Why ‘The Churches and Rites of Passage’?

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Disciplina arcani (exact date unknown, Medieval)

Frances Knight is Vice-President of the Ecclesiastical History Society, and Professor of the History of Modern Christianity in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham.

The Churches and Rites of Passage – postponed

Not for a moment when I was planning the Churches and Rites of Passage conference did it occur to me that we might not go ahead in July 2020. At some point in March that possibility slowly began to dawn on me. Then the Government told the Churches to call a halt to the rites of passage themselves, with the single sad exceptions of emergency baptisms and small funerals at the crematorium, or at the graveside. Baptisms, marriages and confirmations for the moment have ceased, and socially distanced ordinations will presumably create their own challenges.

Why this theme?

Rites of passage –where theology, liturgy, cultural expectation and human emotion all collide as a person is propelled from state of life to another – have long interested me. Although liturgical language has tended to smooth over differing circumstances and perspectives, creating the impression of a shared understanding, and a goal jointly achieved, it’s obvious that participants have often engaged in these rites with very different expectations. When church ended, a domestic ritual usually took over – a wedding reception, a baptismal family celebration, confirmation refreshments at an ale house, a funeral tea – which created further layers of meaning, and the communitas which the anthropologist Victor Turner identified. It’s a theme which seemed to cry out for further historical investigation.

Proposing the topic to the EHS, and having it warmly received, was a positive start to planning for my presidential year. I hadn’t anticipated how pleasant it would be to set people off on the task of suggesting suitable papers. When the proposals came in – the first batch in December and the second in April – it was like unwrapping a series of mystery gifts: opening the file, scrolling down past the name and address, and then discovering what intriguing topic was being proposed for exploration.

When the conference and associated winter meeting finally happen, in July 2021 and January 2022, we will be in for some real treats. From early Christianity to very recent times, and from many corners of the Christian world, there will be explorations of baptism, confirmation, ordination, churching, marriage and death customs. We shall also hear papers on fascinating but less obvious topics, including ship blessing in medieval and early modern Europe and the rites that marked the end of a clerical career in early modern Scotland. As an appetiser for the conference, and to maintain the momentum until we meet, I am hoping that some who have had papers accepted will trail their ideas in this blog space. Recently, my own research on ‘rites of passage’ has focused upon the SPCK Tract Collection at Cambridge University Library.

The SPCK Tract Collection

Lockdown stopped many people’s research in its tracks, including mine. I had managed to get a few days at the Cambridge University Library, just as it was becoming clear with every news bulletin that I would probably need to head for home. I was investigating the SPCK Tract Collection’s treatment of rites of passage, in order to gain an insight into what the Church of England hoped to instil, and the practices that it wanted to stamp out in the ‘long’ nineteenth century.

Although the tracts look and feel ephemeral, they were in fact significant. Each tract went through an incredibly long and convoluted editorial process, involving several committees, the approval of five bishops, and then a ballot of SPCK members. Why were authors prepared to submit to this? Probably because being published as an SPCK tract author provided a useful guarantee of one’s orthodoxy, and it was also well paid. Although the Society had published tracts earlier, it set up its Tract Committee in 1834, the year after the beginning of the Oxford Tracts for the Times. The SPCK tracts were intended in part as an episcopally-sanctioned counterblast to the Tractarians.

In the period from 1850 to 1910, they produced quantities of tracts relevant to our theme. Marriage and baptism were popular topics, but the largest number was on confirmation, where they clearly anticipated an increasingly literate captive market. The tracts were either in narrative form, designed to appeal to those wanting to read a short story, or they were simple theological treatises, usually blended with instructions on how to conduct oneself at the rite of passage being discussed. At the conference, I shall focus on what the tracts had to say about marriage, churching and confirmation.

Looking forward to 2021

Several intending participants were in touch to say that their contributions would be affected by library and archives closures. This is one reason why we thought it better to go for a twelve-month postponement, rather than attempt a virtual event in which we would shout our papers at our computers and hope for the best.

Conferences are part of the hospitality industry, and I do so hope that in the post-Covid world, they will have a viable future. I joined the EHS when I began as a PhD student, and many of my academic rites of passage happened there: my first conference attended, first paper delivered, first publication (in SCH 26). Like many other regulars, I’ve made many friends and have found much at EHS meetings to stimulate and inspire. We all know that a conference is more than the sum of the papers that are delivered. May we meet again, in 2021.


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