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Book review: The English Soul: The faith of a nation by Peter Ackroyd

19 April 2024

But whether its soul can be described, Richard Chartres is not so sure

PETER ACKROYD, in a series of biographical sketches that extend over 14 centuries, describes the spirit and nature of English Christianity. The series runs from the Venerable Bede to the 20th-century academic and priest Don Cupitt.

The accent is on England; so there is no discussion of Celtic traditions or of the many faiths that in modern times have found a home in our part of the British Isles.

Appropriately enough the first essay is on Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Then, we jump to Julian of Norwich and the English mystics of the 14th century, notably Richard Rolle, who makes an appearance at the end of the book as a significant influence on the thought of Cupitt, the Cambridge theologian.

Throughout the book, there is an attempt to characterise the “English soul” as marked by a spiritual pragmatism “that may be described as the via media of English piety, with a sanity and discretion that instinctively avoid obsession or excess”.

Other pictures in Ackroyd’s gallery suggest that this has not always been the case. In the 16th and 17th centuries, English men of religion became obstinately metaphysical. The picture given of the Reformation conforms largely to the traditional account offered by A. G. Dickens, whose work is listed in the rather dated book list.

On such a vast canvas, it is inevitable that the selection of subjects omits many notable figures. I particularly missed any mention of Thomas Traherne from the 17th-century vignettes.

Ackroyd himself admits that “in an account of religious faith, the common ground — that which is traditional, that which is familiar — can be neglected in favour of less orthodox but more diverting paths.” His own preferences clearly lie in this territory.

Someone who clearly eschewed the “sanity and discretion” said to be typical of English spirituality was Abiezer Coppe, who, in 1649, is pictured preaching at length in St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, “so blasphemously” that he was forced into hiding.

One very striking thing to contemporary eyes is the silencing of women’s voices after the golden age of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. John Bunyan, for example, opposed the idea that women could meet without men to pray or worship together. “The Holy Ghost”, he wrote, “doth particularly insist on the inability of women.”

The book includes a sketch of the Salvation Army pioneer Catherine Booth in the chapter on “Religion as Battle” and mention of the remarkable life of Annie Besant in the section on “Atheism as Religion”. Overall, however, too little attention is paid to the part played by women in communicating the faith and reviving the contemplative tradition in more recent times.

Most of the biographical sketches are charitable, although Ackroyd’s assertion that the Established Church in the 19th century was characterised by “its weakness and even its irrelevance” is a rather cavalier judgement on the Church’s recovery of nerve after the long 18th century.

Some of the best pieces in the book paint a sympathetic and well-researched account of both Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement.

Alexander Boddy was appointed by the Bishop of Durham to All Saints’, Monkwearmouth, very close to Bede’s birthplace. After hearing of the Welsh Revival and the gift of tongues in gatherings in Norway and Denmark, he himself experienced “the power of God that overwhelmed me and caused me to sink helplessly to the floor”.

It is true that Pentecostalism has already transformed the religious sociology of South America and is advancing on other continents. Ackroyd suggests that “the future of the English Church, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic or Nonconformist, might well be Pentecostal.”

The book concludes with a very brief sketch of the three most recent Archbishops of Canterbury and then with three more substantial studies of 20th-century theologians: John Robinson, John Hick, and Cupitt. A clear and sympathetic exposition of their views leaves the reader wondering whether it is, in fact, possible to identify any such thing as the “English soul”.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.


The English Soul: The faith of a nation
Peter Ackroyd
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