Studies in Church History 52: the Church and doubt

Once again, I’m delighted to receive today the latest volume in Studies in Church History, published by the Ecclesiastical History Society (and now with Cambridge University Press.)

I’m a great fan of Studies as a series, and have indeed published four articles in the series myself. Partly dependent on the theme that is chosen, the number of articles on the twentieth century very much varies from year to year, and this year is a lean one. Volume 51 last year had no fewer than ten articles on the twentieth century; this year there is just the one: Kirstie Blair on the religious sonnet in the nineteenth and twentieth century, including the poets Geoffrey Hill and Carol Ann Duffy.

This is not to criticise the Society: they may of course only publish the articles that are offered. But I wonder why it is that the theme of doubt seems to have exercised scholars of the twentieth century so little, given the scholarly energy expended on questions of secularisation.

Religion in Web history: a survey

I am currently working on a chapter contribution to the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History, edited by Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Niels Brugger and Ian Milligan. Although the inclusion of the paper is subject to peer review, here’s my abstract. It should appear some time in late 2017.

“This chapter seeks both to assess the state of current scholarship on online religion, and to suggest potential directions for future research. There are now 20 years of research in the field of Internet Studies in relationship to religious organisations, faith and practice. However, it is less clear that this body of work yet represents a specifically historical inquiry about religion on the Web, although it will in many cases provide the foundation of such work. Much of the research to date has concentrated on the nature of emerging communities of individuals: communities that were either an alternative or a supplement to face-to-face relations in particular localities. This chapter draws out trends emerging in this scholarship over the 25 years of Web history, as the affordances of the Web have developed. Attention has also been paid to the balance of institutional authority and individual self-expression in a religious space that is unregulated, or at least that must be regulated in new ways. The chapter asks how far this scholarship may be integrated into wider histories of offline religious authority and practice, which have themselves undergone shifts and transformations of perhaps equal significance.

“Rather less prominent in the literature so far is the institutional history of religion. Making use of the archived Web in particular, the chapter sketches the outline of a new area of inquiry: the evolution of the religious web sphere, both as a global whole, within each of the global religions and denominations, and at a national level. To what degree has the nature of the Web, a decentralised international network system which contrasts with the hierarchical nature of most religious organisations, moulded the religious web sphere into a different shape? Early studies in this area have suggested that, in certain key ways, the religious web sphere can be read as a reimplementation of older structures of influence, attention and esteem that were visible before, and remain visible offline. Insofar as the religious web does not mirror the traditional offline structure of religious organisations, the chapter also reflects on how far this changed shape may be accounted for by broader trends in religious history, in a period of rapid change. How far does it relate to the recent history of religion in the media more generally?

“At a more abstract level, the chapter will attend to the degree to which the myths of the Web, and indeed of the whole Internet – of a pluralistic, idealistic, liberating force with an agency of its own – have shaped understandings of the Web’s religious history. It examines how far the last quarter century has really been a period of rupture and discontinuity, and how much has in fact stayed the same, or continued on a path on which it was set before the Web appeared. It will also assess how far the field has so far been focussed to excess on the new, to the neglect of understanding the histories of how practices and technologies that were once new become mainstream.

New resources in Lambeth Palace Library

In what has become a traditional annual post, here are some highlights from the Lambeth Palace Library annual review, just published.

For those interested in modern ecumenical history, recently catalogued are the files from the Church of England’s Council for Foreign Relations relating to Roman Catholic national churches in several European countries, including Austria, Belgium and France. A recent accession (but not yet catalogued) are the records of the Nikaean Club, set up by Archbishop Davidson in 1925 to promote ecumenical relations.

Two other things also caught my eye in particular. Papers relating to Terry Waite, Robert Runcie’s special envoy to the Middle East who spent five years in captivity after being kidnapped in Beirut in 1987, are now available. Most intriguing are the papers of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, which issued in the controversial Faith in the City report in 1985, also now catalogued and available.

We all lost the referendum on the EU

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have steered clear of political topics before now, wanting it to remain a vehicle for my professional writings, either on history or on digital scholarship. I’m making an exception for the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and here’s why.

Politics involves spin, a certain amount of exaggeration, the presentation of the most favourable interpretation of a situation. We understand this, I think; and (as Evgeny Morozov has argued) political life is probably impossible without it. In order to carry large groups of people with them, politicians must be able to make broad claims, about political philosophy and the likelihood of certain future events. That they are open to dispute is no intrinsic difficulty.

I voted Remain, and believe the result to be potentially catastrophic for the UK, and potentially very damaging for the rest of Europe. However, the Remain camp were certainly guilty of some exaggeration in some cases, about the potential economic meltdown that Brexit would cause (although as I write the FTSE 250 share index is more than 10% down in two days’ trading, and the pound at a 30-year low against the US dollar.) However, I think the conduct of the Leave campaign is of a different order.

VoteLeave_Turkey

Time after time, Leave campaigners made verifiably untrue statements about the present situation, and about clearly known facts about the future. Penny Mordaunt MP, a minister of the Crown, repeatedly insisted on live television that the UK would be unable to veto Turkish membership of the EU, a matter publicly contradicted by her own party leader, the Prime Minister. And this was not a momentary confusion: the same claim is made by the poster below.

VoteLeave_bus

I could multiply example after example of these, but will rest with the worst of them all: the £350million figure that the UK supposedly pays to the EU budget each week. Journalist after journalist challenged the number over several weeks, as the true figure after the rebate the UK receives is about half that. Time after time the Leavers insisted on it, even after the UK Statistics Authority, about as impartial as they come, expressed disappointment that the figure was still being used, and that to do so ‘undermines trust in official statistics’. But no, still the posters stayed up, and there it was, still on the Leave battle bus as they arrived for the big debate at Wembley Arena 36 hours before polls opened.

VoteLeave_350million

I shall not go into the way in which these and other claims have been breezily disowned in the days since the result, in a show of reckless frivolity that characterised the campaign generally. My point is that this kind of downright lying poisons the wells for the whole of our political culture, for everyone, whether you voted Remain or Leave. It further fuels precisely the cynicism about politics that seems to have behind some of the paranoid rumours that circulated before the vote that it might be rigged. And it adds to the righteous anger of many of the 48% who are disappointed by the result, but might have accepted it otherwise. I wish I had a easy remedy: a way to repair the damage done to the fabric of our public discourse, but right now I don’t have it. Leaver or Remainer, we all lost on Thursday.

Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Oxford, June 9th

Details of a lecture I shall give next week:

Title: Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008

Date: Thursday, 9th June, 1pm
Venue: Weston Library Lecture Theatre, University of Oxford
Booking details: booking is advisable but not essential. It’s free.

Abstract: The decade following the turn of the millennium may have seen an epochal shift in the nature of the discussion of religion in public life in the UK. The 9/11 attacks in the USA, and the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 prompted an outpouring of anxiety concerning the place of Islam in British society. The period also saw the coming to prominence of the ‘New Atheism’ associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The uniquely privileged position of Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, was also under greater scrutiny than had been the case for decades.

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

This paper examines a crucial episode of public controversy closely connected to each of these trends: a lecture given in 2008 by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the accommodation of Islamic sharia law into British law. Using archived web content from the UK Web Archive, held by the British Library, it examines the controversy as it played out on the UK web. It argues that the episode prompted a step-change in both the levels of attention paid to the archbishop’s web domain, and a broadening of the types of organisation which took notice of him. At the same time, it also suggests that the historic media habit of privileging the public statements of the archbishop over those of any other British faith leader was extended onto the web.

The paper uses techniques of both close and distant reading: on the one hand, aggregate link analysis of the whole .uk web domain, and on the other hand, micro analysis of individual domains and pages. In doing so, it demonstrates some of the various ways in which contemporary historians will very soon need to use the archived web to address older questions in a new way, in a new context of super-abundant data.

On the relationship between Christian biographer and subject

Bernard Crick, in his biography of George Orwell, thought that the task of the biographer required ‘a prolonged and strange mixture of love and critical distance, of commitment and restraint.’ (George Orwell. A life, p.xxx ) In the last couple of years I’ve published one book about a leading catholic member (and indeed archbishop) of the Church of England in the post-war period, and am deep into the writing of another one. Michael Ramsey retired as archbishop of Canterbury in 1974; Walter Hussey retired as dean of Chichester in 1977. And I recently fell to reflecting on the differences between the two projects, and what one might call my relationship with my two subjects.

The quality of the biographer’s relationship with his subject is different to that of the author writing on a theme or an event. The engagement is somehow more personal, and I think that applies even if the book is more concerned with a career than with a whole life, as mine are. At base one is concerned to assess the doings of a single human being, and so it is difficult (if not indeed impossible) to avoid making judgements on the subject’s success or failure. And even once one allows for their imperfect information, their being a creature of their environment,, there is still a space for judgement of their inherent capabilities, strengths, faults and weaknesses. And it is here that a degree of personal affinity (or lack of it) begins to enter the equation.

After having lived with Ramsey for a period of years, and having tried to assess his work in its totality, I came to admire the man. Why ? It is in part because there is a consistency of motive and aim that can be discerned across his actions, and (quite importantly) that motive appeals to me as a Christian. Ramsey was to his core a worshipper of Christ, and a witness for the Gospel, and that informed everything from his patronage of the Royal School of Church Music to his interventions about immigration or capital punishment.

Things are different with Walter Hussey, however. Hussey was a key figure in Anglican patronage of the arts, with a remarkable series of commissions to his name and who emboldened many others to do the same. By and large I am much in sympathy with that aim. However, I don’t think it a central concern of the churches at all times and all places; or at least, I cannot give the religious arts the kind of central place that Hussey evidently did. And, as I shall argue in the book, there is considerable evidence that, as a result, Hussey neglected other and arguably more important parts of his role as dean of Chichester. To be frank, there is also a queasiness induced in me by the rather fawning attention Hussey seems to paid to all “top people”, not just artists and musicians. There have been times where I been frustrated, irritated or bored by him, in a way that I never found with Michael Ramsey.

Most readers will be familiar with more than one example of life writing where the love and commitment to one’s subject to which Crick referred spills over into something more closely approaching hagiography. Less common is the spectacular falling out of love that is evident in one biography of the novelist Anthony Burgess: a project that began as an exercise in literary fandom but became (for one reviewer) a “poison-pen letter” marked by a “kind of petulant, triumphal vindictiveness.” What would it mean if biographers were to think of their task in terms of a sense of relationship with their subject: a relationship that involved a commitment, that incurred responsibilities? As historian of religion John Fea noted recently on Twitter, “people in the past are defenceless. They are at the mercy of the historian. We must be careful about how we use such power.”

At this point there are some resources in the Christian tradition. Rowan Williams, in his splendid little book Why study the past? makes the point that both the Christian historian and those Christians whom (s)he studies are caught in a ‘network of relations, organised around the pivotal relation with Jesus and his relation with God, into which Christians are inducted’ (p.29): in other words, we are both members of the Body of Christ. As such, the Christian historian has just the same relationship with a Christian in sixteenth century Germany as with one in present-day Africa or London. This would suggest that the historian has the same responsibility to Christians of previous ages as we would more easily recognise as existing with Christians living. And, if I am frustrated or irritated by my subject, then I must work at that relationship, as it were, just as much as with a living person.

If this seems abstruse (and it may), there are further resources with which to think about the issue, that more readily help with historical writing by and about those who are not Christians. We might fruitfully think of the historian’s duty in terms of what is often referred to as the Golden Rule: do as you would be done to. Were the roles to be reversed, and I found myself the subject of a biography, I should be prepared to accept the prospect of my own faults and failings being laid bare, but not that I should be treated unfairly overall. I would want to think that, once I laid aside any defensiveness about my own life and any concern about protecting a reputation, I would be able to accept how my life had been written as a just assessment. This would suggest that we should write history as if our subject was able to read what we write.

Who is religious history for, anyway?

It’s now just over a year since my book on Michael Ramsey was published, and there has been a series of reviews, all of them more or less favourable. Between them, though, they have pointed up quite sharply a question that faces the historian of the contemporary church: for whom, exactly, are we writing? Consider this passage, from Sam Brewitt-Taylor in Reviews in History:

‘It seems worth stating at the outset that, from a historian’s point of view, The Shape of the Church’s evaluative focus does not seem very fruitful. As Webster fully recognises, evaluation is closely dependent on whichever partisan criteria the historian might happen to be using (p. 133), and readers will accept or dismiss such evaluations depending on whether they like the criteria or not.(2) Webster takes the only sensible way out of this problem, which is to organise his book’s concluding historiographical summary by political and theological outlook, distinguishing between radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary views of Ramsey (pp. 135–6). Yet since these distinctions are primarily about morality, and only secondarily about Ramsey, it would have been preferable to have transcended such debates by using a more historically-grounded framing question. As it was, the evaluative focus took up space which might otherwise have allowed Webster’s unique expertise to engage at length with the strictly historical questions surrounding Ramsey’s tenure.’
Ramsey - cover
I would accept entirely that this is a legitimate criticism to make from the point of view of the academic study of history. But the irony is that, amongst another section of the readership of the book, it is precisely this evaluation that is required. The questions are asked: was Ramsey right or wrong to have done something, or not to have done something? Is the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican church, and indeed Britain as a whole, in a better or worse position now as a result of his actions and omissions? What might the contemporary churches learn from his experience? These are different questions, to be sure, but they are certainly questions that are asked, by those in the churches to whom the current state of British and world Christianity is a matter of real importance.

For evidence of this, see two other reviews: one in the TLS and in particular that in the Church Times, both by senior Anglican clergy. ‘As you read Webster’, wrote Peter Sedgwick in the TLS, “the debates and challenges become contemporary, and you wonder how the Archbishop’s staff will swerve around the next pothole in the road. [The book] has brought [its] in some ways unworldly subject alive in a vivid and well-documented way. It is good to hear Ramsey’s voice again. His vision of a Reformed Catholicism lives on, despite everything [my italics].” Graham James in the Church Times was less sanguine about Ramsey’s legacy, but was in no doubt that it was still felt. Ramsey’s moves to win for the Church of England greater self-governance led to it becoming “increasingly captive to its own internal political factions. Ramsey seems to have been innocent to this possibility…… His grasp of ecclesiastical politics was immeasurably weaker, and his interest even less. We suffer from the consequences still [my italics].” It is also this kind of evaluation that is required by the media, such as this piece of mine commissioned by the religion section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Religion and Ethics). (see the discussion thread, and a similar one on the same article here.)

At base, the book was trying to show that Ramsey had a coherent theological vision of the nature of the church, to which all of his actions can be related. I am also convinced that the model of church-in-relation-to-culture that he offered is a more sustainable one in the conditions of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century west, and that he was ahead of many of his contemporaries in seeing the need for a transition in that direction. Perhaps to make such a statement is to step out of the legitimate territory of the historian, but to write the history of the contemporary church is always to walk that particular line. Such evaluation is what a significant proportion of the readership seems to require. There is a certain irony in that for academic writing to reach those outside the academy in this way might (in some other disciplines) be described as “impact”, an altogether Good Thing.

(For a particularly acute statement of the dilemma, see my review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History, and his response, and also my review of Alister Chapman on John Stott.)