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The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Europe by Grace Davie and Lucian N. Leustean, editors

24 June 2022

Alexander Faludy looks at wide-ranging essays in a new handbook

ATTEMPTING an overview of religion’s significance in the fashioning of Europe is a Herculean task. So far as it is humanly achievable, however, Grace Davie and Lucian Leustean, together with their army of contributors, have succeeded mightily.

Ranging chronologically from 1200 BCE to 2020, and spanning theology, law, history, and sociology, among other disciplines, the Handbook’s 800 pages and 45 essays present a challenge to summarise adequately. What follows is a selection of its most striking insights — together with some reflection on the project’s framing.

The Handbook is organised into five sections (between six and 13 essays each). These core segments are bracketed by the editors’ introduction and an appendix, “Religions in Europe: A statistical summary”, compiled by Gina Zurlo.

Section I, “Religion and the Making of Europe”, is essentially chronological, albeit that these chapters accentuate topics within distinct periods in preference to a simple narrative account.

Christoph Auffarth’s “Religion and Classical Europe Twelfth Century BCE-600 CE” argues provocatively that exchange between dominant ancient religions anticipated the unity associated with Christianity, and that the latter took over much more of this common inheritance than we like to think. Ryan Szpiech’s “Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Medieval Europe” destabilises perceptions of religious homogeneity, reminding us of, inter alia, the presence of significant peacefully settled Muslim populations, not only in Spain, but in Sicily and Hungary as well.

Section II, “Religion, Ideology, and Modernity in Europe”, contains challenging insights. Today, we look in horrified puzzlement on the willingness of most Christians in Germany to collaborate with the Third Reich. As Richard Stiegmann-Gall points out, however, in “Religion and Dictatorship in Europe”, this was, disturbingly, in many ways the natural outcome of Continental Christian discourses — since the mid-19th century.

A happier form of shared European inheritance appears in John Madley’s “Religion-State Relations in Europe”. Madley makes a convincing case for a common substratum of reasoning in apparently divergent national-legal approaches to engagement with faith communities.

Section III, “Religious Dialogue, Public Policy, and International Institutions in Europe”, contains some awkward repetition between essays and, indeed, extraneous material. But important insights are also offered here

François Foret’s “Religion and the European External Action Service” highlights how far ahead the EU’s own diplomatic corps often is of member states concerning freedom of religion and belief. Frank Turner SJ’s “The Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE)” articulates intriguing tensions arising in the organisation, on account of conflicts both between national bishops’ conferences, and of the latter with COMECE itself — reflecting, perhaps, Christianity’s perpetual dialectic between the universal and the particular.

Norman Doe and Frank Cranmer’s “Religion and Law in the European Union” is an important Anglican contribution to the European project.

Section IV, “Religious Diversity, World Religions, and the Idea of Europe”, contains some of the Handbook’s most interesting material. Aside from chapters on Protestantism and Catholicism (discussed below), those on Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism remind us of how “Europe” is (too) often unthinkingly conceptualised as the space occupied by Latin/Western Christianity, defined against a constructed “other”.

Attention to the enduring strength of religion in historically Orthodox countries — and to the vitality of European Islam — challenges simplistic talk of the secularisation of Europe. Josh Bullock and Stephen Bullivant’s “Non-Religion and Europe” attempts to give the census declaration of no religion “positive” content — and certainly make it clear that, for many people, it is not simply an empty space where theism used to be.

Section V, “Religious Geography and Politics in Europe”, takes a regional approach. Some countries get discrete chapters, while others with thickly intermeshed histories are dealt with in pairs or by neighbourhood. To the Handbook’s credit, the effect of the latter is much more to place local contrasts in the foreground than to homogenise. The distinctiveness of Estonia and the Netherlands within the Baltic states and the Low Countries respectively come through admirably.

It is hard to fault this volume, given its rigour, range, and clarity — although a concluding chapter that reflected on cross-currents and how some contributions implicitly questioned others might have been advantageous.

One theme meriting reflection concerns posited, contrasting (cultural) “Catholic” and “Protestant” responses to European integration. This is especially relevant, given the many references throughout the volume to David Martin’s dictum “Europe is a unity by virtue of having possessed one Caesar and one God i.e. by virtue of Rome. It is a diversity by virtue of the existence of nations.”

Brent Nelson’s and James Guth’s “Protestantism and Europe” vigorously asserts the confluence of Protestantism and nation-statehood, claiming that “Protestants never caught the vision of a united Europe inspiring Robert Schuman’s and Jean Monnet’s project.” This contention appears buttressed by Inger Furseth’s observations on Euro-hesitancy in Lutheran states in Nordic Europe. It is complemented by observations on (Catholic-inspired) Christian Democracy’s part in forging the EU in Kees van Kersbergen’s “Christian Democracy and Europe”.

Nelson and Guth, overlook, however, the now substantial literature on early modern “international Calvinism”. Further, and conversely, Blandine Chelini-Pont’s “France” points out that the country’s robustly Catholic areas consistently reject stronger EU integration in referendums.

Árpád von Klimó’s “Central Europe” also reminds us that, in the 19th century, “Catholics increasingly engaged in nationalist discourses,” thereby often (over-)compensating in “defending themselves from accusations of being loyal to an international church headed by the Pope”. Does the “Catholic v. Protestant” model need discarding or revising? Future scholars will decide.

The Handbook’s price tag places it beyond the reach of most private purchasers. Undoubtedly, though, it belongs on the shelves of theological colleges and diocesan libraries. It will be foundational for the work of researchers in diverse fields for decades to come.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Europe
Grace Davie and Lucian N. Leustean, editors
OUP £110
Church House Bookshop £99

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