Page 16, 13th August 2010

13th August 2010
Page 16
Page 16, 13th August 2010 — A very English history of Christianity

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A very English history of Christianity

Not Angels But Anglicans


The chapters assembled here first ran as weekly essays in the Church Times during 1999 and 2000. They represent a pithy, well-informed survey of the history of English Christianity from Roman times down to the present day. The “British Isles” of the subtitle, “The Story of Christianity in the British Isles”, is misleading. Wales and Ireland receive a few mentions; Scotland warrants exactly three entries in the index. This is a very English book and since some of the best recent scholarship has been devoted to anatomising British Christianity in the round this is rather regrettable. That said, the cast of contributors is unfeasibly strong (Gillian Evans, Patrick Collinson, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and many other luminaries) and the quality of the writing is impressive.

Given that each chapter is very short this is broad-brushstroke history, but of a superior quality.

There isn’t a bad piece in the bunch but my highlights included David Rollason’s account of the seventh-century controversy over the dating of Easter (Synod of Whitby and all that), Giles Gasper’s mythbusting chapter on the religious consequences of the switch from Saxon to Norman rule and Judith Maltby’s innovative take on the pivotal role of the 1640s and 1650s in shaping Anglican identity.

The book claims to be a revised and updated version and there is indeed a new chapter by Paul Handley on the 2000s and the Rowan Williams era. It would have been nice, however, if the bibliography had been extended to include important works published over the past decade. The book serves as an excellent starting point for anyone interested in studying England’s long and turbulent religious past so a more current digest of suggested reading would have been a boon. Criticisms aside, any reader who spends a few hours with this book (and three will easily get you from cover to cover) will learn a great deal.

All of the major English figures, movements and developments are covered and the section on the Reformation and post-Reformation period is particularly impressive.

The book is handsomely illustrated throughout and, as well as ticking the obvious boxes, there are several unexpected and welcome digres sions into more specialised subjects: the pieces by Richard Watson, Ian Bradley and Glyn Paflin on English religious music are a treat.

The cover price edges towards the exorbitant but it’s not often that one encounters so many experts cramming their learning into so few pages. All told, the book is probably worth a pony. Given all the chronologies, concise summaries and pretty pictures it deserves a place on your shelf.

Jonathan Wright

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