Christianity in Europe: A General Scenario? A Review Article

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Christianity in Europe: A General Scenario? A Review Article: W.R. WARD. Christianity under the Ancien Régime, 1648-1789. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xii + 269 pp., bibliography, index. $54.95 hardback; $19.95 paperback.

General scenarios of the long-term development of Christianity are still normally generated within, or indebted to, religious denominations. Explicitly or implicitly, an established or a gathered church will often structure its assumed model of the historical development of popular religiosity around the claims of that church's own ecclesiology and ecclesiastical polity. The alternatives to this shared pattern normally still come from outside theism itself, from social-anthropological approaches which attend to patterns of popular piety only to relativize them. So natural does this dependency of the history of religion on institutionalized churches and their rationales seem to us that it is surprising and refreshing to encounter a wide and scholarly survey built around quite different assumptions; and this W.R. Ward has provided in a work of remarkable erudition.

An outline survey of Christianity in Europe (including southern and central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia) over such a long time span must adhere rigorously to its chosen organizing formulae. As befits the author of that distinguished pan-European (indeed transatlantic) study The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992) and other works focusing chiefly on Nonconformity, Ward announces his themes: "A history of Christianity in this period ought in my view to be primarily a history of religious belief and experience, and, while not neglecting the history of the churches, has less to do with a history of the churches than those bodies commonly claim," especially the Papacy. "Religious belief and experience" are, however, allowed to be "deeply affected by the churches' political involvement," and room is to be found also for mentalités; but the general polarities of the book lie not between church and dissent, or orthodoxy and heterodoxy, but between "lethargy and vitality" (pp. ix-x). This last polarity is premised on a general scenario for the development of religion in Europe not just during the ancien régime but from the Reformation to the present.

Lethargy is initially located as folk religion, a "congenial mixture of religion and magic," "perversions of sacred seasons and rites" which both Catholic and Protestant clergy strove to dissipate (pp. 1, 47), but this theme, announced early, is not carried through: mentalités make a rather small appearance here. Politics (including traditional church-state relations) bulks much larger, puzzlingly so given the book's announced emphasis on religious experience, yet "political involvement" is relevant since it takes the form of a late Counter-Reformation confrontation between Catholic and Protestant which "confirmed the view of many hard-pressed Protestants that the Pope was indeed the Man of Sin who held agreements which secured the peace of Europe as of small account beside the advantage of the church" (p. 8). Both in England and France, church-state relations are described simply as "Erastian": what their claims to primitive authority "meant in practice was the right of various privileged bodies to unimpeded access to the higher patronage of the church" (p. 12). This is certainly not the view of ecclesiastical history familiarly taken by Protestant Nonconformity, which normally claimed primitive authority for its own ecclesiastical polity rather than rejecting all appeal to the early Church.

Lethargy is primarily associated by Ward with the "absolute claims made by the confessional programmes" everywhere; happily, these were being weakened by "the course of events" (p. 8). Among the losers was the Church of England, whose "wilder claims" the Dutch Reformed had a part in "undermining" (p. 9). These presumably included the divine right of kings, the subject of "much imprudent veneration," and the apostolic succession of bishops, already creating "snags" and pointing towards later bids for the separation of church and state. …


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