THIS book is a comprehensive reminder that there has been an English Church for many more centuries than there has been a Church of England. That is greatly in its favour.
The careful setting in the changing political, social, and cultural context is also extremely welcome. It allows the author to set in their changing places not only the Roman Catholic Church in England, but also the churches that came into being from the 16th century among Christians whose consciences kept them out of the Church of England once it was Established: the Independents, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists. The complexities of the relationship of the Church in England and the Church of England with Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are less fully explored, but their presence is felt.
This is an enormous subject, and it fills a big book. The story told begins with the arrival of Christianity in Roman Britain. It introduces what may be the first use of the word “English” in a quotation from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written centuries later, after Augustine of Canterbury had brought back Roman Christianity to join the Celtic Christianity which had arrived from Ireland.
The tale continues chronologically from chapters on all this “conversion” to sections on the high Middle Ages. There is a helpful patch of topical treatment of the development of a quadrilateral of areas of church influence. Explorations of monasticism; the diocese and the cathedral; the parish and the clergy are followed by a look at the newly invented universities, where the study of Christian theology was to become the “queen” of the subjects for higher degrees. Plagues came and went. Lollardy and threats of popular revolt found their place.
The domestic realities of a Christianity challenging every individual through the application of the sacraments to each personal life are brought to often vivid life. The centrality of Christianity in English life was accepted without question by a series of monarchs whose own powers depended on it.
Part IV tackles the break with Rome and the internal problems that ensued for an England whose theologians and people were to form quarrelsome parties for generations. This section ambitiously and successfully makes one story of the serial attempts to make Protestantism stick and create the Church of England. During the reigns of the Tudor monarchs, England returned briefly to Rome in Mary’s reign while Protestant refugees to continental Europe extended their knowledge of the Reformation taking shape there.
This part of the story is carried onwards through the Elizabethan Settlement and the conflict with Puritan extremism to Civil War and the execution of Charles I. The Restoration was far from restoring the Church of England at a blow. Another settlement was needed. Another, but “Glorious”, revolution followed in 1688, when Parliament deposed the Roman Catholic James II and replaced him with the Protestant William and Mary. The non-jurors who would not take the oath of allegiance to the King faced civil penalties for their civil disobedience.
The next main sections bring the Hanoverians illuminatingly together as an 18th-century “enlightenment” gave way to the Victorians. In the 19th century, there was the gradual removal of the civil “disabilities” of non-Anglicans at home, a British Empire, the first Lambeth Conferences, and the creation of the Anglican Communion.
The final section, “A nation slips its moorings”, is the most original, and the reader may like to begin with it before beginning to read the story that the book tells. Here, the author traces the process of changing expectation during which the 20th century abandoned the assumption that every child would be taught the basics of the Christian faith at school in a subject often simply called “Scripture”.
Schools moved to religious studies and coverage of the main world faiths to meet the needs of a growing immigrant population whose children came to school holding other faiths and from a worldwide variety of cultures. The promotion of equality and diversity became key virtues. Regular attendance in Christian worship dropped away.
The physical presence of the Church of England remained ubiquitous through church buildings, but the cost of the maintenance of church buildings became a growing challenge. “The end of Christendom?” Chapter 22 asks.
The whole makes a superb guidebook to nearly two millennia of the Church in an England that has certainly changed. Adroit use of quotations helps to illustrate how. The book ends with a chapter setting out a series of suggested — perhaps enduring — characteristics of English Christianity. There is a chronology, and there are suggestions for further reading.
Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.
And Did Those Feet: The story and character of the English Church AD 200-2020
Sacristy Press £40
Church Times Bookshop £36