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