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Obituary: Professor Arthur Burns

03 November 2023

Canon Jeremy Morris writes:

I CAN imagine many readers of the Church Times may not have heard of Arthur Burns, who died on 3 October, aged 60, after a near three-year battle with cancer, but he was one of the most significant and influ­ential of contemporary historians of the Church of England. His passing should not be allowed to go without comment.

Arthur spent his life as a professional historian, with more than 30 years’ service at King’s College, London, including as head of depart­ment and Vice-Dean for Education in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. He was a member of the history department (and not theology and religious studies), and his teaching and intellectual interests encompassed modern British political and social history; but much of his writing focused on the history of the Church of England, convinced as he was that the part that it played in the nation’s history was pivotal.

He co-edited a massive, authoritative history of St Paul’s Cathedral, was instrumental in the creation of a database collating information about all known Church of England clergy from the Reformation until the publication of Crockford (Features, 8 August 2008), helped to pioneer a ground-breaking project uniting history and parish analysis in the diocese of London, and contributed to many other projects and publications on the Church, including the recent history of Manchester Cathedral. For many years, he was working on a history of the parish of Thaxted, and especially on the creative agencies of Conrad Noel, Gustav Holst, Joseph Need­ham, and Peter Elers. Although some findings were published in periodical form, the larger project, sadly, remains unfinished .

Arthur was born in Barnard Castle, but brought up in Ludlow, and retained enormous affection for Shropshire, and an intimate understanding of the nuances and complexities of British regional history. He studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, and went on to complete a doctorate on ecclesiastical reform in the 19th century which, when published as The Diocesan Revival in the Church of England (1999), transformed our understanding of the processes by which the Church adapted itself to social and political change. No one who wants to under­stand the history of the modern Church of England can afford to ignore it.

Perhaps unusually for an academic who remained research active, he also relished administration, and was a highly effective organiser of the various projects with which he was associated, and a strong advocate of the importance of historical study, working through the Royal Historical Society in particular to defend the place of history in secondary education. Latterly, he was Director of the Georgian Papers Programme, a massive undertaking releasing hitherto unpublished material from the Royal archives for scholarly research and publication.

Arthur loved visiting churches, and had a particular fondness and respect for the Anglican tradition. But his view of the C of E was not nostalgic or sentimental, and the breadth of his his­torical interests was reflected in his detached, critically astute perception that the Church could not be understood in isolation from its multiple social and political contexts. He recognised that societies change, and that even churches, to survive, must change with them. His immense contribution to modern Anglican scholarship was recognised by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s present­ing him with the Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship in September 2022.

All of this might make Arthur sound rather formal, but he was far from that. He was a kind, open, generous person, with many friends and loyal colleagues, and, I suspect, no enemies (itself something of an achievement in the academic world). He had a mischievous sense of humour, and was never made captive by the institutions for which he worked and which he studied. He will be missed by many, especially his beloved family, including Sarah, his wife and a fellow historian at King’s, and by his sons, James, Alasdair, and Douglas.

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