The Church and the law (Studies in Church History 56)

As seems to have become something of a tradition on this blog, I note the recent appearance of this year’s issue of Studies in Church History, the product of the 2018 conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Cambridge, and the 2019 meeting in London. As the required length of articles in SCH is gradually becoming longer, so the number of papers included has fallen, and my ready reckoning suggests that the volume includes perhaps a third of the papers presented. Since the transition of the journal to Cambridge University Press, my usual listing of the papers is no longer necessary, since titles and abstracts are all available online. I don’t propose to review the volume as such, since the 27 papers range from late antiquity to the present, and across several nations, although not (as is common with SCH) from north America. But there is one particular point of note.

As Rosamond McKitterick notes in her introduction, part of the stimulus for her choice of theme for the volume (in her capacity as EHS president) was the disjuncture (in the UK) between the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and the canon law of the Church of England. And it is striking how much of the attention of historians of the UK since 1945 (and perhaps elsewhere too), when paying attention to religion at all, has been taken up with what we might call the ‘moral law’, and the degree to which ‘secularisation’ (whatever we mean by the term) has entailed the emptying of the law of specifically Christian moral content. And there is now a substantial literature on the churches and the law, in relation to abortion, capital punishment, divorce, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in the Sexual Offences Act 1967).

What strikes me about this new SCH volume, however, is how little attention there is paid to issues of morality, in fact. Only one article – on illegitimate births in 19th and 20th century Austria – addresses the topic directly, and in the twentieth century (for the UK) there is only a brief discussion by Peter W. Edge of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 that comes close to the topic.  Instead, issues of the narrow relation of church and state (both nationally and locally) and the toleration of religious minorities tend to dominate.

This is no reflection whatever on the Society or the editors of the volume, since they can only publish what they are offered, and the balance of the papers at the 2018 conference, at least, was not significantly different. I can’t speak for the early modern or medieval periods, but I suspect that for the twentieth century at least, this points to a certain gap between the concerns of scholars within the orbit of the Society – which tend to be specifically ecclesiastical – and the writing on broader social and political history in which religious questions are not always well enough integrated. This is not a new insight, but this volume is another illustration of it.