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A Beloved Tool and its Replacement

By Mark Michael

When my father started as a hardware salesman, his boss handed him the catalog, the essential tool of his trade. Always in the trunk of his car, it was a wonder to me as a child. Nearly a foot thick, it had leather sides with handles, like a suitcase, and plastic tabs in every color imaginable. He carried it with him into dozens of small-town hardware stores across the Great Valley of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, his assigned territory.

These were mostly one- or two-room Main Street shops in creaky old buildings, run by guys named Mitch or Bud, who could sometimes guess what you needed before you asked for help. Small stores like this only stocked so much inventory, and the owners could be pretty sure of what their customers really needed, so sales calls were often social visits as much as anything else. Dad would open the catalog and jot down a few numbers, coming home with some stories for the supper table.

When I was in high school, dad’s company was bought out by one of the nation’s largest hardware distributors. It had put its catalog in the cloud several years earlier, everything matched to SKUs with bar codes. It traded mostly with the “home improvement centers” in growing suburbs, and even the best salesmen could have only really known a fraction of the products in stock. Dad was managing salesmen by then, and I never heard him complain about the changes. But he didn’t tell as many stories, and he never threw away that catalog.

Like Dad, I have relied on books as tools of my trade, in over 17 years of ordained ministry, I’ve worn out a few. I’m on to my second Bible and prayer book. The new copies are exactly the same, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music having moved more slowly than I had once feared. My new St. Augustine’s Prayer Book has borne real spiritual fruit.

But I’m more ambivalent about the new edition of the closest equivalent to Dad’s big catalog, the hefty volume I was taught to call “Betsy’s Book of Spells.” “Betsy” was Miss Elizabeth A. Livingstone, editor of the third edition of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and assistant to the great F.L. Cross in drafting the first two. She died early this year at 93.

I knew her during my days as a theological student at Oxford, in that way shy Anglican worshipers sometimes know each other. We had recited the Psalter and received the Sacrament together scores of times at the cathedral and the chapel of Pusey House, but we’d never actually spoken to each other. She was dignified and impeccably dressed, one of the last women I knew who invariably wore a hat in church, and she was one of us. Around Pusey’s post-Mass breakfast table there was no higher authority in academic matters — “Just look it up in Betsy’s Book of Spells.”

It does rather look like a book of spells. At 1,784 pages, it was the largest book I had ever bought (at Unsworth’s Bookshop on Turl Street, on Ascension Eve 2001, according to my note on the endpaper). It is mostly black (like its obvious model, The Oxford Classical Dictionary) except for some ghostly images of late medieval stained glass from Ely Cathedral on the jacket.

Between its pages, a world was conjured, one imbued with “the old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone,” in Cardinal Henry Manning’s scornful phrase. Around the breakfast table or across the choir stalls, my friends and I believed ourselves to still belong to that world, rooted in rigorous study of fathers, a love of splendid liturgy, and deep ecumenical yearnings.

Andrew Louth, whose editing of the fourth edition was clearly a labor of love, noted a few of the distinct markers of that once familiar tone. Cross’s entry on the Church of England began with the Council of Arles in 314, while the English Reformation was brushed away as “an insular process responsive to peculiar and social forces.” There was no entry on the Anglican Communion at all. Patristic and medieval figures and controversies are covered exhaustively, while modern Protestantism was barely mentioned, and Christianity in the Global South summarized mainly in missionary biographies.

Louth’s edition signals a shift with cover images of an eighth-century Egyptian icon and a Chinese Nestorian stele. The now two-volume work includes articles on hundreds of new topics, especially in global Christianity. An author is listed for each article, and these include hundreds of outstanding scholars across the English-speaking world. A scan of its coverage of some Tractarian worthies showed somewhat shorter and less hagiographical, but nonetheless comprehensive, entries. The Church of England article still begins in the patristic age, but it gets to Henry VIII by the third sentence. There is still some charming insular bias: England’s 40,000-member United Reformed Church gets its own entry, but the Southern Baptist Convention, approximately 341 times larger, does not.

It’s difficult to fault any of the individual entries, and this edition will be most helpful in the new ground it has broken. Carefully vetted reference material about Asian and African Christianity is not easy to find — though it will also age quickly. Some bibliographies are far too long, but many are carefully keyed to major developments in the study of their subjects.

The new edition is certainly a feat, but I wonder if it can still be a tool of the trade, a beloved companion like its predecessors, which Cross hoped would find a place on the shelf of every parsonage in England — note the limits to his aspirations. My old copy has battered corners and coffee stains, bits of paper stuck between the pages and the occasional marginal rejoinder — relics of hundreds of lectures and queries begun between its pages, signs of a persistent craftsman being formed by his tool.

At $225, the new dictionary would have been a tool beyond my reach as a young seminarian, and the smaller type (across 2,143 pages) probably reflects an assumption that most readers will get to know it in digital form, thoroughly hyperlinked (like dad’s new catalog). It seems aimed at the library reference market, like so many other overpriced and under-edited encyclopedias and dictionaries these days, written for no one in particular. Oxford University Press is a world player in the publishing industry, and no marketing expert designs a strategy based on Anglican parsonages.

Tools, at least beloved ones, usually come from somewhere in particular. They bear the marks of a bounded community of practitioners, who have by long habit learned to choose some ways of doing things over others. In a world that prizes inclusion for good reasons and is saturated with information for bad reasons, good tools are harder and harder to find. I will keep both editions on my shelf, side by side. When I need to know more about African Pentecostalism, I will know where to turn. But for the most part, I’ll stick with the tool I know and love best.

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