Friday, 25 October 2013

Sixteenth Century Studies in San Juan

An update from the Sixteenth Century Conference, this year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the debates are heated but the sea temperature is just perfect.

Of the many good papers so far, I'm going to pick out two - which is to pass over contributions from people like Paula McQuade, Jonathan Willis and Liz Evenden, amongst others, as good as I'd expect them to be.

Bradford Littlejohn, who's just finished a PhD at Edinburgh and is now looking for academic jobs from back home in Idaho, gave a really intriguing paper in the Richard Hooker session on the idea of certainty in Hooker. Against the Puritan argument that failsafe moral guidance can only be, and can in fact be, found in Scripture, Hooker made a very modern argument for the fluidity and provisionality of moral knowledge. Bradford made him sound immensely reasonable, as Hooker always does. It still seems to me that there is an authoritarian agenda behind this: since moral certainty is elusive, we must (as Thomas More was once told) weigh our doubts against the certainty that we owe obedience to our lawful sovereign, and so obey in good conscience. When I asked if this was really as reasonable as it sounds, Bradford (who is clearly used to being patient with Roundheads like me) pointed out that Hooker is not simply requiring obedience: he is carefully explaining why it is right. I still think that may even be worse, since that means we don't just have to obey outwardly, but submit inwardly. Great paper, though.

And then there's the one who got away: Leif Dixon, currently of Regent's Park College, Oxford, who was on the panel on religious doubt and debate that I organised, but who couldn't make it due to lack of funding. Peter Marshall read his paper, and it was a cracker. He was looking at the weird phenomenon of anti-atheist polemic, of which there was a great deal in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite a distinct shortage of actual atheists. His argument was dense enough that it doesn't summarise well, but it amounts to the suggestion that 'atheism' was the name that was given to a series of tensions and wrinkles in post-Reformation Protestantism, problems which he compared to a recurrent computer bug. Not that atheism was preparing to sweep all before it, but that it was an invaluable category with which to talk about a whole range of problems. - But then I think Leif (whom I have yet to meet) is one of the most talented young scholars working on Protestantism today, and I look forward very much to his imminent book.

And still two days of conference to go ...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Extracurricular seminars

This scheme, which we launched as a Department a while back, has been drawing some criticism on the grounds that we are exploiting the postgraduate students, who are working unpaid. I understand that this is part of a wider concern the UCU has about unpaid work in universities, a dispute about which I know nothing, except that in general unpaid work is a bad thing. The problem here is that we don't think this is 'work' in that sense. There's been correspondence about it, but I want to try to explain how we see it at a little more length.

This scheme was my own brainchild, and emerged when I was working as director of postgraduate training, before becoming head of department.

It arose from a separate project of mine, a weekly extracurricular seminar in church history which I ran for undergraduates during the 2011-12 academic year. A small but committed group of UG volunteers took part; I was surprised and pleased by their enthusiasm for doing something above-and-beyond, and I enjoyed the freedom of having academic conversations with UGs outside any of the structures of credit, assessment or modules. This was, I suppose, unpaid work, in that it was not part of my job description or my contracted hours, and was done over and above my other responsibilities. But I and the other eight or so academic staff who took part over the year weren't thinking in those terms. Unpaid work? It wasn't 'work'. After all, sitting in a room talking about our subject with people who are interested in it is fun. And it seemed to be rewarding for all concerned.

I had to stop doing this once I became head of department in 2012-13, from sheer time pressure, but it fed into a problem I had been working at the same time. This is the problem that our postgraduates aren't always able to get the professional training they need. We were then (and still are) having a big push to ensure that PGs were prepared for the wider academic job market as well as writing excellent theses, and clearly teaching experience is a vital part of this. But the formal teaching work we can offer, as paid Teaching Assistants within the undergraduate curriculum, is limited. TAs can't design and deliver their own module or anything close to it. Nor could we allow relatively untrained PGs to take that much responsibility within our undergraduate programme. We needed to give them a chance to secure experience of this kind: but how?

Hence the scheme. PGs who were keen to try their hand at course design could have a chance to design a miniature, extracurricular course: four hours of class time over four weeks. A staff mentor would oversee the process. And brave undergraduate volunteers would be asked to come forward and take part. Crucially, they'd be asked to provide written feedback on the PGs at the end of the process. The PGs would secure valuable experience; the UGs would be stretched in new directions; and everyone would have won.

It's been a success: we ran six of these mini-courses in 2012-13 and have nine on the books for 2013-14. The PGs are queuing up to do them; UG takeup is a minority affair, but there has been some great enthusiasm for it and some very good feedback.

Now nobody could dislike that. The question is, should we be paying the PGs?

Three answers to that. (1) We can't. It's not just that money is tight - money is always tight. But if we were to be handed an extra pot of money and told to use it exclusively to support PG students, we wouldn't use it to pay these seminar leaders. We'd use it to increase the research funding available to our PGs for travel, conferences and other research expenses: that's where our students really feel the pinch.

The reality is that, if these extracurricular seminars could only happen if the leaders were paid, they wouldn't happen. Which would be a loss to all concerned. At one point in this the UCU asked that we cancel a seminar programme about to start the following day, after all the effort that a PG leader had put into designing and preparing it, and after a string of enthusiastic UGs had signed up for it. From where I sit that would have been simply a gross injustice.

(2) We don't need to. To emphasise, this is voluntary and extracurricular. No-one needs to take part. For the PGs, it is a training activity. For everyone concerned, it is about love of subject. I actually think that there is as strong a case for paying the UGs, since they are coming along to assist in a PG training scheme. But the point is: these people (UGs and PGs alike) are students, and they are learning, which is what students normally do at a University. We don't normally pay them to do that. The PGs are not doing 'work' on behalf of the University: they are not replacing any paid work that anyone else would have done. They are enriching the learning community, no doubt, but they do the same when they deliver papers to research seminars. Indeed, they do the same when they meet informally with other students and talk about subjects that interest them. Which is not too far from what they're doing in this case.

(3) And, actually, I think even if we could pay them, the scheme works better on a purely volunteer basis. I say that with some hesitation, because I know many of our PGs are financially very squeezed and I like to funnel money towards them when we can. But I don't think this scheme is the way to do it. To pay these PGs would be to put the courses on a contractual basis, which would instantly change their ethos. Anyone who participates in these courses does so for the joy of it: for sheer love of the subject. No credits, proformas, examinations: simply a community of people learning together. That is the sort of thing that a University ought to be about. There is, at best, something delicate and something beautiful here. We all need to earn a living, and the PGs who do this do so in part so that they will be better placed to do so when they leave. But we also need to remember that we are, or should be, in this first and last because we love what we do.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Ann Griffiths' hymns

Tom Schwanda of Wheaton College, Illinois, was in Durham this week past, in part to discuss the volume of essays on Puritanism and the emotions which he and I are incubating, but also to deliver a paper on eighteenth-century evangelical spirituality to Durham's Ecclesiastical History seminar.

Much of the paper was about hymnody, which he argued came, in the 18th century, to replace the vast Puritan manuals of pious practice that had dominated the 17th: which does a lot to explain how Protestantism broke out from its literate ghetto in that period. Some of the hymns were familiar; others not so. In particular, he introduced us to the work of the Welsh poet and hymn-writer Ann Griffiths (1776-1805), whose works were only translated into English in the 20th century and remain obscure. Undeservedly. Consider this, from her hymn XIV (in the translation of H. A. Hodges):

Earth cannot, with all its trinkets,
Slake my longings at this hour;
They were captured, they were widened,
When my Jesus showed his power.
None but he can now content me,
He, the Incomprehensible;
O to gaze upon his Person,
God in man made visible.

I am not sure I have ever seen so moving or economical a description of one of the core evangelical experiences: that submitting your desires to Christ not only satisfies them, but also intensifies them. A project at Cardiff is now making Griffiths' work more widely available and encouraging study of her as an important figure in the history of evangelicalism: more power to them.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Uncurated

A family day out at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland on Sunday was, I think, one of the most enjoyable visits to a historic building I have ever made. The reason? It was almost entirely unlike a National Trust or English Heritage property, buildings which are carefully restored and preserved, and curated so as to give the visitor a series of passably accurate impressions of what different parts of the building might have looked like in different eras.

By contrast, Chillingham, in places, gives the impression of having had eight hundred years' worth of junk strewn around it. Not quite indiscriminately: most of the Arctic and Himalayan equipment is in one room, most of the Indian booty in another, the Georgian stuff in a third. But everywhere there are dead things - skins, horns (endless horns), the largest pair of moose antlers I have ever seen anywhere; and everywhere there are weapons, from the Gatling guns standing unremarked in two different rooms, to enough halberds and billhooks to restage the battle of Flodden. But then, there are prodigious quantities of everything. Each room is heaving with ancient tat, higgledy-piggledy. I don't recall ever seeing elephant armour before. And in one room, stuffed in the corner, was a wooden claw-footed bath that apparently once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and is now, naturally, used as a drinks cabinet ('Let them drink Coke!').

And I don't believe they violated any health-and-safety regulations, but in an NT property you never have a chance to trip on ragged carpets or stumble on a three-inch dip in a dungeon floor.

What is so refreshing is to visit a place which doesn't treat the past with exaggerated reverence. You're not protected from it, and it's not protected from you. You are allowed to touch things. The place felt alive in a way that properties owned by public bodies rarely do.

Of course, there are disadvantages. The house and the family's history was obscure (you would scarcely guess that it belonged to a prominent regicide); the objects were left to speak for themselves, virtually unlabelled. It could only be done like this because visitor numbers are relatively low.

But still, I could wish other curators would take something from a place like this. We want junk: we want rooms jumbled with surprises. And while ancient and precious things certainly need to be protected, they can be protected too much. Things don't last forever, any more than people do; and while most of us like long lives, we also like to live them.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The sect called Anglicanism

When was the Church of England founded? This was a dangerously divisive question back in the 1630s, with daring Laudians favouring the year 597 (Augustine’s mission to Kent, sponsored by the Pope) and stout Puritans insisting on 1559 (the Elizabethan legislation which repudiated the Pope). A case could even be made, sentimentally if not legally, for Henry VIII’s earlier antipapal legislation of 1534. The reason the question mattered, of course, was not chronology but identity: was this a Reformed Protestant church built de novo on the ashes of papistical abominations, or was it the ancient Church of the English, ecclesia Anglicana, whose Reformation was not a clean break with the past?

Both positions remain defensible, but my recent spell working on the mid-17th century has persuaded me of another view. In the modern Church of England, ‘Anglican’ has become a denominational identity, not a geographical description. (Personally, I deplore this, and I am deeply uncomfortable with ‘Anglicanism’ as such; but I am ploughing a lonely furrow on that one.) This is, at the earliest, a 17th-century phenomenon, now entrenched by such deeply sectarian documents as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which effectively turns episcopacy into a shibboleth for true Christianity.

So I’d argue that the real foundation date is 1662, when the Restoration regime decisively turned its back on the idea of a Church of England – that is, of a national Church, designed to comprehend all those English Christians willing to belong to such a body as best it could. ‘The Church of England’ was set on its route to what it is now, an organisational identity and even a brand name, rather than a simple descriptive term. It celebrated this turn by expelling some 2000 ministers who wished to remain within it.

And again, the point is identity, not dates. If the Anglican Church was founded in 1662, what is it? Neither the historic English Church nor the standard-bearer of the Reformation. Instead, it is a sibling of the dozens of other churches rooted in the same period: English Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, many Baptist groups, the Quakers, and other more obscure or shortlived sects.

Of course, that’s not quite the truth. The older roots are still there. So are the wider horizons which the residual aspiration to be (and legal obligation to be) a national Church impose. But I see this struggle underneath most of the CofE’s current squabbles. What will it be? The Church of England? Or the Anglican church, the largest of the Civil-War era sects?