Monthly Archives: April 2013

Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed.

N.B. This review is of the 1963 second edition of this work. Some of the defects may have been remedied in more recent editions.

I would guess that this was intended as a source-book to go with the ecclesiastical history course for ordinands to the Church of England ministry. This would explain the rather skewed representation of the Church: very little on post-schism Orthodoxy, or Protestantism outside England. (I really do mean England – the Church of Scotland gets a mere two pages.)

The layout is broadly chronological, with thematically related documents of the same period grouped together, though there are sudden jumps of a few centuries. Most are introduced with a brief note about their context (often making it clear what the compiler’s own ecclesiology is), but these presuppose some knowledge of the subject matter and history, presumably supplied in the course the book would accompany. So you are expected to know what ‘Monophysite’ means, as this term is never explained. More confusingly, kings and emperors come and go, without the reader being told where they were king of.

The reader also has to struggle with artificially archaic language in some of the translations. For example the Didache was only discovered in 1873, so the translation of it cannot be earlier than that, but it is still rendered into pseudo-Authorised Version English. And while the original translators of the AV had the advantage of being native speakers of 17th-century English (and stylistic masters of writing it), the same can’t be said of this 19th-century pastiche.

Very few of the documents collected here would make anyone feel glad to be a Christian, and the overall impression is of a preoccupation for declaring those who don’t agree with you to be anathema. The exceptions include some touching early Christian epitaphs, and a more hopeful concluding section dealing with moves towards church unity.

My edition is a 1963 reprint (although I believe it was purchased new in the 1980′s!), so sadly it misses some of the most significant documents of recent Christian history: those of the Second Vatican Council. More recent editions (with additional sections by Chris Maunder) include this and other 20th and 21st century material.

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Wendy Holden, The Wives of Bath

I must confess to not having read this, just flipped through it for 10 minutes or so on a charity book stall, deciding whether to buy. I didn’t, for the following reason:

I’m a Bathonian (by over a decade’s residence) and I looked in vain for any sort of local colour in the book. All I could find were a few casual references to nice Georgian houses. Not even as much as a street name. Now I realise you don’t want to baffle people who don’t know Bath, but it wouldn’t be very hard (say) to mention a character strolling down Milsom St, commenting on the outfits on display in the shop windows. The reader would quickly pick up that this is one of the main central streets, with lots of clothes shops. Or setting a scene in an identifiable nearby village – we do a great line round here in rather absurd double-barrelled names (someone once remarked that they sound like the names of lawyers in American TV mini-series). It wouldn’t be parochial to do this, but would make the story more realistic by linking it to actual locations.

I may be unfair and have missed details of this kind, but one could be forgiven for thinking that Wendy Holden hasn’t actually been to Bath and just knows that it’s a place with pretty and rather grand houses where lots of middle-class people live. Even in a piece of chick-lit, this seems casual and sloppy. When some inventors of fictional places go to great trouble to give them a geography, surely it can’t be asking too much of an author to do the same for a real one?

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