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Kirchengeschichte: Neuzeit


Ward, William Reginald


Kirchengeschichte Großbritanniens vom 17. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert. Aus dem engl. Manuskript übers. von S. Westermann.


Leipzig: Evang. Verlagsanstalt 2000. 202 S. gr.8 = Kirchengeschichte in Einzeldarstellungen, III/7. Geb. DM 48,50. ISBN 3-374-01750-9.


Keith Robbins

Succinct but scholarly syntheses of British church history from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries are relatively rare. The reasons for this are not difficult to discover. Historians have been reluctant to produce manageable accounts of such a complex topic over a comparatively long period. Ward, however, in a retirement that has made him seemingly ever more productive, has tackled the task with characteristically fearless boldness. His extensive publications, with their focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Evangelicalism and Pietism in Britain and in mainland Europe, are no doubt well-known to many readers of this journal. They make him admirably equipped for this task. Although his account necessarily covers topics on which he would not claim quite the same degree of authority as he manifestly possesses in the above-mentioned areas, he nevertheless has been shrewd throughout in selecting appropriate material.

In his introduction, Ulrich Gäbler observes, however, that German readers may nevertheless be a little surprised by this volume as 'Church History' for a variety of reasons. No one need doubt Ward's understanding of the inner life of the churches but he also writes with the eye of a social historian keen to place ecclesiastical developments in their full social, political and cultural contexts. What is even more noticeable about this volume is the fact that his perspective is genuinely and ambitiously British. The full significance of this remark may not immediately be apparent to German readers of this review. What it means is that the author does not restrict himself to thinking that British church history is synonymous with English church history - as some (English) authors have been tempted to suppose. The present account therefore explicitly tackles England, Scotland, Wales and, to some extent, Ireland. That is still unusual even in books published in English. In adopting this perspective, Ward is not only displaying his own natural inclination, evident in other publications, to pursue ecclesiastical trends and developments 'transnationally' but also showing a keen awareness of what is sometimes called 'the new British history' and approach which emphasizes the distinctiveness of the countries which make up Great Britain/the British Isles while not denying the unity which to greater or lesser degree they all share.

And indeed there are good grounds for supposing that it is particularly in the study of church history that both diversity and unity, in uneasy tension, are conspicuously to be found. On the one hand, until the mid-nineteenth century - leaving aside Ireland - the church history that Ward describes is that of a 'Protestant' country and, as such, in European terms stood over against 'Catholic' countries in popular mythology and national self-definition. But that 'Protestantism' was never uniform either in terms of ecclesiology or theology. In itself that is not exceptional but what is distinctive, if not unique, is the extent to which doctrines and polities, in different parts of these islands, implicitly or explicitly or implicitly served to develop and maintain identities perceived as national. Nowhere was (and is) this blending more evident than in the English/Scottish relationship. In the nineteenth century, similarly, Protestant Nonconformity could be portrayed, more or less plausibly, as the embodiment of 'Welshness' and produce an agitation which culminated in the disestablishment, in the early twentieth century, of what was still then the Church of England in Wales. Other more detailed illustrations of these relationships could be given. Collectively, they reinforce the point that in a very important sense there is no such thing as 'British Church History' because there is no such thing as a British Church. The sensitivity Ward displays in this respect is exemplary. His awareness of similarities and differences pervades this book and may well open the eyes of German readers historically (and too easily) accustomed to thinking of the insular polity as 'England'.

Central though this emphasis is in the book, it exists alongside that keen awareness of constitutional and political contexts to which reference has already been made. The reader will therefore gain a keen appreciation of the relationship between 'Church and State' as it evolved from the late-seventeenth century onwards. In particular, we witness the erosion of the 'Confessional State', though opinions may differ as to when the 'old order' finally collapsed, if indeed, in relation to the Crown it yet has. So, what Professor Ward gives us is emphatically not 'Establishment' church history as perceived from an episcopal palace or indeed an Oxford College. He offers a rich perspective which emphasizes the sheer variety to be found in 'British religion' as it evolved across the centuries - arguably more complex and variegated than in any other European country. And that variety has been yet further increased by the steady reappearance of Roman Catholicism (but also, organizationally, not on an all-British basis) and the inevitable impact that has had on national self-images. The final chapter, on the twentieth century, however, makes it clear that Britain's church history is not simply the story of the ups and downs of some ecclesiastical groupings in relation to others, and therefore of relative 'triumphs' but rather of a situation in which all churches find themselves 'embattled' in the society in which they exist. This is not the kind of book which can offer a detailed explanation of 'secularization' (whatever that is taken to mean) but there are hints and comments which offer food for thought.

There is, therefore, a great deal to recommend in this volume for a German-reading audience. Ward has also provided useful suggestions for further reading and a helpful chronology which identifies important events and dates (and, speaking more generally, as Gäbler also observes, the significant dates in British history are rather different from those with which church historians of Germany are used to working). There appear to be some places in which the translation may not quite express the meaning of the author, though this reviewer cannot comment authoritatively on this point. There are also some wrong spellings and misattributions (e.g. the Commission for Radical Equality should be the Commission for Racial Equality) and this reviewer regrets that his own institution happens to have an incorrect spelling. However these blemishes have appeared, they do not detract from the fact that German readers should find this a stimulating and challenging introduction to modern British church history.