One set of virtual footprints: a collective cyber-pilgrimage

How is modern technology transforming our engagement with the sacred? Does life lived in symbiosis with cyber-simulacra divorce us from contact with Real? Or have new ways of being arisen from the ashes of the Victorian edifice of formal religion, facilitating the mass sacralisation of life.

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

As academics, classically trained in the anthropological analysis of pilgrimage and mythology, we have become increasingly interested in the way that certain online platforms provide opportunities for the flourishing of what we are terming exoreligious encounters with the numinous in the modern world.  That is to say, powerfully felt experiences of communion with something beyond the limits of ordinary existence in a context that is not easily attributed to either common sense or traditional understandings of religion. Cyberspace (and the realm of adult play that lies within it) suggests itself as one (although not the only) arena for the fruitful exploration of these phenomena.   It is both obvious and well documented (Campbell, Hutchings, McWilliams) however that many sites of cyber-pilgrimage have a direct relation with preexisting offline religious communities and places. Nevertheless, it also seems probable that the cyber world does not simply augment the offline; rather, just as physical action is transmuted, so too sacred space is transformed.

At one end of this transformative continuum stands that gamecompany’s 2012 game Journey, which is a sort of cyber pilgrimage to a sacred mountain, that has deeply affected globally dispersed (and culturally divergent) people of all faiths and none.  This is captured wonderfully in an online discussion forum, where one player wrote “I’m pretty much atheist myself, but that game gave me a sense of spirituality that other forms of media have failed to ever do.”

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

To explore this further, in early 2016, we stated a cyber pilgrimage project and (in June 2016) we ran a laboratory at the annual meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, which happened to be held that year in Durham. The laboratory aimed to communally explore and collectively debate the game Journey by directly experiencing it. The game-play and discussion were then recorded and offered to the global community through you tube – the journey therefore continues through this secondary, perhaps more passive engagement, which forms the next step of our experiment.

The full online video captures (in real-time) the blended collective movements of the workshop participants through the onscreen movement of a single avatar. At the same time the pilgrims’ individual voices can be heard weaving a collaborative understanding of the experience through reactive discourse. The shorter, highlights videos, explore the responses and transposed movements more thematically and represent a further movement of knitting both time (the individual moments of the pilgrimage) and personhood (the individuals present) into a single, cohesive, narrative.

If you would like to find out what the workshop participants did and how vocalisation entwined with digital movement on the pilgrimage trail then you are invited to  view the videos here;  if you wish to help form the experience then please feel free to inscribe the movements of  your own fingers onto the cyberspace of the comments box  and (in so doing) join this, ongoing, journey.

Jonathan Miles-Watson is Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University.

Vivian Asimos is a PhD Student, Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

Europe: The Road to Justice and Peace?

Flag_of_EuropeThe failure of the European Union as a whole to address the refugee crisis with any coherent vision of human dignity is a matter of deep shame, which Pope Francis has recently highlighted in one of his powerful gestures. Some very ugly political forces are crawling out from under stones. The Euro has become a nightmare, in which democracy has been subjugated to the interests of French and German banks, the taxpayer made liable for their reckless lending, and no account at all taken of the interests of the poor. UK politicans take turns in giving thanks that we have opted out of both Schengen and the Euro. Yet are not a common currency and a common border the hallmarks of a unified Europe? Is that project, that ever-closer union, now dead?

Some will say Britain was never part of it, though the treaties state otherwise and even David Cameron’s recent opt-out from further integration can be reversed, with UK consent. The EU cannot be understood except as a political project; it was never just about free trade and economics, even if, for the most part, that is how it has been sold to the British electorate. Trade is merely the path to peace and justice, or such is the hope. Pope Francis said to the EU Parliament:

“I encourage you to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent.  At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.”

Since Pope John XXIII, the Catholic Church has held that the future lies with a global political authority, the cession of a degree of sovereignty to the global level. As our world becomes economically, militarily and environmentally ever more interconnected, political authority needs to keep pace. Yet it is essential that such an authority arise from mutual agreement and not be imposed, nor be understood as a global super-State. After all, Napoleon Bonaparte also had a vision of a united Europe – united under him.

The European Union of 500 million people in 28 states is the largest political grouping ever formed, and so far maintained, entirely by consent. Even the United States is not only smaller but had to endure a terrible Civil War to keep it together; Europe’s ‘civil wars’ preceded the formation of the Union. The wonder of the EU is not that it sometimes works rather badly but that it works at all. The challenge is to make it work better and make it something the peoples of Europe feel proud of once again. The real decision – and it is a real choice – is whether the British people want to be a continuing part of that project.

An abridged version of a talk given at Sunderland Minster on 13 May 2016.

Dr Mark Hayes holds the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice.

Writings from the Archives

PrintIt is all too easy to think that other people find it easier to write, and to get published, than you do. They journey from initial thoughts to first drafts to finished product seems to run smoothly for them, without any of the stops and starts, the confusions, the reversals and dead ends that you experience yourself.  And even when they do complain of the difficulties and delays, a shiny new publication often seems to pop into existence shortly thereafter, making it hard to believe that their experience is really the same as yours. The real labour, and real difficulty, of other people’s writing is mostly hidden from us.
One of the most encouraging things I have done in my academic career is to spend a considerable length of time working on a theologian for whom writing was intensely difficult, and whose struggles to get his thoughts down on the page, and then from the page into print, were intense and unending. In fact, only now, nearly thirty years after his death, are some of his writings appearing in public.
Hans Frei (1922–88) was a German-born American theologian who was based at Yale. Regarded as one of the founders of ‘postliberal theology’ (along with his close colleague, George Lindbeck), he had a deep and lasting influence on a whole generation of North American and British theologians, but that influence was not based on a large number of publications. Only two books were published during his lifetime: The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale, 1974) and The Identity of Jesus Christ (Fortress, 1975), though two more collections were published after his death: Theology and Narrative (Oxford, 1993) and Types of Christian Theology (Yale, 1992). Over the years, he started on several other projects, but found progress extraordinarily difficult, so that the archive of his papers held at Yale Divinity School is full of drafts and redrafts, false starts and abandoned attempts.00_CASCADE_Template
The Canadian theologian Mark Alan Bowald and I have been working over the past few years to bring some of this rich material to publication, and the second volume of our collection has finally hit the shelves. Hans Frei, Reading Faithfully: Writings from the Archives, volume 2: Frei’s Theological Background, came out last month; the earlier volume: Theology and Hermeneutics was based last year. This second volume covers Frei’s writings on the history of modern theology, from Lessing to Barth and beyond. The earlier volume included materials that clarified Frei’s approach to biblical narrative, to the nature of reference in the Gospels, and to the political implications of his theological investigations. It may not all be perfectly polished material, but it is fascinating and thought-provoking, and helps fill out the details in Frei’s theological project.
We hope that Frei, who would no doubt have laboured through many more drafts of these materials, and taken them in directions that we can’t now reconstruct, would not be too embarrassed to see them in print.
Mike Higton is Professor of Theology and Ministry in the Department of Theology and Religion.

The Soul and the City: An observer’s account of the London Mayoral Assembly


The Copper Box sits at the far end of Stratford’s Olympic Park. It was used during the 2012 Olympics to host lively games of handball and fencing. The venue was much praised for its fantastic acoustic as supporters’ cheered for their preferred team. Last week the Copper Box was transformed for one night into the setting for a rather different kind of sport: the London mayoral assembly organised by London Citizens/Citizens UK. 6,000 Londoners from every corner of the city gathered for a rather unconventional event. Unlike your average election hustings there were no questions from the audience or hands in the air, no lengthy speeches by politicians or opportunity for the candidates to get stuck into each other. Part carnival, part theatre, part liturgy, part town hall meeting; a community organising assembly is a difficult beast to describe to those who have not experienced its unique drama.

Attendees at last Thursday’s assembly represented ‘chapters’ of the biggest broad-based community alliance of civil society organisations and institutions in London: 2,000 from East London, 2,000 from West London and the remainder from chapters in North and South London. The membership of London Citizens consists of mosques, synagogues, churches, trade unions, schools, universities, and traders associations. Faith organisations make up the core of London Citizens (and the national grouping Citizens UK, which takes in groups in Leeds, Birmingham, Wales and most recent in gestation Tyne and Wear here in the North East), but this is not – in formal terms – a faith-based initiative. It is a deliberately mixed group of faith groups and other civil society organisations, bringing together people who are committed to working together in local areas on an agenda agreed through a democratic and relational process of negotiation.

What do I mean by a relational process? The core of organising works on the basis of one-to-one meetings carried out across member organisations. These meetings help identify the passions and interests of members and the things they most want to change about their common life. These one-to-ones also provide the basis for discovering hidden leadership talent – people who want to take a lead in speaking up and acting with and for themselves others in public life. From these meetings come a mosaic of concerns and interests that feed into the development of a democratic (voted on) agenda for action.

To make this concrete: the now famous Living Wage campaign built on the stories heard by faith communities amongst their members about the impact of low pay. The campaign for community land trusts as a response to a lack of social and affordable housing, protected for the next generation as well as this, came from stories about the impact of the rise in the cost of housing in London. The multiple campaigns to provide a path to regularise the status of undocumented migrants already living here, to end the detention of children for immigration purposes and to improve the processes for those claiming asylum came largely from stories told first often to pastors, priests, head teachers and faith leaders. Organising provided a vehicle to turn those concerns into forms of political action.

On Thursday evening last week the organisers of the assembly were working with the organising conviction that citizens have intensified forms of power in the lead up to elections, and that the critical move is to use that power – by organising people to act for their interests and the common good – in order to establish a relationship with whoever wins: an agreement to work together on the issues raised. Organising works on the basis of securing a relationship through negotiation. But securing a way to negotiate with political power is never as simple as just turning up and asking. Hence the drama, the liturgy and the town hall style engagement. The rules are: no heckling, no booing. Polite but firm engagement on a democratic agenda.

The assembly began with a carnival atmosphere as representatives from the strong and diverse Latin American community working in London paraded onto the stage with flags representing their communities and dancers who entertained the gathering with extraordinary performances. The crowd warmed up and the tone set – this is OUR assembly, and this is a form of public, political space in which traditions ground what we do and say – Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan took their places on stage.

The evening revolved around negotiations on an agenda agreed by the 6,000 present through lengthy months of planning: job and apprenticeship opportunities for young Londoners. A Living Wage commitment: would each candidate commit to paying a Living Wage not just to staff but insist that all procurement with city government in London was done with a guarantee of a Living Wage? A commitment on 50% new build affordable housing, and the introduction of the idea of a London Living Rent to be set according to the Tawney / Beveridge standards that no more than 1/3 of wages should be necessary to access decent housing. On immigration, a commitment to taking more than the paltry 40 Syrian families to have been settled in London so far under the government’s most recent scheme.

But a list like this gives little sense of the drama – and even at times tongue in cheek humour – of the proceedings. Each of these items for negotiation was presented by a civil society leader whose aim was to present an ‘ask’ and demand a no wriggle room public commitment. Each ‘ask’ involved the powerful delivery of testimony – truth to power – by a Londoner affected by each of the issues. Two of the most moving moments of the evening were when a young Nigerian woman addressed Khan and Goldsmith: she jepson2explained that she had lived in London since the age of 2, but she had recently been taken in a dawn raid by immigration officials and detained for six weeks before being released again. She spoke of fear, of exclusion, of her inability to get a student loan or a proper bank account, of her ten year wait to become a citizen in the only country she has ever known: ‘I am a Londoner’. The stadium came to its feet to recognise her contribution. She was followed by a young Syrian photographer, 28 years old, who fighting back emotion told of his journey through Europe to London. He too was met with an emotional ovation. Each made their ask to Khan and Goldsmith.

On housing a single mother of three, a key worker, spoke of her shame at not being able to afford enough bedroom space for her children, of her sense of failure the day that her teenage daughter needed to be given a mattress on the floor of the lounge as her permanent bedroom, of the son who still shares her room. A 15 year old schoolboy spoke powerfully of the displacement of his own working class family from their roots in one area of London as prices rose and the five house moves that have marked his school years. And then there was the clever idea to stage a ‘march of the keyworkers’. To the singing of Madness’ ‘Our House’ representative teachers, uniformed nurses, fire fighters, and police marched around the stage area in front of Khan and Goldsmith to make the point that those who keep London moving often cannot afford to live in the city they serve. It was clever and powerful with more than a hint of humour.

It is probably clear from what I have written that this style of politics attempts to recognise personhood – it doesn’t celebrate narrow issues or ossified identities, but it seeks to humanise political processes and recognise the deep motivations people bring to politics. By default it also happens to humanise the politicians too. Both Goldsmith and Khan were able to talk about their own roots and motivations, to be honest about what they could not promise – where consensus could and, equally importantly, could not be built.

Opened by the Bishop of London, closed with simultaneous Jewish and Muslim prayers – poignant in a week marked by brittle debate about racism, anti-semitism and politics – this was a remarkable gathering which defies the usual categories we use to think about religious and political action. The candidates were pushed hard – although there were times they could have been pushed harder – and made public commitments to which the winner will be held to account. But more significantly Khan and Goldsmith experienced the energy and vitality of a group of 6,000 Londoners who understand the power they have to bring change and to insist that politics matters.

Two concluding observations.

The coverage of the event in the media was a fairly disappointing affair. The reporting that did take place was skewed to reporting the ways in which an already favoured candidate had done better than the other obviously hopeless candidate. The Guardian reported how at home Sadiq Khan was amongst a throng of faith groups. It did not say that both candidates in fact where appealing to their base faith constituencies: Jewish and Muslim. It did not say that whilst the crowd did seem to favour Khan, at times Goldsmith was willing to make stronger public commitments. He grasped the procurement issue on the Living Wage more convincingly, although he gave less on housing and migration. Khan looked less comfortable as things wore on until delivering his powerful speech on housing at the end, Goldsmith often looked more relaxed. Nor did the media coverage show much interest in the profoundly unusual form of politics on display. A tough crowd to please, a higher energy event seemed to be the line. But no greater curiosity was shown – for good or bad – about what was on display.

My final observation is that of a non-Londoner watching a profoundly London form of politics unfold. Two things struck me (and my politician companion sitting by my side): there is still great energy for politics in London – a Northern crowd would have been harder to please, less easy to placate. This isn’t romanticism for the tough, gritty North, but awareness that I think Londoners still feel power pulse through their veins in a way that the North often does not. Finally, there was a palpable sense on Thursday that London has made peace with itself as a city marked by migration. The unequivocal support that brought the roof down for the young Nigerian woman without status and the Syrian photographer was deeply moving to see, but I wonder whether a cross section of any other city would show such an overwhelming sense of embrace and recognition? Whether the ease of interaction amongst the immensely diverse range of school pupils as they presented their common concerns on housing and jobs would be quite the same elsewhere? There was a glimpse of the soul of a city on Thursday, and it was something to behold.

Anna Rowlands is Lecturer in Catholic Studies whose research focuses on political theology. Photos by Chris Jepson.

Monks in Motion

Judging by the media coverage, the idea of Benedictine monks discovering a 200-year-old chicken curry recipe is the sort of religious story people can – excuse the pun – stomach. The recipe was unearthed in a cookbook dating from 1793 held at Downside Abbey, near Bath in Somerset. The one slight disappointment with the news item was that it was a household cookbook rather than one detailing the diet of a group of regency-period monks.

Still, a Georgian cookbook is not something to be taken lightly and the novelty value that monks might have found it seemed to be the real attention grabber. This hint that monks might be cloistered mentally as well as physically has a long history despite it being somewhat inaccurate.

For example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of English monks undertook their education at the Sorbonne and they were frequently at the forefront of philosophical trends, notably (and controversially) a move from Thomism towards the teachings of the Enlightenment. Their reputation for learning was such that Dr Johnson visited the English priory of St Edmund’s in Paris and used its library; the poet, Alexander Pope, entered into correspondence with the monks and the abbot general of the English Benedictine Congregation, Thomas Southcott, enjoyed a close friendship with the philosopher Andrew Michael Ramsay.

No doubt the reader has already noticed something odd about these English monks: namely, why were they in France? Following Elizabeth I’s accession to the English throne in 1558 membership of a religious order such as the Benedictines was proscribed for all English subjects. Despite this, a network of English Catholic institutions quickly developed in continental Europe catering for both males and females who wished to enter some form of religious life. Amongst these were four Benedictine monasteries, three in modern France – St Gregory’s at Douai, St Laurence’s at Dieulouard and St Edmund’s at Paris – and, uniquely for the English exile movement, an institution in Germany, the Abbey of St Adrian and St Denis at Lamspringe.

It is the membership of these monasteries that the AHRC-funded Monks in Motion project is tracking in order to explore questions about the monks’ activities. Unusually for monastics in general, few English Benedictines actually lived in their monasteries. Rather, the majority of them, following profession and ordination, returned to England and were covertly active in missioning to the clandestine Catholic community. They played a vital role in the formation of a Catholic minority identity and were deeply involved in debates within the Catholic community about how it should interact with an officially hostile government. Several of them were even executed by the state simply for being present in their homeland, an act that was forbidden under new treason laws. By the eighteenth century, the focus of the monks shifted from sustaining a proscribed minority to involvement in the Jacobite cause and its accompanying political manoeuvring, as well as full investment in the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

The project team, which includes members based in Spain and Italy, will ask questions such as how much of a role did the monks play in bringing European ideas into their home country and vice versa? What were the social, regional and ethnic backgrounds of the monks and how were they recruited? How did the monasteries fit into the social, intellectual and political networks of the countries where they were established? The project is currently very much in its first research phase. However, including all those individuals who tried out as monks in any way, we can already increase the number of those regularly recorded as in some form Benedictine by almost a third.

What might surprise people is that three of these monasteries still exist, though in different locations. Fleeing France in the teeth of the French Revolution’s anti-Catholicism, the monks found themselves back in England, where Catholicism was still officially proscribed if no longer actually persecuted. St Edmund’s of Paris, after a brief return to France, became Douai Abbey near Reading. St Laurence’s of Dieulouard is now better known as Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, whose school’s alumni include the novelist Piers Paul Read, BBC Radio 4’s Ed Stourton, England rugby world cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio and Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes. Finally, St Gregory’s of Douai became Downside Abbey, home of the 200-year-old chicken curry recipe. Evidently, the monks continue to have an impact outside their cloister just as they have done since their monasteries’ foundations roughly 400 years ago.

Monks in Motion researchers recently discovered the recipe for an alcoholic punch made by the monks at St Laurence’s. In line with the curry headlines, perhaps it is time to ask if anyone is ready for monastic cocktails.

Dr James Kelly is Research Fellow in Early Modern British and Irish Catholicism and Dr Cormac Begadon is a Post Doctoral Researcher on the AHRC Monks in Motion project.

Café des Théologiennes: Addressing Gender Imbalance in Theology and Religious Studies

It is now well known that women are underrepresented in academia, including in Departments of Theology and Religion. The 2013 study, ‘Gender and Career Progression in Theology and800px-Helena_of_Constantinople_(Cima_da_Conegliano) Religious Studies,’ conducted by members of Durham’s department of Theology and Religion (Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma and Robert Song), drew particular attention to such issues and has become an important resource for subsequent discussions.

Café des Théologiennes, originally Café des Femmes, was set up a few years ago by research students in our department. The group aimed to provide a space for female Theology students and staff to meet together, share their experiences, and learn more about each other’s work. Staff and student presentations, as well as professional development seminars, based on the experiences of females in the department and in academia more generally, have been central features of the group since its inception. The group has continued to grow and develop over time, responding to changes in the life and makeup of the department. The change in name to Café des Théologiennes was designed to recognise that those participating in the group are not just ‘women,’ but are specifically female theologians. The group has run several Postgraduate Research Days, allowing any of the department’s postgraduates to present some of their work to other members of the community. Moreover, the academic year 2014-2015 saw the introduction of termly ‘Open Seminars,’ where male members of the department were welcomed to staff presentations organised by the group. Such changes represent both the professionalism of the Café and an understanding that gender imbalance cannot be tackled by women alone, but must be a concerted effort made by all.

This year, we have chosen to further evolve the programme of CdT. Café des Théologiennes wishes to support the integration of females within the Department of Theology and Religion and to develop a departmental community where all members feel supported and encouraged. Whilst still allowing space for female postgraduates to present their research to one another, we have been keen to develop a general Postgraduate Seminar alongside these female-only events. The Postgraduate Seminar allows one male and one female presenter to share some of their research with other members of the department. The aim of such a seminar is to bolster the postgraduate community, providing an opportunity for students to meet and learn more about each other’s work. Such a space for research students in the department has not been available prior to this and we believe this to be an important contribution that CdT can make to the department as a whole.

Café des Théologiennes is an extremely important group that has had multiple benefits for those participating in it over the years. The underrepresentation of women in academia continues to be a problem. Although there is now increased awareness of the issue, the imbalance can never be redressed if we do not take action. CdT reminds us as individuals and as a department that we must support female colleagues. The academic and social benefits of CdT for women in the department cannot be denied. The group has given female postgraduates and staff in our department the chance to get to know one another and to share their personal experiences, as well as their work, in a supportive environment. The confidence that this has given those women is significant. However, Café des Théologiennes should not simply be of benefit to women alone. It highlights to us that we must support and encourage every individual within the department, establishing and maintaining a community that promotes equality for all and recognises the value of each person’s contribution. Café des Théologiennes represents one of the ways in which our department and its research students are attempting to address a well-known problem in our discipline. We hope that over time, we will see significant changes in our own department and in academia more widely. Until then, we will continue to work to support one another and to develop a stronger community among postgraduates studying Theology and Religion in Durham.

If you have any questions about Café des Théologiennes, or if you would be interested in presenting for us, please email We also have a Facebook group and a page on the departmental website where information about our forthcoming seminars may be found.

Katie Woolstenhulme and Madison Pierce

Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness

The Department of Theology and Religion isLang book very happy to announce the publication of Dr T.J. Lang’s new book, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness.

This monograph examines Pauline and early Christian understandings of history, revelation, and identity. Dr Lang addresses these topics by exploring appeals to “mystery” in Paul’s letters and the ensuing discourses of revelation in second-century Christianity. He argues that Paul’s particular historical coordination of hiddenness and revelation enabled figures to ground Christian claims—particularly key ecclesial, hermeneutical, and christological claims—in Israel’s history and the eternal designs of God while at the same time accounting for their revelatory newness. He then explores how this account of revelation expanded into a total Christian historical consciousness, and one that has significant implications for conceptions of Christian identity, particularly vis-à-vis Judaism.

The book is ready for purchase here, an excellent stocking stuffer.

T.J. Lang is Lecturer in New Testament in the Department of Theology and Religion.

AAR/SBL: A Report



Along with assorted others from Durham’s Department of Theology and
Religion, I recently attended the 2015 American Academy of
Religion/Society for Biblical Literature conference in Atlanta. The
conference is notoriously enormous – 10,000 delegates was the number I
heard bandied around, and while I didn’t do a head count it does at least
seem plausible. The conference took place in several hotels in downtown
Atlanta, though in some ways it would be more accurate to describe it as
multiple conferences happening in roughly the same area. Never mind the
Society for Biblical Literature: you could spend most of the length of the
conference just reading through the book of AAR abstracts.

My strategy was to go to the panels my friends were presenting on, and to
spend less time in panels than I did taking the opportunity to catch up
with old friends from around the world and finally meet people I’d only
met online. It worked pretty well, for me at least. Social media really
came into its own for me here: in the middle of such a vast and anonymous event it was weird but nice to turn round in the first panel session I went to and realise that half the room was made up of people I’d met, but only on twitter.

I went to a great panel about debt, which dealt with the historical
connection between Christian theology and ideas of indebtedness, a
critique of the demand for Jubilee as a solution to indebtedness, and a
discussion of the role of Christian charity in the questionable pursuit of
microfinance as a solution to global poverty. I presented on a panel about
‘Thinking Critically about the Future(s) of the human’: I gave a paper
about angels, cyborgs and theological accounts of work, while my
co-panelists (including Durham alumnus Thomas Lynch) spoke about religion, hope and nihilism, and messianism and nature through the lens of Ismaili Islam. I finished the conference at a panel on ‘Micrologics of the
Postsecular’ which dealt brilliantly with a huge range of topics, from
creolization to black theology to death, with a discussion of Pussy Riot
thrown in for good measure.

I didn’t enjoy the jet lag, which had me awake from 4am every morning
right through the conference, but it’s good to get out of Durham
occasionally, especially for a city as expansive as Atlanta. The
intellectual stimulation and academic meeting of minds was all very well
but I’d do the whole trip again just for the vegan wings I had in a smoky
bar the night before I came home.

Dr Marika Rose is a former research postgraduate in the Department of Theology and Religion, and is currently Research Fellow in Digital Discipleship and Curator of the Discipleship, part of the CODEC Research Centre in Durham.

The Tablet 175th Anniversay Conference

The Church as the Path to SalvationIn 1840, American Whig politician William Henry Harrison was battling Martin Van Buren for the American Presidency, Charles Darwin had just published The Voyage of the Beagle, the Queen Victoria Pub‘s namesake was overseeing the expansion of the British Empire, and Pope Gregory XVI was finalizing his decision to name Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti a cardinal, decades before the future Pius IX would lead the First Vatican Council toward the solemn definition of papal infallibility.  The year also marked the first edition of the international British Catholic journal The Tablet.

Widely seen as a preeminent standard of Catholic journalism in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the weekly periodical is currently celebrating 175 years of insight into the church’s inner workings and relationship to the wider world.  One of the highlight events marking the anniversary was a conference held from November 2-4 at Durham University titled “The Spirit of Catholic Renewal: Signs, Sources, and Calling.”

Some of the church’s most influential voices gathered in the Northeastern English countryside to discuss the shifting theological and political currents of our times.  Stanley Hauerwaus, Eamon Duffy, Paul Lakeland, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, Anna Rowlands, Tina Beattie, Alana Harris, Timothy Radcliffe, Karen Kilby, Ormond Rush and Myriam Wijlens headed what was a remarkable intellectual marquee to completely sold-out crowds.  Though both Elizabeth Johnson and Cardinal Walter Kasper were unable to attend due to last minute personal issues, their important contributions continued to shape the three days of conversation.  Kasper’s paper was presented by Duffy and Rev. Anthony Currer of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.  Cambridge theologian Janet Soskice offered a stimulating response.

The days were incredibly full, with lectures and meetings running from early morning to well into the evening (and usually followed by informal conversation over pints and whiskey until even later).  Various Catholic and Anglican bishops participated in both the liturgies and the sessions, a wonderful sign of collaboration and articulation of the fact that those recognized by Catholics as the authentic teachers of the faith are also excited to learn from others in the church and society. A quick walk through the book stalls attested to the popular and scholarly contributions the attendees and speakers have made to the life of the church in the English-speaking world.

As is commonplace with The Tablet, the participants did not shy away from analyzing the challenges facing the church in these complicated times, both in terms of divisive societal issues and the internal debates unfolding in the wake of the recent synod.  Of course, Pope Francis’s vision of the church’s mission and future loomed large in nearly every session, though the attention to his office and personality was counterbalanced by some interesting points about the “macrocephalic” attitudes toward the papacy in recent centuries when compared to the long history of Christianity. Duffy, Kasper, and event host Paul D. Murray have long emphasized the importance of the local church in ecclesiology, while of course remaining respectful of the papacy’s unique role in Catholicism. According to thinkers in this camp, the Modernist crisis, ongoing ultramontane attitudes, and a pattern of centralizing authority in Rome in the years immediately before and since The Tablet’s founding have given the church an abnormally large “head.” To employ a different metaphor brought to light by Alana Harris, the current pope seems to be inverting the pyramid, especially in terms of his recognition of the role of lay popular piety, the preferential option for the poor, and the sensus fidelium.  As is well known, one of the ancient descriptions of the papacy is the servus servorum Dei, the Servant of the Servants of God.  Many in the church, even among the hierarchy, seem excited about these developments.  While certainly not all agree that Francis’ decisions have been unqualifiedly positive or helpful, most of the participants in this conference agreed that synodal and collegial ecclesiastical structures serve to address pathologies and keep the Body of Christ healthy and relevant to all people of good will, whether believers or not.  In so doing, they further evangelization efforts and the church’s raison d’etre.

It was a wonderful few days, and information about it and relevant resources can be found on the website of the Department of Theology and Religion’s Centre for Catholic Studies, fast becoming the ever-growing hub of academic and spiritual Catholic life in Britain, and one with international ties.

Michael M. Canaris is a former postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Catholic Studies. He is now Assistant Professor of Ecclesiology and Systematic Theology and Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies.

Snow on Remembrance

Madonna of the Poppy (Paolo Veneziano, c.1325)

Madonna of the Poppy (Paolo Veneziano, c.1325)

Twelve months ago, in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, and in order to lend some intellectual cut-and-thrust to the annual season of remembrance, ‘TV historian’ Dan Snow took up the cudgels against the current form of the annual Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph.

Although these categories are not necessarily distinct, it is true to say that, as a breed, ‘TV historians’ have a mixed reputation among their more cloistered, academic colleagues. Among the former, the tendency towards the dumbing-down – and even the simple distortion – of complex material and issues can prove too great to resist. And here is a telling case in point. Something of a poster boy for the National Secular Society, and even nominated as ‘Secularist of the Year 2014’ for ‘promoting a secular vision for the national ceremony of remembrance and challenging the Church of England’s dominant role at the Cenotaph’, Snow’s argument that ‘Remembrance Sunday should not be dominated by religion’, and that secularists need to be represented at the Cenotaph, is beset by dubious reasoning and factual inaccuracies. Indeed, one might even ask whether Snow himself is a convincing champion of his own cause. After all, his qualms about organised religion, the established Church, and religious privilege were not especially prominent when he was married to a daughter of the Duke of Westminster by the Bishop of Liverpool.

Whatever the pros and cons of Snow’s case against the Church of England’s leading role at the Cenotaph, and the need to accommodate the sensitivities of non-believers such as himself (in case, as he rather oddly claims, this generates further conflicts), there is little doubt about the misleading nature of some of his factual claims. To begin with, there is his breezy assertion that ‘about half’ of all Britons claim to have no religion. Do they? According to the 2011 Census, the proportion of the population who reported ‘no religion’ amounted to a quarter of the population of England and Wales. Even if the entire populations of Scotland and Northern Ireland were to be equally fervent ‘nones’, the proportion of Britain’s non-believers would be much, much less than Snow alleges. Furthermore, and despite the accelerating decline of British Christianity in the past fifty years or so, it seems pertinent to note just how many professed atheists there were in the British armed forces of the two World Wars – conflicts that produced the vast and overwhelming majority of those remembered at the Cenotaph each year.

Although official figures are not available for 1914-1918, a named headstone bearing no religious symbol is a telling rarity in the cemeteries of the First World War (and, judging by many of the accompanying inscriptions, a good proportion of these omissions can be ascribed to extreme Protestant misgivings over religious symbols of any kind). During the Second World War, and according to War Office figures, less than 1 per cent of soldiers in the British army claimed to be atheists. Given this situation, it seems entirely legitimate that the Christian identity of these generations should be reflected in the dominant – that is to say, religious – idiom of national remembrance. If we carry Snow’s argument to its logical conclusion, and wish to make our whole cult of remembrance religiously neutral in order to fit with a new (non) religious sensibility, then we also need to have a thoroughgoing purge of our Commonwealth war cemeteries – and do away with the iconic Cross of Sacrifice, the Stone of Remembrance, and even their horticultural style, reflecting as they do Christian understandings of sacrifice and the biblical story of Christ’s resurrection.

Be that as it may, all this is as nothing compared to Snow’s insistence that state ceremonial at the Cenotaph was originally ‘secular’. He gets off to a bad start by getting his dates wrong. King George V was nowhere near the (temporary) Cenotaph at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1919, and still less was there any unveiling on that first anniversary of the Armistice. In fact, when its permanent successor was actually unveiled, on 11 November 1920, this was part of the elaborate ceremonial surrounding the interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. And, despite debate about the design of the Cenotaph and the form of ceremony to be followed (a sign of the range and vigour of religious belief across the British Empire, not its absence), the ensuing proceedings were in no way ‘secular’. Immediately prior to the unveiling at the stroke of 11, the assembled crowds sang ‘O God, our Help in Ages Past’, and the Archbishop of Canterbury led them in saying the Lord’s Prayer – which, according to The Times, ‘the King and all his subjects repeated with uncovered heads’. All this can be quickly established by consulting a small amount of contemporary evidence, a fundamental task of any historian, one might suppose. But not, it would seem, if you’re Dan Snow, and your self-appointed mission at the centenary of the First World War is to rid a national act of remembrance – held for generations on the Christian Sabbath, moreover – of what you wrongly perceive and proclaim to be alien religious accretions.

Professor Michael Snape is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Anglican Studies and Director of the Centre for Anglican Studies.