I AM not sure if the Venerable Bede would approve of this latter-day History of the English Church and People: I certainly do. Peter Stanford romps engagingly through the centuries in what he describes as an “ordering and assembling of Christian history as told by a selection of ‘crawled’ churches — and what surrounds them — so as to recount the story of faith over two millennia in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland”.
Appropriately, each of the two millennia takes half of the book.
Christianity is an incarnational faith, and this means, as I have consistently maintained, that God relates to his people not anywhere, but in particular places, and the latter are significant. This is well symbolised by our parish churches — signs, “sacraments in stone” — which have stood at the heart of their communities for centuries. As the author rightly observes, our churches’ “spires and towers continue to define the skyline of the British countryside to an extent unrivalled anywhere else in Western Europe”.
Simon Jenkins had enough trouble choosing 1000 of the 16,000 Anglican parish churches in England alone from this skyline: daringly, this author manages to whittle that down to 21 in the whole of the British Isles. They are selected not because of their particular architectural merit (though many have it in abundance), but because they illustrate well what was going on in Church and nation in successive centuries. The people associated with these buildings were prime movers in the religious affairs and controversies of the time. Using these and other places often mentioned (including Worcester Cathedral, in the lee of which I write this) as a starting point, the author produces a highly engaging history.
It is inevitable that those about whom we read were the “movers and shakers” of their time. The people I find most fascinating are the huge number of unnamed faithful — like those whose masons’ marks are still visible in Worcester Cathedral. We don’t know enough of their biographies, sadly, to see our history through the prism of their lives; so we have to rely on the great and the good. I cannot, though, resist giving them a mention here: I give heartfelt thanks for them.
The history of the nations of these islands has been determined by the relationship of their inhabitants to the Christian faith since the days of Bede, and, if the thesis of Tom Holland’s magisterial Dominion is to be believed, still is — very much more than many would recognise.
Whether this will remain the case is uncertain, but, in the mean time, I thoroughly recommend this book as an excellent and eminently readable overview of that history.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.
If These Stones Could Talk
Hodder & Stoughton £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
Listen to an interview with Peter Stanford on the Church Times Podcast