Shepherds, Sheep, Hirelings and Wolves: An Anthology of Christian Currents in English Life Since AD 550 by Tim Williams, reviewed by Septimus Waugh
This book is a wonderful serendipitous collection of the writings of contemporaries about the Church in England from AD 550 till the present day. In the introduction to this selection, Tim Williams describes it as intermingling “the everyday tempo of people’s lives with the periods of upheaval as they broke over them… Analysis of all such issues and arguments belongs to a different undertaking. What is presented here is, as far as possible, the evidence of first-hand witnesses speaking in their own unmediated voices.”
Thus there are many gems to be found. Among them The Venerable Bede’s analogy of life to the brief flight of a sparrow through a brightly lit banqueting hall from the unknown and into the unknown, and Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus in 601, when Mellitus was embarking on a mission to England, saying that after “giving careful thought to the affairs of the English… (I) …have come to the conclusion that the temples and idols among the people should on no account be destroyed but the temples themselves should be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them and relics deposited there.” A humane and gentle form of evangelism which would not be alien to our present pope.
The book describes very well in the words of contemporary witnesses the progression of the Church in England through the destruction of the monasteries and the acquisition of church estate by the country gentry, the iconoclasm, the evolution of the tithe and its gradual extinction in the 19th century, and the development of nonconformism and Anglo-Catholicism leading to a laicisation of Anglican sensibility. So there is a strange memoir of an iconoclast boasting about how many holy images he has managed to destroy, and complaining of the prevarication of the church wardens that saved the font in the church in Huffington. There are stories also of charitable negotiations over the payment of the tithe, and greedy grasping parsons insisting on their due, using the weapon of excommunication to get their way.
There is the nationalisation of religion very well described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “English Traits” 1856: “The religion of England is part of good breeding. When you see on the Continent the well dressed Englishman come into his ambassador’s chapel and put his face for silent prayer into his smooth brushed hat, you cannot help feeling how much national pride prays with him… So far is he from attaching meaning to the words that he believes himself to have done almost the generous thing and that it is very condescending in him to pray to God.” And Betjeman’s wonderful satirical poem “In Westminster Abbey”:
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans Spare their women for Thy Sake And if that is not too easy We will pardon Thy Mistake But gracious Lord whate’er shall be Don’t let anyone bomb me.
Aside from these humorous excerpts, the book provides a vivid warts-and-all portrait of the nature of religious experience and custom in an established church. As the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church grow closer in an increasingly atheistic world, I regard this book as useful reading for us English Catholics, indeed, for any English-speaking Catholics to understand what has formed the mentality of the established church and its offshoots in England. The title expresses clearly the breadth of the portraiture included in this work: shepherds refer to the good pastors looking after their flocks with charitable care; the sheep to both poor and rich parishioners whose reminiscences through the ages abound; hirelings – pastors and gentry caught by their contemporaries, or self-confessed, in the act of milking the system be it through tithes or benefices. And there are wolves aplenty in the religious persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the many charms of the book is encountering works by names one knows little of like William of Malmesbury, and unknown works by names one knows very well; there are many contributions from 19th-century authors. The book is highly educational if one reads it from cover to cover, and very entertaining to dip into to pick out a selection of its gems.