Letter from Lisbon

I am here attending the annual meeting of CIHEC (Commission internationale d’histoire ecclésiastique comparée) as the Society’s representative. It seems a fitting close to what has been a very interesting and intellectually fulfilling year as President.

The day before yesterday I made an overdue visit to the Museum of São Roque, where many of the objects which had belonged to the treasury of the adjacent Jesuit church dedicated to the Saint, are now beautifully displayed. Amongst the fabulous artwork on show is a curious set of five pieces of Chinese porcelain dating from c.1750. They went to make up a ‘St Ignatius tea service’ and were most likely commissioned to mark the bicentenary of the founding of the Society in 1740.

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St Ignatius tea service, Museum of São Roque

Such production for the Spanish-Portuguese Catholic market was accompanied by that for the Dutch and British Protestant market, which consisted of similar pieces displaying Luther and Calvin, examples of which I have unfortunately not yet seen for myself, (so if anyone reading this blog has, I’d be interested to know more and, even better, see a picture). There can surely be no more quirky yet eloquent testimony to the manifold ways in which the theme chosen for the year of my presidency: ‘Translating Christianity’ manifested itself!

As part of the report I prepared for CIHEC, I was particularly pleased to be able to announce that the conference with which I began my presidency: Translating Christianity – word, image, sound and object in the circulation of the sacred from the birth of Christ to the present day held at the University of York (July 2015) – at which no fewer than 57 communications were given in addition to four plenaries – was such an international event attended by over 110 delegates from at least 19 different countries. The decision to accompany the conference with a virtual exhibition of books relevant to the conference theme – still available via our website– as well as making the presidential address available as a podcast via YouTube:

– which has now been viewed over 190 times – has, I hope, also raised the international profile of the EHS yet further.

Another ‘first’ was the hosting of the winter meeting in London in January 2016 at the refurbished Institute of Historical Research, which made it possible for us to accommodate parallel sessions for communications. A lively and engaged audience of ca. 40 listened to twelve communications and two plenaries. You can still view the full programmes of both summer and winter meetings.

As a charity, the EHS is in the enviable (and gratifying) position of being able to offer generous bursaries for postgraduate students to attend the summer conference and give papers. Last year we awarded nine such bursaries and in future we hope to increase this number still further.

Although the most high profile events of the year for the president are undoubtedly the two annual meetings in July and January, another highlight for me was definitely the annual Postgraduate Conference, which in recent years has taken place in early March and been hosted by Magdalene College, Cambridge where the Hon. Sec. Gareth Atkins looked after us very well. This is open to postgraduates at all stages of their research working on any area of ecclesiastical history (broadly defined) and in 2016 we welcomed 25 speakers. Among the delegates at these conferences there is always a generous sprinkling of members who are fortunate enough to enjoy established careers. They not only chair and comment on sessions but also run a general panel on a theme of topical interest. This year it concerned how ecclesiastical history is viewed in the academy: in particular, how in the personal experience of the panel members (who included Gareth Atkins, Jacqueline Rose and myself), they have managed to ‘sell’ themselves at job interview; sometimes overcoming prejudice against religious history.

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Delegates at the EHS Postgraduate colloquium

It also fell to me as president the pleasurable duty of writing to a number of senior scholars of church history, several of whom had been members of my personal pantheon of heroes and heroines ever since my days as an undergraduate, to invite them to be honorary fellows of the EHS. They included: Clive Binfield (Sheffield); Peter Brown (Princeton); Caroline Bynum (IAS, Princeton); Natalie Davis (Toronto); David Hempton (Harvard); Diarmaid Macculloch (Oxford); Isabel Rivers (QMUL); Frances Young (Birmingham) and André Vauchez (Paris). I am delighted to report that not only did all of them accept our invitation but that so many paid tribute to the significant role the Society has had in promoting the field over more than fifty years. Space forbids me from citing more than a couple of the warm tributes we received from these distinguished champions of the field.

“I have long profited from the Society’s publications.  Some of the “Studies in Church History” volumes are classics in their respective fields, and all are of high quality.  I have cited these volumes often”.

Caroline Bynum

“The volumes you have published have enriched me immensely on so many topics.  I can think of no greater honour than to be associated with a society which has played such a role in my own academic life, as well as in the lives of so many of us”.

Peter Brown

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the hard work, professionalism and tireless commitment of the principal officers of the committee, who keep the show on the road while us presidents come and go. Here the good humour, support and friendship of the secretary, Gareth Atkins; the editors of SCH, Charlotte Methuen and Andrew Spicer; the assistant editor, Tim Grass and the treasurer, Simon Jennings have made my term as president both possible and a true pleasure. I am also immensely grateful to have been able to draw on the wise counsel of my predecessor, Frances Andrews as well as upon the advice of other members of the committee who generously give of their time and expertise. Although it is somewhat invidious to single out individuals from such a collectively supportive group, I would like to pay particular tribute to Jacqueline Rose and Susan Royal for their hard work on the content of the new website, which is now managed and updated by our new publicity and web officer, Beth Richardson who has been in post since January 2016. I would also like to thank everyone who has attended the meetings promoted by the Society during my presidency for their interest and enthusiasm as well as those who have made valued contributions in other ways – e.g. as reviewers of the articles submitted to SCH.

It simply remains for me to say how much I am looking forward to seeing many of you who will be attending the Summer meeting next month in Edinburgh (26-28 July) on the theme of ‘The Church and Empire’ and to inducting my successor, Professor Stewart ‘Jay’ Brown, as president for 2016-17. Plenary speakers will include: Gillian Clark (Bristol), Ruth Macrides (Birmingham) and Ronnie Hsia (Penn State) for the summer meeting and Rosamond McKitterick for the winter one.

Simon Ditchfield

18 June 2016
Feast of S.Gregorio Barbarigo

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