Inspiration and Institution, Durham 2019: Conference Report

Rhiannon Teather is a final year PhD student at the University of Bristol. She recently submitted her thesis, which focuses on Catholic martyrdom in global comparative context: England, Japan, Paraguay and New France, c. 1580-1650. She was awarded an EHS postgraduate bursary to present her work on missionary martyrdom accounts from japan and New France at the 2019 Summer Conference.

This year’s conference was hosted at St. Chad’s College, in the shadow of Durham’s glorious Cathedral – a fitting location for the theme of inspiration and institution. In the beautiful College chapel, Alec Ryrie took us into the abyss of historical enquiry with an extreme case: inspiration without institution and faith without certainty. ‘The Seekers’, a radical strand of seventeenth-century Protestantism, left only ghosts and traces in their rejection of all churches and their institutions. It was a poignant reminder of how much is lost to us in the mists of time without a structural safety net, and equally, how faith can create holy vacuums as often as it sparks hopeful changes. This was all food for thought as we embarked on our three day conference of discovery and discussion on the twin forces of this year’s theme.

St Chad's College, founded in 1904
St Chad’s College, founded in 1904.

The subsequent plenary papers by Teresa Morgan and Neslihan Şenocak, from distinctive vantage points, highlighted the ways in which institutionalisation fuelled inspirational discourses. In the early church, the development of a structured affirmation of faith led to an explosion of inspired articulations of the interior world of the believer. For the Franciscans, Şenocak argued the story was less of an inspired founder corrupted by later institutionalisation, than an institution constructing its earlier inspiration. Early inspirational roots were also shown to have profound institutional ramifications. Dominic Erdozain demonstrated the unsettling paradoxes found within the writings of New England Puritans – some elevated violence and war as a sacred prerogative – with enduring consequences for the identity of a nation.

Durham Cathedral, the heart of the city
Durham Cathedral, the heart of the city.

The creativity of the papers, and their intriguing range of topics, meant that it was genuinely very difficult to choose which panels to attend. For my part, over the three days, I heard papers spanning multiple continents and over two millennia, including: reflections on priests and prophets of the Late Russian Empire, the monastic teachings of John Cassian, the Whole Booke of Psalmes in Post-Reformation England, Chinese theologians on the Shangtung Revival, and even the modern Concordats of the Holy See. And surely, only at a conference as good as this one, would it be possible to ask an expert about the differences between the canonisation procedures of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in a queue for coffee, or otherwise digress into a whole host of fascinating research topics over biscuits.

Alongside all of these thoughtful papers and edifying conversations, I am pleased to report there were many funny moments too. In particular I pay tribute to the chap who delivered his paper with commendable good humour as us helpers made a rather dramatic delivery into the Chapel carrying a settee for a speaker with disabilities. Later I was told this appeared rather like the arrival of the Queen of Sheba – but less dignified… It was a good thing the paper in question was on ‘holy ravishing’ so the witnesses could be reasonably expected to view the sight as a mystical apparition.

St Chad's College Chapel, a lovely venue for plenary papers and mystical apparitions alike!
St Chad’s College Chapel, a lovely venue for plenary papers and mystical apparitions alike!

Some papers boasted a feline attendee. For most it was love at first sight as Badger deposited himself in front of the altar in the Chapel with a self-assured confidence befitting a cat of his esteemed status. On other occasions he slunk in quietly at the back for a quick listen. Perhaps he was on a mission on behalf of the Editors, but for those of us missing a darling cat at home, his presence was much appreciated.

Badger the Cat, as captured by Professor Elizabeth Tingle
Badger the Cat, as captured by Professor Elizabeth Tingle.

Amidst all the fun, I also caught a glimpse of how much effort goes into arranging big conferences like this one – and how marvellous people like David Hart and Tim Grass make it look easy and then proceed to replicate this minor miracle year after year. It is a commendable act of service to the academic community and I am sure it is one which everyone who attended appreciates.

As I reflected on all of this on the trip home, it occurred to me that ‘Inspiration and Institution’ served not only as this year’s theme but also as an apt description of the experience of the conference itself. There are not many more established institutions than ‘the university’, and yet, this was a striking reminder that they would not work at all without the inspirational people in them. Perhaps we found our secret sauce! But over the three days, in explaining to each other what was inspirational and institutional in our own research, it was my sense that we imparted something quite fundamental about ourselves, what inspires us and how we relate to the bigger questions of our necessarily institutionalised disciplines.


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