The Church as it might have been

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written “A history of Christianity: The First 3000 Years.” William Whyte of the Church Times interviewed him about it, and talked about questions of unity and uniformity.


The book is a companion to an upcoming BBC4 series “A History of Christianity.”

Thinking Anglicans has links to reviews including one by Rowan Williams.

Whyte describes his encounter with MacCulloch:

Indeed, that dominating and divisive figure St Augustine, the single most

impor­t­ant theologian the West has ever produced, is deliberately introduced very late — some 300 pages in — “to emphasise how unimportant he is to most of the Church”.

For the Orthodox, he is irrele­vant. For the Eastern Churches, he is simply unknown. It is just a single example — one of many — but nevertheless a significant one. It highlights the effect of taking a truly worldwide perspective: a view that makes many of the preoccupations of the Western Church seem provincial — even parochial.

That, in a way, is the key message of this book. Rather than revealing a clear, unified, and coherent Chris­tianity, this is an account of the many different Churches and creeds that the Christian faith inspired. Professor MacCulloch’s account of Christianity shows it as a debate from the beginning: a constant argument between Greek thought and Jewish ideas, between hierarchy and equality, order and inspiration. Indeed, for him, “the history of Christianity is a history of division.”

This is not, however, a problem for Professor MacCulloch — much less something to be mourned. He rejects what he calls a “neurotic obsession with unity” in favour of a celebration of diversity: a history that reveals the ways in which the Church has changed and accommo­dated itself to historical circum­stance.

Small wonder, then, that Profes­sor MacCulloch is so dismissive of those who have tried to enforce unity, and especially doctrinal uni­formity. “Confessional purity”, he argues, “is always a chimera.” Take, for example, the Council of Chal­cedon — the critical meeting of 451 which defined the two natures of Christ. This was, he argues, “a catastrophe, a disaster”. As

he points out, fully two-thirds of the Church refused to sign up to it, and the ensuing battles ensured that the unity it was in­tended to enforce was never — and could never be — achieved.

IT IS for that reason, too, that he is so keen to celebrate the Church of England — at least as it evolved from the 18th century onwards. “Born of an almost risible historical accident”, Anglicanism can never claim to be a confessional Church: it is a compromise between different theological positions.

Nor is it a centralised Church, capable of enforcing dogma or dis­cipline:there has always been room within it for the independent- or simply bloody-minded, people such as his father, “a man with a high view of episcopacy, but a low view of bishops”.

In that sense, for Professor Mac­Culloch, the Church of England is a picture of the “Church as it might have been” — de-centred, decent, and dispassionate: able to deal with division; able to stand back and reflect on the complexities of faith; able, too, to laugh at them. That is why Robert Runcie remains his hero, and why he is pictured in the book, umpiring a cricket match at the Lambeth Conference of 1988. Perhaps prophetically, the teams are Australia versus the rest of the world.

Read the rest here.

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2 Comments
  1. What a wonderful review of what seems to be a great book. I read MacCulloch’s The Reformation and thought it was excellent. It was a tome, coming in at just under 700 pages, excluding index. Now this work at 1200 pages! Wow! That means settling in for a long read and no reading lying down, but I’ll do it.

    MacCulloch’s writing, while scholarly, moved right along and did not read like a textbook.

    June Butler

  2. Bill Ghrist

    Well, you could wait until February for the U.S. edition: Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Amazon). It is a mere 1184 pages. I suppose in a book this big just changing colour to color, favour to favor, etc., might save that many pages. :-) The publisher also doesn’t seem to think we Yanks will buy a book titled “A History of…”

    Seriously, though, this looks like an extremely valuable book. I find it rather interesting, given MacCulloch’s views on uniformity, that the book also gets a rather glowing review from ABC Williams.

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