By David Goodhew
George Orwell, a closet Anglican? Orwell was perhaps the greatest writer in English of the 20th century. To describe him as Anglican may seem a stretch. Orwell described himself as an atheist for much of his life. Yet there are connections between Orwell and the Anglican tradition of Christianity. And he has much to say to Anglicans, if we have ears to hear.
Was Orwell really an Anglican?
From his own words, it would be impossible to consider Orwell within the Anglican fold. As an adult, he regularly declared that he believed neither in God nor Christianity and that he had let go of his childhood faith in his teens. Orwell had plenty of harsh comments for Christianity and Christians — most especially for Roman Catholicism, against which he could be vitriolic. His novel “A Clergyman’s Daughter” presents a bleak view of faith — although, as even Orwell admitted, this was a very poor piece of writing.
But if we read Orwell’s actions, rather than his words, a more complex story emerges. A schooling with compulsory chapel inoculated Orwell against Christian belief, but it gave him a thorough knowledge of it, too. In adult life, he was a communicant worshiper at an Anglican church in London in the early 1930s. He engaged significantly (and critically) with apologists for Christianity such as Lewis and Chesterton, and other Christian authors like T.S. Elliot and Grahame Greene. He chose to marry, twice, and had his adopted son baptized by Anglican rites.
Most significantly, Orwell’s will stipulated the Church of England’s rites for his funeral, and that he be buried in an Anglican churchyard — All Saints, Sutton Courtenay, south of Oxford. This could be read as mere sentimentality. But Orwell valued sentiment. And he had an adamantine hatred of hypocrisy. The literary world of 1940s London, where he died, was more than secular enough for him to have chosen a different end. An old friend, Jacintha Buddicom, told of how Orwell expressed belief in some kind of afterlife towards the end of his life.
Orwell’s attitude to Anglican Christianity was ambiguous. He disavowed it and criticized it, but drew close to it from time to time. And, at that most crucial moment, as he was leaving this life, Orwell chose to stand within it.
Creation and Fall
Orwell had a deeply Christian appreciation of the created world and of the fallenness of humanity.
Orwell’s nature writing is a hidden foundation to his work. Orwell had a profound, almost mystical, love of the natural world, combined with acute powers of observation. Orwell loved tending his garden and his smallholding in Jura (where he wrote his last great works). My personal favorite is his essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” including the wonderful description of a toad awakening from hibernation looking similar to an Anglo-Catholic after the Lenten fast (testament to the ascetic element of Anglo-Catholicism in the 1930s and ’40s).
Then there is his magnificent essay “A Nice Cup of Tea.” This reinforces all American stereotypes of the British as addicted to tea-drinking. But this glorious (and beautifully written) discussion of an utterly ordinary action is an unconscious affirmation of the wonder of creation. For Orwell, the mundane could be special — an implicitly sacramental view of reality.
Alongside this love of creation, few authors rival Orwell in his willingness to face the fallenness of humankind. His two final masterpieces — Animal Farm and 1984 — present an uncompromisingly dark understanding of human capacities. Rarely among writers, in his age and ours, Orwell eschews the easy lambasting of one section of society and canonization of another section, the easy binary of oppressor and oppressed. Big Brother is far worse than the “proles,” but both are fallible. Orwell understood the way evil seeps into and warps truth and language, to the point that we cannot even express the lies that bind us.
Orwell spent most of his adult life on the left, but he was gloriously unafraid to condemn its failings. He saw through the cant and cruelty of the Soviet system and of Western fellow travelers who proved such useful idiots for totalitarianism. He was that rarity, an intellectual prepared to suffer and fight for his beliefs. This included fighting fascism as an ordinary soldier in Spain, where he was wounded and almost killed.
Orwell was a child of the Enlightenment in his desire to move “beyond” religion. But he was clear-eyed in seeing how modern people replaced worship of God with worship of power — be that the power of the state, the race, or the party.
Writing and living out the truth
Orwell was that most unusual thing — an intellectual who acted upon his ideals. Many writers sympathize with the poor and condemn imperialism and fascism, but live in middle-class ghettos. Orwell lived for substantial periods in poverty and among the poor. He had direct experience of imperialism (and abandoned his early career to distance himself from it) and took up arms against fascism.
To Christians trying to write, speak, and act truthfully, he offers bracing guidance. Orwell’s sublime essay “Politics and the English Language” ought to be required reading for all ordinands. In demolishing the cant of political writing, he exposes the falsehoods so easily entered into by those who seek to write theology and preach sermons.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell includes a brilliant translation of verses from Ecclesiastes into contemporary English. He intended to illustrate the decline of the English language, but it shows incidentally his love of the King James Version.
Orwell’s essay, “The Prevention of Literature,” comments on the insidious effect of groupthink and political dogma in stifling literature. Much of what he says would hold true of the average church report. But in our world, Orwell’s critique now has the most force against secular academia. How good it would be to hear Orwell’s analysis of contemporary elite universities, which focus more on telling students what to think, than teaching them how to think.
In an age of bewilderment and bluster, Orwell offers a guide to believers and unbelievers alike. When we are tempted to groupthink, to indulge in Two Minutes Hate, his bracing words pull us back. We might disagree sometimes with Orwell over what truth is, but with him we share the belief that truth will set us free.
There is a kind of backhanded eschatology to Orwell’s final masterpiece, “1984.” It is an analysis of the world of the 1940s, in which he wrote it. Yet it remains stunning as prophecy. Orwell correctly predicted the power of groupthink in a way recognizable on the average university campus today. He foresaw the way technology would be harnessed by totalitarian regimes to control the masses — witness China’s use of digital technology for mass repression of Uyghurs and many others.
Orwell saw long before others the greyness of modernity, the division of the world into a handful of competing blocs, the way the intelligentsia would so willingly worship power. And Orwell recognized how loss of belief in absolute good and evil leads to totalitarianism. Reading Orwell today is as necessary as ever.
Orwell was a strangely hopeful man who couldn’t, ultimately, give a reason for the hope that was in him. This explains the strange tension between the deep pessimism of “Animal Farm” and “1984” and the life-affirming spirit of much else of his writing and of his life. Unlike a great deal of 20th-century writing, Orwell’s work gives the impression of someone who actually enjoyed being alive.
Orwell was a profoundly contradictory man. He attended the elite Eton College and slept rough with tramps. He fought fascism and communism. He was a fierce opponent of the British Empire and a proud British patriot. And he combined an avowed atheism with significant connections to Christianity, specifically within the Anglican tradition.
Orwell was a kind of flying buttress to Anglicanism. He rejected Christian faith, yet sometimes leaned into it, especially at the very end of his life. He could not be described as “an Anglican writer.” Yet in key ways, Orwell’s thought was molded by Anglicanism, supports Anglicanism, and is a rich resource for Anglicans today.
The Rev. David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, and vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England.