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Book review: Peace on earth - or at least in church

CHRISTIANITY: The First Two Thousand Years by David L Edwards, Cassell pounds 30 THE ROMAN OPTION Crisis and the Realignment of English-Speaki ng Christianity by William Oddie, HarperCollins pounds 16.99
George Carey has identified the key problem facing Christianity in these isles in the wake of the outpouring of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana. The British are fundamentally a religious people with a healthy and largely undiscriminating appetite for spiritual comfort, but the mainstream churches have managed to alienate them. Hence falling mass attendance, empty seminaries and marginalisation from national life. But the well-meaning Archbishop has so far failed to carry his public soul-searching one step further and ask why.

Should he be busy formulating a response - and without one, Anglicanism as the established Church appears doomed - Dr Carey would do well to set aside several days for a thorough read of David Edwards's 600-page history of the first 2,000 years of Christianity. It will be an enjoyable task - Edwards has a pleasant style, lucid and free from the usual jargon about the Spirit, evangelisation and incarnation that often gives such books a near mystical opaqueness. And despite his own Anglican background - as Provost of Southwark Cathedral until his retirement in 1994 - Edwards has an eye for the broader picture.

This means that he makes the most of Anglicanism's somewhat ambiguous position between the Protestant and Catholic traditions to immerse himself in both without any hint of partisanship or points-scoring. And, attempting, as this book does, a global survey, he is only too aware of the relative insignificance of Anglicanism next to Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestant fundamentalism and accordingly does not unbalance his survey with special pleading for his own tradition. His treatment in particular of the first great split in Christianity - between Rome and Constantinople - displays rare insight, clarity and sensitivity for a writer steeped in the western tradition.

Another strength of Edwards's approach - and one that should inspire his readers to examine their consciences - is his capacity to see Christianity within the framework of different ages. When he arrives - just a touch breathlessly, I felt - in contemporary times, Edwards embarks on an impressive and clear-sighted analysis of how Christianity stands in a post-modern age. "For many who regard themselves as Christian as the 21st century begins, the option may be made for a fairly loose attachment to historic Christianity, questioning many of its doctrines and ignoring most of its rituals. The connection may be so loose that the person who makes it may be called with justice a 'post-Christian'."

Such a verdict has been strenuously resisted by Bishops and Cardinals in recent decades as they have laboured in vain to corral the faithful behind certain dogmas and beliefs, but Edwards is not afraid to spell out the current ascendancy of the a la carte approach to Christianity over the old-fashioned table d'hote variety. Indeed in general he seems little disturbed by the prospect of the privatisation of religion, though just occasionally you get a hint of his own feelings as when he summarises a fairly balanced pen portrait of Pope John Paul II with what reads, given what has gone before, rather like a despairing plea: "it may be thought that the history of the papacy as the centre of Christian unity in truthful faith and charitable holiness has a great future ahead of it."

William Oddie would certainly endorse such a sentiment, though he would remove the note of doubt that is detectable in Edwards's voice. A recent convert to Rome after a lifetime as a Church of England vicar, Oddie bubbles over with enthusiasm for the papacy as the standard-bearer of religious belief into the next millennium.

Where Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years is evidently a labour of love by a scholar with a mission to popularise, The Roman Option is a piece of hastily-assembled journalism with a message. Oddie admits that events may soon overtake his book - indeed, pushing them along is part of his reason for writing it - but he believes that Christianity in the English-speaking world is at a watershed, with the Anglican communion - by ordaining women - having finally come off the fence and decided that it is a Protestant Church.

It is a not a new theory, and those Catholic Anglicans who remain a dispirited but determined rump within the Church of England will disagree. But Oddie's principal purpose is to increase pressure on the Vatican to make preparations for the wholesale defection of Anglicans that will be prompted, he believes, when General Synod begins ordaining women as Bishops. Such a scenario, more dispassionate observers believe, is simply wishful thinking on Oddie's part, part of an anxiety to have been in the vanguard of the major shift rather than one of a small band of dissidents at a particular point in history.

Oddie's book once again tells the story of when General Synod decided in November 1992 to ordain women. It traces the special provisions made thus far by Rome to allow both dissident married convert Anglican clergymen to become Catholic priests despite Rome's rule of celibacy, and traditionalist Anglican parishes to take the Pope's shilling en masse. While he praises the tenacity of Cardinal Basil Hume in brokering such a deal, known in church circles as the "Roman Option", Oddie feels that more needs to be done to deal with the flood he anticipates.

It is passionate, polemical stuff, but I feel that the Vatican will need a few more facts and a little less emotion to convince them to reconsider. And after David Edwards's compelling overview of two millennia, the "crisis" mentioned in the subtitle of The Roman Option seems more like a footnote to the attempts of all the churches worldwide to work out their relationship to Christ's gospel, to each other, and - more urgently at least in the British context - to the society in which they operate.