EHS theme for 2014-15: Doubting Christianity: The Church and Doubt

University of Sheffield, 22-24 July 2014
London, 17 January 2015

The 53rd Summer Conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society was held at the University of Sheffield’s conference centre, Halifax Hall, Endcliffe Vale Road, Sheffield. The booking form for the Winter Meeting will be uploaded here during the autumn.

Outline of Theme 

Doubt seems an obvious subject for investigation by historians of the Church. Men and women have always expressed doubts about ideas, and individual doctrines, if not faith itself, but the means and the implications of doing so depend on historical circumstance. Having a crisis of faith in the post-Enlightenment 19th century, with its concept of 'honest doubt', had different socio-political consequences to a crisis of doubt in, say, the 4th or 14th centuries or, for that matter, the present era. These differences persist both at the level of our sources (it is much easier to hear modern doubters) and in the nature or content of doubt, which has, undeniably, been deeply affected by changes in science and technology. So Doubting Christianity: The Church and Doubt presents, first of all, a theme with plenty of scope for discussion of changes in core ideas about, and practices of belief.

This conference will take a broad view on what constitutes doubt. How doubt impinges on the history of the social and institutional Church(es) begins with the deceptively simple problem of how to maintain credibility while also dealing with incomplete information. In the late middle ages, this problem was solved by papal bureaucrats who premised responses to petitions with the phrase si est ita (if it is so/if it is true). In other words, ‘if the information supplied is true, then you can do this, but – implicitly – if not, not’. Whether or not the formula worked, it confronted doubt by acknowledging it and allowing for rethinking.  How far this sort of legalistic and bureaucratic way of dealing with doubt leaked into other aspects of the history of the churches (if at all?) is just one of the questions the conference may begin to answer.

There is plenty of scope in the history of the Church/Churches for papers on this theme, from the beginnings to the 21st century, but some of the areas which have occurred to me include:

  • The study of the Bible with its problematic passages (which, for example, led a 19th-century Bishop of Natal to conclude that it was full of error)
  • Doubts about changes to doctrine, or the timing of the end of the world, or distinguishing saints and demons, good and evil
  • The role played by images, texts, films, or new media in countering or promoting doubt
  • When and why theologians’ and canon lawyers’ distinctions between doubt and heresy acquire particular purchase
  • How the acknowledgement of doubt relates to debates about the emergence of the individual/the Age of reason/modern evangelicalism
  • How doubt impinges on relations with other faiths or between different regions (such as in missions)
  • When doubt might be a necessary corollary to achieving certainty
  • How ecclesiastical writers use doubt in the construction of argument or in the writing of poetry
  • The role of 'agonies of doubt'
  • How doubt relates to scepticism
  • How science has affected the nature of doubt in the Church(es).

Other and better themes will undoubtedly occur to members.

Plenary speakers over the two meetings will include: Matteo Duni (Syracuse University, Florence): Doubting Witchcraft: Theologians, Inquisitors, and Jurists in the 15th and 16th centuries; Ian Forrest (Oxford): Trust and doubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge; Janet Nelson (King's College, London): Carolingian Doubt?; Charles Stang (Harvard Divinity School): title to be confirmed; Rowan Williams (Oxford): Theological doubt and institutional certainty: an Anglican paradox.

Frances Andrews

President-elect 2014-15