The Church and the Law, Cambridge 2018: First Impressions of the EHS

Tim Yung is a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong whose research concerns South China Anglican Identity in the early twentieth century.  He shared a paper on canons and constitutions in the South China Diocese at the the 2018 EHS Summer Conference.

What do thirteenth century Templar attorneys and the Chinese Anglican Church’s 1913- 1948 constitutions have in common? After the conference I was reflecting on this, and more widely on the question of what could bring together this motley crew of historians, clergy, lawyers, and beyond. The same thought goes to the plenary sessions, which ranged from the role of historical reasoning in the cases relating to historical belief to a reassessment of how legal texts were used in the early medieval world. The other two concerned the interaction of canon law with territorial jurisdiction in the Late Middle Ages and perjury in Tudor England, illustrating the overlap between religious and secular legal spheres. Again, how did such a curious collection of plenaries come to be? My preliminary conclusion is (until proven otherwise) that this is the result of the identity of the EHS: inclusiveness, inquisitiveness, and intimacy.

To begin with, it was striking to see the breadth and depth of topics included at the EHS. Attendees hailed from various parts of the world as their research hailed from even more varied parts. I had the privilege of meeting specialists in contemporary Serbian law and in Huddersfield’s Anglican architecture on the same day. It felt like clicking random links on Wikipedia as I picked up nuggets about the appointment of Lutheran bishops in Finland here, about general excommunications and the regulation of early modern moral behaviour in England there. In fact, no, it was better than Wikipedia. The even stronger indicator of inclusiveness, however, is how the conference warmly welcomed researchers at all stages of their career – before, during, after. At the AGM, repeatedly it was stated how the EHS firmly believed in encouraging postgraduates and early career researchers, as reflected not only by their generous bursaries and awards, but also by the opportunities for them to present alongside well-established academics as equals rather than vassals.

The second theme that stood out was that of inquisitiveness. I observed this culture in every session I attended through the heavily-defended question time. Here were listeners, not just hearers. Every speaker was confronted with thoughtful questions from a reflective audience, which consisted of leaders in their field as well as those with no prior knowledge of the speaker’s topic. Moreover, it appeared that EHS members listened to every talk with equal intention. How refreshing to see universal respect, as opposed to paying attention only to the ‘big shot’ and for the other, intermittently checking the Weather App with half-hearted hearing. This culture went beyond the sessions too, spilling over into conversations at lunch and tea breaks, but thankfully not overwhelmingly so. On my part, a memorable moment was when a historian of the early church intentionally walked over to share a word of encouragement after my communication. How humbling to receive positive feedback from a listener, even though her research was millennia apart. Another memorable moment was when a much older researcher who had posed a question (which I had left vaguely answered at best) came up to me afterwards for further discussion and to spur me on in this research. Over the three days, I noticed this was the case with almost all the speakers, that a senior member of the society would approach them with some words of encouragement and some food for further thought.

image1 Tim
Impressive asparagus-free logistics by the conference organizers

Finally, and perhaps most distinctively, the EHS struck me as being an intimate society. The old-timers seemed to know one another very well over many years of EHS meetings, yet made the effort to reach out to new faces in the conference rather than sit happily in a small clique cut off from the rest. The EHS Committee members were intentional about making everyone feel welcome, as well as welcome to come back. The organizers of the conference reflected this in their logistical arrangement too, providing a healthy mix of research and recreation, tea and talks, for researchers do not live on communications alone.

The EHS Summer Conference was a fine finish for a first-year postgraduate. How fitting that the President’s plenary about reassessing the relationship between Church and the Law was summed up by the aggregate of communications. On the EHS as a whole, however, what seems special to me is its people. I have encountered all sorts of folks in the academic world this year. On one extreme are those who cast academia as a bleak terrain with ceaseless tooth and nail struggle for funding, publication and collaboration. For a moment, it really seemed like there was no such thing as a free lunch. The EHS, together with others I have met, embody the antithesis. Whilst being no stranger to challenge and difficulty, it was wonderful to experience a culture of sharing knowledge and resources, where things are freely given, as presumably it was once freely given unto them too. I look forward to future EHS events and as a newcomer, would like to express my gratitude for the kind and cooperative culture that has made quite the first impression.

image2 Tim
Post-conference visit to All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane


Tim Yung (Hong Kong University)

EHS Summer Conference Bursary Holder, 2018

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