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Response to Review of Historians and the Church of England

I am very grateful to Alex Hutton for his thoughtful review. Since my book escapes from it relatively unscathed, I shall focus my reply on two main topics: ‘inheritances’; and my use of conceptual distinctions.

I’m not quite sure whether to take the review’s opening remarks as praise or not. Hutton notes that intellectual historians often focus on ‘inheritances’: thus historians of historiography have written about professionalisation more than religion since the latter’s legacy is thought to have declined in the 20th century. If I’m asked ‘why study that which has not left an inheritance’, I have two answers. First: the alternative is teleology, which does not make good history. Second: I should like to challenge the premise of the question, since the type of history produced by Anglican historians, with its focus on free will and contingency and its institutional basis not limited to the university, has obvious continuities with English historiography to this day (p. 215). Hutton’s illuminating quote from H. A. L. Fisher is a case in point: here was a true legatee of the Anglican historians who maintained their opposition to determinism but did so in a secular, rather than providential, idiom.

Hutton has mixed feelings about the weight I give to the distinction between ‘High Church’ and ‘Broad Church’ Anglican historians. While agreeing that ‘this heuristic division is mainly useful’, he warns me, in the words of John Clive, against ‘dividing Victorian England into “an enormous playing field, with a series of teams in distinctively coloured jerseys”’. I appreciate the force of this criticism, but I stand firm on my methodological ground.

In making their arguments, historians must be neither too sweeping nor too pernickety. The conceptual framework I adopted was roughly as follows: there is a set of distinctively Anglican historians, within whom one can discern two main tendencies, which for convenience may be labelled ‘High Church’ and ‘Broad Church’. These are plainly inadequate as complete descriptors (hence the need for a book!) but I hope they help the reader understand the general picture. Many readers find religious history opaque because of the endless, over-nice doctrinal distinctions which some religious historians love to draw. If Hutton thinks I have erred a little on the sweeping side, I’ll take that criticism on the chin.

Moreover, while my book notes the divergence between High and Broad Church historiography, it also affirms the underlying unity of Anglican historiography as a whole (p. 82, for example). Hutton says that ‘many Broad Churchmen such as Green and Seeley believed’ that ‘England was historically alter orbis, or outside Rome’, before contrasting this with the High Church interpretation. In fact, I make it clear that virtually all Anglican historians believed that England was alter orbis (another world) – and indeed that, if anything, the idea was more pervasive among High Church scholars. To put the point in general terms: the constitution and the nation were the two main foci of Anglican scholarship and, on these subjects, Anglican historians both ‘High’ and ‘Broad’ tended to agree. (The small but significant exception to this was anything concerning the Civil War era: p. 119.) This is encapsulated in the close personal and scholarly relationships between three of the major subjects of the book, William Stubbs, E. A. Freeman and J. R. Green, who were respectively a conservative High Church priest, a liberal High Church layman and a liberal Broad Church priest (who unfrocked himself towards the end of his life). The church that united them was more important to their histories than the partisan affiliations that divided them.

One final point on this subject. Hutton suggests that the breadth of the Broad Church meant that, by 1900, it had become a ‘catch-all term’ for almost any historian, whether religion animated their thought or not. This is not the case at all. By 1900, Anglo-Catholicism (the High Church) was ascendant in the Church of England in general and among historians in particular. Nor were the Broad Church historians of the time essentially secular figures: the deeply religious economic historian, W. J. Ashley, is a case in point. Hutton then proposes what I consider a false binary by suggesting that because Stubbs was ‘a classic Whig historian’ he could not also be a highly religious thinker. It is just this kind of assumption that I hope my book will serve to dispel: the triumph of the Anglican historians was to fuse their religion with ‘Whig’ history, so that their religious ideas were not confined to an ecclesiastical ghetto, but were instead encoded in the dominant historiography of the time.

Hutton also says that I have been reticent or oblique in explaining the reasons for the decline of Anglican historiography in the 20th century. The review to some extent rebuts itself here, since it summarises a number of factors which I propose as causes of the decline. Readers who want to know more should consult the book itself (pp. 218–20).

William Stubbs once said that J. R. Green had reviewed him in just the manner he liked: with sympathy, but with enough salt to make him think about his work again. This is just such a review, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to reply to it.