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  • Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church
  • Owen Chadwick
Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church. By Rowan Williams. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2005. Pp. 129. $15.00 paperback.)

The frontispiece is a 1740 haywain passing the ruins of an ancient abbey, a pleasing way of asserting that the Church has a history. This is not precisely a book on why study the past, but on how the Church needs to think and rethink its own history, and what it might get out of that endeavor; and how problems in its historical perception might, indeed must, keep arising in new generations and new circumstances; and what alarming difficulties come and what noble opportunities. This is not a plea that universities ought to have professors of church history. Critics and professors, though necessary to understanding, cause trouble. They live in a welter of change, and excess of change does not suit a body of persons persuaded that they are given eternal truth. This book studies how churches cope, or should cope, with that trouble.

Christians know that they are the Church of the apostles. They would like—for a long time they liked—to feel an unchanging apostolic Church through the centuries. Then historians prove that this axiom wobbles. Rowan Williams seeks to make sense of this through a very charitable outlook on the witness of "heresies," divergent movements within the Catholic Church. He sees something good in the moralism of Pelagius, or in the effort of Arius to find words for the incarnation, or in the overdone zeal of Celtic penitentiaries; that such "suppressed or disadvantaged voices" must be allowed to be themselves, "they are at least as strange as any orthodox voices from the past." In these pages we do not hear the thunder of an Athanasius. "A constructive engagement with forms of faith that are outside the supposed mainstream is one of the most important critical responses we can bring to a mature understanding of the Church." An attitude of mind that cannot engage in recognizing the past of the Church is "likely to be closed off from what is different or challenging in the present."

Here is an unusual doctrine of development such that even Newman would have doubted. But it contains two excellent consequences. The first is a response to the charge that the Church is always a servant of the culture of the day. Here the Church and its teaching and its ideals and its way of life are creative [End Page 267] in the culture of the day; it is contributing to the nature of modern society and civilization. (By moral force? And also by protest?) Here this contribution is held to be necessary to the intellectual and emotional well-being of modern culture.

And the second consequence is more moving. At the heart lies the conviction that the real unity of Christians lies in worship; the eucharist of course, but prayers, and a charmingly expressed emphasis on the ability to say psalms together in praise; with its historical dimension from King David to the mystics and poets of modernity; and gratitude as the touch of God, with its outcome in generosity and almsgiving. It began less with doctrines than with martyrs and reverence for martyrs among the Christian communities. "Our awareness of words that are still held in common, acts still performed, helps us to read what they said within one context which we all share, the act of the Church as it opens itself to the action of the Christ who is present in his Body." One of the evident signs of Christian continuity is making our own "the rhythms and vocabulary of another age." So, though we find here a mind which accepts that doctrine is necessary, that is not the key, nor even the basic feeling, when he writes of church unity.

Throughout is a repeated powerful sense of gift, grace. "The Church's integrity, orthodoxy or whatever, is a gift, not primarily an achievement." Yet we do not know what will be drawn out of us by the pressure of Christ's reality, what the final shape...


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pp. 267-268
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