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).


Michael Ramsey for the contemporary church: a bishop’s view

I blogged recently about the limits of the responsibility of the historian to work out the theological and ethical implications of recent history for the contemporary church. It was inspired by a disagreement between reviewers of my book on archbishop Michael Ramsey over what contemporary history should be for, and whose purposes it should serve.Ramsey - cover

Now there appears a review of the book from a bishop of the Anglican church (although not the first) which does some of just that work – of applying the book’s conclusions to the contemporary church in the USA and worldwide. It is from R. William Franklin, bishop of Western New York, published in the fall 2016 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I have little to quibble with over Bishop Franklin’s gloss on the book, and so I quote some of it here. It is also pleasing that he thinks the book a ‘welcome contribution to scholarship …. a valued alternative interpretation’ and the account of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme ‘masterful’.

For Franklin, Ramsey achieved a synthesis of the sacramentalism of Pusey, the scripturalism of Barth and the socialism of F.D. Maurice in order to ‘define the fundamental shape of the Church as an institution that exists solely to proclaim Christ, and in doing so, to bring about human reconciliation.’ Only a few reviewers so far have focussed on this insight, which (in my mind, at least) was the burden of the whole book. Franklin then goes on to draw out a practical programme:

(i) ‘in mission, to focus on a re-evangelization of the nation;

(ii) ‘in preaching, to give people hope by focussing on the great shape of things to come;

(iii) ‘in ecumenism, to focus on local achievement’

(iv) ‘in liturgical reform, to focus on accessible communication’.

Bishop Franklin connects this programme very directly with the Jesus Movement, outlined by the present presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, which is an intriguing thought. For Franklin, the Anglican church in the USA is in the same process as Ramsey’s Church of England: as I put it, ‘redefining itself, and being redefined, as an increasingly gathered body, learning to act prophetically, to sing the Lord’s song in an increasingly strange land (p.139)

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?

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.)