative Party’s liberalism. Where we find individuals who appropriate the term, or who use it to describe something which is not Tory, there they must stand corrected. The term itself began life as an insult, and was triumphantly reclaimed as a badge of honour by the opponents of the Whigs. Words can be reclaimed, and the implications of words can be changed, albeit with great effort. The effort by which those Tories which we have spoken of – those who are not socialists, but have a social conscience, who are not liberals, but have an understanding of freedom – will be made in communities themselves, not political parties. Yet to say that change will lie in ‘community’ is an ambiguous term. Britain has, after all, been thoroughly atomised and those communities which do exist are rarely the same neighbourly communities which one thinks of in 1950s nostalgia. This is why I return to the initially apparently irrelevant subject of the Church.
We all know of the classic defence of the Church as a communitarian social hub. The truth is that any public building can be such a thing if it wanted to be. For an Orthodox Christian such as myself, the Church means something much more than the place where bread and wine is distributed every Sunday amongst like-minded people. It was the same for older Tories as well – hence Johnson’s placing of “the ancient constitution of the state” alongside “the apostolical hierarchy of the Church”. There is a sense, in Orthodoxy, that tradition does not negate social conscience, but rather is the basis for it. In the same way, the Tory political philosophy asserts that the social welfare of the people proceeds not from ideology, but from the traditions of that people. Perhaps then, this is the reason why the old Tories considered their politics to walk in tandem with the teachings of the Church.
As I said before, the Church of England appears to be welcoming a new, younger generation into its fold; but this younger generation is in turn being exposed to the problems within the English Church’s worldview. Since he put it far better than I ever could, I quote the American convert from Anglicanism and Orthodox blogger Matthew Cooper:
“I was finding Anglicanism to be incomplete and floundering on the whole, particularly the Episcopal Church of the United States whose ‘lightweight modernism’ has long been a source of discomfort and frustration to me.” (Link)
In terms of “lightweight modernism” the Church of England is not faring much better, and the result is that its church communities no longer have the same historical compass of the catholic and apostolic faith to guide it through the turbulence of modernity.
In sum, what I am saying is this: that Tories value community because they value where they come from. They also come from God, and like God’s Church, which is traceable back to the first Apostles and even therefore unto Christ; traditional teachings relate to traditional ways of life. All the Churches of the world, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican in particular, have come blundering into the 21st century without truly considering the challenges of preserving that worldview – as did the Conservative Party. For the Church of England and for the Conservatives, that meant giving way to modernism, for the Catholics it meant internal turmoil and canonical teachings which conflict with the attitude of many of the faithful, and for the Orthodox it meant covering their ears and shouting “modernism isn’t real modernism isn’t real!” Traditionalism cannot therefore mean a callous reactionary rejection of everything from democracy to the automobile.
Realistically, what it means is that amongst those who wish to preserve the ‘Tory’ values of history, morality, and faith must reach a consensus amongst themselves. For those who wish to turn those values into something radical for the modern political age, it would likely serve them far better to look first to the people of the Two Nations, the Rich and Poor, or perhaps Momentum and the Neoliberals, of today, for help, rather than to the parties who care little for fresh thinking.
To continue the quotation from Disraeli’s Sybil begun above:
“but I will believe that [Toryism] still exists in the thought and sentiment and consecrated memory of the English nation. It has its great principles in noble instincts; it sympathises with the lowly, it looks up to the Most High. . .Even now it is not dead, but sleepeth; and, in an age of political materialism, of confused purposes and perplexed intelligence, that aspires only to wealth because it has faith in no other accomplishment, as men rifle cargoes on the verge of shipwreck, Toryism will yet rise from the tomb over which Bolingbroke shed his last tear, to bring back strength to the Crown, liberty to the subject, and to announce that power has only one duty: to secure the social welfare of the people.” (Sybil, or the Two Nations, book IV chapter 14)