If These Stones Could Talk – The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through Twenty Buildings by Peter Stanford (Hodder & Stoughton), £20.

This year’s Advent began on Sunday 28 November; Advent marks the start of the Christian year and is the season of preparation for celebrating its second most important festival, Christmas. 

There are fine rituals and beautiful music attached to celebrate these four weeks of waiting and building anticipation for the Great Birthday. You could be forgiven for not noticing. The Cabinet marked the start of the season by doing a mass tweet up celebrating the beginning of Chanukah, the great Jewish festival of light. When asked why there was no mention of Advent by any Cabinet Minister one said: “I didn’t know. CCHQ should have told us.” Poor old CCHQ is blamed for many things, but failing to note the beginning of Advent? Really?

Not to be outdone on the same day the Church of England launched its “At The Heart Of Christmas” campaign. When asked why the Church seemed to be downplaying Advent in favour of Christmas a senior Church person said: “We think Advent has pretty much disappeared from the public’s consciousness.” This is despite the Archbishop of York posting a series of good Advent reflections online.

It is a good thing for political and faith leaders to mark and celebrate the great festivals of all the country’s major religious traditions. Eid is also marked by a mass political social media campaign. In a society of many faith beliefs, respect needs to be accorded generously. 

Respect alone, however, is not enough. Much greater knowledge about faiths other than our own is also desperately needed. In a culture where Christianity has had a dominant influence, there is an increasing complacency about and ignorance of Christianity in current political life and public debate. 

The Church’s leadership does little to help itself, often preferring a crouching posture of passive-aggressive defensiveness over confident and constructive engagement.

Many media reports, broadcast as well as print, frequently show ignorance of the fundamentals, the basic facts and information. This is why Peter Stanford’s new book, If These Stones Could Talk – The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland Through Twenty Buildings, is so timely. 

You don’t have to be a Christian to be British but you cannot properly understand Britain today and its history if you do not know the long history and practice of Christianity in these islands. Stanford is a well established and successful writer, frequently on church and faith-related topics, and he tackles his twenty subjects here with confidence and fluidity. 

He adopts a systematic approach and takes one building from each of the twenty centuries of British Christianity. Starting with Glastonbury Abbey in the First Century, Stanford picks his way judiciously through the richness of ecclesiastical architecture. In doing so, he draws out the rich influences, the powerful impact and the centrality of these places of worship to the development of the nation’s communities and the nation itself. 

Up to the Fifteenth Century, the story of British Christianity is the story of British Roman Catholicism; St Alban’s Shrine, Lullingstone Villa – a centre of home worship, Ninian’s Whithorn, St Martin’s Canterbury, Clonmacnoise, All Saints’ Brixworth, Jarrow Abbey, Sherborne Abbey, St Andrew’s Greensted, Canterbury Cathedral, St Melangell’s, Blackfriars Oxford, St Andrew’s Fillingham and Henry VIII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. 

Names and places are redolent as well as resonant of every corner of these islands. Landmarks still, places of witness as well as worship. The next five centuries are overshadowed by the destruction and increasing confusion of the Reformation. Great names and places nonetheless – St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh, St John’s Little Gidding, Heptonstall Methodist, St Elisabeth’s Reddish and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. 

It is a distinguished list that makes for an enjoyable and informative journey. We end up where we started at a place of faithful Roman Catholic worship. The Reformation notwithstanding the most influential Christian tradition on the history of these islands is that of Roman Catholicism. 

The fractured and disputatious nature of Protestantism, not least within the Church of England, makes it increasingly difficult to sustain a coherent explanation and practice of its faith. The story of the waxing, the waning and the changing of British Christianity is reflected in the buildings our predecessors have built and used. 

In the final chapter, Stanford ponders on whether buildings, as we have known them, will be an expression of the impact and vibrancy of Christianity in Britain. 

Or rather, as buildings and their maintenance become ever more expensive, and mass communication moves increasingly online whether we will have to look elsewhere to observe the evolution of British Christianity. 

It’s an interesting prospect. A book of the twenty most influential Christian blogs or websites. Only time will tell whether we have permanently abandoned building places of Christian worship.

Throughout our history, Britain has evolved and grown. Long before the United States was a gleam in anyone’s eye, Britain was a nation of traders, merchants, marauders, innovators, entrepreneurs and immigrants. 

Goods, services, people, ideas, and creativity have, when the country is at its strongest and most vibrant, flowed freely backwards and forwards across our borders. 

Since earliest times, Christianity has helped shape the country itself. Frequently the disagreements and schisms between Christian groups have directly knocked into the political and social direction of the country. 

Today, Christianity may well have less direct political and social impact than it once did but we all need to do better at understanding our past so we can build a more confident and coherent future. This book by Peter Stanford plays an important part in helping us to do just that.