Visualising English theology in edited collections

Regular readers will remember that in recent years I have become interested in the history of religious publishing. It is the point at which religious history most closely meets a slightly separate interest in the history of technology. It is also an area in which digital tools and methods come into their own. Today I want to talk a little about a particular project, on the history of the edited collection of essays as a publishing format.

In other posts I’ve tried to show how edited collections present a unique angle from which to view the networks of scholars and their editors that come together, at a moment in time, around a certain subject, aided by a particular publisher. Some of them represent a group of scholars in one institution or organisation; others capture moments in ongoing debates and controversies about particular subjects. At other times, they are used as a way of kicking the tyres of a particular community, and policing its boundaries; others are an attempt to reach outside particular constituencies and to resolve points of dispute.

This work is based on what is now a large dataset of edited collections, their editors and their contributors, in the fields of theology, religious studies and Biblical studies for the period from the First World War until the millennium. Although it continues to grow, the data now records nearly 4,000 individual essays and chapters, from over 2,300 unique authors. I plan, in time, to write about the big picture that this data represents, of the changing shape of the discipline of theology over time: the subjects that are most salient at particular times; the institutions in which authors are based, their gender profile, and their international spread. But there is considerable interest in smaller corners of the graph, and it is one of these that is the subject of this post: the publishing career of Leslie Houlden, Anglican priest and Biblical scholar, who passed away on December 3rd.

Among these thousands of authors, Houlden is in fact the fourth most prolific contributor of all. Only a couple of dozen authors hit double figures; Houlden’s work appeared in some 16 volumes (that I have so far found). When I extract from the full dataset the contents of just those sixteen volumes, along with the volume published in honour of Houlden on his retirement, it produces a list of just short of 250 essays from 192 different authors.

The career of Leslie Houlden (1929-2022) took him through the whole range of situations in which an Anglican priest might find himself. Ordained as priest in 1956, he ministered in a parish before becoming chaplain, first to Chichester Theological College and then to Trinity College Oxford. He was then principal of Cuddesdon Theological College from 1970, and the first principal of the new college formed by the amalgamation of Cuddesdon with Ripon Hall. In 1977 he moved to King’s College London as a lecturer in New Testament studies, in time becoming professor, and retired in 1994. Viewed chronologically, the volumes show Houlden in the various stages of his career. In the Sixties his work was to be found in several volumes that were attempts to understand the identity of the Church of England, both its mixed traditions (such as Catholic Anglicans Today, 1968), and in ecumenical relation to the other churches. In the mid-1970s he was a contributor to the highly controversial symposium The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), and was a member of the Church of England’s doctrine commission. In the 1980s he continued to write on the theology of the New Testament, as part of a continued rethinking of liberal catholicism within the Anglican church.

Even this much data is rather difficult for the naked eye to interpret. Thanks, however, to Gephi, it is possible to visualise the network of authors and volumes, as in the chart above. Houlden himself appears at the centre of the network, as we would expect; I have also labelled those theologians whose work most often appears in the same volumes. Together they help locate Houlden in both the fields and the institutions in which he worked.

There are names associated with King’s College, most notably the New Testament scholar Graham Stanton. Other Biblical scholars represented include John Fenton (University of Cambridge), and Colin Hickling, also formerly of Chichester Theological College, and (later) another colleague at King’s. There is also a cluster of names associated broadly with the University of Birmingham and The Myth of God Incarnate – John Hick, Michael Goulder and Frances Young – along with Don Cupitt, another contributor to The Myth. But the graph also shows how closely Houlden was connected with those scholars who occupied the commanding heights of the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. Dennis Nineham was at one time regius professor of divinity at Cambridge; Stephen Sykes was one of the later occupants of the same chair at Cambridge, as well as the Van Mildert professorship at Durham; Maurice Wiles was regius professor in Oxford for twenty-one years from 1970. Wiles, Nineham and Houlden were all members of the Doctrine Commission in the 1970s, as was the last of those named on the chart, John Austin Baker.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about these particular networks, and about the precise character of networks in edited collections in general, which I hope to write about before long. But I hope I have shown a little of the kind of analysis that tools for handling and visualising data can enable.

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