History's swollen congregation

July 5, 1996

Why are church pews empty but bookshelves devoted to the history of religion packed? Simon Targett reports

Today, it is more a spectator sport than a participant sport." So says Patrick Collinson, Cambridge's soon-to-retire regius professor of history. But he is not talking about Euro 96, Wimbledon or the Atlanta Olympics. He is talking about religion.

And it is a fact. While devout vicars are preaching before depressingly puny congregations hardly deserving of a collective noun, hundreds of religious scholar-commentators are addressing packed academic conferences and filling high street bookshops and high class biblioth ques. With the millennium just around the corner, people of all ages are queuing up to enrol on religious-oriented degrees, everything from Church history and Islamic studies at Lampeter to Jain studies at De Montfort. Even philanthropists, mirroring the trend of the Middle Ages, are pumping unheard-of sums into hardly vocational religious professorships. At Cambridge, the divinity faculty has attracted three Pounds 1 million donations in as many years, as well as the Pounds 50,000 from Steven Spielberg.

But if religion at universities is booming, it is perhaps the history profession which has been most stirred by the rage of religion. Thirty years ago, religious history was the history of the Church of England - its institutions, its archbishops and its arcane doctrine. It was practised by a small clique of ecclesiastical historians, studied by theologians preparing for ordination, and, as Professor Collinson remembers, was "the boring option". Nowadays, religious history is the kaleidoscopic history of all beliefs of all peoples, and it is colouring the work of all types of historian - political, social, even economic.

This astonishingly swift turnaround has come about because of the meteoric rise of a once-radical strand of religious historiography which first shot to prominence in Britain in the 1960s and which has succeeded in overturning the old-fashioned school of ecclesiastical history.

And if anything marks the arrival of the so-called "religion and society" approach, if anything marks its passage from the margins to the mainstream of historical enterprise, it is its selection as the subject of the 65th Anglo-American Conference, which is held this week at the cathedral of the historical establishment: London University's prestigious institute of historical research.

Religion and society" sounds innocuous enough. But in the 1960s it was a shibboleth of intellectual radicalism, distinguishing a young go-getting generation of scholarly rebels who had tired of traditional ecclesiatical history. In Oxford, a coterie of brilliant graduates, dissatisfied at the marginalised status of religion in the undergraduate course, held weekly meetings at Nuffield College. As Raphael Samuel, professor-elect at the University of East London, recalls: "We started off with Pascal's Pensees, we went on to Wilberforce's Practical View, and it was all terribly exciting."

Across at St Johns, Keith Thomas was working on his seminal study of popular belief, published in the 1970s as Religion and the Decline of Magic. For Anthony Fletcher, now professor of history at Essex, Thomas's book was "the real breakthrough". Even so, when Fletcher paid homage to the Thomas perspective by starting a seminar on magic and witchcraft, his professor thought he was "quite mad".

Others experienced the dismissive reaction of the ecclesiastical establishment. When Peter Clarke, now professor of the history and sociology of religion at King's College London, set up his centre for new religions in the early 1980s, "academics used to smile about it as something rather peripheral". And as recently as 1987, a major volume of essays on religion and society by the radical and influential History Workshop group, The Disciplines of Faith, only sold 250 copies.

Since then, however, the history world has been turned upside down. Thomas has been incorporated into the establishment, becoming an Oxford head of house and president of the British Academy. Collinson, who significantly calls himself "an ecclesiastical and religious historian", has become Cambridge's top professor less than a decade after the retirement of his predecessor once-removed, Owen Chadwick, an out-and-out ecclesiastical historian. Many of the young Oxford graduates who protested at the narrowness of ecclesiastical history - Peter Burke, Patricia Hollis, Roderick Floud - have become professors, peers or principals.

This achievement is partly explained by the vibrancy of the broader intellectual movements within which the religion and society approach evolved: Marxism, Weberian sociology, the French Annales school with its accent on mentalite, and anthropology. It is also explained by the fact that the path of rebellion had been paved by such radical historians as the Hammonds, R. H. Tawney, E. R Wickham, and Christopher Hill. But, preeminently, it is explained by the wider religio-cultural context which has distinguished the last years of the second millennium. The fall of ecclesiastical history parallels the fall of established religion. Likewise, the rise of the social history of religion mirrors the rise of non-established belief systems.

Although Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford and long-time stalwart of Radio 4's beleaguered Thought for the Day slot, points to the resilience of the Church of England, noting that "far more people attend church on a Sunday than go to watch premier league football matches", even he acknowledges the new religious atmosphere. He describes "a huge free market for religion", and he draws a comparison with the multi-faith firmament of late antiquity "when a nascent Christianity won the hearts and minds of the Roman world".

Peter Clarke, whose centre for cults and new religious movements documents over 500 operating in this country, accepts Harries's link with late antiquity. But he stresses that, in the fin de millenium, "the arsenal of belief has widened and deepened". Robert Ashby, director of the British Humanist Association, who published a MORI survey last month showing that while 43 per cent of those surveyed believe in God some 67 per cent claim to be "religious", adds that people are actively shuffling across what he terms "the borderlands of faith".

For years, this anarchy of belief has reinforced the "religion and society" approach forged in the helter-skelter 1960s. But there are signs that the millennial age of spiritualism is now giving succour to a new generation of radicals who are looking to say the last rites over "the old approach" - just when the historical establishment finally canonises it as the new orthodoxy.

Anglican evangelicalism sees its parallel in a reawakening of ecclesiastical history, however refashioned. Former All Souls fellow Jonathan Clark, currently Hall distinguished professor of history at Kansas University, has endeavoured to, as he phrases it, "reinsert religion into the secular history of high politics". His mid-1980s classic, English Society 1688-1832, has won the plaudits of, among others, old-style ecclesiastical historians like Edward Norman. Mark Smith, who takes up the old ecclesiastical post at King's College, London later this year, has written localised institutional history, so giving a revisionist feel to older Chadwickian church history.

Meanwhile, more avowedly social historians are reinvigorating the "religion and society" approach, making it more postmodernist and as Strathclyde's Callum Brown puts it, "less stale". This is most advanced for the early modern period, and Brown is seeking to do the same for the post-1750 period, which has long been dominated by the theory of secularisation. Sharing Brown's postmodernist zeal is Birmingham University's Sarah Williams, a student of popular religion from 1880 to the second world war, who resists any comparison with the pioneers of the 1960s. "We need to focus on discourse, on what the ordinary people themselves said about their religious faith."

Even some of the original trendsetters think the "religion and society" approach should be radicalised. Raphael Samuel hungers for a new Tawney, someone who will reconceptualise the subject in the light of the sea changes in contemporary British society, someone who will take on "explosive" issues like male sexual politics.

For some, this revisionism is a step too far. One, alarmed by the postmodernist twist, talks of "nihilistic historians". For others, there is a sense of deja vu. Christopher Brooke, emeritus Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge, says: "It's very easy for revisionists to exaggerate their originality. The basic idea that historians should relate views of religion to its social milieu - well that's as old as the Bible."

Whether or not the "religion and society" approach is swept aside remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. Religion is now firmly on the historical agenda as never before. As Patrick Collinson notes: "It will never be possible again to write about the history of any period without putting religion near the very centre of the picture."

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