The Universal Frame

(Picture-the ruins of the church of St Andrew, Covehithe, Suffolk).

The English people have always wrestled with their spiritual conscience and this has affected their outlook on life, for good and ill. It has also imbued the culture of the country in an indelible way. The ambiguous religious identity of England has been the chief source of strife and this has in turn led to misunderstanding and even malice.

However this struggle has formed the unique character of the Englishman, an often diffident and awkward person uncomfortable with either overt sentimentality or moral earnestness. The English are distinct, their religious traditions are vastly different from the vivid Catholic culture of Ireland or Spain, and the austere expressions of Protestantism in Scotland or Holland.

The religious wars that were inflicted upon the European people were solely based upon perceptions of power. It was basically an enormous power struggle between the higher supremacy of the Church versus the weaker status placed in government. The English Civil War was just another manifestation of a battle between two omnipotent and recalcitrant forces who believed that they had the spiritual authority over the nation.

When we look at this major historical event with our modern sensibilities we are horrified by the violent bigotry expressed from both sides, but seventeenth century England was in effect a different country inhabited by superstitious and primitive people. However we must not underestimate the impact of this War, it remains a conflict that is deeply embedded within our national psyche.

Many counties in England were scarred by the War, families were divided and massive losses of life ensued. In spite of the fact that England is a largely secular nation, the superstitions of our ancestors still rise to the surface in barely perceptible ways, often the Puritan sensibility emerges but at other times our affection for our older Catholic past becomes much more obvious.

The Victorians inherited a country that suffered the violent iconoclasm of Cromwell’s troops but had also enjoyed the artistic and cultural regeneration of the Restoration years. The nation was nominally “Protestant” but the Church itself was unsure of its role and identity in a society that was growing materially richer but spiritually poorer. Many prominent individuals were allied strongly with the moral certainty of the Roman Catholic Church and risked opprobrium for expressing the dogma that so many people believed caused societal oppression.

Sir Edward Elgar was one of the most influential English composers of this age, and also a devout Roman Catholic. He attracted controversy for adapting Cardinal Newman`s evocative and affecting poem “The Dream of Gerontius” to music. Ostensibly a prayer for God’s mercy from a dying man, it was widely interpreted as almost a propaganda piece for the Catholic Church and its unyielding dictum on mortality.

The Church of England had dispensed with many Catholic rituals, including the clergy’s role in administering “extreme unction” for the dying. Protestants believe that only God has the authority to forgive the sins of believers once they pass away, but Catholics place their ultimate loyalty to the Priest in the hours of death and must confess solely to him in order to secure their place in heaven.

The notion of ex cathedra is alien to most people brought up within the Protestant tradition and it is a confusing concept to grapple with, it seems pious and cold. However Newman and Elgar evoked the sublime beauty of the devout and re-established that historical link between the English and the Catholic Church. The great Puritan poet John Milton opined that “neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone” but in the minds of Catholics their lives and deaths are entwined with an eternal set of laws that have remained unchanged since St Peter. These are the legacies that we continue to ponder.

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