Living Stones: A History of Christ Church Cathedral by Neale Adams, designed by Jemma Biro, Christ Church Cathedral, 144 pages, 2006, $35

"Church histories," the Rev. Arthur Nash once said, "usually put you to sleep. But every now and then, one comes along that keeps you at the edge of your seat." Living Stones by Neale Adams is that kind of book.

It gets off to a fast start: "The city at the western terminus of the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway was going to need more Anglican churches for certain." That opening line sets the pace for what follows. Adams moves the history of Christ Church Cathedral from 1888 to 2006 in crisp, journalistic style-what one would expect from the veteran newsman, whose background includes high profile stints at the Vancouver Sun and BCTV (now Global).

This is the third history of Christ Church Cathedral. The first was written in 1939 by (as she is demurely referred to in the text) Miss Marjorie Allan, daughter of jeweller and onetime people's warden O.B. Allan. The second was written in 1989 by Adams, and he was the obvious choice to bring the story up to date. He knows the Cathedral- its history, its traditions, its parishioners and, perhaps most important, its deans.

Living Stones may be the history that is read far beyond the parish community, for Christ Church Cathedral is at the hot centre of the most controversial diocese in Canada. Not that controversy and crisis are new to the greystone church on Burrard at Georgia. In 1892, Christ Church (not yet the Cathedral) prepared to take the CPR, from which it had purchased its property, to court. In 1971, parishioners voted to replace the old building with a stunning mirrored glass tower, designed by Arthur Erickson, with the Cathedral underground. Many outside the parish, including influential civic and political politicians, were outraged. Among them was Premier W.A.C. Bennett. Power broker Grace McCarthy said, "Tears came to his eyes as he encouraged me to do what I could to save it."

There were crises within the church, as well, most of them through conflicts between those called "low church" people, for whom the church had been built, and those who wished to introduce such "Romish" symbols as a Crucifixion window, sung liturgies, and a cross on the altar. (The altar's previous decoration had been a collection plate, leading people outside the parish to dub Christ Church "St. Alms' Dish.")

Adams tells the story well, often with a droll comment, and he captures some amusing moments (when Dean Jim Cruickshank introduced incense at Christmas midnight mass, it set off the smoke alarm, and the choir processed into the alley).

There are also some very moving passages, particularly the account of Christ Church men, including Rector C.C. Owen and son Harold, serving in World War One. The Owens emerge as two of the most memorable figures in the book, although there have been numerous strong and sui generis players in the Cathedral's history, not least the present dean, Peter Elliott, who is seen in one photograph marching with a Cathedral contingent in the 2001 Gay Pride Parade.

The photographs, archival and contemporary, assembled by Jean O'Clery, many published for the first time, are extraordinarily rich (although one regrets the absence of a photograph of the 1984 sit-in at the Cathedral by the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes). The design, by Jemma Biro, is strong and daring, giving Living Stones something close to a coffee table presence.

Much of the story turns out to be about real estate, money raising and renovations. We learn, in fact, more about renovations than we may need to know. Adams, however, is entertaining on most of this, especially the financial juggling of J.W. Weart in 1894, who devised a plan that involved selling shares in the Christ Church Building Co. and negotiating a mortgage with Sun Life Insurance by allowing Sun Life to write policies on certain church members. "To some it might have seemed a bit of a shell game," writes Adams, "but Weart's scheme worked." St. Alms' Dish, indeed.

There are some names and events one regrets not seeing: no mention of Peter Dent's "Jazz Mass," nor of Francis Nash's introduction of liturgical dance, Rupert Lang's eclectic late-night midsummer festivals, or the opening of the Cathedral to the Gay Games, when Malcolm Boyd (Are You Running With Me, Jesus?) spoke to a packed church and hard line evangelicals called for God's curse on liberal acceptance of the gay celebration.

There are also questions left unanswered; for example, why didn't Archbishop Adam de Pencier appoint Frederick Wilkinson (later a renowned Bishop of Toronto) as Dean of New Westminster when Wilkinson was rector of Christ Church? Of course, Adams can't be faulted for not providing an answer: only de Pencier knows, and he's not talking.

But after turning the last page, the great impression left by Living Stones is how close (despite the absence of sidesmen in striped trousers and morning coats) Christ Church Cathedral has stayed to its original core values: deep faith-no matter how expressed-social activism, lay ministries, and inclusiveness. The Cathedral's motto today is "Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds." This is an echo of the first sermon preached by the first rector of Christ Church, the Rev. H.P. Hobson, who chose as his text this line from Revelation: "I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it." Neale Adams tells us this and much more. Living Stones is living history.

Lyndon Grove is author of the centennial diocesan history, Pacific Pilgrims (1979). He worships at St. Margaret of Scotland, Burnaby. The book is available from Christ Church Cathedral, 604 684-6306.