Aspects of history that still live today

Published December 1, 2000

AS THE first of these books says, “People who have lost their memory can be a problem to themselves and to those close to them. So, too, Christians do well to know where they have come from, and how they have got here.” Each of these books offers an authoritative but accessible read into aspects of our history that still affect us today. The large format and copious illustrations in both colour and black and white add to their attractiveness for the ordinary reader. They are pricey – but worth it as a gift or for yourself.

This is a history of Christianity in the British Isles – but for Canadians it is our history too, certainly at least to the beginning of the twentieth century. Our Anglican ethos today is very much the product of our past as it unfolds in this fascinating book. A millennium project, originally a series in the (English) Church Times newspaper, it draws on scholars for each era to produce a balanced and comprehensive story of Anglicanism from the second or third century to the twenty-first – including its most glorious and exasperating moments.

[pullquote] Alongside the main text, sidebars highlight people and events of special significance; each chapter also includes a useful chronology of major events. The chapter dealing with the church’s great transition from English to Anglican which happened mainly in the twentieth century, would make an excellent springboard into reading our own Canadian church history – if such a single-volume study existed.

Lambeth Palace in London, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, has been the home of archbishops of Canterbury for about 900 years. Today, it still serves that function in its public rooms and private apartments while the basement – once the workplace of myriad servants, now is the domain of the Archbishop’s personal support staff.

As someone who has occasionally visited this stately home, both upstairs and down, I appreciated this book from a tourist’s standpoint. It is, though, more about the people who occupied the palace, with the building itself serving to link them with the great events in English church history.

The role as England’s spiritual head, official job of archbishops of Canterbury, has been filled by scholars and buffoons, saints and calculating politicians, pastors and prelates. Now, along with their “home” duties, there is the leadership of the worldwide Anglican Communion. They served through evolution and revolutionary change in church and state; their lives and ministries are chronicled here, in this story of an ancient but still-living building.

In the west, the Crusades of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries – if thought of at all – are remembered as a colourful, chivalrous and romantic interlude in history with little lasting relevance. Not so in the Middle East, where Muslim folk-memory of the genocidal atrocities of the Crusades still feeds anti-western and anti-Christian attitudes today. The title of the book was the recruiting and rallying cry of successive campaigns to recapture Jerusalem and the holy places of Christianity and Judaism from the “infidels” of Islam. This book brings the Crusades to life: the background, the heroes and villains, the cruelty; naked ambition and spiritual self-sacrifice – and, above all, the contradictions.

Bill Portman is the book review editor for the Anglican Journal.


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