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Ecclesiastical but far from extinct

25 October 2013

This discipline thrives under renewed guises, says Nicholas Orme

The Church on its Past: Studies in Church History, Volume 49
Peter D. Clarke and Charlotte Methuen, editors
The Boydell Press £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50 (Use code CT923 )

THE Journal of Ecclesiastical History was founded in 1951, the Ecclesiastical History Society ten years later. The word "ecclesiastical" has a dry pedantic rustle about it, like the utterance of a Dickensian lawyer. It would not have been chosen for publicity purposes after the early 1960s, when "church" or "religious" became more natural. But, up to that date, church history was chiefly about great (male) religious leaders, institutions, and church-state relations, with a dash of theology. It was a solemn subject, and seemed to need a word of dignity.

The Church on its Past is a volume of papers from a conference celebrating the Society's half centenary in 2011. The 33 contributions fall into two categories: those about episodes of history in which religious leaders and movements were influenced by the past, and those reflecting on the development of church history since 1961. The most significant of the latter are the presidential address by Sarah Foot, and the account of English Reformation studies by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

Professor Foot gives a remarkably gloomy account of the state of religious history in England. The number of permanent university chairs has declined from ten to two. The subject has become marginalised: church history "has lost ground in recent decades". Secularisation, the new atheism, non-Christian religions, and new historical methods have diminished it or obscured the understanding of what it should be.

Professor MacCulloch's article is quite different. This is a racy account of how the study of the English Reformation has changed from a Victorian "high-Anglican" interpretation with a rediscovery of the importance of radical Protestantism, along with a very different promotion of the merits of 16th- century Catholicism. Far from declining, Reformation studies have produced a range of distinguished scholars with different approaches, opening up new territories in exciting and fruitful ways.

That surely is the more accurate view of church history over the past half-century. The Journal and the Society are only two of the places where such history is followed. It flourishes equally richly in the spheres of medieval studies, archaeology, monuments, art history, and literature. These have their own societies, conferences, and journals, with as lively and creative an interest in religious topics and sources as they have ever had, if not more so.

There are more university chairs of church history today than there used to be. More universities engage with it in different ways, and most university chairs in any field are now personal rather than designated ones. Students continue to choose church-history courses, although virtually all history courses are optional. You have to teach them what monks are, and Lent, and sometimes God, but they like the subject, research it enthusiastically, and do well in it.

Far from reflecting the Church's decline in attendance and supposedly in influence, religious history is more popular than ever, because it is more varied and offers more possibilities than was the case in the 1950s. Without any con-scious attempt to be so, it has become one of the best evangelists for religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in England today.

Professor Orme's latest books include histories of the Church in Devon, medieval clergy, and the teaching of Latin in early modern England.

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