To write a single-volume history of the Church of England is a challenging undertaking, but in A People’s Church, Jeremy Morris succeeds magnificently in presenting an account which is at once insightful, scholarly, and eminently readable. The basic approach is chronological: after a prelude sketching the key features of the medieval church in England, twenty chapters move the story from the Tudor Reformation to the twenty-first century. With chapters kept at a consistent fifteen to twenty pages, the treatment of each period or topic is manageable and incisive, covering the salient themes. As well as notes at the end of the book, there are also suggestions for further reading for each chapter, so that the reader can pursue particular interests in greater depth. Three chapters depart from the strict chronological framework, offering an overview across the period of the ‘great churches’ – cathedrals, collegiate churches, and Oxbridge college chapels (chapter 8); the work of the parochial clergy and the evolution of clergy roles (chapter 11); and the complex history of Anglican church music (chapter 14). Dr Morris’ immersion in the scholarship enables him to provide a confident and assured synthesis of a mass of information and to present it to the reader with discernment and lucidity. Many myths are slain in this volume: for instance, that the Edwardian Reformation was an ultra-Protestant aberration in the history of the English Church; that the Victorian Church failed to reach working people; that the Church in the first World War was militaristic and out of touch. There are lots of deft and memorable characterisations – James I was ‘a meddler’, interfering in theological controversies like a latter-day Constantine (page 94); the reign of Charles II was ‘an unsteady balancing act’, caught between mutually contradictory approaches to the question of religious settlement (page 115); the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was ‘less a crisis than a shiver of anxiety’ (page 292). This description of the intention and impact of a medieval church interior reveals the author’s gift for the apt and insightful phrase: ‘The church building was heaven in miniature: to be in church was to enter into a space carrying the believer in spirit upwards to heaven, in contemplation of the saints in heaven, the angels, and Christ ruling on high.’ (page 62). For members and supporters of OHCT, this book will enhance and enrich our understanding of how our historic churches have developed. As he traces the gradual dismantling of the ’confessional State’, moreover, and the shift from legally-enforced religious uniformity to the toleration of nonconformity to the recognition of pluralism and diversity, Dr Morris sets out a vision for the Church of England as a church for the people – truly a People’s Church – which also chimes with OHCT’s purpose of helping our historic buildings to remain a resource and an inspiration for all.
A People’s Church. A History of the Church of England, Jeremy Morris
Profile Books (London), April 2022. xv + 464 pp. ISBN: 9781781252499. £30 hb/£12.99 pb