Where elephants may swim

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

April 25, 1997

Some 35 years ago an elderly Scottish parishioner intimated that she wanted to give me a present. I suggested Cross's Dictionary of the Christian Church, but she was at first hesitant. "I don't want to spend all that money on a book which you are not likely to read, and which will simply sit on your shelf." She need not have worried. My well-thumbed first edition has more than earned its keep. F. L. Cross's original hope that every clergyman might own a copy was not unrealistic, and is even more apposite today when the pressures to concentrate on all that is instant and contemporary are a standing temptation for Christians to ignore their past.

A faith which has lost sight of the richness and diversity of its own history lacks both density and stability. It has no criteria for distinguishing tradition from fashion. The basic purpose of Cross, therefore, is to provide both the stimulus to explore, and easy access to, this enormous fund of experience. There is no other dictionary quite like it. Though it overlaps to a small extent with dictionaries of the Bible and theology, its main thrust is historical and descriptive. It is a wonderful compendium of information about the history of Christianity, and for the determined browser a prolific source of intriguing and obscure ecclesiastical oddities.

This third edition has a larger format, and is some 200 pages longer that the second, which itself added 100 pages or so to the first. Part of the expansion represents new interests. Ecumenism, for instance, has a much more prominent place. So does Christianity outside Europe and the United States. There are some excellent potted histories of the churches in different countries, including new entries on Vietnam, Korea and several African nations. Central America is still unrepresented.

Though brief and factual these articles contain some valuable insights. I had not hitherto appreciated, for instance, the extent to which the civil war in Angola had a religious dimension, with Roman Catholics having almost exclusive government patronage and the nationalist movement being mainly Protestant led.

The ordination of women, feminist theology and liberation theology have all come onto the agenda since the second edition was published in 1974. There is also a long, new article on the ethics of contraception, procreation and abortion, which helpfully gathers together the key Christian statements in this increasingly complex area.

The treatment of the ordination of women is a little disappointing in that it simply lists the historical landmarks, beginning with the Montanists in the second century, without giving any insight into why some churches found it relatively easy to ordain women, and others have so far found it impossible. A cross-reference to orders and ordination refers exclusively to Roman Catholic and Anglican orders, but I have not been able to find any mention of what other churches, Methodism for example, understand by ordination, and how this differs from what is believed in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Gaps of this kind are probably inevitable, given the dictionary format which requires topics to be divided up into manageable chunks without too much overlap. But I suspect that the omission also reflects the Anglican provenance of the first edition which has in a few places been unwittingly carried over into its much more broadly based successor. In fact the first edition was largely the work of Cross himself. Ninety-five other contributors are listed, all of them British and a high proportion from Oxford, but he is said to have taken the lion's share. E. A. Livingstone, who succeeded him as editor after his death in 1968, has worked with a team of 480 contributors, many of them from overseas, with the result that the new edition has a much more international, specialist, and less personal feel. The scholarly standards are high, and most articles have excellent detailed bibliographies, almost all of which have been updated.

The range of references provided justifies the claim that this is a book "in which lambs may walk and elephants swim". It is also astonishingly up to date. The most striking example I have found is a reference to the removal of the Stone of Destiny to Edinburgh on November 30 1996, less than four months before the date of publication.

The most a reviewer can hope to do is to give the flavour of this absorbing and encyclopedic volume. Anne Boleyn makes a first appearance, but not Catherine of Aragon. John Robinson of Honest to God fame is in, but an earlier scholarly bishop, T. B. Strong, is out. Wittgenstein has made it among the philosophers, and Kung and von Balthasar among the theologians, but sadly there is still no Lonergan. It is surprising to find no fewer than four famous Anselms in the latter half of the 11th century. We are warned that one of these, St Anselm of Lucca, is not to be confused with his uncle, Anselm of Lucca, who became a mere pope. St Anselm of Canterbury has a substantially revised entry and a greatly enlarged bibliography, reflecting much recent work on him, as does Duns Scotus whose beatification in 1993 must have acted as a focus for scholarly interest.

There are some interesting divergences of opinion. An article on the Celtic churches, for example, presents a completely different interpretation from that in the first edition and drops all reference to the Synod of Whitby, once described in an introduction to Bede's history as "one of the great turning points in the history of the race". The article on the Anglo-Saxon church, however, remains unchanged, and there Whitby retains its place.

Charismatic Christianity, Holiness movements and black churches represent some of the new forces at work. Religious broadcasting has expanded into a major article, mirroring its own expansion from meagre beginnings in the late 19th century, which saw the first religious services to be made available by telephone.

The first broadcast religious service was in January 1921, and the first religious radio station known as KFUO ("keep forward, upward, onward") was based on a Lutheran seminary in St Louis. The BBC set up a "Sunday Committee" in 1923, and its first service was broadcast from St Martin-in-the-Fields in January 1924. Nowadays the broadcasting time devoted to religion is greater in Islamic countries than in Christian ones.

There is endless fascination in these pages, and this new edition is a major achievement in what must for Livingstone have been her life's work. I shall not be disposing of my first edition because the difference of style and emphasis means that the two volumes are in some respects complementary.

But anyone with scholarly interests in this field will find the bibliographies alone in the third edition an invaluable resource, and general readers will not be overwhelmed with technicalities.

It is as much to be desired as it was 40 years ago that all clergy should possess a copy, though I suspect that not many these days will be able to afford it. So there is still scope for generous parishioners to do their stuff.

The Rt Revd Lord Habgood was Archbishop of York.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Editor - F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone
ISBN - 0 19 211655 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £70.00
Pages - 1786

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