Book title: Reformation In Britain And Ireland
Author: Felicity Heal
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Church Times Bookshop £72
WITH the appearance of this book by Felicity Heal, along with Owen Chadwick’s The Early Reformation on the Continent
(2001), the Oxford History of the Christian Church has now reached the era of the 16th-century Reformation.
Heal’s book is a genuine history of the British Isles, including detailed discussion of Wales and Ireland, as well as England and Scotland. Felicity Heal co-chairs an ongoing seminar at Oxford University on religion in the British Isles 1400-1700, and is thus both a distinguished contributor to, and an expert witness on, the ongoing scholarly enterprise in this subject.
The book is extremely up-to-date. Its references are full: advanced students and researchers will find it an invaluable key to the literature on many difficult subjects.
Much historical writing about the Reformation in the past few decades, especially on England, has been vehemently partisan. Historians, especially at Cambridge, have talked up the late medieval Church and denounced the Reformation. Old-fashioned Catholic or Protestant polemic lingers even in academic books.
Felicity Heal is, in contrast, judicious and balanced. She sees the strengths and weaknesses on all sides, and avoids extreme positions or special pleading.
The flaws of this book derive from its scholarship and balance. Felicity Heal assumes a lot of knowledge in the reader. Technical terms and allusions to other historians’ ideas appear without warning or explanation. Latin tags are not always translated.
The structure presupposes knowledge of the bare bones of the story. It begins with a thematic survey of the old Church, discussing power structures, the clergy establishment, and beliefs in turn.
The coming of Reformation is re-told in two sections (II and IV), divided at c.1558: each section focuses chiefly on issues of politics, administration, money, and personnel. Doctrine and worship across the whole century are discussed in section III, before
the post-1558 political narrative.
Within these chapters Heal alternates between the various British kingdoms rapidly, and often without clear signposting: so the reader needs to pay attention.
Though there are some lively passages, particularly in the later chapters, this book is written so conscientiously that it can be a little daunting. Felicity Heal seems more comfortable with administrative and economic details than with the vibrant, life-changing experiences of belief.
She is so aware of exceptions to every rule, that she rejects big interpretative ideas. This book cannot be recommended to the beginner in the subject; but those bewildered by recent controversies will find in it a sane and balanced evaluation.
Dr Euan K. Cameron is Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at the Union Theological Seminary, in New York
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