Roger Scruton: ‘My tribal religion’

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by  Michael Duggan

Roger Scruton is not a Catholic. But he might have been. “I’ve always been drawn to the Catholic Church because of its respect for tradition, for the apostolic continuity it represents and for its attempts to imbue ordinary life with sacraments,” he told me when we spoke last week. “All of this came across very strongly to me with the Church as I came to know it in the south of France and Italy when I was a young man. It’s not quite the same now, I know.”

Professor Scruton is 71. His voice and phrasing have an elegiac quality, well suited to these kinds of reflections. And yet books continue to pour out of him at a rate of knots. He was speaking to me on the eve of the publication of his latest, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.

In Gentle Regrets, a sequence of autobiographical sketches from 2005, he wrote about the two people “who stand out among the many who have illuminated the path to Rome, a path that I never took”. One was Mgr Alfred Gilbey, Catholic chaplain in Cambridge when Scruton was an undergraduate. Mgr Gilbey later took up residence in the Travellers Club in London, where he converted a boxroom into a chapel. “Stepping in off Pall Mall,” Scruton wrote, “was like falling out of modern London into a quiet bodega in pre-Republican Spain, where an old priest is taking sherry after blessing the marquis who lies dying upstairs.”

“Mgr Gilbey is a lifelong influence on anyone who met him,” Scruton tells me. “He was the voice of the old, recusant, patrician form of Catholicism, the Catholicism that was hidden away in the veins of English life, with a very clear attachment to an old country way of life as well.” The other Catholic who made a permanent mark on Scruton was Basia, an impoverished Polish student, single mother and devout Catholic, with whom Scruton had an intense but chaste relationship when he was actively supporting intellectual dissidents in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism.

“Basia was completely the opposite of Alfred Gilbey. She was a straightforward, pious person who was leading a dedicated life. I still ask myself the question: how would Basia think of this? How would Albert Gilbey think of this? Such people influence you forever.”

The idea of the “corporate person” is a mainstay of Scruton’s thinking. “You could not understand Alfred or Basia if you disbelieved in corporate persons,” Scruton concluded in Gentle Regrets. “Both lived in constant and fruitful communication with the person they called Holy Mother Church, whom they believed to be animated by the Holy Spirit, and whom they loved with a fervour that surpassed their most ardent earthly attachment.”

The role played by Mgr Gilbey and Basia as individuals in awakening Scruton to the nature of Catholicism was also played by a whole country: France. Or at least, by le pays réel, Scruton’s shorthand for the France of vineyards and country churches that he discovered when he was a young lecteur at the University of Pau.

In I Drink Therefore I Am, Scruton ventured this thought: “A great wine is a cultural achievement, not available to Protestants, atheists or believers in progress, since it depends on the survival of local gods. One of the greatest goods bestowed on France by the Catholic Church is to have offered asylum to the battered gods of antiquity, to have fitted them out with the clothes of saints and martyrs, and to have cheered them with the drink that they once brought down from heaven to us all. That, in a nutshell, is why French wines are the best.” No wonder then that Scruton has called France his spiritual home. Is that still the case?

“I still think of the south of France as it was in the early Sixties, before the other France, the Parisian, revolutionary France suddenly reared its ugly head and put me off,” he said. “I think back to discovering the French countryside, discovering wine, discovering the language and the literature. It was, certainly, a spiritual experience, and Catholicism played its part.”

With his mix of first-hand experience, professional understanding and confessional distance, Scruton seems a good person to ask about the Catholic Church’s historic role in the downfall of communism. Has the contribution of the Church been exaggerated or underplayed?

“I was in Poland when John Paul II was elected. I saw the electric effect. Now there was another source of authority outside the country which was independent of the Communist Party, but which nevertheless had international standing. It had a huge impact on ordinary Polish people. There was a revival of the faith and the martyrdom of Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko was probably the beginning of the end for communism. Once in one country the Communist Party is unable to show its face, then in all the other countries it starts retreating into the twilight.”

Scruton has tangible links with several Catholic institutions: he is, for example, a fellow of Blackfriars, Oxford. He is also on the academic advisory group of Benedictus College in London, where courses are deliberately rooted in the classical and Catholic intellectual traditions. What does he gain from these links?

“Interestingly enough, in my experience, Catholic institutions are the only open-minded ones in terms of higher education. They are the only institutions that would openly offer cover and support to somebody as conservative as me, and without being dogmatic about it or agreeing with me or anything like that. Having some position in Oxford would have been impossible for me without Blackfriars.”

He is currently visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford,a far cry from 1985, when his academic career lay in tatters following the reception given Thinkers of the New Left, of which his new book is a revised version.

Despite all this, Scruton never did follow what he has called the “glowing exit sign” offered by Rome to Newman and others. His first marriage was to a French Catholic, a marriage he came to regard as “stolen” from the Church. When he did marry again, wanting at last to make an unbreakable vow, it was solemnised by the Anglican Church: “… my tribal religion, the religion of the English who don’t believe a word of it”, as he once half-jested.

The Church of England has always inspired some of Scruton’s most acute insights and wittiest aphorisms. One thinks of this: “Biblical English passes the lips of people who believe that holy thoughts need holy words, words somehow removed from the business of the world, like gems lifted from a jewel box and then quickly returned to the dark”. Or this: “God, as represented in the traditional services of the Anglican Church, is an Englishman uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches.”

He told me: “There are two reasons why I held back from joining the Catholic Church. One is that it requires a bigger leap of faith than I’ve been able to achieve. And the other is that, because I’m divorced, I couldn’t possibly get married a second time in the Catholic Church.

“But I could get a blessing for my second marriage from the Church of England. I was brought up as an Anglican and I’ve always liked the idea of the kind of compromises on which the Anglican Church has thrived.”

And therein lies the rub. While wine-growing, church-peppered France may be his spiritual home, his feet and heart are planted firmly in the Wiltshire claylands. This is where he has his farm and his family. His house includes stones removed from Malmesbury Abbey at the Dissolution. He plays the organ – “one manual, three stops, no pedals” – in the local Anglican church of All Saints. He has given this place a name, at once ironic and defiant: Scrutopia.

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