The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland

The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland

From the first century to the twenty-first

Gerald Bray

Apollos, 2021 (ISBN: 978-1-78974-120-9, 693pp)

Throughout his long academic career Bray has ably straddled both doctrine and ecclesiastical history, so it is no surprise that the author of God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (2012) should now offer a comprehensive synoptic treatment of British church history. Without a doubt, this volume will rank as one of definitive importance not only within the author’s legacy, but among histories of Britain generally. 

The choice of setting is significant. The British Isles (which Bray very modishly describes as ‘the North Atlantic archipelago’) currently consist of five main political entities across four ‘nations’. The various twentieth century devolutions of political power from Westminster belie the complexity which always underlay the unitary and imperial British state. Bray unfolds the religious experience of each nation in both distinction and mutual tension; a feat not regularly attempted by a profession often more interested in individual national or regional accounts. Moreover, the British context is not only of local import, but of international. As the Protestant world looks back to understand its own genesis, though it may cast one eye at the northern Germanic lands, it cannot fail but to turn the other to these islands, from whence so many global denominations have sprung. 

To be successful, any work of this scope must stand atop a multitude of learned shoulders and seek to synthesise a plethora of histories. Bray achieves this with aplomb, drawing insight from Andrew Atherstone, Colin Buchanan, Owen Chadwick, Patrick Collinson, A.G. Dickens, Eamonn Duffy, Sarah Foot, William Gibson, Stephen Hampton, Bruce Hindmarsh, Jonathan Israel, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Judith Maltby, Henry Mayr-Harting, Maurice Powicke, Janina Ramirez, Nicholas Sagovsky, J.J. Scarisbrick, Peter Toon, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Carl Trueman, Nicholas Tyacke, and Nigel Yates. Bray is himself a careful archival scholar, having edited the records of convocation and written extensively on the development of church canons. This book capitalises on the best of the past two generations of such scholarship and formats it in a wonderfully accessible, pleasurably readable, and commendably faithful tome. 

Even in a book of this length, to survey two millennia of church history in a zone as exceptional as the British Isles, is demanding. Inevitably, many developments are addressed economically, though there are few which fail to receive at least a paragraph of treatment. Readers with specialist interest in particular eras may spot the glosses, but cannot fail but to be impressed by the careful and balanced manner in which they are handled.

Bray aspires to ‘help us understand who we are, where we have been, and where we may be going’. The book serves readers at many levels of attainment and interest in this regard. It may be hoped that, more than this, it may serve in the great aspiration Bray lays before us that ‘at any moment [the faith] may burst forth in glorious flame and sweep all before it’.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford