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History and Spirituality

I am suffering a form of acute writer's block as I try to get my paper done for the Manchester - every time I try to write something, I end up repeating what I said in the paper I presented at Prague: bother!  I have some nice headings and some ideas but as soon as I put a pen in my hand or switch on the computer some connection in my brain decouples and nothing happens.  Ah well, it will happen, I tell myself... hoping furiously it will!

Anyway, one of the ideas rattling around my brain arises from the Prague event, and that relates to my discovery that some UK Baptist colleges now have tutors who title is 'history and spirituality.'  This intrigues me, and I think I need to find out from them what they think that means.  Talking to one person this week, they thought that it was, at least in part, an endeavour to recognise that 'spirituality' is not something 'new'or 'new age' (hence, presumably a bit iffy) but actually a long established, historically justified subject.  If that's so, I'm glad I trained in Manchester where there seemed to be no such qualms!  If what is happening is that either spirituality is being taught as essentially a history subject or that it is taught alongside history, then I think something important is being overlooked - that is the spiritual dimension of church/denominational/Christian history.  Whilst I've already begun to think about the 'God-factor' in denominational historiography (something I think needs to be recovered) I wonder if 'spirituality' is also part of this, and will force me to explore further how this shapes the telling of the story?  For example, pinching a few of the categories of spirituality we used at Northern (and pinched/adapted by them from Richard Foster as far as I can recall) , how would a 'social justice' or 'evangelical' or 'Celtic' or whatever spirituality influence both 'what' and 'how' the story is told at both 'human' and 'theological' levels?  History and spirituality, held together, informing and shaping each other, seems to relate pretty much to what I'm trying to research; history and spirituality as two disparate entities sheltering under a common umbrella feels at best like more of what we already have and potentially just one more consequence of staff shortages and financial constraints forcing people to double up on roles.

At the same conference, I had a conversation with someone who accused Northern of being anti-history because it doesn't have a church history tutor.  I am not sure this is a fair comment, since the person concerned was, so far as I could tell, unaware of the balance achieved across the Partnership (though even there, I would concede, no one explicitly had a Church History title) and the inevitable limitations of having a small staff.  However, the comments made me think (which is a good thing!) about the significance of nomenclature and subliminal messages.  Would it automatically raise the profile of, and interest in, denominational history to have a Church History tutor?  I'm not entirely convinced it would.  Does the absence of the title indicate that the topic is deemed unimportant?  Does sharing out the teaching suggest it is the person who gets the short straw who teaches this time?  Or does it say this matters to all of us?  How much does it depend on personalities (after all, how many of us were shaped in our youth by specific teachers who inspired us or otherwise?).

Lots to think about - and not stuff that will make into the paper this time - but all grist to the mill, nonetheless.


  • I am currently reading "Letting God be God:The Reformed Tradition" by David Cornick, it is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series.

    His opening paragraph says "Books on 'Reformed Spirituality' are as rare as hens' teeth. The words themselves seem in uneasy partnership. The meanings of both words seem clear until definitions are attempted. then it quickly becomes apparent that both words have hidden pitfalls. They are dangerous words in theological discourse, let alone at twilight. Beyond the mire of ambiguity, they are mutually suspicious words, for both find their natural home in the rhetoric of theological and ecclesiastical division."

    David, as an historian, then sets out a history of Reformed Spirituality from Wittenburg through Zurich and Geneva and onto modern day Iona and Taize. What he says about it I will find out once I've read it. So in response to your musings, yes history and spirituality can be worked together - and in our traditions where we have grown suspicious of spirituality as something new agey - perhaps we need to.

    From a Baptist perspective - the series seems to have one out of 24 offerings - and that is from the Anabaptist tradition. There is also one from a Charismatic tradition and one from an Evangelical tradition - so Baptists might get a look in there.

    As to History at LKH - it has been a bit thin for a long time - in my day Ian Sellars was brought in on a part-time basis for broad overview history and Len Smith taught a course based around his interest in the churches engagement with the Labour movement (which I thoroughly enjoyed but it was a bit narrow for most tastes) but since Ian died and Len retired I'm not sure what there has been. I think you are right that it is about the limitations of a small staff - even across all the colleges and the need for people who are generalists.

    At Westminster, when changes in staffing meant that we were short of an historian and a doctrine teacher but could only replace one - we leant the job description towards an historian who could also teach doctrine because history was weak across the Federation and across the denomination. Does this raise the profile of denominational history? - I think it does if the person teaching it can inspire people to see a relevance in their history and tradition that helps them in today's context. In a day when our congregations are often an eclectic mix of lots of traditions and none it is important to find ways to help people see that we are both distinctive and catholic - and that is OK. Good church history (including our spiritual traditions) is one of the ways we can do that.

  • Coming to this thread rather late, I have to say the appreciation of church history as part of a living theological tradition was one of the strengths of the Baptist teaching staff at Northern. What's in a title?

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