The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland
From the First Century to the Twenty-First
By Gerald Bray
Apollos Press, pp. xx + 693, $83.99
Review by Zachary Guiliano
Gerald Bray’s work sets out with a laudable ambition: to bring together in a single volume nearly 2,000 years of development in the life of the churches of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It is, as he says, “a daunting task,” one that few historians would dare to attempt (p. xi).
The vast material and the relatively small page count mean he must charge through the years at a brisk pace. His selections are significant. Only a quarter of the volume is dedicated to the period before the accession of the Tudors (1485), which puts the emphasis squarely on the modern period and the Church of England. The remaining three-quarters of the book are evenly divided between 1485 to 1717 and then 1717 to today, though the account of modernity shifts significantly in the final chapters.
Reformed readers may find Bray’s section on the 16th and 17th centuries the most helpful and substantive — not surprising given his history of work and publication (the latter of which includes his editions published in the past decade). At the same time, Roman Catholics, the “Catholic leaning,” and members of churches descended from the Dissenting traditions in England will not feel well-served.
Anglican readers have a particular interest in seeing the continuity and developments of church life over time in Britain and Ireland, as well as a need to narrate that history easily. As a result, while we value specialist studies, I suspect many of us secretly desire a single-volume history. Few of us will feel comfortable commending numerous articles and multi-volume treatments of British and Irish history to all those we are teaching, catechizing, or walking alongside in parish, university, college, or school. Our groaning shelves and bare wallets call out for some relief.
At the moment, where else shall we turn? A few may rely on John Moorman’s History of the Church in England, first published in 1968. Alternatively, for the absolute newcomer, I have sometimes recommended the multi-author volume Not Angels, but Anglicans: A History of Christianity in the British Isles, despite its limitations. Edited by Henry Chadwick and Allison Ward, its breezy, more journalistic style made it popular with readers, as did its roll call of scholarly luminaries, but the quality of treatment was uneven and left much to be desired. No doubt many of us simply read the Anglican sections of broader church histories.
Bray’s volume, unfortunately, is unlikely to prove an enduring and popular substitute for these works, at least among most Anglicans. I suspect it will be warmly received by many of those whom Bray served at Beeson Divinity School or with whom he has links through GAFCON: conservative evangelicals, especially those going through required survey courses in church history. Three issues are particularly relevant to this issue of reception: the omissions in the narrative, the unabashedly confessional perspective, and the concluding chapters, with their bitterness about modern developments.
As Bray notes, recent research advances in British and Irish history have been truly astonishing. This has led to revisions and expansions in our understanding of the Church’s foundation, its development through the Middle Ages, the character of early modern religious change, and the surprisingly varied shifts that have taken place throughout modernity. Bray’s volume does reflect some of that richness. And, admittedly, we can hardly expect a scholar to take account of every shift in opinion or newly discovered treasure.
But we might hope that old caricatures were avoided, and the wealth of newly discovered, edited, or translated sources drawn out, in line with the development of historical writing in the past half-century. I felt the early chapters in particular missed many opportunities to engage with the advance of the study of Britain and Ireland before the Norman Conquest.
To take only a few examples: the real and significant Pelagius receives as much attention as the legendary King Arthur, yet very little of the new research on Pelagius sees the light of day; little emerges from the vast work done on Bede or Ælfric or Wulfstan, to take only the well-known figures. The same is true of the great advances in the study of Anglo-Saxon buildings, manuscripts, artwork, and much else. The same might be said about the study of late medieval Catholicism or of High Church or Catholic Anglicanism from the 18th century onward. There are just too many things missing.
The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is fellow and chaplain of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford.