The Church & Empire, Edinburgh 2016: Conference Report

by Robert Evans

Few themes excite the historian’s imagination as much as that of Empire, and this year’s EHS Summer conference proved that religious historians are no exception. Delegates gathered from around the globe to speak to this particularly global theme, and there can be few more beautiful or historically rich settings for such a gathering than the shadow of Arthur’s Seat in the heart of Edinburgh.

The view from Arthur’s Seat

The plenary lectures posed the broad range of questions that can be asked about Churches and Empires, from the ruminations of Augustine to missionary strategies in India and China. The conference opened with Jay Brown’s Presidential Address, a masterful survey of Christianity and the British Empire in India, focusing on the rise and decline of the providential purpose of the Empire in the eyes of missionaries and their publics. We thus began with tantalizing questions of colonialism, strategy, and theological interpretations of history, all of which re-emerged as the conference progressed.

The subsequent plenary lectures took up these themes. Gillian Clark examined Empire in the thought of Augustine of Hippo and emphasised Augustine’s theological and homiletic priorities. It was a good reminder for the conference that such an influential thinker was less concerned with Empires than with the response of the individual to the will of God. Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia gave a fascinating survey of relationships between Christian missionaries and Chinese Imperial governments. The troubled relationships of the nineteenth century were contrasted with earlier Jesuit experiences, which involved far less confrontation between Chinese and European empires. This showed that imperial competition did not necessarily have to define missionary identities. Finally, Ruth Macrides reinterpreted evidence for what has been seen as the decline of the Emperor and rise of the Church in the Last Centuries of Byzantium. A close reading of court ceremonial demonstrated the continued importance of the Emperor until the Ottoman conquest.

Members’ communications tackled the entire breadth of the theme, ranging from the persecuted church under the Roman Empire to modern churches in post-imperial and colonial contexts. Highlights for me included a lively discussion about Constantine’s conversion, a case study of Kaiser Wilhelm II threatening to have an English bishop shot, and learning that Victorian gunboats – those powerful instruments of Empire – could be ‘sacralised’ by carrying dead members of the royal family home from the colonies for burial. It was especially helpful for a medievalist such as me to be exposed to more modern history.

Constantine’s conversion, as imagined by students of Raphael

Common themes emerged. What was the role of church thinkers in constructing ideas of Empire? How far were Empires and Church in competition or did ecclesiastical figures help advance imperial projects? How did imperial governments – Christian or otherwise – feel about churches? Coffee breaks buzzed with conversations crossing the period boundaries within which we work. It was testimony to the excellence of the conference that it was so hard to choose which panels to attend.

A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red, produced in Edinburgh at the end of the nineteenth century

There were numerous first time attendees and graduate students – testimony to Simon Ditchfield’s enthusiastic advertisement of the Summer conference at the postgraduate conference in Cambridge earlier in the year. As a first-time attendee, I was struck by the warm welcome extended by the EHS community and the desire to engage across period boundaries. Nothing reflects this better than having a senior scholar of Chinese history bounding up to me after a session to follow up what I’d said about Charlemagne – how many conferences can bring those subjects into the same framework? I am very grateful for the friendships and conversations which the conference has begun. I left enthused about my own research, intrigued by comparisons with that of others, and resolved to continue thinking about my research within religious history more broadly.

 The Rev’d Robert Evans is a doctoral student at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

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