Book review: The Oxford History of Anglicanism vol. IV (1910-present)

Jeremy Morris (ed.),
The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume IV. Global Western Anglicanism, c 1910-present
Oxford: OUP, 2017

My review of this recent volume appeared a few weeks back in Reading Religion, the review journal of the American Academy of Religion. It began:

What, precisely, is Anglicanism, that a history of it may be written? The several contributors to the recent Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies (reviewed here) returned again and again to the means by which Anglican identity might be defined. For the writing of history, are there certain markers of Anglican thought and practice that might form the unit of analysis (“Anglicanism” as a system of ideas rather than an institution)? Is the history of Anglicanism in fact the history of the relationships between the autonomous and (largely) national provinces of which the Anglican Communion is composed, and the global institutions in which those relationships are partially embodied? Or, is the history of Anglicanism actually a set of parallel histories of individual churches in their local, national, and regional contexts? For the most part, the volume under review takes the last of these three approaches, while paying careful attention to the interactions between individual churches and larger trends in political and cultural history to which they all were required to respond.

The review then expounds the general argument of the volume, and then notes that it is focussed on Anglicans in the West: Great Britain and Ireland, North America, and Australasia, but:

There were of course other Anglicans than those of the West; readers will need to await a treatment of African and Asian Anglicanism in volume 5 of this series, due to appear in print in early 2018. The division between the two volumes is defensible — indeed, it is perhaps the best division that can be made if one must be made — but there are several occasions here where the dictates of the theme require the authors to trespass outside the scope of the volume. This is no great difficulty, but the volume is also let down in places in the execution of particular chapters. Many are fine examples of their type, in particular those by Avis, Grimley, Moyse, Snape, and Stockwell. Others are chaotically organized, with, in one case, a verbatim repeat of three sentences on consecutive pages. [One other chapter in particular is] poorly done, lacking analytical precision and awareness of context, and based on an inadequate range of sources. The geographical survey of North America is too concentrated on the US and on the period since 1970; that for Australasia loses all sense of thematic coherence in a chronological procession of events. More generally, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada feature less than does the US, which in turn is less prominent than Britain. English material also predominates over Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. This is understandable given the relative weights of the published literature on each country, but as one reads there is often a subtle slippage where an English example is made to do duty as a representative of the whole.

Overall, however, I thought that the volume as a whole is:

a valuable first synthetic account of Anglicanism in the West in a crucial period. Although surely priced beyond the means of most private readers, no serious library for history or theology will want to be without it. A question remains over the longevity which the book may expect, given the implicit intent of monumental series such as this that they may stand for a generation or more. Readers who take the volume as a whole may be struck, as this reviewer was, by the cumulative weight given to the issues that have so troubled Anglicans in the last two decades, human sexuality and the ordination of women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this focus is most pronounced in some of the chapters written by those who are both historians and clergy. We will need to leave it to the reader of 2037 to determine whether these were really the most significant issues in world Anglicanism in the twentieth century when viewed from a greater distance.

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What is Anglicanism? A review essay

[This is an extended version of a review that appeared in Reading Religion, the review journal of the American Academy of Religion.]

Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, Martyn Percy (eds)
The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies
Oxford, OUP, 2016
ISBN:978-0-19-921856-1
Hardback, xiv + 657 pp

As the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies point out, the Anglican churches can draw on none of the kinds of criteria by which other Christian churches define themselves. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the model is juridical, the product of the authority of an institution; for Lutherans, it is confessional, the adoption of certain key statements of doctrine; for Baptists, it is sacramental practice. As a result, many studies such as those by Wolf, Booty and Thomas (1982), or Sykes and Booty (1988) have circled around the issue of how else Anglicanism may be defined.

The discipline of Anglican Studies has only been named in the last two decades, however, and at a time when the tensions within the Anglican Communion have reached a particular pitch. Launching the new Journal of Anglican Studies in 2003, Bruce Kaye (also a contributor here) wrote of ‘the challenge of construing the connecting profile of Anglicanism in its global form’, as parts of the Communion looked for solutions in global organizations within the existing structure predicated on particular convictions about theology and practice. These divisions came to a head at (or perhaps alongside) the Lambeth Conference of 2008, when a body of bishops absented themselves to meet separately in Jerusalem; so significant were the tensions, in fact, that the editors questioned the very viability of the Handbook (15). It is a cause for celebration that they persisted. Taken together, the 44 essays presented here are a rich and suggestive meditation on the past, present and likely futures of Anglicanism, and will be read with profit by scholar and non-specialist reader alike.

One of the signal virtues of the volume is its global scope. In 1988, all but one of the contributors to Sykes and Booty’s The Study of Anglicanism were from the British Isles or North America (the last being based in Switzerland); here, while the balance is still tipped in that direction, there is weighty representation from Africa, Australasia and Asia. Almost every contribution is at some level concerned with the legacy of establishment in England or the complex renegotiation required elsewhere in a post-colonial context. There are some omissions, however, most strikingly of the Anglican experience in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, two of which were churches that were first established and then disestablished: a perspective which it would have been valuable to hear.

Editors of volumes such as this are often hard put to create a structure that neatly compartmentalises the issues at hand, and this is no exception. Whilst the seven sections (on historiographies, methods and styles, contextualisation, identities, controversies, practices, and futures) provide some orientation, readers seeking the Anglican view of (say) the interpretation of the Bible will find work of interest in each of the sections and not simply the chapters by Gerald O. West and A. Katharine Grieb, the titles of which address the issue directly. A small but significant group of authors have not helped the editors in the task of achieving coherence by writing chapters that are not so much synoptic surveys of a particular topic as new work on a particular aspect of it: fine work in some cases, but an uncomfortable fit with the purposes of the volume. Others allow their focus on Anglicanism to waver, and needed a firmer editorial hand. Few readers will wish to read the volume from beginning to end (as this reviewer did), an experience which induces a sense of a continual and at times slightly fretful circling around the same two issues: past and present identity, and the prospects for unity.

Might that unity be found by means to a recourse to a shared history? The editors rightly place a fine essay by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of the sixteenth century history of the Church of England are neatly dissected. The formation of ‘Anglicanism’, as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, dates from a hundred years after the foundation of the Church of England, in which process figures such as Richard Hooker – marginal in his day – were moved to the centre, and figures such as William Perkins or Thomas Cartwright were marginalised despite being highly influential at the time. (That some readers may need to look these two figures up is an indication of how occluded they have become; neither appears anywhere else in this volume, and Perkins is re-christened Thomas in the index). Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes the appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.

Take for instance the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie again shows that although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of the fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist (the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken)? It was this principle that derailed the single most significant ecumenical scheme of the twentieth century in England, to reunify Anglicans and Methodists. Or, was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organisation, symbolically useful even, but something without which under different circumstances the Church might live? Chapters from Mark Chapman on missionary bishops, Kevin Ward on mission and Robert Bruce Mullin on the church in colonial America all show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have at times managed quite well without a fully fledged episcopal system. But other chapters make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters. To paraphrase: ‘many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do this are therefore not fully Anglican.’

Anglicans, then, have needed to look elsewhere for means of defining themselves, which have tended to cluster around elements of practice and habits of mind. The editors list a few of them: ‘hymns, poetry, prose, theology and spirituality’ (9-10), a ‘distinctive ethos’ which matches the many older attempts to find the ‘spirit’ of Anglicanism. Three chapters address these directly: Ann Loades on spirituality, Phyllis Tickle on prayer and the late Kenneth Stevenson (former bishop of Portsmouth) on aesthetics. Loades is detailed where Stevenson is allusive, but this reader emerges with a sense that Anglicans at certain times and places have indeed produced distinctive spiritual theology, hymnody and liturgy, but that these are weak markers of identity and of little use as instruments of unity. It is hard to avoid the impression that the search for identity in these places risks merely reifying the tastes and habits of mind of educated western Anglophones.

Anglicans have of course for a long time focussed on the ‘holy trinity’ of scripture, reason and tradition: a kind of self-definition by method. Formed of urgent necessity during the Reformation as a way of carving out space between the overweening pretensions of Rome and the bracing scripturalism of Geneva, in times of lesser pressure it became a rather more comforting formulation. Socially and economically secure as the established church of an imperial nation, it was relatively easy to rest on the idea of the Anglican via media, the essential moderateness of the English religious temperament. But the existential challenges to the very existence of the Communion in the last decade have caused this focus on theological approach to take on a rather darker tone. The question might be put: whose reason? Whose tradition? Whose reading of Scripture? As these questions have become harder to answer in a global context, the distinctive Anglican way of doing church has taken on a less confident and rather more provisional aspect.

Two aspects of this move are visible in the essays by Marion Grau and Jenny Gaffin. For Grau, Anglicanism as it has been transferred from England into colonial contexts can be thought of as a modus operandi, a rather accidental kind of pragmatism that over time became elevated to a virtue (177-8). Inculturation, the process by which theology and practice are inflected by local context, is made possible by a reliance on ‘a prevenient grace [and] an anthropology and ecclesiology that trusts in the residing of Spirit and Divinity within human existence’ (181). God has given His people sufficient resources with which to chart their path, and the action of God and his Spirit will not in the last instance allow the church to founder. Balancing this optimism is a line of thought that connects Gaffin to some of the recent work of Rowan Williams and (further back) to the Michael Ramsey of The Gospel and the Catholic Church (quoted by the editors in their introduction). The witness of Anglicanism is in pointing away from itself towards the larger church of which it is but a fragment: in Ramsey’s words ‘its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail of its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic.’ Its very brokenness is its witness.(14) In an age which values competence and ‘message discipline’, and seizes on weakness and holds it up to ridicule, the state of the Anglican Communion is both an affront and a challenge. Perhaps in the final instance the Communion is held together by a sense of a shared past, and an act of the will – a choice that must constantly be made anew – to continue together. The editors and contributors of this stimulating and fascinating handbook have given us a resource to help in the task of studying Anglicanism as its adherents have made and continue to make that choice. Though the price may stretch the budgets of private readers, no serious library for theology or history should be without it.

Technologies of Religion: a review

[The version of record of this review appeared in the journal Internet Histories  ]

Sam Han
Technologies of religion. Spheres of the sacred in a post-secular modernity
Abingdon, Routledge, 2016
ISBN:978-1-138-85586-1

Technologies of Religion, by Sam Han of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, offers both more and less than the description from its publisher would appear to indicate. Its main impact is as a work of critical social theory, and specifically concerning the cosmogonical, or ‘world-making’ qualities of contemporary religion as it meets new (and in particular, digital) technologies. Han is concerned to show that new technologies and religion come together to form ‘spheres’ (or ‘worlds’), that no longer correspond to the categories of the classical sociology of religion as associated with Durkheim or Max Weber. Gone is much of the stability and hierarchical longevity associated with authoritative institutions; Han’s spheres are in constant flux, unbounded, networked. These ‘modular assemblages’ have a kind of promiscuity, as different worlds or spheres form network connections with others, across which certain elements (traditionally separate) may ‘resonate’ according to their ‘affinities’ (p.30).

In a short review it is difficult to fully sum up Han’s theoretical argument, developed stage by stage in close dialogue with philosophers, aestheticians and sociologists and occupying very nearly half of the book’s 113 pages of text. (Particular attention is paid to Peter Berger, Mircea Eliade and John Milbank amongst others). Perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal, and historians of religion more generally, is Han’s engagement with recent readings of Max Weber, and with classic secularisation theory more generally. Students of secularisation have often tended to understand ‘religion’ and ‘technology’ as antipathetic: that the growth of new technologies, along with modernisation in general, has in general acted as a solvent of traditional religious belief and the organisations which support it; an assumption which has often been carried over into scholarship on religion and the Internet. Han wants to show that the two, far from being antipathetic, in fact exist in a relationship of mutual support which is ‘ontologically creative’ (p.31). Scholars of religion and the Web have in recent years themselves moved away from such an oppositional model of the religion/technology relationship, and have begun to unpick the ways in which religion and the Web mutually influence each other; Han’s work provides a welcome boost to that process.

Chapters 3 and 4 are an examination of some of the theoretical themes worked out in relation to Bright Church, a large ‘multi-site’ evangelical church which operates on several ‘campuses’ in the United States. Here Han seeks to show that the multi-site model of church – in which a single preacher’s message is simultaneously videocast to each campus – places traditional ideas of religious space into play in a new way. Han also examines the ways in which the presence of technological objects in the worship space may be read as constitutive of the message being conveyed. Chapter 4, examining both Bright Church’s own graphical user interface and its use of Facebook, is concerned with the nature of religious communality. It is in these two chapters where the weaknesses of the book show most clearly.

Although it is not Han’s main concern that it should be otherwise, his thesis of the ontologically creative nature of religion and technology is curiously ahistorical. This is a shame, since a greater engagement with the history of religion and the media has potential to strengthen his case. His reading of the design of the worship space and the technological fixtures and fittings within it is suggestive, but it could have benefitted from a greater consideration of the means by which earlier ‘technologies of religion’ – candles, music, paintings and sculpture, priestly vestments, liturgical vessels, and the movements of people and objects – have created the ‘atmosphere’ that he analyses in terms of projector screens and mixing desks. Similarly, the book’s analysis of the means by which identification is created between a worshipper and a physically distant preacher would bear some juxtaposition with scholarship on religious broadcasting on radio and television and its reception, or on the circulation of recordings of worship music from ‘celebrity’ worship leaders for use in the home.

More generally, this reader was left with the impression that, whilst Han’s theoretical framework may well be a fruitful one, it is by no means established from the empirical data presented, which is thin. Han focusses on Bright Church alone, which raises the question of how typical it may be of other churches, Christian or otherwise, with multi-site operations. Only some twelve pages of documentation of Bright Church are given, in which small space is included an observation of the worship at one of its several campuses as well as readings of associated Christian technological literature, and of the online church interface; Facebook is given a single page. Han asserts (p.62) that the experience presented at Bright Church New York may safely be taken as typical. Whilst clearly true of the presentation (since it is controlled from a Global Operations Center in Oklahoma), the experience is surely modified by the physical size and shape of the room, the number of people present, as well as by the use of local musicians. There is also little discussion here of the perceptions of the worshippers themselves, either those present in person in New York or engaging with Bright Church online, and also relatively little from those responsible for its leadership. A much deeper and wider empirical engagement would be needed to ground Han’s theoretical work than is on offer here.

These cavils aside, Han’s study presents many fertile lines of enquiry for historians of religion and the Web. It is well written, although it is often dense and heavy in its use of jargon terms and will tax those without a close acquaintance with the theoretical work with which it is in dialogue. At £90 for only 129 pages it may stretch some budgets, but once in hand it will repay attentive reading.

New article: On digital contemporary history

A little article of mine has just appeared in the Danish historical journal Temp, based on a lecture given in Copenhagen to the Danish Assocation for Research in Contemporary History in January 2016.

It suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail.

By the kind permission of the editor, I make it available here.

Title:  Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues
Details: Temp: Tidsskrift for historie, 14 (2017), 30-38.
Download the PDF

Re-readings: Secularisation and Moral Change (MacIntyre)

First in a new series of re-readings is Secularization and Moral Change, by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, first published in 1967. They were in fact the Riddell Memorial Lectures, given in the young University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1964; the 36th such set of lectures in a series that had included (amongst others) C.S. Lewis, W.R. Inge (the ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s) and the historian Herbert Butterfield. Macintyre was at the time a professor of social philosophy working within a sociology department (at the University of Essex, an even younger institution that had only weeks before welcomed its first students). It is this meeting of sociology, philosophy and religious history that gives the lectures their particular interest.

‘Sociology’ was enjoying something of a vogue in and around the Church of England; ‘sociology’ in inverted commas since the word carried rather different meanings. Much talk of ‘Christian sociology’ referred in fact to the doing of theology informed by a concern for politics, economics and the ordering of society, rather than an endeavour that began with an empirical examination of social fact. When the Church needed insight into the recruitment, training and deployment of the clergy in the early Sixties, it did not turn to one of the university departments of sociology, but to one of its own, an Anglican writer and theologian, Leslie Paul. His work of ‘lay sociology’ turned out to be gravely mistaken in its assumptions, whilst being ‘too sociological’ for others (that is, that it based its conclusions too much on social reality and ignored the spiritual). The level of engagement between church and academic sociology was in fact rather limited.

As Sam Brewitt-Taylor has shown, the notion of secularization had rather suddenly appeared in the thinking of the English churches in the early Sixties, and so MacIntyre’s intervention came at a key moment. V.A. Demant, Anglican priest and leading figure in the kind of Christian sociology I have already described, thought it of the utmost importance: ‘it throws light on certain questions which have never, in my estimate, been convincingly raised or answered in common Christian apologetic or in common anti-Christian zealotry.’ (1)

The debate about the secularisation of nineteenth century England has of course moved far since 1964, and little of MacIntyre’s little book will surprise the modern reader in matters of fact. Striking also is the confidence with which MacIntyre was able to talk about social class in Marxist terms; the quaint note it now strikes is an indication how complete has been the disintegration of Marxism as an intellectual framework in recent years. But its central insight would have been startling, particularly to churchmen given to reflection on the society around them.

It was commonly supposed that Englishmen and women ceased to believe in God as a result of the assaults of ‘modern scholarship’, and so ceased to behave in accordance with Christian morality. MacIntyre inverted the causal relationship entirely. Far from the established church being a social glue as a national church as Anglicans liked to suppose, English religious history was a misnomer: in fact, each of the major social classes, upper, middle and working class had their own religious histories, which were interconnected rather less than might be supposed. The Church of England had not lost the urban working classes to ‘secularism’; it had never had them in the first place. Industrialisation and the migration of the population to the cities, had meant that it was no longer plausible to suppose that the kind of social norms that had pertained in stable rural societies were in fact of cosmic significance, given by God. Any attempt for one class to posit its own moral norms as universal was too obviously a reflection of the economic interest of that class for the attempt to be successful. So, Christian moral standards declined because they became impossible to reconcile with social reality, rather than because people doubted the existence of God or the truthfulness of the Bible.

Such was the stuff of classic secularisation theory as in the works of Max Weber and others, although it was yet relatively unusual to see it from an English writer. What also strikes one re-reading MacIntyre is the sensitivity to language, that has become a key tool of analysis more recently thanks in particular to the work of Callum Brown. MacIntyre was in fact trying to ask a rather different question: why had England, and in particular the working class, not been more secularised? Seemingly paradoxically, the same conditions that made it impossible for universalising moral norms to persist also made the development of a thoroughgoing secularism difficult, if not impossible; the same terms of art were necessary for the moral reasoning required in each case. As each class was unable to answer the questions of personhood and ultimate purpose in a way that commanded wider attention, Englishness came to be composed in part of what MacIntyre called ‘secondary virtues’: fairness, tolerance, co-operation. It became impossible to discuss the purposes of life and the right ends to which one might direct oneself; one could only agree on the ways in which one might act.

What of the present (that is, the Sixties?) MacIntyre’s second chapter established the point that English people had lost the sense of the existence of objective moral authority, such that those like the bishops of the Church of England, still given to making pronouncements on moral issues, were now simply speaking in terms that were no longer comprehensible; whether or not the hearer might agree with a moral proposition, they could no longer see why they should accept it to be right because of who it was that said it. If bishops continued to make such statements, it was in part because they were of a generation and class that was still accustomed to make them (pp.54-6). In the context of the Church of the Sixties, this would be have been chewy stuff indeed; a fundamental challenge to the whole basis on which many thought they were to act within society as a whole. If few churchmen seized on MacIntyre’s little book as Demant did, this may have been the reason. But some efforts were being made to ‘do something’ by theologians such as John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, in books like Honest to God (1963), for which MacIntyre also had some choice words

MacIntyre had form in relation to Honest to God having reviewed the book the previous year for Encounter. (‘What is striking about Dr Robinson’s book’ he wrote ‘is first and foremost that he is an atheist.'(2) Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on whose work Robinson drew, had attempted to recast Christian morality in terms that (it was hoped) Promethean ‘Modern Man’, come of age and confident, could accept. The attempt was a recognition that ‘traditional Christian ethics is no longer applicable in an entirely changed social and institutional situation’. But the attempt was now to build a morality of intention based on a generalised idea of love for the other, and ‘moralities of intention divorced from the prescription of particular types of action are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that gives them any content.’ (p.71) Not only was there a crisis for the churches, but the horse they seemed to be backing was bound to fall.

Was there any hope? MacIntyre was at this point in what Rowan Williams has called a ‘post-Christian’ point in his intellectual journey, but his answer, alluded to only briefly, anticipates his later reception into the Roman Catholic church. The conservative turn of the English disciples of Barth and Kierkegaard, and the parallel revival in Catholic orthodoxy together seemed to be having the better of the argument (p.68). To insist on revelation and the persistence of traditional moral norms might, in MacIntyre’s view, be simply a wilful ignoring of social reality: ‘such a version of orthodoxy will be immune to any suggestion of refutation by or modification as a result of sociology or social history.'(p.67) However, it at least maintained the inner coherence and distinctiveness of the system from which those norms were derived, where Tillich rendered them indistinguishable from the world they were supposed to be transforming. Read again at a distance of fifty years, that passing remark anticipates the swing towards conservative theologies in the years that were to follow, and trends in the relation of theology and the academy to boot.

(1) Demant reviewed the book in the Journal of Theological Studies, 19:1 (1968), 423-5.
(2) ‘God and the theologians’, reprinted in Robinson and David L. Edwards (eds), The Honest to God Debate (London:SCM), pp.215-28.
See also Rowan Williams’ discussion of Honest to God and MacIntyre in his Anglican Identities (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2004), pp.103-6.

What is religious history?

[I wrote this little article in 2008, for an Institute of Historical Research project called Making History, on the development of the discipline in the twentieth century. Re-reading it now, it seems to stand up well enough, and so I republish it here unaltered, although there are nuances I might now add. The plea in the final paragraph for a reconnection of the churches with their own past foreshadows in a pleasing way some of the concerns of this more recent thread of posts.]

Perhaps even more so than in other areas, the social and religious changes of the British 20th century had profound effects on the very scope and purpose of religious history. Three major questions regarding the nature of the history of religion were posed, and answered in several different ways: the first of these was over what religion itself was.

What is ‘religion’?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the basic subject materials of religious history were clear. Ecclesiastical history was concerned with monarchs and their bishops, religious law, councils, liturgies, and the high politics of international religious conflict and diplomacy. This history, the ‘company history’ of the institution of the church, dominated the field.

Since then, the field of vision of what constitutes ‘religion’ has widened very markedly. To take the English Reformation and Civil War period as an example, work such as that of Christopher Hill, particularly in his Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England,(1) shifted the focus away from the centre toward the locality, to examine the nature of religious activity in local communities. This renewed attention to the local was carried on in the work of scholars such as J. J. Scarisbrick and more recently Eamon Duffy; the religious experience of the individual Christian and the local church has become at least as legitimate a field of enquiry as diplomatic relations between Canterbury and Rome.

In addition to the recovery by social historians of the view ‘from below’ has come the effect of the growing use of anthropological concepts in analysing human behaviour, and with it an ever wider definition of ‘religious’ behaviour. The work of Keith Thomas, in his Religion and the Decline of Magic,(2) put the multifarious array of Christian and pre-Christian rites and practices by which early modern English people sought to make sense of and control their lives at the centre of his inquiry; practices that traditional ecclesiastical history had portrayed as mere pagan superstition. Across all periods, the growing bodies of research on matters as diverse as the use of amulets to ward off the bubonic plague in the 17th century or the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, all witness to the widest possible definition of what constitutes the religious.

Which religion?
Another question, to which the answer is much less clear in 2008 than it was in 1908, is ‘which religion’? The answer at the beginning of the century was clear for historians of England: the Christian religion, and supremely the Church of England. The political and social importance of the established church meant that the Nonconformist churches received relatively little historical attention, and that given to English Roman Catholics was often unjustly unfavourable. Since then, work on early modern England has recovered the stories of those groups who either existed uneasily within or were detached entirely from the institutional church; the work of Christopher Hill is once again seminal in this regard, and in particular his The World Turned Upside Down.(3) In the modern period, work by scholars such as David Bebbington has restored a sense of the social and political importance of British Dissent, and as the temperature of popular anti-Catholicism has cooled, a more balanced picture of the development of the English Catholic community has begun to emerge.

The very late 20th century has also seen the beginnings of an effort to make historical sense of the fact of increasing contact between the world religions, and growing religious diversity within Europe and America. The work of Bernard Lewis and others has opened up the field of the military, economic and cultural interaction of Christianity and Islam in southern Europe in the medieval and early modern periods. Work on this area has been drawn upon in the continuing contemporary debate over the Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’. Closer to home, the work of understanding immigration, race relations and their religious implications in Britain and other European countries since the 1950s is only in the last few years beginning to be done.

Finally, religious historians have in the very recent past begun to address the issues raised by globalisation, and the shift in gravity in world Christianity from its cradle in Europe to the southern hemisphere. Not for nothing is the 20th-century volume in the recent Cambridge History of Christianity entitled ‘World Christianities’:(4) religious historians are continuing to grapple with the mutations of originally colonial churches in newly independent nations, and the simple fact of the numerical dominance of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America over their mother churches in Europe.

By whom, and for whom?
At the beginning of the 20th century, religious history was by and large written by scholars sympathetic to Christianity. Some were clergy: Mandell Creighton combined historical scholarship with being successively Bishop of Peterborough and London, and J. R. Green wrote his Short History of the English People (5) while librarian of Lambeth Palace. Even those of more limited commitment to the church tended to function, in Winston Churchill’s image, as flying buttresses; supportive but external.

In the 20th century, the business of writing the churches’ contemporary history also remained for many years a clerical pursuit. Archbishop Randall Davidson’s biographer was his chaplain George Bell, later to be Bishop of Chichester. Part of the controversy surrounding Humphrey Carpenter’s 1996 biography of Robert Runcie (6) centred on the author’s apparent lack of sympathy with the subject; the book disturbed long-established conventions regarding the manner of writing episcopal biography.

Since the early part of the century, the historical profession, along with the rest of the population, has been steadily secularised, such that it is now probable that the majority of religious historians approach their task from no particular faith position. The gradual migration of the bulk of historical scholarship away from the rectory and indeed the theological college to the university, coupled with the well-documented general methodological professionalisation of the discipline, has hastened the process.

It is now the case that the historian who is also a committed believer will scrupulously eschew any analysis not fully justified by the sources. Indeed, as Euan Cameron has recently observed, most ‘conceal their belief stances so thoroughly in their writing that readers find it difficult to discern what the author believes, if anything’. This change has almost certainly produced more objective and balanced scholarship, and has certainly avoided the worst excesses of partisan historical writing of previous centuries. At the same time, it could be argued that the contact between current scholarship in religious history and the churches (those whose ‘family history’ it is that is being written) is at a low ebb. It is perhaps time for meaningful dialogue between the churches, theology and church history to begin again.

1. Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964).
2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, 1971).
3. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London, 1972).
4. World Christianities c.1914 – c.2000, ed. Hugh Mcleod (Cambridge, 2006).
5. J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People (London, 1892–4).
6. Humphrey Carpenter, Robert Runcie: the Reluctant Archbishop (London, 1996).

Electronic Dreams: a review

Tom Lean
Electronic Dreams. How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer
London, Bloomsbury, 2016
978-1-4729-1833-8

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books in December. As the Review’s terms of reuse are admirably free, I republish the review here.]

A character in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys observed that ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’. Contemporary historians will recognise the force of Bennett’s observation, and it is perhaps particularly apt in the history of computing. Historians and theorists of the Internet and the World Wide Web have always to reckon with the common view that these systems are as they are inevitably; that they could have come about in no other way and in no other form. In a time when the personal computing industry is to all intents and purposes divided between PCs running Microsoft software on the one hand, and the products of the Apple Corporation on the other, all popular consciousness of any pre-history to that state of affairs has been lost.

Into that gap comes Tom Lean’s study of personal computing in 1980s Britain. Based on a University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis from 2008, it is produced and priced in order to reach a readership wider than simply historians of technology. The appeal of the book will be seductive to those (like this reviewer) who learnt IT at school on a BBC Micro, and played games on a ZX Spectrum. Although it flirts occasionally with the danger, the book avoids being merely an exercise in nostalgia by the crispness of the writing, and a deft interweaving of users, technologies, makers, and the wider context of government thinking and media history.

Lean vividly evokes the very earliest stages of the development of kit computers for home assembly in the late 1970s, as innovators working in spare bedrooms provided other enthusiasts with new toys with which to experiment. The story is a British one to set alongside the more familiar founding myths of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in their garages. Striking also is the degree to which the personal computer was a tool without a use. No particular market existed for the earliest machines, apart from as a tool with which to learn about computing itself. Lean goes on to show that the uses to which these machines were put were often not those the makers had anticipated. Many were disappointed that machines that might have been put to educational or commercial use ended up used only for games, even though the games industry was to become highly significant for the British economy. But Lean shows that this very open-endedness was the most significant legacy of the time. Without a graphical user interface behind which the workings of the machine were hidden, a generation of computer scientists and engineers were able to learn the fundamentals of computing and what it might enable.

Lean’s narrative includes the development of a market, which was by and large mature by 1983, and which collapsed within a few years. In a very short space of time, market leaders had emerged – the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64 – and with them a panoply of books, specialist magazines, and companies that produced software. Lean’s account is detailed on the relative technical capabilities of the several machines, including those that lost out in the race for market share, but also surefooted and informative on the wider context. There is an international element, as British machines competed in a global market, against competition from the USA and Japan in particular. For a time, British innovation was a success story which the Thatcher government was very ready to tell. 1982 was declared IT Year, and saw the appointment of the first government minister of IT, Kenneth Baker. For a moment, British entrepreneurship and innovation could be set rhetorically against the supposedly bloated and inefficient traditional industries that Mrs Thatcher had set out to reform.

Particularly intriguing is the role of the BBC. In line with its threefold role to educate, inform and entertain, the BBC had in the 1970s paid attention to the coming world of computerisation, and its likely effect on employment, to set alongside early utopian and dystopian visions of the future. The Computer Programme (1982) was part of a broader Computer Literacy Project, involving television and radio, books, a programming course using BASIC, and (most unusually), its own computer, the BBC Micro. Developed inside a week by Acorn of Cambridge, as their engineers slept under the laboratory benches, it was technically outstanding and soon secured a dominant position in schools, despite protests from other firms that to patronise one machine should not be the role of the BBC as a national broadcaster.

Historians of the Internet will find much in the section on Prestel, the system for receiving centrally held data on specially adapted televisions via a home telephone line. Launched in 1979 but more or less defunct by the early 1990s, it was administered by British Telecom, building on the previous Post Office monopoly in telephone services. Although the number of users was small, those that did adopt Prestel were using it for many tasks now common on the Web: buying tickets, finding travel information, banking. Prestel failed where the French equivalent Minitel succeeded, reaching some 9 million users at its height. That failure illustrates the haphazard and serendipitous nature of success and failure in the history of technology. While the system was technically advanced, Prestel’s charging model was wrong for the time; simple organisational inertia prevented a more widespread connection of the new home computers to the system, and it lacked the wholehearted support of government, which was forthcoming in the French case.

If the book is let down by anything, it is by some slack proofreading, as errors abound. Scholars wishing to follow up any of the matters raised will need to resort to Lean’s thesis, available via the British Library’s Ethos service, as the referencing and bibliography here are very light, perhaps as a concession to a more general readership. These cavils aside, Electronic Dreams will be essential reading for those interested in how Britain came to love the personal computer.