Book Review: Bede’s History of the English Church and People

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People¬†is an interesting read, though not one I’d recommend for those who do not have a relatively intense interest in the subject matter contained in the title. Bede’s history often reads as a record of English folktales about monks and various holy man more than it reads like history in the sense most modern people attach to that word. In fact, it might make better religious reading than it does historical or literary reading. Unless you have a real interest in the primary sources for medieval English religious thought, it would be best to stick to more modern academic writing on the subject of English history.

What I found most interesting about the book is the tension it exhibits between an incipient nationalism on the British Isles and the Christianity notion of catholicity as the universality of faith in the Church. The question of the legitimacy of practices native to or at least antecedent of the Roman practice in Britain frequently arises. Bede is fairly charitable, especially given the climate of the Church at that time, but always sides with the Roman practice as evincing a catholic nature over the more local, even if older, practices.

It was this tension between nation and Catholic Church, of course, that eventually led the English Church to schism from the Roman Church in the 16th century. That such a tension existed at even this early point, albeit in quite different forms, makes for some often fascinating reading, for one so intellectually inclined.

Freedom of the Church

It is necessary that Christians should remember that it is not the business of the Church to do the same thing as the State — to build a Kingdom like the other kingdoms of men, only better; nor to create a reign of earthly peace and justice. The Church exists to be the light of the world, and if it fulfills its function, the world is transformed in spite of all the obstacles that human powers place in the way. A secularist culture can only exist, so to speak, in the dark. It is a prison in which the human spirit confines itself when it is shut out of the wider world of reality. But as soon as the light comes, all the elaborate mechanism that has been constructed for living in the dark becomes useless. The recovery of spiritual vision gives man back his spiritual freedom. And hence the freedom of the Church is in the faith of the Church and the freedom of man is in the knowledge of God.

Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, p. 273

Understanding the Church

The Church cannot be understood when seen merely from the outside; it cannot be rationally defined, or reduced to concepts. The Church can only be understood by those who live within it. Its life must actually be experienced, for it is not a reality of the external kind. Its intrinsic nature cannot be apprehended by those who stand apart from it. The Church is not a temple built of stone, neither is it a community of believers, nor a parish consisting of human beings, nor yet an institution juridically determined — though all these things are elements in its composition. It does not possess definite limits and external marks which determine its inner nature and differentiate it from the rest of existence. The Church possesses physical, psychical, and social elements, yet none of these define its nature. The Church is not a tangible substance belonging to the world of visible things, nor is it an empirical reality analogous to that of minerals, plants, or animals. It belongs to the world of invisible things which can only be demonstrated by faith, for it is an inner reality.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 328