The Treasures of English Churches: Witnesses to the History of a Nation, by Matthew Byrne
Shire Publications, £20, 160 pages
And Did Those Feet: The Story and Character of the English Church AD 200-2020, by Patrick Whitworth
Sacristy Press, £40, 662 pages
The Archbishop of Canterbury and every single Anglican vicar and Catholic priest in the country should read The Treasures of English Churches. Justin Welby has idiotically suggested that monuments should be removed from Anglican churches if they have unsavoury connections. A quick glance at this marvellous book will show how silly he is.
Our churches, their monuments, pews and gravestones are the best primary source of history in this country. Together, they constitute our greatest national storehouse of beauty and architectural history. Yes, they necessarily record some horrible people – but history is full of horrible people. Should they be airbrushed from our churches – or kept as cautionary tales? Only an idiot would want to get rid of them.
What extraordinary things Matthew Byrne has captured. Churches by their very nature produce monuments that can be found nowhere else. Take the elaborate 1630 horse-box pews at Rycote, Oxfordshire: one topped by an onion-domed tent in timber; another wrapped in mini-Doric columns with slightly dodgy entablatures.
Or what about the baroque 1682 pulpit at Christopher Wren’s St James Garlickhythe in the City, dripping with garlands, presided over by plump-cheeked putti? Even the pragmatic becomes handsome and interesting in time – look at the 19th-century, glass-sided, hand-pulled hearse at Evesham, Worcestershire.
For over 1,500 years, craftsmen, in serving God, have produced beauty. How I long to visit the Bewcastle Cross of c.700-750 in the Cumbrian borders. Its east face – with a single, great vine-scroll, thick with birds and beasts – is of surpassing skill.
As church art develops, it becomes less devoted to God and more to man – like Rysbrack’s sublime 1722 monument to the 1st Earl of Harborough at Stapleford, Leicestershire. The earl is ludicrously – but wonderfully – depicted in full Roman costume. There are few better ways to examine 18th-century, aristocratic, Anglo-Saxon attitudes.
And Did Those Feet: The Story and Character of the English Church AD 200-2020 is an altogether drier book. It does exactly what it promises to do – tell the full story of the English Church. But it does so in a very matter-of-fact way, like a high-quality exercise book. If The Treasures of English Churches should be given to all priests in the country, this one should be given to all schoolchildren, now taught very little about Christianity. Yes, oldsters know the story of Pope Gregory meeting the Angles in Rome’s slave market – “Not Angles, but angels.” I bet you 90 per cent of British schoolchildren don’t know it.
Because the book covers so much ground in a rather flat style, it can have the feel of 1066 and All That in lines such as “Augustine was not an especially charismatic or imaginative character. He little resembled his more famous namesake, Augustine of Hippo.” But Patrick Whitworth’s judgment – he has been an Anglican vicar for 40 years and is an expert in the early Church – is impeccable. And, because he avoids contentious views in this objective book, there were no infuriating opinions lurking around. Whitworth is thorough in telling the extraordinary story of the early spreading of Christ’s influence all the way to Britain. He goes right back to Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Britain, in 55 and 54 BC.
As Caesar wrote, druids were then in charge of British religion: “They have control over public and private sacrifices.” Those sacrifices involved putting people and animals into giant wicker frames, in the shape of humans, to be burnt and killed. With that sort of brutality, how comforting that the kindness of Christianity eventually prevailed. But it took a long time. The first surviving flickerings of Roman Christianity make it to Britain in the fourth century, in the form of a stone at Vindolanda, a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall. This holy, astonishingly important stone, used as a table for sacraments, is inscribed with both an engraved cross and the Chi-Rho symbol, the first two letters of Christ in the Greek alphabet.
From this little acorn, the great oak of Christianity grew in Britain – ever so slowly. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England to lead his mission. By 598 AD, Gregory wrote: “More than 10,000 Englishmen are reported to have been baptised by our brother and fellow-bishop.”
Christianity then moves forward in fits and starts. The King of Kent was baptised before his death in 616. Paulinus, a member of Gregory’s mission, was responsible for a great flourishing of the Northumbrian Church. Bede gave the early eighth-century English Church its intellectual foundations. As Whitworth writes, Bede rarely moved in later life from the scriptoria and library at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. But he had brought back the jewels of Christian thought from his travels to Rome, including the works of the Latin Fathers and a complete Bible from Vivarium, southern Italy.
Scholarship and power were combined in Alfred the Great. As Asser wrote in his Life of King Alfred: “I stretched out my palms to the heavens and gave mighty (albeit silent) thanks to Almighty God, who had sown such great enthusiasm for the pursuit of learning in the King’s heart.” Alfred assembled scholars to translate texts from the Church Fathers into English.
The Norman invasion only bolstered the connection between monarchy and Christianity. Henry II’s murder of Thomas Becket – so brilliantly chronicled in the new show at the British Museum – may have shown that a monarch could destroy England’s leading Christian but it also showed how powerful Christianity had got that it could threaten a king.
This is all, of course, Catholic Christianity in Britain at this stage. Whitworth may be an Anglican priest but he shows no fear or favour in dealing with the Reformation. His study of Henry VIII is purely objective and intellectual. In writing about the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he digs deep into the Old Testament texts used for the scriptural debate at the time. The Anglican Church has lasted for 500 years but its story in recent centuries is less dramatic than the early days of Christianity in this country. Whitworth takes us ably through the expansion of the Anglican Church in the 18th and 19th centuries and its decline over the last century or so.
He writes neither in sorrow or anger about that decline: he is much more historical than sentimental. And, even in that decline, there were high points in the early 20th century: with new dioceses in Blackburn and Leicester in 1926 and in Derby, Guildford and Portsmouth in 1927. The hugely popular Nine Lessons and Carols Christmas Eve service at King’s College, Cambridge, began in 1918.
But it’s hard not to disagree with Whitworth’s conclusion that the growth of scientific understanding, the effect of two world wars and the 1960s revolution in popular culture has left the Church of England a fragment of what it once was. This is a book to engage the mind and cram it with facts – while Byrne’s The Treasures of English Churches will make your soul soar.
Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Penguin)
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.