Keene’s Review: A People’s Church

A People’s Church

A History of the Church of England 

Jeremy Morris

Profile Books, 2022 (ISBN: 978-1-78125-249-9, 464pp)

Writing a synoptic history of the church in one’s own nation is a crowning achievement in the career of any ecclesiastical historian. Morris’ offering of this ‘very tall order’ does not disappoint. 

Gerald Bray began his recent history of British and Irish Christianity with a vignette on much-contested Londonderry and Cecil Alexander’s Green Hill Far Away. Diarmaid McCullough in his history of Christianity started by taking the reader to Easter Compton and Samuel Crossman’s song of Love Unknown. Morris likewise has a ‘touristic’ opening, this time at Chaldon in the North Downs and its magnificent doom painting. The point is to emphasise the need both for sympathetic appreciation of the mindset of past society and also for attention to the religious experience and beliefs of those living remote from the centres of power. 

This latter priority illuminates the title – this is a history which attempts to give a ‘social history’ of the English church, not just a recitation of ‘great men’ and magisterial power politics in Westminster. Some reference to major figures and the leading lights of reform movements is inevitable but is held within the context of a national perspective. The narrative restricts itself to post-Reformation and domestic history in order to remain somewhat under control. 

Morris admits to being a ‘renegade Anglo-Catholic’, but this does not generally prevent quite fair judgements and analysis. There are inevitable shortcomings – such as describing evangelicalism primarily pathologically rather than theologically – but these do not overshadow the largely even-handed account. 

By contrast in fact, contrary to the hostility which many professed Anglo-Catholic writers might display, Morris is at turns enthusiastic about the reformed character of the English church, celebrating the ‘richness of [its] mental universe’; ‘intense, dynamic, and broad-based’. Simultaneously, ritualistic churchmanship is castigated as ‘not doctrinally creative’ and its anti-Reformation impulse thoroughly exposed. As for the contemporary warfare over gender and sexuality issues, Morris states that there are ‘sincere, intelligent Anglicans on both sides of that line’, though does regrettably imply in other telling comments that his sympathies lie with moral revisionism. Meanwhile consideration of less theologically charged contextual developments, such as church land interests, are immensely illuminating.  

Readers looking for a meaty yet enjoyable hardback tome to take to the beach this summer should do well to pick up a copy of this book.

Edward Keene, Old Stevenage