Sunday, 12 February 2012

On a whim and a prayer: long live tradocracy!

Bideford in Devon is the sort of place that you can ignore for most of your life. Then, let its name once pass before your eyes just once and you start to notice it everywhere. Strange really, especially since its name is a sort of homely English one and hardly on a par with the nearby and much more dramatic Westward-Ho! (and, yes, believe it or not, the exclamation mark IS a part of the name).

In some strange way it is this very Englishness of the place that strikes me in the recent controversy over whether the town council can be allowed to say prayers before their meetings. A High Court ruling has stated that it is not legal for prayers officially to be part of the council's proceedings. This is because the Local Authorities Act 1972 - I'm never without my copy and neither should you be - gives local councils no power to summon councillors for prayer. The ruling does not, however, ban informal prayers - a boon for all those who threw up their hands at the ruling, muttering, 'Dear God!' Reaction to the ruling has been mixed, from joyous jubilation among that declining band they call the Nation Secular Society to high-minded condemnation from Anglican bishops and archbishops. Few others appear to care very much.

There are two things about the case which strike me as noteworthy. First, there is the desire to chase out of public life all open expressions of religion. Let us not doubt for a minute that this is the agenda of the NSS who have funded much of the court case. Not only is it un-English; by that very fact it is what I'm going to call 'anti-Bidefordian'. Historically, our public life is not an abstraction, like that of the French. Our ceremonial comes from tradition, rather than the Ministry of Ceremonial. Historically, we rule on laws with the use of precedent. I think they still don silly hats in Parliament for certain ceremonies and use medieval French. And why not indeed? Silly hats ought to be worn on all solemn occasions, as the clergy have long since understood.

The point about such things is that they offer no tangible, rational pretext which can be easily understood by the mind of the technocract, the bureaucrat, or any other kind of crat. They just are. And their just being is one of the guarantees that something humane rather than something ideology ridden is in control of the nation. I could blame - indeed, I do blame! - this growing tendency on our closeness to Europe, since its own legal and civic traditions are so differently constructed from our own. But as Chesterton says, a madman has not lost his reason; he has lost everything except his reason. Personally, I believe 'Englishness' somehow is in contact with that enormous truth which is not the celebration of irrationality but the condemnation of self-certified pure reason that somehow manages to disappear up its own back alley as it breathes out the fumes of a rationalised vision of life.


Now, the second thing that strikes me as un-English and anti-Bidefordian in this case is the reaction of those who deplore the court's ruling. The case has been lost and so a certain amount of whinging is quite justified. But, by this very fact alone - the legal issue - should this ruling really be seen as another sign of the dechristianisation of the nation? I see here one of the effects of rivalry gone bad. How easy it is - and how few of us realise it - to be drawn onto one's enemy's territory in any dispute! In the reaction of those disappointed by the ruling, there is the hint of the assumption that the law should operate for Christianity like the secularists want it to operate for secularism. Bad mistake! And a very modern one, if I may say so.

Multiplicatio legorum corruptio republicae: the multiplication of laws [shows forth] the corruption of the republic. If no classical author wrote it, then they should have! One of the surest signs of our currently parlous condition is the turning of the legislature into some kind of Victorian mill. The raggedy MPs work their fingers to the bone passing laws that serve those far wealthier than most of them - like the bankers. In administration there are only means, no ends, as Sir Humphrey Appleby once said. But that's the thing: Appleby was a bureaucrat!

So what is the English thing to do for Bideford's councillors? Surely, to have the prayers informally! Abandon the bureaucrat's safety net of legal provision and walk the line that requires that happy cooperation that distinguishes civilisation from barbarism - whether it be in grass skirts or in legal robes. After all, I'm sure that's what they would do in Westward-Ho!


Trisagion said...

"I could blame - indeed, I do blame! - this growing tendency on our closeness to Europe, since its own legal and civic traditions are so differently constructed from our own."

Up to a point, Lord Copper. It would be fairer to say that if it is correct to talk about Europe having "legal and civic traditions" at all - and I'm just about prepared admit as much - then the culprit is surely the Corsican Corporal and those, like Bismark and the last forty years of Eurocrats, who have followed his doctrinaire legal positivism in all things. Pre-napoleonic Europe had plenty of silly hats and it has only been in the last century that the natural chaotic order of traditional civic ceremonial has been chased out of most of central Europe. I am becoming more and more convinced that this positivism is at the root of most of the societal changes that I deeply deplore.

Ches said...

Well, I think that (Napoleonic) legal practices with over two hundred years behind them surely qualify as a tradition. So I don't think I was being unfair by alluding to the deeply centralising practices of Europe - and France in particular if we speak of the Corsican - as a differently constructed tradition. The very distinction between the two is close to the central argument of Chapter 1 of my book - which I thought you'd read!

But, you are quite right that pre-Revolutionary Europe was a different beast ... that is, up to a point. In France at least, the excesses of centralization even pre-date 1789.

Professor Bo Bonner, Obl. OSB said...

This is all foretold in Descartes, in "Discourse on Method", where our grandfather of modernity gives the metaphor of the new science as a new city, built on a grid, all in proportion, with square roads and effecient planning, all created by the same city planner. This, he states, its better than the old science, which is like the randomness of the old cities. Sure, there was a gorgeous building here and there, but it was unconnected to everything else, hard to get to, and the several hands involved in building it through time make it untenable to live in. So, Descarets says, bulldoze the entire city and start anew.

This is always fun to point out to students here in America. After going over this, I make them raise their hands, who would rather live in an old city, like Paris or Jerusalem, or a new city, like one of the thousand same-looking suburbs America is famous for, with all its conveniences. I do not know whether to shudder that half of them want to live in the new city, or to be pleased that roughly half of them vote for the old city.

Just to keep things on the up and up, the stereotype most Americans assume is that all Europeans, the Brits worst of all, are anti-parochial, cosmopolitan to a fault, and view their traditions like artifacts in a museum. What is hilarious though is that Americans think they have long established traditions to cling to, and even the ones they do have they long ago abandoned for much stranger place holders...

Paulinus said...

I have been planning (and must complete some time soon) a family tree of secularism. My theory is that the BHA is a direct descendant (and logical conclusion of) non-conformist Protestantism. There is some evidence of this in the origins of the BHA in the 'ethical churches' of the 19th century, I think. Churches with sermons and hymns and such, just no belief in God. The NSS is altogether more European, Gallic, one might say and sinister. VERY unEnglish.

I have a friend who is a lawyer in those parts, whose take on English common law is that it is the unalienable right of a freeborn Englishman to tell anyone he likes - bureaucrat, politician or policeman who attempts to tell him what to do , to f*** off.

(sorry about the language, but I think he has it right)

Ben Trovato said...

Ches, a bit off-topic, but I have tagged you in a meme:

I hope you enjoy it.