Review of “The Church of the East and the Church of England: A History of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission”

The Church of the East and the Church of England: A History of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission

By J F Coakley, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992

Review by Graham Kings for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol 18 No 2, April 1994, republished with permission


Coakley is an unusual combination of New Testament scholar and mission historian; the language of Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, provides the link. Formerly of Lancaster University, England, he is now senior lecturer in Near Eastern languages at Harvard.

He has produced the first study of this Anglo-Catholic, nonproselytizing mission, which worked for educational and theological renewal in the ancient “Nestorian” church effectively from 1880 to 1915 (eventually closing down in 1938). It is remarkable for its archival detective work, scholarly precision, and appreciative tone.

The book is the fruit of ten years’ study which included sorting and arranging chronologically his primary sources, the Assyrian Mission Papers in Lambeth Palace Library, London. He has also listened to the other side of the story, “the rival missionaries from America, France, and Russia; often the Syrians themselves; the Kurds; and the Muslim population and governments of Persia and Turkey” (p. 3).

The church is Syrian linguistically not geographically. It covers a mountainous area, 200 kilometers east to west, straddling what was then the Turkey and Persian border, including Azerbaijan. Coakley diplomatically avoids the popular name “Nestorian Church” (fiercely rejected by its members) but considers it is “Nestorian” by nature.

There are some wonderful photographs and fascinating footnotes. Henry Layard, then attached to the British embassy in Constantinople, illustrates the problems of mission and unity when writing to the Morning Chronicle (London), September 5, 1843, concerning the American Presbyterians:

Had the Church of England cooperated with them as Protestant Christians, instead of opposing them as heretical enemies, the disasters which we have described would not have occurred; as it is, one of the most ancient and most interesting sects in the world...has been sacrificed to the religious quarrels of American Independents, English Puseyites, and French Roman Catholics” (p. 373).

In the fine bibliography mention is not made of an important two-volume work by Joseph Masters, The Nestorians and Their Rituals in 1842-1844 (London, 1852). This records how, in 1842, George Percy Badger, the key early figure in the Anglican-Church of the East link, visited the tomb of Henry Martyn, the pioneer Anglican missionary translator. He was shown the tomb in Tokat, Armenia, by the Armenian Orthodox priest who had buried Martyn in 1812. Badger “lifted up a secret prayer that God in His mercy would raise up many a like spirit to labour among the benighted Modammedans of the East.” Perhaps this was a formative event for the later Assyrian Mission, in which renewal was mean to help the Assyrians evangelize their surrounding Muslims?


Dr Graham Kings, now Bishop of Sherborne, wrote this review in 1994 for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Fulcrum is republishing it, with permission, in the light of the current crisis in the Middle East.

1 thought on “Review of “The Church of the East and the Church of England: A History of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission””

  1. Few Western Christians know that most of the believers in their faith were once east of the Roman Empire. The Church of the East, as we call these Assyrians today, was a vast Asian church with dioceses in the heart of Asia, monasteries in the early Chinese capital of Xian, and translators proficient, not only in the biblical languages, but in Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese. Its vast territory testifies to the effectiveness of missions that combined monastic discipline, intellectual sophistication, and evangelistic zeal. However, it was and is the most persecuted of churches, decimated by Chinese emperors and Islamic armies. The Aramaic-speaking Christians who are fleeing the Middle East are their kin. Chinese Christians meeting in the western provinces of China are reclaiming the ancient heart of Christendom.

Leave a comment