Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

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.

Reading old news in the web archive, distantly

One of the defining moments of Rowan Williams’ time as archbishop of Canterbury was the public reaction to his lecture in February 2008 on the interaction between English family law and Islamic shari’a law. As well as focussing attention on real and persistent issues of the interaction of secular law and religious practice, it also prompted much comment on the place of the Church of England in public life, the role of the archbishop, and on Williams personally. I tried to record a sample of the discussion in an earlier post.

Of course, a great deal of the media firestorm happened online. I want to take the episode as an example of the types of analysis that the systematic archiving of the web now makes possible: a new kind of what Franco Moretti called ‘distant reading.’

The British Library holds a copy of the holdings of the Internet Archive for the .uk top level domain for the period 1996-2010. One of the secondary datasets that the Library has made available is the Host Link Graph. With this data, it’s possible to begin examining how different parts of the UK web space referred to others. Which hosts linked to others, and from when until when ?

This graph shows the total number of unique hosts that were found linking at least once to in each year.

Canterbury unique linking hosts - bar

My hypothesis was that there should be more unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site after February 2008, which is by and large borne out. The figure for 2008 is nearly 50% higher than for the previous year, and nearly 25% higher than the previous peak in 2004. This would suggest that a significant number of hosts that had not previously linked to the Canterbury site did so in 2008, quite possibly in reaction to the shari’a story.

What I had not expected to see was the total number fall back to trend in 2009 and 2010. I had rather expected to see the absolute numbers rise in 2008 and then stay at similar levels – that is, to see the links persist. The drop suggests that either large numbers of sites were revised to remove links that were thought to be ‘ephemeral’ (that is to say, actively removed), or that there is a more general effect in that certain types of “news” content are not (in web archivist terms) self-archiving. [Update 02/07/2014 – see comment below ]

The next step is for me to look in detail at those domains that linked only once to Canterbury, in 2008, and to examine these questions in a more qualitative way. Here then is distant reading leading to close reading.

You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space, as when unzipped the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | | | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop’s site. My poor old laptop spent a whole night running through the dataset and extracting all the instances of the string “”.

Then I looked at the total numbers of unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site in each year. In order to do so, I:

(i) stripped out those results which were outward links from a small number of captures of the archbishop’s site itself.

(ii) allowed for the occasions when the IA had captured the same host twice in a single year (which does not occur consistently from year to year.)

(iii) did not aggregate results for hosts that were part of a larger domain. This would have been easy to spot in the case of the larger media organisations such as the Guardian, which has multiple hosts (society,,, etc.) However, it is much harder to do reliably for all such cases without examining individual archived instances, which was not possible at this scale.


(i) that a host “” held the same content as “”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to the Canterbury site than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.

On Popes, archbishops and their predecessors

Those who follow such obscure things will be conscious that we have at the moment simultaneous periods of transition in the highest offices of both the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England (and thus the Anglican Communion.) As Pope Emeritus Benedict disappeared from view into the palace at Castel Gandolfo, speculation began as to what sort of neighbour he would be to his successor, since Popes have not often needed to reckon with the presence of a living predecessor. Would Benedict be a critic, or at the least a silent focus for the discontent of others ? Or a source of counsel and encouragement? I am not enough of a Vatican-watcher to speculate; but there are some interesting parallels in the relationships of some modern archbishops of Canterbury with their predecessors; and not always happy ones.

Outgoing archbishops have often been asked for their mind as to their successor. In 1961 Geoffrey Fisher advised Harold Macmillan against appointing Michael Ramsey to Canterbury. In 1974 Ramsey himself thought that Donald Coggan was not the best man to succeed him; not for any particular fault of Coggan’s, but because Ramsey thought that a figure from the worldwide Anglican Communion would be better.

So far, so predictable; indeed, one might hope that any such process would seek the views of the outgoing man, even if they were not decisive, as neither Fisher nor Ramsey were. But there have been two recent instances where an outgoing archbishop has not retired to monastic seclusion, never to be seen in public affairs again; and neither of them reflect well on the men concerned.

The most recent was the intervention of George Carey in 2008 in the media firestorm following Rowan Williams’ comments on the possibility of finding some limited spaces for sharia law within (and subject to) UK family law. Carey, in his regular column in the News of the World, argued that such change would be ‘disastrous for the nation [and] a direct challenge to the values of the Christian/Jewish ethic on which our laws have been constructed.’ Although much of the rest of the column was more supportive, the episode was one of the most difficult in Williams’ time, and it is hard to imagine that Carey’s intervention was experienced as anything other than unhelpful.

The other case, sustained over a longer period and probably more damaging, was Geoffrey Fisher’s campaign from retirement in rural Dorset against the Scheme to reunite the Anglican and Methodist churches; a scheme in which Ramsey had invested much. That the two men were poles apart temperamentally was noted at the time; Harold Macmillan’s quip about his appointment of Ramsey, that there had been ‘enough of Martha and it was time for some Mary’ caught something of the contrast. Fisher’s reputation has suffered unduly, but the picture of the brisk, efficient headmaster figure has persisted, and indeed Fisher had been head of Repton School when Ramsey was a pupil. Ramsey told Macmillan that ‘Fisher was my headmaster and he has known all my deficiencies for a long time.’ Macmillan replied ‘Well, he is not going to be my headmaster.’

Fisher yielded to no-one in his commitment to reunion between the two churches, being widely credited with the inception of the whole process in his so-called ‘Cambridge sermon’ of 1946. However, he came to reject the Scheme, thinking it a basic error to suppose that the ministries of the two churches could be reconciled before full communion was achieved. For Fisher the ambiguity necessary in the special Service of Reconciliation, created to circumvent the issue, was intolerable: ‘a pious subterfuge, pious and sincere but still a subterfuge and a tortuous one.’

Ramsey’s predecessor was loudly and consistently against the Scheme, in print, in letters to the Press, and in a constant private correspondence with Ramsey and other bishops. Ramsey came to dread the arrival of Fisher’s letters which eventually went unanswered, causing Fisher to lodge a formal complaint with the Church Assembly about his treatment at the hands of his successor. Ramsey certainly thought Fisher had been crucial in sinking the Scheme, many having been persuaded ‘that as Lord Fisher dislikes the proposals there must be something fishy about them.’

There was no hint of the episode in the address that Ramsey gave at Fisher’s funeral; but Fisher’s brooding presence had been nothing but a hindrance. None of the more recent (and sympathetic) students of Fisher have quite been able to excuse him on this count. I would doubt that either of the outgoing Pope or archbishop would wish to follow his example.

Anglican identities

This review first appeared in Reformation and Renaissance Review 7;1 (2005), 131-2. Whilst reading through it again, I was struck by how topical it remains, and indeed how far sharpened have been some of the questions of Anglican unity and identity the two books raise. They appear here with minor modifications.


Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (London; Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004)
Edward Norman, Anglican Difficulties (London; Continuum, 2004)

Much work concerning Anglican identity has tended towards two centres of gravity. For many years, analysis of late Tudor and early Stuart religion accepted a straight-forward divide between consensual, moderate, ‘English’ Anglicans and doctrinaire, inflexible, disruptive Puritans. For a new generation of scholars from the 1980s, a new force of anti-Calvinists or Arminians became the grit in an otherwise harmonious Calvinist oyster. Alongside  this replacement of one bi-polar paradigm with another, scholars such as Peter White, and most recently Judith Maltby have sought to carve out a distinctive middle way for nascent Anglicanism, and one less dependent on rival theologies of grace. Anglican identity is to be found in attachment to the Book of Common Prayer and to the rituals and rites of passage of the now genuinely national church.

At the same time, a more present-minded historical approach has been somehow to attempt to capture the spirit or ‘genius’ of Anglicanism; to divine what the Church of England’s secret is that allows it to hold seemingly wildly divergent groups together in the late twentieth century. Bishops and historians, Stephen Sykes, Stephen Neill and John Booty among them have tried to explain how a church, hybrid in its formation and almost pathologically reticent in defining itself, has managed to survive.

The two works under review here both attempt to contribute to the latter debate by means of the former, whilst coming to very different conclusions. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, in a collection of occasional papers and lectures, seeks to explore the loci of Anglican identity, whilst acknowledging the difficulty of the task by the plural of the title. The core Williams locates is not a legislative, ecclesiological one, nor an attachment to ritual. Neither is it to be found in distinctively Anglican doctrines of, say, pre-destination or the Eucharist. It is rather in an attitude to epistemology and a mode of theological engagement with the notion of truth. When faced with the task of engaging with the work of God, Anglicans have been characterised  by an attitude of ‘passionate patience’ whilst faced by ‘immensities of meaning … in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling.’ Lest this might suggest a creeping relativism, Williams’ passionately engaged seekers after the truth of God would assent to the immutability of that truth, whilst  remaining reticent about definitive pronouncement about it.

Each of the essays here is lucid and judicious, making some demands on the reader but with ample reward. For specialists in the English Reformations, the pieces on William Tyndale, Richard Hooker and George Herbert are rich and suggestive. Hooker, so often appropriated as exemplary of every shade of Anglican opinion, emerges here as a ‘contemplative pragmatist’, steering a painstaking course between ecclesiastical authoritarianism and creeping scepticism. Williams’ evocation of Herbert’s perseverance in the face of his Afflictions is the clearest example of the type of ‘passionate patience’ he delineates in the Introduction.

It is in the treatment of these figures as exemplary of a distinctive Anglican approach that an objection arises, although perhaps not one that could ever have been met in a volume of occasional papers such as this. If these are indeed Anglicans avant la lettre, then it may be concluded that the Church of England was not Anglican for perhaps 150 years after its formation. It is difficult to imagine John Jewel or Edmund Grindal, William Laud or Lancelot Andrewes, George Abbot or William Perkins easily fitting this template. It would also be necessary to show a continuity in thought over the two centuries here between Herbert and the next subject, B.F. Westcott, to decide whether such passionate patience is a abiding characteristic of Anglicanism, or a product of more modern and post-modern circumstances. It would be a shame if such a subtle collection as this were unintentionally to fuel an uncritical reading-back of modern Anglican self-fashioning into earlier periods. It is however, perhaps an occasion for optimism that the occupant of the see of Canterbury has sufficient intellectual range to deal with Tyndale and John A.T. Robinson in the same volume, and all the pieces here reward repeated reading.

For Edward Norman, retiring Chancellor of York Minster, Fellow of Peterhouse and former Reith lecturer, there is rather less ambiguity in the sources of identity in the Church of England. For Norman, such musing on identity would be so much rearranging of deck-chairs on a rapidly sinking ship, as the Church of England has no core. The Roman Catholic church in England is better placed to withstand the storms of secular humanism and religious consumerism is that it has a clear sense of its own nature. The problem for Norman is one of ecclesiology, and its roots are traced directly back to the Reformation. By cutting itself off from the historic church  and ecumenical councils, the Church of England was left without any universal consensus fidelium to which to appeal, and its erastian polity made impossible the development of any alternative means of defining doctrine. These incompatibilities, submerged for a while by emphasis on the Protestant nature of the church and by universal use of the Book of Common Prayer, were exposed successively by Tractarian revival in the nineteenth century and secularisation in the twentieth. The impulse to accommodate difference, to value unity over clarity, is an Anglican hallmark for Norman as well as for many other commentators. The difference is that it is for Norman symptomatic of the incapacity of the church to formulate doctrine at all. If Norman is right, it will also prove the church’s downfall within a generation.

Readers will draw their own conclusions as to which of these visions of Anglican identity promises most, but their simultaneous appearance affords an opportunity to compare divergent uses of the Reformation past in the contemporary church, and may profitably be read by those interested in either.

A review: Rowan Williams, Why study the past ?

Rowan Williams, Why study the past ? The quest for the historical church (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005)

[This review appeared in the Bulletin of the Christianity and History Forum some years back, but has not been available online before now; and re-reading both it and the book itself suggests that it might usefully be made available now. It seems to have attracted very little attention from reviewers either at the time or since.]

The study of the history of the Church often has both added complexity and urgency for those working within a framework of personal faith or institutional allegiance. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2003 Sarum Theological Lectures, subtle studies of the self-awareness of the early church and of the writing of church history during the Reformation period, offer a stimulating series of meditations on the particularities of approach and attitude that might conduce towards a critical yet useful church history.

Williams rightly rejects an uncritical acceptance of past belief or practice as automatically normative for contemporary Christians, or as easy practically to apply. Also rejected is the related of habit of mind that tends to idealise a particular period of time as one of, as it were, pre-lapsarian purity, whether that of the early church, the Reformation period or of an Anglican ‘Golden Age’ in the seventeenth century.  The assumption of a past that is simply ‘the present in fancy dress’ leaves us incapable of being challenged or surprised by that past.

Williams however also comes down equally firmly against a glib assertion of unknowability; the sense that the gulf between ourselves and the past, far from being so easy to traverse, must in principle be unbridgeable. Such a counsel of despair leaves us adrift in a perpetual present, unable to engage with the causes of our present condition.

Such a centrist position is of course not new, and arguably reflects the working practice of most historians, whether religious or not. The core of Williams’s argument is however much more than the familiar rehearsal of the epistemological problems of historical knowledge, so often heard in the last ten to fifteen years.  Christians must necessarily have both a particular interest in, and a particular approach to, the church’s past. Williams sees the task of engaging with the past as one not purely of historical empathy for its own sake, but as a form of understanding and engaging with one’s fellow Christians in a way as necessary and as profound as cross-cultural and ecumenical conversation in the present. A robust, if perhaps uncomfortable, theology of the church as the Body of Christ would suggest that there is only the thinnest of veils between our own life as the Body and that of Christians in previous times, and that the church of today is the autonomous author of its own experience in a much more circumscribed way than is often supposed. Ever mindful of a constant and profound tension between the strangeness of the past and its urgency as our ‘family history’, it is the case that ‘our immersion in the ways in which they responded becomes part of the way we actually hear the call ourselves …’ (p.31) This leads Williams to a brief, yet to this reviewer, profoundly important, consideration of the degree to which the worship and conversation of the churches should embody languages and visible practices that both act as symbols of contemporary unity and enable a continuing ‘conversation’ with Christians of previous generations. This, Williams argues, may be equally if not more important than questions of structural or legislative unity that have tended to be the primary focus of current thinking on unity. By here eschewing direct engagement with the major issues facing the Anglican communion today, Williams offers a general approach with profound implications for them all.

The implications of Williams’ argument so far are equally as significant for the approach of the individual historian, and in places make uncomfortable reading for one drilled in the scrupulous agnosticism of the secular academy. His focus is not so much on the technique of church history or its sources, but on the attitude in which it might be conducted. This provokes, for this reviewer,  much thought not only on the role of the ‘specialist’ church historian within the churches, but on the potential fruits of greater engagement of all Christians with their past. The attitude he suggests is one that Williams worked out in greater detail in his Anglican Identities (2004), (an attitude he there described as ‘passionate patience’) in which we find ‘moments of bewilderment and moments of triumphant grasp’. In an attitude of ‘respect and patience’ we ‘acquire not so much a confidence in our solutions as a capacity to continue, a trust in the process.’ (p.90). The task of engaging with the past as Christians emerges then not so much as a disinterested, ‘scientific’ dissection  (a product of modernity par excellence) but as a form of spiritual discipline. If it is to learn from its past, the church must engage in a process of radical ‘de-centering’ and recover a sense of living ‘in the wake’ of divine action. It is only through a voluntary loss of self that the church can hope to recognise and come to grips with the history of divine action, and recognise the otherwise bewildering diversity of the manifestations of that action. Our collective wish to control and then deploy the past uncritically for present aims remains the barrier to a truer apprehension of that past.

In short, Rowan Williams has produced a series of meditations that are challenging and often profound, and may be read with profit by both Christian historians and historians of Christianity of all traditions and working in all periods.

Worship, language and the ‘family history’

While reading Alana Harris’s exploration of changes in language, and the arguments about maintaining tradition (in Redefining Christian Britain), I was reminded of part of Rowan Williams’s recent Why study the past ?. I reviewed it a while back (for the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin), an extract of which reads:

“Williams sees the task of engaging with the past as one not purely of historical empathy for its own sake, but as a form of understanding and engaging with one’s fellow Christians in a way as necessary and as profound as cross-cultural and ecumenical conversation in the present. [….] Ever mindful of a constant and profound tension between the strangeness of the past and its urgency as our ‘family history’, it is the case that ‘our immersion in the ways in which they responded becomes part of the way we actually hear the call ourselves …’ (p.31) This leads Williams to a brief, yet to this reviewer, profoundly important, consideration of the degree to which the worship and conversation of the churches should embody languages and visible practices that both act as symbols of contemporary unity and enable a continuing ‘conversation’ with Christians of previous generations.”

I’m sure there’s a lot here that might help us understand conservative reactions to liturgical change in the 1960s and 1970s. Although it is rarely expressed in quite these terms, perhaps part of the opposition to the sidelining of the Book of Common Prayer is to do with a sense that some means of cross-generational communication is being lost. It puts the arguments about the Book of Common Prayer being part of a ‘linguistic heritage’ into a new light – it is quite easy to read these appeals to ‘save the language of Shakespeare’ purely as aesthetic arguments, or as more secular appeals to a national cultural inheritance.