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Shepherds, Sheep, Hirelings and Wolves by Tim Williams

18 February 2022

An anthology of English Christianity is too bleak for Michael Wheeler

TIM WILLIAMS was formerly deputy head at Bedales and then a psychotherapist. In his spare time, he spent many happy hours exploring English churches and the “wonderful heritage to be found in them” with his wife.

Inspired by these “precious places” and encouraged by Richard Holloway, he has produced an anthology of “Christian currents” which covers 1500 years, from the “rugged, pioneering times” (St Patrick, Gildas the Wise, Bede, Alcuin, et al.) through Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to the awkward positions adopted by Philip Larkin, Alan Bennett, and others who have recognised the beauty of the English country church and the Book of Common Prayer, but as outsiders rather than believers. In a puff cited on the cover, Sir Simon Jenkins comments that this anthology is “a perfect complement for the ‘built word’ of church architecture”.

Williams is particularly interested in the habits of Anglican clergy, ranging from Chaucer’s excellent Parson to Austen’s earnest Edmund Bertram, via a host of also-rans in the preaching stakes. In 1301, for example, Bishop Stapledon of Exeter was sent a sidesman’s report from Colyton: “They say that sir Robert Blond, their Vicar, is an honest man and preaches to them as best he can, but not well enough in their opinion.” Three centuries later, George Herbert comments that “The Country Parson is a Lover of Old Customs, if they be good and harmless; and the rather, because Country people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them.”

Country churches and Thomas Gray’s country churchyard figure prominently in an anthology that views the Church of England as a relic of bygone ages.

Plenty of the “Christian currents” in the collection are chilly ones. Thomas Babington Macaulay writes bleakly on country gentlemen’s “love of the Church” in his History of England: “But the experience of many ages proves that men may be ready to fight to the death, and to persecute without pity, for a religion whose creed they do not understand, and whose precepts they habitually disobey.” Voltaire comments that “No person can possess an employment either in England or Ireland, unless he be rank’d among the faithful, that is, professes himself a member of the Church of England.”

Blake’s “The Garden of Love” includes those haunting “Priests in black gowns” who were “walking their rounds And binding with briars my joys & desires”. And other dissenting voices include that of Joseph Arch, a “village-Hampden” who became a Primitive Methodist preacher and ended up the first president of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. He always remembered the sight of poor agricultural workers kneeling in their smocks at the communion rail alone: “it was as if they were unclean.”

Being handsomely presented in a large format, with wide margins and a nice ribbon to mark the place, Williams’s anthology looks almost monumental. Yet the hungry sheep might not find much spiritual nourishment here. Better to return to the more modestly presented but infinitely more rewarding anthology prepared by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams for the new millennium. Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican quest for holiness was offered as “a handbook for faithful living”, exploring a “unifying tradition of spirituality” which started with the establishment of the Church of England and which lives on today, responding to the “questions of modern society”.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and author of
The Athenaeum: “More than just another London club” (Yale, 2020).


Shepherds, Sheep, Hirelings and Wolves: An anthology of Christian currents in English life since AD 550
Tim Williams
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