Morality, Chivalry, and the Sense of Truth

Critics of public-school religion really belong to two quite different groups—those who believe in the kind of religion which public schools try to instil, and regret their failure, in so far as they do fail, to instil it, and those who, believing in a different form of religion, whether Catholicism or an Anglicanism assimilated to it, tend to rejoice in the failure of the public schools, as becomes those possessed of an infallible remedy for such defects. I think, then, it should be said at the outset that public schools are trying to teach the sons of gentlemen a religion in which their mothers believe, and their fathers would like to: a religion without “enthusiasm” in the old sense, reserved in its self-expression, calculated to reinforce morality, chivalry, and the sense of truth, providing comfort in times of distress and a glow of contentment in declining years; supernatural in its nominal doctrines, yet on the whole rationalistic in its mode of approaching God: tolerant of other people’s tenets, yet sincere about its own, regular in church-going, generous to charities, ready to put up with the defects of the local clergyman. This religion the schoolmaster is under contract to teach; it is left to him, if he be a sincere Christian, to attempt the grafting on to this stock of supernatural graces which it does not naturally develop—self-sacrifice, lively devotion, worthy reception of the Communion, and so on. That is the proposition.

Now, here is no question of what could or what could not be done if all school chapels were furnished and managed like (let us say) St. Alban’s, Holborn. That is not the religion which the vast majority of parents want, and the vast majority of schoolmasters personally believe in. To attempt the consolation of the schoolmaster by pointing out to him the advantages of an elaborate ceremonial and strongly Sacramental doctrines, is like addressing a lecture on aviation to a shipwrecked sailor treading water in mid-ocean:

Nihil iste nec ausus
Nec potuit,

it is not his business.

On the other hand, it is true that there is a sense in which Catholicism can be taught, and ordinary Anglicanism cannot. For Anglicanism, generally speaking, is not a system of religion nor a body of truth, but a feeling, a tradition, its roots intertwined with associations of national history and of family life; you do not learn it, you grow into it; you do not forget it, you grow out of it. And if I were asked what was the best way of perpetuating this tradition among boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I would say, “Have a chapel of good architectural proportions, decently decorated; shorten the Anglican service for daily use; sing plenty of hymns, carefully selected; associate, as far as possible, the school with the school chapel; encourage the idea that its influence hallows school friendships, consecrates school triumphs; let the preaching be patriotic, but not Jingo, about the country, the Church, the school itself. Let confirmation be a public, not a hole-and-corner act; spare no effort to invest the Communion service with an air of special aloofness and sanctity.” It need hardly be said that this is exactly what public schools do. And the trouble is that it does not fail; it succeeds. It succeeds only too well.

— Ronald Knox, A Spiritual Aeneid, London, 1918.

Curator: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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