Books Reviews

Abba Haliegebriel Girma, An Interpretive Account of Belief and Practice in the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. ISBN: 97814820008791 Price: £7.16 (Amazon)

It is not very common to see a well-supported overview of the Tewahedo Orthodox Tradition on major online book stores, especially written in English. Archimandrite Hailegebriel’s book comes, therefore, as an unexpected gem amongst a large number of books trying to explain the tradition from an outside and anthropological viewpoint.

The layout of the book contains four sections which cover the structure, doctrines, sacraments and diaspora communities of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. Considering that the book only spans around 80 pages this is a brave endeavour which generally succeeds in its attempt to give a summary of the Church’s stances.

The use of evidence from Scripture and the Church Fathers to support the views is especially well achieved. Almost every aspect of the Faith which is covered in the book is backed up with a Biblical reference to prevent any possible controversy. Many are also placed with explanations from the Church Fathers or the Ethiopian Law of Kings to allow the historical development and practice of Liturgical and Sacramental actions.

Overall the book demonstrates a positive step from the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, which is sometimes seen as academically lacking in comparison to other Orthodox communities. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants a Theological and Ecclesiological overview of the Church, as it is written for people with a reasonable level of Theological Literacy.

Do not expect an Introduction to the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Faith from the book, as it is not written for this purpose. If you are looking for a brief overview or reference source for the Tewahedo Tradition, this is certainly recommended. When it comes to Theological studies, It is possibly the best guide to Tewahedo Orthodox teaching apart from primary sources, so certainly something to have in your bookshelf.

Peter Bouteneff,  Sweeter than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth, ISBN: 978-0881413076, £6.58 (Amazon Kindle Store)

As a book which I picked up purely as a timepass during a recent trip to Trivandrum, Bouteneff’s most commonly known work turned out to be a worthwhile investment and one which I finished before the plane even took off. I am a fan of Bouteneff’s academically honest writings and accessable writing style, but this book can easily be read and respected by Theology readers across the spectrum. 

The book comprises of two sections, one which deals with the Philosophical complexities of defining truth, the other with how the Church forms Tradition around this truth. Both sections are close to 100 pages long and comprise of readable bitesize sections amid longer chapters. This allows the book to be read at a steady pace and entire sections easily found for rereading and academic quoting without sifting through paragraph after paragraph.

The content of the first section, as previously mentioned, is centered around the question “what is truth” and tackles this from a Theological viewpoint, questioning the role of Revelation and scripture in the process of defining truth. This is a good place to start, since it adds to the experience by giving the reader the benefit of understanding what Bouteneff means by truth before entering into the discussion of the Dogmatic side of the book.

The second section is where Bouteneff gets into the real study of Orthodox Dogmatics, looking at the importance of Dogma and the study of theology. This section studies the reason for studying theology, and Church’s motives in the development of the Canons and Doctrine. This is further split up into sections explaining why and how certain factors and contributors to the development of Orthodox Dogmatics emerged, making compelling arguments for everything from the Orthodox Exegetical approach to the veneration of the fathers and their works. He also make a compelling case for the polemical language used by the fathers, which demonstrates a fair and academic approach which allows the reader to understand the complexities of reading the fathers.
As key factors in the understanding of the vitality of Tradition and Dogma to the Orthodox faith, the reasons for their development of the various areas of Orthodox Doctrine and key questions surrounding the,  are covered well by Bouteneff and in a way which is extremely inviting and readable.  Altogether, I could not recommend this book enough. Not only is Bouteneff’s writing style one which invites the reader to continue and learn, but the way in which he tackles a topic which can be immensely dry with a vitality which can only be found in a writer who truly values the Traditions of the Orthodox Faith.

John Anthony McGuckin, The Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization, (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood U.S.A), 279 pp. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0881414035. Price: £13.66 (Amazon).

Regardless of the recent influx of books on the development of Orthodox Tradition becoming available in English, the topic of the Canon Tradition remains an area which is sparcely covered in great detail. Most introductions to Orthodox Christianity will cover the Oecumenical Councils and definition of Canon but will not go much further in covering the vast history of the topic.

McGuckin has stepped in to fill this void and has done so in a manner suiting the complexity of the subject matter. The Ascent of Christian Law is a must for any student of Canonology or reader of the subject. The book is very readable, regardless of the depth of your understanding, and covers both East and West in great detail, starting with the scriptural foundations of the Canons. It then proceeds to pass through various phases in the development of the Canons before reaching its conclusion at the later Byzantine Canonists and their input to the Canon Tradition of the later Byzantine Empire.

The level of historical research put into the text also makes this book worth reading, as it puts the councils and Synods of the first millenium into the context of the tradition as a whole. This allows the reader to see why the council was needed and how it impacted the development of the Orthodox Tradition, rather than simply giving us details on the event itself.

One flaw I can see with this book is McGuckin’s need to state his opinion in his footnotes, which can take away from the academic nature of the text itself. Some readers may be able to understand the innocent manner in which this is played out, but for others it can be offputting to see a footnote in academic text referring to those who hold a certain viewpoint as ‘dummies.’ Regardless of this slight hitch, the contents of the book in itself are beautifully covered in a way rarely seen in a book on this subject.

Overall, McGuckin  has filled in a black hole which has plagued the world of Modern Orthodox Academics for decades. He has covered the vast and complex topic of the Canons in a way which makes it easy to understand and relevant to the reader. This in itself is an accomplishment which few have achieved and makes the book a highly recommended piece of reading for anybody interested in the topic.

Daniel Malyon


The Early Lives of St Dunstan, ed. & trans. by Michael Winterbottom & Michael Lapidge, Oxford Medieval Texts, 2012, 210 pp., £71.53, ISBN 978-0-19-960504-0.

The earliest ‘lives’ of Dunstan, the first a partial biography composed shortly before the year 1000 by a priest who knew him personally and who identifies himself only by the initial B, and the second, by Adelard of Ghent of only slightly later date, a series of lections to be read in church, were edited by Bishop William Stubbs in his Memorials of St Dunstan, 1874. They have never before been wholly translated in print.[1]

Glastonbury studies have been enriched in recent years by modern scholarly editions and translations of a number of key texts in the Oxford Medieval Texts series: of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum by Mynors, Thompson and Winterbottom (1998), Gesta Pontificum by Winterbottom (2007) and his Saints’ Lives, including that of Dunstan, by Winterbottom & Thompson (2002); also Eadmer of Canterbury’s Lives & Miracles, including a life of Dunstan, by Turner and Muir (2006). A text (but not translation) of the Libelus of Adam of Domerham, an unpublished thesis by David Standen (2000), is now also readily available ‘online.’ This new edition with translation of the first two ‘lives’ of Dunstan and ancillary material has been rumoured and eagerly awaited since Dunstan’s millennial year of 1988. Its final appearance, however, can be greeted with but two muted cheers.

Any translator faces difficult choices between paraphrase and literalism, in this case exacerbated by the nature of the text. B writes in that highly artificial early-medieval Latin style which Lapidge terms ‘hermeneutic’ and is more traditionally known as Hisperic (western), pioneered in Anglo-Latin by Aldhelm. Winterbottom’s translation here is at times shockingly un-literal. For example (pp.12-13), Erat itaque quaedam regalis in confinio eiusdem prefiti uiri insula, antiquo Anglorum uocabulo Glaestonia uocitata is rendered ‘Now in Heorstan’s neighbourhood there was an island belonging to the crown, the Old English name for which was Glastonbury. Confinio carries a precise meaning of ‘sharing a common boundary,’ in this case between the lands held by Dunstan’s father Heorstan, named in a preceding line, and those of the Abbey. ‘Glaestonia’ is not ‘Old English’ (an odd usage to place in B’s mouth) but the standard Latinisation, used consistently by B and William of Malmesbury, of an originally Celtic *Glastann or the like, represented later, and still occasionally in common speech, as Glaston, as in the hundred-name Glaston Twelve Hides. The locality’s most common Anglo-Saxon designation was Glaestingaburh and variants, meaning approximately ‘the (monastic) enclosure of the Glaston community.’ Whether the modern form Glastonbury (used throughout by Winterbottom for Glaestonia) derives irregularly from this, or from a parallel form coined for the planned town established beyond the monastic walls by the Abbey in the twelfth century, is uncertain. Such matters are significant for the archaeologist, for the landscape or local historian, for the non-specialist seeking place-name evidence, and who today may well be uncomfortable in Medieval, let alone Hisperic, Latin. They deserve better guidance from a translator. Similarly, failure to take account of Glastonbury specifics is seen in the substitution in translation of the singular for B’s plural, ‘churches’ (pp. 49-51, xc). The monastic complex included more than one church building.

Other problems are consequent to the choice of main textual witness. The Vita I Dunstani survives in three manuscripts, each containing a somewhat different version. The Arras MS 1029 (812) (‘A’) was regarded by Stubbs as representing B’s original text. There are also the British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra B xiii (here ‘D’ = Stubbs’ ‘[MS]B’), agreed to be a revision, and the Sankt Gallen MS 337 (‘C’), sent abroad to the scholar Abbo of Fleury with the request that he turn it into verse. He was prevented from doing so by a spear, which fatally wounded him while trying to quell a riot. For reasons which are on the whole convincing, Lapidge and Winterbottom argue that in fact ‘C’ is usually closer to what B himself wrote than ‘A’. It is agreed, however, that all three originate at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, Dunstan’s own monastery as archbishop, within a very few years of each other. It follows that the historian must allow all three a similar consideration as evidence.

B’s text is the earliest to tell us (pp.18-21) of an Irish influence at Glastonbury, which is also well attested elsewhere. He tells us that Dunstan studied the books of Irish pilgrims who came to Glastonbury ‘in honour of the blessed Patrick .. who was said to rest auspiciously in the Lord there (ob beati Patricii .. honorum, qui faustus ibidem in Domino quieuisse narratur).’ Winterbottom’s translation has it that Patrick ‘died there’, which the text does not necessarily imply, as bones need not be laid to rest where a saint actually died, a significant matter here. The ‘A’ text qualifies Patrick with the description ‘junior’, which, paradoxically, signifies the famous Apostle of Ireland, while ‘C’ and ‘D’ have the qualification ‘senior’ which refers to the distinct minor figure of Elder Patrick, seemingly an invention of late seventh-century Irish antiquaries, of whom there is little evidence of any widespread cult. Certain Irish and Anglo-Saxon calendars associate this shadowy personage with Glastonbury and the question of which Patrick was actually venerated here is a highly complicated and controversial matter. The editorial statement (p.19, n.52) that ‘the original reading of B.’s text was “Patricii senioris”, not “junioris”, in line with Glastonbury tradition,’ therefore, is tendentious. The present reviewer has little doubt that B, who by his own showing (pp.10-11) had scant curiosity concerning historical matters, even the names of English kings, wrote merely Patrick, probably intending by this, as the context suggests, the major Irish saint, and that the rival qualifications ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ both represent learned glosses by those at Canterbury who had become aware of what modern scholars have termed the ‘problem of the two Patricks.’

The editors contend (p. xcv) that ‘The changes that the reviser [i.e. in ‘A’] made are almost entirely matters of language; and the new text that results from using C rather than A as the base in no way changes our view of any aspect of Dunstan’s career.’ It does, however, have a significant impact on our understanding of the evolution of Glastonbury legend, of which B is the earliest witness. He tells us (in the ‘A’ text as given by Stubbs, 1874, p.7), in a continuation of the passage on Glastonbury cited above, that the ‘royal’ island was surrounded by fish-filled riverine swamps, contained many holy men, and was given over to the service of God:

In ea siquidem ipsius loca primi catholicae legis neophitae antiquam Deo dictante reppererunt aecclesiam, nulla hominum arte [ut ferunt inserted in the margin of MS ‘D’] constructam, immo humanae saluti coelitus paratam; quam postmodum Ipse coelorum fabricator multis miraculorum gestis multisque misteriorum virtutibus, hanc Sibi sanctaeque genitrici Suae [Dei, MS ‘D’] Mariae consecratam fore demonstravit.

Which might be rendered:

For it was in that very place indeed that the first neophytes of the Catholic law were told of old by God to repair a church, not built by the skill of men [they say], but rather prepared in heaven for the salvation of mankind; afterwards the Maker of the heavens Himself demonstrated by many miraculous deeds and virtuous mysteries that this church was consecrated by Him to His Mother [or ‘the Mother of God’] Mary.

The Sankt Gallen MS (‘C’, Winterbottom & Lapidge, p.12) abbreviates this account:

In qua quidem insula primi catholicae legis neophitae antiquam Deo dictante reppererunt aecclesiam, nullis hominum recordationibus fabricatam uel dicatam: quam postmodum ipse caelorum fabricator multis miraculorum gestis multisque misteriorum uirtutibus hanc sibi sanctaeque genitrici suae Mariae consecratam fore demonstrauit.

This is translated by Winterbottom (p.13):

For it was in this island that, by God’s guidance, the first novices of the catholic law discovered an ancient church, not built or dedicated in the memory of man. Later, the builder of the heavens Himself revealed by many miracu­lous and supernatural happenings that it was consecrated to Him and to His holy mother Mary.

Here the story is rationalised. Gone is the heavenly origin of the Old Church. Here, at least, the ‘A’ version (and therefore ‘’, the hypothetical common source of ‘A’ and ‘D’) must be accorded primacy. Nobody at Canterbury around the year 1000 would have any interest in inflating the more apocryphal aspects of Glastonbury’s legendary claims. These must represent Dunstan’s own beliefs, acquired in childhood in the neighbourhood and as a schoolboy at the Abbey, and conveyed to B; only his authority could have sanctioned B’s preservation of such material. It is quite understandable, however, that the editor of ‘C’, preparing a text for dispatch to the Continental scholar Abbo, might feel it appropriate to abridge such dubious matter. This is presumably an example of what Stubbs (1874, p. xxvii) had in mind when he wrote of ‘one or two questionable statements expunged’ by the ‘C’ editor (see Winterbottom & Lapidge, p. lxxxv and xcv, n.339).

All this is well enough but, unfortunately, in the present edition only the ‘C’ version is translated, even when the variants are important, with the readings of ‘A’ and ‘D’ given in the smallest of print at the bottom of the Latin text. Only one already possessed of intimate knowledge of B’s text and its problems, therefore, is likely to notice such significant departures, and the critical apparatus, as in this case, often gives no guidance; yet it was from this text that the whole edifice of later Glastonbury legend evolved.

Such criticisms apart, as is to be expected of such distinguished scholars, here is a resource of great value, summarising nearly a century and a half of study of the two primary Dunstanian texts. There are useful notes on the life and influence of Dunstan, with some intriguing new speculation on his literary output (p. lxiii), and on what can be inferred about B himself. Its analyses of B’s vocabulary, reading and literary allusions are extremely useful. It is perhaps especially valuable on the neglected work of Adelard, although attention will inevitably continue to focus on that of B.

B’s ‘Life’ is a significant source for the tenth century in general, but even more important for Glastonbury archaeology, history, and literary history. Apart from an eighth-century letter dealing with the scandalous conduct of an abbot, it is the earliest account in which Glastonbury is anything other than a name. It shows us the landscape of, and gives us much incidental information concerning, the great Anglo-Saxon monastery, and conveys something of its special atmosphere. It shows that Glastonbury was already a centre of quite extraordinary beliefs, the characteristic which, sustained throughout the later Middle Ages and the post-Reformation period, remains its most notable feature today. It is due to this that Glastonbury enjoys a unique place in world literature and the British national self-image.

Dunstan has an importance well beyond Glastonbury, but B’s ‘Life’ is essentially the story of his years here, with little information on his time as archbishop, much of which B apparently spent on the Continent. Glastonbury studies, long neglected, even shunned, in academe, may now be said to have entered the main stream of scholarship. There remains, however, a certain residual discomfort among some professional academics where Glastonbury is concerned and it is, perhaps, partly to this that the defects of the present volume may be attributed.

Paul Ashdown


William Taylor, Narrative of Identity: The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of England 1895-1914, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2013), xiv + 300 pp. ISBN 978-1-4438-4526-7. £40.00

In 205 Dr. William Taylor published his Antioch and Canterbury. The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of England 1874-1928, ably documenting the historical relations between these two churches. He has returned to this theme, but this time from a quite different perspective and covering a quite narrow time scale of nineteen years. His approach is based on the philosophical methodology of the late Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) in relation to the investigation of narratives of identity.

This approach leads him to examine the changing identities of both churches during this specific period and results in some remarkably honest and freshingly frank comments, freed from the usual straight-jacket of conventional courtesies. His analysis suggests that the dialogue between both churches was founded on a desire for mutual recognition. Viewed from the perspective of being a minority group within the late Ottoman Empire, with Catholic proselytization on the one hand and the rise of Pan-Turkic nationalism on the other; the Syrian Orthodox Church was happy to be befriended by a powerful state church of a dominant imperial power, which might prove to be its ‘protector’.  Too often inter-church relations are viewed in isolation from the political and social contexts in which they are worked out, as if these are irrelevant to their progress. Dr. Taylor has not only skilfully and painstakingly examined two decades of turbulence, but has set the dialogue within the historical developments and changing identities of both communities.       

For the increasingly influential Tractarian Party of the Church of England, the return to patristic roots and establishment of relations with ancient local churches, buttressed their propagation of the ‘branch theory’ and served to counteract Rome’s denial of the validity of Anglican orders. Dr. Taylor chronicles the rising influence of High Churchmen, in the face of Queen Victoria’s Low Church sympathies, under the political patronage of Gladstone, Salisbury and Balfour; the use of religious communities of men and women to redress the damage done to inter-church relations by the CMS, especially among the Syriac communities in South India; the activities of various associations encouraging closer relations between Anglicans and the Christian East and even the sacral nature underpinning the royal supremacy in the Church of England.  

Tracing the memory of its historic continuity as the ancient Church of Antioch, enriched by the heritage of Edessa, with its distinctive linguistic, monastic and spiritual culture; Dr. Taylor records the legacy of persecution under Byzantine and successive Muslim rulers, which reduced it to dhimmi status and diminished the authority of its patriarchs through internal divisions and Catholic aggression; by the late nineteenth century, however, it began to rediscover its identity with renewed vision and energy, finally achieving full millet status under the Tanzimat reforms. Tragically, it was at that point that the Hamidian massacres and renewed internal divisions interrupted a promising dialogue.               

Dr. Taylor addresses difficult topics, too often sidestepped by others because they are still open wounds, such as the controversies surrounding the deposition of Patriarch ‘Abdel-Messih in 1906 and the allegations of corruption, peculation and drunkenness. He balances these against the oral tradition that it was the sight of the dismembered bodies of his flock as he escaped the massacres in Diyarbakir that unhinged the Patriarch’s mind. Even today his support for the independence of the Indian Church still earns him the perpetual hatred of those who believe that subordination to Antioch’s rule was all the Indians deserved. Patriarch Abdullah II’s simony and avariciousness are passed over completely although Dr. Taylor notes the sycophantic comments of the monk Ayyub Barsoum, whose ingratiating welcome of Abdullah’s election set him on the path eventually leading to his own elevation to the Patriarchate as Mar Afram.

The Theological Dialogue between the two churches is given detailed consideration, which includes an interesting digression (pp. 133-139) on the issue of episcopi vagantes, which continued to be problematic for the Anglican Communion, and absorbed much time and energy. Dr. Taylor notes that episcopal successions deriving from Syrian Orthodoxy are traced from both Ferrette and Vilatte. Ferrette is outside the timeframe under consideration, but Vilatte’s consecration was a significant event. It is a pity that Dr. Taylor’s references to Vilatte’s consecrator, Archbishop Alvares, somehow imply a detachment from Syrian Orthodoxy, whereas he was canonically a recognised member of its hierarchy and authorised to consecrate Vilatte as part of the Antiochian Patriarchate’s expansionist policy. However, Dr. Taylor’s account reveals the pig-headed intransigence of Archbishop Davidson in refusing to recognise the validity of Vilatte’s episcopate just as he frustrated efforts to forge closer links with the Syrian Orthodox Church because he questioned its Christology. Dr. Taylor also highlights the illogicality of Anglicans adhering to an Augustinian theology of orders as having “made a rod for the backs of those who espoused it, as many of the episcopi vagantes took their orders from the very source from whom the Anglican Communion was itself seeking recognition, namely eastern orthodox churches, and particularly Syrian Orthodoxy.”  Sadly, the more scholarly approach of Bishop Wordsworth of Salisbury was not followed.     

The choice of Sultan Abdul “the Damned” for his dust jacket illustration is a strange one, whilst the lengthy appendices of untranslated facsimile Ottoman deeds is of rather limited value to the general reader. The absence of an index is a great disadvantage, but the excellent bibliography shows the extent of  Dr. Taylor’s thorough and painstaking research.     

Abba Seraphim


Anglo-Saxon Charters 15: Charters of Glastonbury Abbey by Susan E. Kelly, Oxford University Press, 2012, 624 pp. £110, ISBN 978-0-19-726507-9.

This volume, in the Anglo-Saxon Charters series produced by the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society, follows on for the Somerset historian from the same author’s excellent Charters of Bath and Wells (2007) in the same series. Although already large and expensive enough, it remains a pity that the format of the series does not include translations. There is, however, a useful glossary. The only map is completely useless decoration.

Building on the earlier work of Finberg and Grundy, there has already been substantial modern publication on the Glastonbury charters by Heather Edwards (1988) and Lesley Abrams (1996).[2] Whereas Abrams’ work was organised on the basis of the Glastonbury estates, the present work, naturally, centres on an edition of the charters themselves.

Given the ambition and cost of the volume, and the fact that the charters have been so recently and ably examined by Abrams, it is a pity that the publication process could not have been delayed to take account of (at least) the preliminary results of the review of Glastonbury’s archaeological record (referred to as currently underway in a footnote, p.6, n.9) which became available in June 2011.[3] These render obsolete the earlier part of the historical discussion which forms a major element of the book. This overview, however, remains of considerable value, especially its study of the pre-Conquest abbots. We may note here, for example, the discussion (pp. 65-9; 173-119) of whether Dunstan retained the abbacy in plurality with his episcopal and archiepiscopal appointments until his death (a procedure later followed with success by Henry of Blois). There is extensive treatment of the manuscripts, the history of the archive, and the authenticity of the charters.

This is an essential reference work for the serious student of early Glastonbury and is likely long to remain the definitive account of its Anglo-Saxon charters.

Paul Ashdown


[1] Good unpublished translations by the Rev. Douglas Dales have been made available to Glastonbury scholars. Dales’ ‘Dunstan, Saint and Statesman’ (1988), with a foreword by Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury, is an odd omission from the bibliography of the present volume.

[2] Anglo-Saxon Glastonbury, Church and Endowment, 1996, reviewed in Glastonbury Bulletin 95, ix, June 1997, pp. 53-5.

[3] On these see Paul Ashdown, New Developments in Glastonbury Archaeology, in Glastonbury Review xvi, 121, Jan 2012, pp. 46-48.

1 of 1