Applied religious history: understanding the past to inform the future
Submitting InstitutionOpen University
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
This case study assesses the impact of a series of knowledge exchange and
public engagement projects undertaken in London and Northern Ireland
between 2009 and 2013. These projects have made innovative applied use of
a substantial body of research into modern British and Irish religious
history conducted in the Unit.
This activity has:
- achieved greater historical literacy among religious practitioners
- raised awareness of the importance of religious archives
- informed the Church of England's policy and strategic thinking for the
- provided substantial online resources for local research and `history
audits' and supported their use
- enhanced understanding among practitioners in Northern Ireland of the
historical and religious dimensions of conflict in the province.
British religious history since c.1800 has long been a key focus of
research in the Unit. In the mid-1990s, work by Beckerlegge, Wolffe,
Gerald Parsons (senior lecturer until 2012) and Terence Thomas (senior
lecturer until 1996) pioneered the documentation and analysis of the
growth of religious diversity in Britain after the Second World War,
setting recent trends in the longer-term historical perspective of
developments since the Victorian era. Subsequent important contributions
were made by Susan Mumm (lecturer/senior lecturer 1996-2006), with her
work on Anglican sisterhoods, and David Herbert (lecturer/senior lecturer
1996-2009), with his research on secularisation theory and on media
representations of the Northern Ireland conflict. Wolffe has been
particularly active in this field. He published substantial monographs on
aspects of British and Irish religious identities in 1994 and 2000, and
edited texts and analysis of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship between
2000 and 2005. There is also extensive British and Irish material in his
2006 and 2012 books on international evangelicalism. Maiden, who joined
the department as a research associate in 2009, has published a monograph
on the 1927/28 prayer book crisis, and has since developed these research
themes in work on evangelicalism and anti-Catholicism in the 1960s and
During recent years, Wolffe has focused his attention on London and to
Northern Ireland. His work on London includes a substantial contribution
to the prize-winning 1400th anniversary history of St Paul's
Cathedral (2004), a co-authored analysis of the resurgence of the Church
of England in the capital since 1980 (2012), and a case study of the
relationship between the building of physical churches and the development
of congregations in Victorian Finchley (2013). He has approached Northern
Ireland through the comparative historical framework suggested by his
earlier work on British and American anti-Catholicism, resulting in an
edited book with a substantial sole-authored introduction and conclusion
(2013) that explores long-term trajectories since the Reformation. In
collaboration with the Belfast-based Institute for Conflict Research
(ICR), he has been investigating recent and present-day attitudes in
Northern Ireland, exploring how these are illuminated by an historical
perspective and seeking to identify potential strategies to assist in
conflict resolution, both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Initial
outcomes from this work are reported in John Bell, For God, Ulster and
Ireland? Religion Identity and Security in Northern Ireland,
Belfast: ICR, 2013.
The key insights from this body of work are
- Critical revision, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, of a
conventional narrative of inexorable secularisation. In particular, it
has pointed to the contingent and specific nature of factors producing
decline, and suggested that religious change and resurgence were also
important features of historical experience.
- Enhanced awareness of the long history of religious diversity in
Britain, across major religious traditions, gender and class, and of the
complex interactions between religion and national identity in the four
nations of the United Kingdom.
- Increased understanding of long-term patterns of religious conflict,
of the contingent events that stimulated them, and the role of
historical mythologies in perpetuating them.
- Emphasis on the importance of locality and personalities in shaping
community experience of religion.
- Methodological innovation in bringing together historical research and
work on contemporary religion to achieve further illumination and
perspective for both.
References to the research
Maiden, J. (2009) National Religion and the Prayer Book Controversy,
1927-1928, Woodbridge: Boydell. Listed in REF2.
Parsons, G., ed. (1993, 1994) The Growth of Religious Diversity:
Britain from 1945, 2 vols, London: Routledge. [Includes studies of
Christianity (Parsons), Islam (Wolffe), Hindus and Sikhs in Britain
(Thomas), popular/vernacular religion (Wolffe). See review by Grace Davie,
University of Exeter, in Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions
96:1 (1996), 118-19.]
Wolffe, J. (1994) God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life
in Britain and Ireland 1843-1945, London: Routledge. [See review by
Brian Clarke, University of Toronto, in Church History 66:4
Wolffe, J. (2006) `National occasions at Paul's since 1800', in A. Burns,
D. Keene and A. Saint, St Paul's: The Cathedral Church of London
604-2004, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.380-91, 485
(footnotes). [Book awarded William M.B. Berger Prize for British Art
Wolffe, J., ed. (2013) Protestant-Catholic Conflict from the
Reformation to the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan. Listed in REF2.
Wolffe, J. (2013) `The chicken or the egg? Building Anglican churches and
building congregations in a Victorian London suburb', Material
Religion 9:1, 36-60. Listed in REF2.
Nov 2008-Oct 2011: £233,547 awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research
Council (AHRC) to John Wolffe, for a project entitled `Modern Religious
History and the Contemporary Church'.
Oct 2009-March 2013: £349,000, awarded by the Economic and Social
Research Council (ESRC) to John Wolffe, for a project entitled
`Protestant-Catholic Conflict: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary
Feb 2012-Jan 2013: £95,071 awarded by the AHRC to John Wolffe, for a
project entitled `Building on History: Religion in London'.
Details of the impact
Central to maximising impact has been Wolffe's AHRC Knowledge Transfer
Fellowship, `Modern Religious History and the Contemporary Church'
(working title, `Building on History'), in partnership with Kings
College London, the Church of England Diocese of London and Lambeth Palace
The primary initial aim was to work alongside the main stakeholder, the
Diocese of London, to:
- promote learning amongst churchgoers, clergy and others, informing
them about the modern history of the Church of England in ways that
enhance the self-understanding of the diocese and its parishes
- shape contemporary ministry and engagement through increased
The `Building on History' project engaged with its stakeholders and the
wider user community in a variety of ways.
- There was a comprehensive programme of seminars and workshops,
summarising recent research in modern religious history, and suggesting
applications to the work of the present-day church. These were attended
by over 450 lay leaders, clergy and ordinands in London between 2009 and
2011. In 2011, three regional events for leaders from other Church of
England dioceses attracted a further 100 or so participants from as far
afield as Cornwall. Feedback suggests significant impacts on thinking
and practice: for example in embedding new and more practical approaches
to the use of history in clergy training, and in inspiring the
restoration in 2012 of the important Victorian decoration at St Mary
- The project has aimed to inform strategy and policy through applying
historical insight to contemporary problems. Events were held in 2010
for the staff of St Paul's Cathedral and archdeacons and area deans, and
reports and recommendations submitted to the Bishop of London and to his
senior staff. The project has informed development of the diocese's
future strategy, `Capital Vision 2020', launched in June 2013. The
Bishop of London writes (printed project report p.3): `This project has
been a powerful contribution to enhancing the character of the Church in
the Diocese as a learning organism.'
- In June 2010, the project launched an innovative online resource
toolkit which provides expert advice on how to find out about the
history of local congregations, churches and communities. This online
resource is a significant legacy of the project, facilitating new
`grassroots' historical research in the coming years. Dr Clive Field OBE
(formerly Head of Research and Collections at the British Library)
regards the project as an `exemplar for developing an appreciation of
the relevance of the past, and the importance of historical records,
among contemporary faith communities' (printed project report, p.22).
- The project has developed the concept of a `history audit', which
individual churches can undertake in order to contextualise their
current activity and planning for the future. This approach was outlined
in a published pamphlet: John Maiden and Neil Evans, What Can
Churches Learn from their Past? The Parish History Audit
(Cambridge: Grove Booklets, 2012). The pamphlet is now embedded in the
diocese's strategy and included in its Mission Action Planning
guidelines. The Bishop of Willesden describes this development as one of
The success of the project partnership with the Diocese of London formed
the basis for wider engagement with other faith constituencies in London.
This engagement developed in a subsequent Open University- and AHRC-funded
follow-on project, `Building on History: Religion in London', in
collaboration with Royal Holloway University of London and a range of
practitioner stakeholders. A series of ten events involving Baptists,
Black Majority Churches, Jews, Methodists, Muslims and Roman Catholics was
held in late 2012 and early 2013. Attendance averaged approximately 40,
with at least 200 individuals attending on at least one occasion.
Accompanying resources were provided on the website.
Very positive feedback was received. For example, Dr Jamil Sherif (Muslim
Council of Britain) judges that the project `really brought people
together', raised the profile of history and has stimulated a more
positive attitude to record-keeping among Muslims in London. Dr Tim Powell
(National Archives) regards this project as `a very important strand in
the delivery of the religious archives support plan'. There was also
significant engagement with schools: Mr Marlon Chetty (The Urswick School,
Hackney) considers the impact on his students (from two workshops in the
autumn term 2012) to have been `really profound'. Examples of pilot
teaching material have been made publicly available on the website.
The programme for Wolffe's `Protestant-Catholic Conflict' project
included, in 2012, a series of seminars with users and stakeholders in
Belfast, Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Milton Keynes. The final
project conference in Belfast attracted numerous non-academic delegates.
Participants at the seminars and conference included religious leaders,
senior civil servants, police officers and key representatives of
non-governmental organisations and voluntary organisations. There was
enthusiastic affirmation of the value of the research, especially in
adding to understanding of the religious dimensions of societal division
in Northern Ireland, and the long-term context of politico-religious
tensions in Britain through informed comparison between historic
anti-Catholicism and contemporary Islamophobia.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Project websites:
Building on History: The Church in London (www.open.ac.uk/buildingonhistory)
Building on History: Religion in London (www.open.ac.uk/arts/religion-in-london)
Protestant-Catholic Conflict: Historical Legacies and Contemporary
- Research Outcomes UK data for three grants listed in Section 3.
- Printed project report on the `Building on History: The Church in
London' project (downloadable
- Diocese of London Mission Action Planning guidelines (www.london.anglican.org/MAP).
- Feature article in The Church of England Newspaper, first
published, 1 October 2010
- Statements by users held by the higher education institution,
including emailed feedback from users and transcript of meeting to
review impact and further developments, 1 July 2013. These substantiate
the quotations included above.
- Individual users/beneficiaries who could be contacted:
Church of England (Central Administration): Director of Libraries and
Church of England (Diocese of London): Bishop of Willesden
London Boroughs Faith Network: Convenor
Presbyterian Church in Ireland: Co-Convenor (Northern Ireland), Church
and Society Committee
Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network: Director