What has Christianity ever done for us ?

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed as part of (or in lieu of) a sermon at the church of which I am a member, Chichester Baptist Church. The subject was ‘What has Christianity done for our society?’ which needs to be read as if it were the famous Monty Python line “what have the Romans ever done for us”

At one level, I was delighted to be asked to be part of this. I think that the churches have often struggled to find a way to use the historical expertise that they often have locally within congregations, as well as nationally. I was delighted to be of service in this way; and the feedback was so good that I am contemplating a short course of evening classes for the church members to follow it up.

At the same time, if you were to listen to the podcast below, you will hear the sound of a Christian historian crossing from the safe ground of the academy, to the altogether more risky territory of relating Christian history to the present concerns of a lay audience. Given the need to say general things across a very long period in a very short time, expert listeners will also find that almost everything I said could be challenged or qualified in some way. However, I still think that despite this, it was a useful exercise, and so I make it available here. I’m on from about 7 minutes.



Michael Ramsey and Anglican evangelicals: new article

The pleasure of picking a new book up off the doormat never seems to diminish, and so it is with this new book on Anglican evangelicalism in the twentieth century, in which I have a chapter on Michael Ramsey and evangelicals in the Church of England. The chapter isn’t available Open Access anywhere, for various reasons, (although I’d be happy to share the PDF offline) and so here’s a summary of my argument, which runs as follows:Maiden Atherstone - cover

(i) that although Ramsey was no evangelical, his time as archbishop was also a crucial period of transition in evangelicals’ view of themselves and of how they should relate to the wider church;

(ii) that Ramsey has too often been assumed to have either indifferent or actively hostile to evangelical concerns, mainly because of a reputation fostered by one episode, the “fundamentalism controversy” of the mid-1950s;

(iii) that this understanding of Ramsey was a product of a wider relationship of tension between evangelicals and the wider church, a story which has since been told in terms of dogged evangelical persistence in the face of calculated marginalisation from the hierarchy;

(iv) that despite all this, Ramsey in fact enjoyed good working relationships and indeed friendships with many within the liberal or centrist parts of the evangelical constituency, including men such as Max Warren;

(v) that early contact with conservative evangelicals was tentative, but that there was a marked change in atmosphere after the safe passage through Parliament of the Vesture of Ministers Measure in 1964 (of which more here);

(vi) that despite evangelical wariness of Ramsey in relation to the more ‘political’ aspects of the church, he was nonetheless viewed as clearly orthodox in his theology; and that there were several points of sympathetic contact between Ramsey and evangelical theology, in relation to the Cross, his concern for evangelism, and his emphasis on personal holiness. Much of this was connected to Ramsey’s own Congregational background;

(vii) that there was a difference of emphasis in relation to method, in that what some evangelicals saw as doctrinal ‘clarity’ and a willingness to contend for the truth was to Ramsey evidence of intellectual rigidity and an unwilingness really to engage openly with anyone holding an opposing view;

(viii) that an examination of the Ramsey Papers shows clearly that, even if there was mutual distrust between wings of the church, there is no evidence of deliberate efforts by the central institutions of the Church to keep evangelicals from positions of influence. This was the case with the appointment of bishops (a favourite bone of contention) and membership of the Church Assembly, as well as with the memberships of the many commissions and working groups set up to consider difficult issues. It was also the case in relation to the failed scheme for Anglican-Methodist unity.

The article concludes that the persistent story in evangelical folklore of exclusion from the corridors of power in this period cannot be grounded in fact. The continued existence of this explanatory myth tells us as much about (some) evangelicals’ view of themselves as it does about the actual workings of the Church of England.

Review: Society and the Internet

Earlier this month I wrote again for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence.

Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives.
Mark Graham and William H. Dutton (eds.)
Oxford University Press, 2014.

The word ‘revolution’ is at a discount when it comes to discussing the impact of the internet, but current reactions to what is undoubtedly far-reaching and permanent change fit a longer pattern. Societies in the midst of rapid technological change often perceive the change as both radical and unprecedented. Previous technological shifts in communication have before been greeted in the same way as the internet, being understood in terms of utopia and dystopia. For some, the internet is a new technology in the vanguard of the inexorable progress of such abstract nouns as Freedom and Democracy. It dissolves the power of old elites, putting the power to communicate, publish, mobilize and do business in the hands of any who should want it. For others, it provides dark corners in which criminality may flourish out of reach of traditional law enforcement. It undermines the business models of cherished institutions, saps our powers of concentration, and indeed threatens the alteration of our very brains in none-too-positive ways.

These two mutually contradictory narratives have one trait in common: a naïve technological determinism. Both stories radically overestimate the degree to which new technologies have inherent dynamics in single and obvious directions, and similarly underestimate the force of the social, economic and political contexts in which real human beings design, implement and use new applications to serve existing needs and desires. It is the great strength of this stimulating collection of essays that at every turn it brings such high-flown imaginings back to the bench of empirical research on the observable behaviours of people and the information systems they use. Given the rapidity of the changes under discussion – the commercialised internet is only now reaching the age of an undergraduate student, as it were, with social media still in junior school – this kind of very contemporary history meets sociology, geography, computer science and many other disciplines in a still fluid interdisciplinary space.

The volume is very much the product of the Oxford Internet Institute, with all but six of the thirty-one contributors being associated with the institute in some way. The twenty-three essays are arranged into five thematic sections: everyday life; information and culture, politics and governments; business, industry and economics; and internet regulation and governance. Whilst the grouping is convenient as an orientation to the reader, the effect of the book is best experienced as a whole, as several themes emerge again and again. In this review I examine just three of many such themes.

One such is the complex geographies of the web. Gillian Bolsover and colleagues examine the shifting geographic centre of gravity of internet use. The proportion of total users who were located in the United States fell from two thirds to one third in a decade, and the proportion in Asia grew from a tiny 5% to nearly half over the same period. Bolsover and colleagues find that this shift in numbers is accompanied by distinctive geographic variations in the uses that users make of their internet, and attitudes to its regulation. Reading this chapter in conjunction with that by Mark Graham would suggest that these patterns of use map only loosely onto patterns of knowledge production (the “digital division of labour” between nations). These patterns of production in turn relate only inexactly with patterns of representation of places online; the “data shadows” fall unevenly. That said, the Global South both produces a small proportion of the content online, and is itself underrepresented as the subject of that content.

Many businesses, and media businesses in particular, have found the last ten years a time of particular uncertainty about the impact of the internet on long-established ways of doing business. Economists will be interested in two chapters which seek to address some of these issues. Sung Wook Ji and David Waterman examine the recent history of media companies in the United States, and point out a steady fall in revenues, and a shift from a reliance on revenue from advertising, to direct payment by consumers. Greg Taylor’s valuable essay examines the ending of the traditional economic difficulty of scarcity of goods by the advent of an almost limitless abundance of content online. This has created a different theoretical problem to be understood: the scarcity of attention that consumers can pay to that content.

Perhaps the most coherent section in the book is that on government and politics. Several governments (mostly amongst those western nations that were the early adopters of the internet) have placed considerable hope on online delivery of government services, and on social media as new means of engagement with voters. At the same time, both the chapters by Margetts, Hale and Yasseri, and by Dubois and Dutton examine the uses made by individuals of electronic means to organise and to influence government independently of, and indeed in opposition to, the agenda of that government. Governments have often expected greater benefits and lower costs from e-government; and political activists have tended to lionise the role of the self-organising ‘Fifth Estate’ of networked individuals to which Dubois and Dutton point. These five chapters situate all these hopes firmly in empirical examination of the interaction of politics, culture and technology in specific contexts.

Individually, the essays in this volume are uniformly strong: lucid, cogent and concise, and accompanied with useful lists of further reading. As a whole, the volume prompts fertile reflections on the method and purpose of the new discipline of Internet Studies. The volume will be of great interest to readers in many disciplines and at all levels from undergraduate upwards.

New sources at Lambeth Palace Library, 2014

Some twentieth century highlights from the latest Report of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library:

(i) a note on the cataloguing of the papers of John Stott, funded by Stott himself and his executors. There’s more on the LPL site, and on their blog when the cataloguing was finished.

(ii) newly catalogued files from the Council on Foreign Relations, including key dialogues between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. These began before the Second Vatican Council; became the Joint Preparatory Commission (1967), and in turn the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The papers touch on many of the most difficult issues of the time, including ‘mixed marriages’

(iii) amongst the papers of the archbishops, the series reaches 1983, and Robert Runcie’s view on nuclear weapons and his visit to China as part of a delegation of the British Council of Churches.

(iv) the papers of Joseph McCulloch, rector of St Mary-le-Bow (London) and instigator of the weekly public debates in the 1960 and 1970s known as the Bow Dialogues.

Religion and the household: Studies in Church History, 50

A recent arrival on the doormat is this year’s volume of Studies in Church History, from the Ecclesiastical History Society. The amount of twentieth century material in Studies tends to vary with the theme of each volume, and this year is relatively small. However, there are two essays of note:

(i) Andrew Atherstone’s piece on Raymond Johnston, leading light of the Nationwide Festival of Light. Johnston is something of a heroic figure amongst some parts of the evangelical community in the UK (see this paper by David Holloway). It is very good to see Johnston, and the NFOL, getting scholarly attention. (See also this on the NFOL by Amy Whipple.

(ii) Callum G. Brown on the oral history of women leaving religion. Brown shows that the terms in which these journeys away from the churches are narrated are heavily gendered. It can be read very much as the companion piece to his essay in Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s recent collection on men, masculinities and religion.

Men, masculinities and religious change

Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan (eds), Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)


I just sent off my review of this collection of essays, edited by Lucy Delap of King’s College London and Sue Morgan of the University of Chichester. When that review appears in Gender and History, readers will see that I thought it a uniformly strong collection, and left me

‘with the strong impression that masculinity is one of the most neglected analytic lenses through which the history of British religion in the twentieth century should be viewed. Religious historians have long tended to concentrate on other fault lines: between denominations within individual faiths, particularly the Christian churches; and between each of the Christian churches and the secular, however it may be defined. In more recent years, a reckoning has been made with the effects of the post-war growth of the other world faiths; but this in itself has tended to focus on the interaction of the faith of these new arrivals from the Commonwealth and the Christianity of the receiving population, and with the secular state. […] even in the very recent debates about integration and ‘community relations’, the Muslim Other has been viewed as monolithic, rather than as a collection of communities of different ethnicities, geographic origins, genders and sexualities.

Delap Morgan ‘There has of course been significant work on the ‘muscular Christianity’ of the nineteenth century, such as that by Dominic Erdozain on sport, but this analysis has rarely been carried forward into the twentieth century. And where secularisation in the twentieth century has been analysed in gender terms, such as in the seminal work of Callum Brown, it has been about women, as home-makers, educators of children, carriers of culture.

Of the eleven essays, five examine Christian themes. They are:

  • Alana Harris on the Catenian Association, a lay-led group for Roman Catholic men
  • Lucy Delap on the Church of England, and the Church of England Men’s Society in particular;
  • Sue Morgan on the Scottish writer and minister of the inter-war years, Herbert Gray;
  • Timothy W. Jones on the Church of England and homosexuality
  • Sean Brady on Protestant and Catholic masculinities in Northern Ireland

It also contains essays on Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu themes, as well as an essay from Callum G. Brown on non-religion, which is yet to properly become a unit of analysis in its own right and not simply a residual category, of absence rather than presence.

My main criticism of the volume was that some of the essays seem to document the activities of groups of religious men without fully getting to grips with those activities as intrinsically gendered in and of themselves. There was also more than one essay that lacked a clear distinction between ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘Protestant’; overlapping but distinct categories often unhelpfully elided.

Despite this, the volume is a good example of the best kind of edited collection, that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Summer 1914: an exhibition

While in Paris last month I had the chance to visit the splendid exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, on ‘Summer 1914’ (Été 14), which reflects on the First World War, as do so many other events and exhibitions at the moment.

One can feel the early signs of over-exposure to WWI, with a number of months still to go until the anniversary of the outbreak on 28 July. Nonetheless, I wanted to draw attention to this stunning exhibition. Its effect is sobering, melancholy perhaps, and the effect is achieved without any of the usual props and devices of Grand Guerre remembrance, and is all the more effective for it. Without a trench or or a mannequin in uniform to be seen, it weaves its spell.

It is confined in scope to the period immediately before 28 July, and the few days that followed, and succeeds triumphantly in evoking a civilisation sleep-walking into a catastrophe that only a few could imagine, and that only dimly. In the long summer of 1914, travellers still took the Chemin de Fer du Nord to resorts such as Boulogne-sur-Mer; paysans continued to make hay while the Parisian elite partied in the parks; and a Frenchman won the London Marathon. Not all is calm –  suffragette agitation is one sign of gears grinding – but Europe’s interlocked monarchies had, it seemed, little to fear from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – a little local difficulty.

Even once war had begun, this exhibition shows all sides marching resolutely backwards into the conflict. There are manuals of troop movements here, cavalry techniques and siege warfare, reflections on colonial wars past. Old understandings of old enemies are pressed into service again: one cartoon shows Thor, the ‘most barbarous of all the gods of the old Germany ‘(‘la plus barbare d’entre les barbares divinités de la vielle Germanie.’) There was also a revival of older Christian means of sanctifying the fallen, a cult of martyrs ‘pour le patrie’ and their ‘glorious mourning’.

As one might expect, interweaved with the diplomatic correspondence and other official documentation are sources from writers and artists: Romain Rolland, André Gide, de Chateaubriand and others are represented here. But the exhibition neatly avoids any easy implication that artists were any more perceptive of the horrors to come. Thomas Mann could write in 1914 of a coming war as ‘une purification, une libération’, even an immense hope.

If you were to find yourself in Paris before 3 August with a couple of hours to spare, don’t miss this exhibition.