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Professor John Wolffe and Professor Arthur Burns

Applying religious history

“Not everything worked out as we planned, but by being adaptable we ended up with a better result.” - Professor John Wolffe and Professor Arthur Burns, Open University/ Kings College London

How do you make historical research relevant to today’s society? This is a question familiar to historians keen to show the relevance of their research to contemporary society. In 2007 it was a question that Professor John Wolffe, an expert in religious history, found himself pondering at an AHRC knowledge transfer seminar.

Fast forward a few years later, and Professor Wolffe and Professor Arthur Burns, in partnership with the Anglican Diocese of London and Lambeth Palace Library, and with the essential help of two research assistants, Dr Lucie Matthews-Jones and Dr John Maiden, have created an on-line resource to help parish clergy and lay people to research their own church histories. “We are helping London’s clergy and parishioners to understand their present through understanding their past: showing them how historical research can increase their understanding of their current situation, and also inform their activities and future strategy,” explains Professor Wolffe.The move from conducting original historical research to applying it practically to the challenges facing London’s churches today has been a positive learning experience for all involved: “This project, more than any other that I have worked on, has demanded adaptability due to it continually evolving. Not everything worked out as we planned, but by being adaptable we ended up with a better result.” observes Professor Wolffe.

The decision to create a web-based tool illustrates this process of evolution. Interacting with members of the church it became clear that the standard academic output of a book or publication would not reach many of their intended audience. Like the rest of the population, clergy and churchgoers of all ages increasingly expect to find information on the internet and it became clear that a web-based format would be more effective.

Professor Wolffe is candid about the fact that it took two attempts before he and Professor Burns secured funding. The first application to the AHRC was turned down because it did not show sufficiently wide engagement with the partner organisations and did not extend learning beyond London’s churches. Before their second successful application the academics met with a larger group of senior clergy to gain their input and support for the project and continued maintain a wider network of contacts throughout the project.

Top Tip:
Take a flexible approach to your pathways and always take advantage of opportunities to expand your network of contacts

“What I learnt from that process is the importance of consulting widely with your partners before submitting your application. A strong working relationship with a small group of individuals is not enough. If you build a broad base of support and consensus at the start you will find that later on you have better access to practical support and knowledge exchange opportunities. You also have to stick at it – one event is not going to change people’s minds.”

The project opened up unexpected engagement opportunities. For example during the project Professor Wolffe and Dr Maiden were encouraged by the Diocese to engage with school teachers, and worked on a pilot project with a primary school to create materials to help the children explore the nearby church and its place in the history of the local community.

The project has been so successful Professor Wolffe, this time in collaboration with Professor Humayun Ansari (Royal Holloway University of London), has just secured another year of further funding from the AHRC. This will help them to extend their engagement activities beyond London’s churches and also to applying the techniques and tools that they have developed to other places of worship in London - Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Black Majority Churches.

For Professor Wolffe one of the most surprising unintended outcomes of the project has been the new avenues of research that it has revealed. He is now very interested in further exploring the long term dynamics of local church history.

He concludes: “This has been a very illuminating experience – quite different to conducing primary research yet it has allowed me to grow as researcher.”

Institution:Open University/ King’s College London
Funding council:AHRC

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