Sunday, 29 January 2017

A Short History of the Church of England - Part 1

"A Layman's History of the Church of England" by G.R. Balleine is history told as story, told a lot from the point of view of a small fictional parish in England. Not all the history stands up to scrutiny today - Balleine's view of druids and their practices is very problematic, as shown by Ronald Hutton in recent years. But it is a lively narrative which still is engaging with the reader.

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.


"CHURCH History is dry stuff. No one but a fossil could take any interest in Canons of Cloveshoo or Constitutions of Clarendon or even in the Advertisements of Elizabeth. I would as soon sit down to study a work on Conic Sections." So scoffed my friend the Churchwarden. Yet he is a man who is fond of reading and keenly interested in his Church.

And there are many who would agree with him. This book is written with the hope of helping some of them to see that they are suffering from a most extraordinary delusion. The religious development of a great nation, and that nation our own, must be a subject of absorbing interest, if we can approach it from the right point of view.

How shall we approach it? Some Church Histories have been written from the standpoint of an Archbishop's Commissary. They deal with Kings and Councils and Conferences, with the business of Bishops and Archdeacons. They move in an atmosphere immensely remote from anything that the average Churchman ever comes in touch with.

But the present book deals with the Church as it is seen by the man in the pew, not by the man in the mitre. It keeps a typical English parish in the centre of the stage. It tries to trace the religion and worship of an ordinary village congregation through the different centuries. It aims at showing how the things with which every Churchman is familiar, gradually grew to be what they are today.

It does not ignore what Bishops and Kings were doing at headquarters, but it studies these matters, not through the debates of the Council Chamber, but through the results which followed in the actual life of the parishes.

It is hardly necessary to add that Durford and its daughter parish Monksland are purely imaginary places, and so their vicars, squires, and villagers have never lived in the flesh ; but they are typical of men and women who were very much alive in hundreds of actual villages, and every event placed in Durford did literally happen somewhere exactly as related. Even the Churchwardens' Accounts are authentic, though borrowed from other parishes.

On the other hand every name and date connected with the world outside our two fictitious villages is sober, scientific history, into which no touch of fancy has been allowed to stray.

If this little book helps one reader to feel the fascination of the story of how God's labourers have toiled through some sixteen centuries to plough this stubborn English soil, so that the seeds of Truth may get a chance to grow ; if it moves one reader to bestir himself and put his hand to the plough, the writer will be satisfied.


WE are going to study together the story of the Church of England. To do so let us fix our eyes on the on the Kentish village of Durford. True, there is no such place on the map, in Kent or any other county ; but we will take a typical village, and call it by that name ; and as we watch the changes which come to one little church and parish, we shall gain some idea of what is happening through the country as a whole ; for, until the nineteenth century crowded us into cities, the great majority of Englishmen have always lived in villages.

On a dark spring afternoon, somewhere between the year 29 and the year 33, the Son of God died on the Cross for the sins of the whole world, but Durford, three thousand miles away, knew nothing of that. It was only a group of wattled huts, fenced in with an earthen wall, buried in the depths of a great forest.

Its tall, yellow-haired inhabitants, Maelgwn, Anllech, and their kin, worshipped a hundred obscure deities, gods of the streams and hills and forests, and the memory of the cruel rites with which they tried to woo them, still lingers in the local superstitions. Even in the present year of grace the boldest of the village hoydens will not dare to cross the stepping-stones on Midsummer Day, because the Dur is held on that day to be craving for a victim ; but she does not know that her fear dates back to those old heathen times, when the white-robed Druid came to the village every Midsummer Day, and drowned a maiden as a sacrifice to the Spirit of the Brook. For the Celtic race even in those days was passionately religious, and Maelgwn and Anllech saw gods lurking in the simplest things around them.

If a spring gushed up in the forest, if the waters of a stream began to fail, if a tree grew larger than its fellows, if a boar defied the huntsmen, assuredly a god was there, a god who was calling for sacrifice, and the best of all sacrifices was a man. Human victims dangled from the branches of every sacred tree. Human flesh was mingled with the corn before it was sown. And, if the lesser gods required this, how much more did the great ones, Belenos, the sun-god, Badbaatha, the war-goddess, who tore the bodies of the slain, or Andrasta, the goddess of victory, who was worshipped by the impaling of women.

Every prisoner taken in war was always offered in sacrifice. When this supply failed, victims were drawn from the aged and the children and the women. Sometimes in an hour of great emergency the chief himself was sacrificed.

At certain seasons there were horrible orgies of religious cannibalism, when the villagers feasted on the flesh of the victims they had slain. Such was the religion of Durford as our story opens, a religion of darkness, a religion of terror, a religion of blood.

Ten years later (A.D.43) an event occurred which hanged the whole current of our country's life. An army of 50,000 men came marching up the rough track which led from Durford to the sea.

[Julius Caesar's raid ninety years before had left no permanent results.]

The Romans had arrived to make Britain a province of their world-wide empire. They brought with them peace and justice and civilization. Human sacrifice was now forbidden. Roads were made, bridges built, law courts established. Merchants, soldiers, and civil officials moved ever backward and forward, keeping the village in constant touch with the world across the sea. Maelgwn and Anllech began to wear togas and to talk bad Latin.

But the Gospel did not yet reach our distant island. The old Paganism became less cruel, but it retained its power. Some of the people added to it the worship of the gods of Rome. Altars to Mars and Jupiter and Neptune began to make their appearance. But another hundred and fifty years had to pass away before we find any trace of Christianity in Britain.

How did the True Faith come to Durford? No one can say. Was it that some legionary, who had learned the Truth in Italy, married one of our village girls and settled in the place ? Was the builder of that Roman villa, whose tessellated floor can still be seen in the vicarage garden, a well-to-do Christian from Gaul, who had fled here to escape the persecution which was raging in Lyons and Vienne?

Was it that some merchant travelled south with dusky British pearls, and there found the Pearl of Great Price?

In these and a hundred other ways Christianity began to filter into the country. The seed took root and sprang up secretly, we know not how. All that we do know is that, by the beginning of the third century, Christians in distant lands - Tertullian in Africa, for example (A.D. 208), and Origen in Asia (A.D. 239)-write of the Church in Britain as already in existence.

Many a village like Durford by this time had its little wattled church, and though large numbers of the people still remained pagan, and built the altars which we dig up sometimes dedicated " To the Old Gods," the more intelligent and open-minded were rapidly being won to the Faith.

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