October 2008 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

October 2008— Vol. XIV, no. 10

 Dear Friends,

I am happy to tell you that the number of publications on contemporary church history continues to grow. Both Catholic and Protestant scholars seem to be excellently prolific, and not only in German! It is a pleasure to give priority this month to reviewing a new book by a young scholar from California about a much revered Anglican bishop. You should be warned, however, that this review may cause you some distress. Yet in the interests of historical accuracy, we are sometimes obliged to circumvent the worthy adage: de mortuis nil nisi bonum. The second review is of the autobiography of Dr Pauline Webb, aa noted British Methodist, whose services to the Church, both at home and abroad, are here happily recalled.


1) Book reviews

a) Daughrity, Bishop Stephen Neill
b) Webb, P., World-Wide-Webb
c) Silomon, German Evangelical Church 1969-91
d) Kunter, German Evangelical Church in the GDR 1980-93

2) Journal articles:

a) Daniel, a Russian monastic revival in the 1990s

1a) Dyron Daughrity, Bishop Stephen Neill. From Edinburgh to South India. (American University Studies, Vol. 267) New York/Bern/Oxford: Peter Lang 2008. 365 pp. ISBN 978 – 1-4331-0165-6

Missionary biographies were usually written by other missionaries; hence they were uplifting, even at times hagiographic. But with the overthrow of the colonial empires in Asia and Africa, the era of European missionaries came to an end, as did this genre of mission history. The emphasis today is quite different, and far more critical of the past, and of those whose service abroad was for so long held in high esteem. Dyron Daughrity’s biography of Bishop Stephen Neill, derived from his doctoral thesis at the University of Calgary, is a case in point. Although it deals only with the first half of Bishop Neill’s career, and ends when he left India in 1944, it is nonetheless both contentious and highly damaging to the image widely held about Neill in subsequent years.

Neill died in 1984, leaving behind a voluminous manuscript for an autobiography. It was a while before this could be edited down to a publishable size. The book finally appeared in 1991 with the title God’s Apprentice.But the general opinion was that it concealed more than it told about the author. Particularly it said all too little about the real reasons which had led in mid-1944 to Neill’s leaving his post and returning to England.

The first reviewer of God’s Apprentice was someone who, as a young missionary himself thirty years earlier, had known Neill well, and has since risen to positions of senior leadership in the church. He began by stating that the publication of this autobiography confronted him with a moral dilemma. He could either maintain the conspiracy of silence which surrounded the career of this gifted man, or throw some light on the background of events which brought this career in India to an end. He chose the latter, and now Daughrity has adopted the same course.

Specifically what is referred to was a violent assault by Neill in April or May 1944 upon an Indian schoolteacher at one of his church schools during a counseling visit. Neill demanded that this man accept, as a punishment for his purported misdemeanours, a beating with a cane on the bare buttocks, similar to that used to deal with errant schoolboys at Neill’s boarding school in England. The background and consequences of this “incident”, which were only briefly alluded to by the first reviewer, form the substance of Daughrity’s narrative. For this purpose he has made thorough use of archives in India, Britain and the United States, and a few years ago obtained personal interviews with some surviving witnesses of these events of sixty years earlier. Two of these testimonies, one from a clergyman and the other from a bishop in south India, are fully analyzed in his text, and provide a striking corroboration of the record in the paper trail. They cannot be dismissed as the product of anti-Western or anti-imperialist sentiments. The evidence, as described by Daughrity on an almost day-to-day basis, would now seem to be incontrovertible, even though there is room for debate about Neill’s motivations.

This reprehensible action by an Englishman in authority – and a bishop no less – of inflicting corporal punishment on one of his Indian employees could not long remain secret. The man’s relatives were outraged. At a time when Indian nationalist feeling against British imperial domination was escalating rapidly, this incident could only be regarded as another occasion when Indians were humiliated and subjected, for racial reasons, to the white man’s control. Demands were made for the bishop’s resignation, or else that a full public enquiry should be held by a Court of Episcopal Discipline.

Neill himself quickly recognized the inappropriateness of his behaviour, and according to one of the Indian witnesses, went personally to the teacher’s home village to apologize. But with the threat of publicity, and conscious of his own increasing ill-health, he then sought the counsel of his superior, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Calcutta. Early in June he left his diocese, which is situated at the southernmost tip of India, to take the lengthy and wearisome journey to Calcutta. On arrival, he sought the senior bishop‘s advice, offered his resignation, and asked for an immediate leave to return home for medical treatment. This last request was in fact granted, and within a month Neill had departed for England on a troopship, leaving behind his bishopric irrevocably.

This 1944 “incident” leading to the assault upon an Indian subordinate, was not, according to the first reviewer, due to Neill’s ill-health, depression or insomnia, which were the reasons he gave for his return to Britain. Rather it stemmed from a deeper and darker malady. Neill suffered, he asserted, from some version of controlled sadism throughout his whole life, and had an obsession with punishment, derived from his Victorian Evangelical background. For his part, Daughrity eschews either a medical or a theological explanation. He attributes Neill’s disastrous and repeated outbursts to the unresolved conflicts which characterized his psychological temperament. He points out that Neill’s early days, when his restless clergyman father was constantly changing parishes or going off to a missionary posting in India, deprived the boy of a stable family upbringing. At his boarding school, he was in continual dispute with the tyrannical headmaster, who lacked any sympathy for his pupils. At Cambridge, Daughrity claims, he had an internal struggle about his future, when he was faced with the rival claims of an academic or a missionary career. His first posting in India was to a small village dominated by the long-term missionary Amy Carmichael, who for 25 years had run a renowned mission to rescue abandoned children in her orphanage. But her simplistic faith and pietistic devotion were hardly on the same wavelength as the newly- elected and brash young Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. The resulting tensions were only resolved when Neill moved to a new posting. So too clashes developed when he was in charge of the diocesan seminary, between his high expectations of his ordinands in terms of their theological training, and their own humbler prospects in what was in essence a community of lower caste farm workers. Naturally Neill was caught up in the ongoing controversies over the relevance of Christianity and its theology in the wake of the first world war, but it would surely be too much to see this in conflictual terms. And certainly, like all Englishmen of his generation, he was undoubtedly affected by the shattering world-wide events which led to the outbreak of two world wars and to the decline and dissolution of the British Empire.

It would however be presumptuous to accept Daughrity’s thesis that these factors were all productive of the conflicts in Neill’s life, or that his fragile health and mental state was responsible for his indulgence in the physical punishment of others. Daughrity does not suggest that each of these elements was cumulative in effect, or led inevitably to the final chapter of his “formative years” with the loss of his bishopric. Certainly Daughrity paints a picture of a highly gifted man enmeshed with struggle and frustration. Yet Neill’s career, in almost all but the most crucial aspect – his psychological deformity – was not too different from that of other men of his class and upbringing. Many English middle-class boys went through the same kind of boarding school experiences, including corporal punishment, without noticeable harm. All talented undergraduates faced searching, but not necessarily conflictual, questions about their future careers. Many young novices found their first posting uncongenial, or were later to be involved with professional rivalries and disputes in their respective professions. All Britons were affected by the sacrifices of war, even when, like Neill, they were not directly called up for military service. And millions of imperialist Britons mourned the loss of the Jewel in the Crown. It would be hard therefore to see these as contributing factors to Neill’s sado-masochism which caused his downfall.

Despite the inadequacies of Daughrity’s thesis of conflict, which he imposes on Neill’s career and which is needlessly repeated too often throughout the book, we can be glad that he refrains from any moralistic speculations about episcopal delinquency or possible homosexuality. At the same time, he also contributes a positive assessment of Neill’s achievements. Not only does he pay tribute, as do many other commentators, to Neill’s outstanding scholarly works and academic prowess, but also uniquely gives a positive evaluation of Neill’s service as bishop in south India. “All are agreed that Neill’s leadership was strong, if at times onerous. However his concern for the diocese was evident. The progress the diocese made under his leadership was remarkable indeed”. And one of his clergymen is quoted as saying: “The people, even today, say Neill’s bishopric was the Golden Age”.

With such a balance, Daughrity makes a valuable contribution to the study of the complexities of this highly-talented individual and also to the rather neglected history of the church in the southern part of India during the tense and tumultuous days at the end of empire. Daughrity’s plan is to extend the biography in a second volume, and to further assess Neill’s notable career in very different later spheres after his Indian years of episcopal governance. Neill’s subsequent services to the wider church through the ecumenical movement, and his numerous theological and historical writings, deserve the kind of careful recording which Daughrity has already demonstrated. We can look forward to the results.


1b) Pauline Webb, World-Wide-Webb. Journeys in Faith and Hope. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press 2006 230pp.ISBN 1-85311-756-0/978-1-85311-756-5

Too few of the leaders of the Christian churches are women. Consequently there are too few autobiographies which describe how these women achieved their prominent positions in a profession hitherto always dominated by men. Pauline Webb’s lively story of her career over the past sixty years is therefore most welcome. She gives us a personal account of her pioneering efforts to use the various branches of the churches to seek to rectify past injustices. She particularly campaigned for those she believes have for so long been denied their full recognition and autonomy, both at home and abroad, both in the church and in secular society. Her talents as a communicator, inspirer and mediator gave her the ability to display a particular sympathy for widely differing groups of people, and a heart-warming senditivity to the needs of women in many different parts of the world.

As a student at King’s College, London, shortly after the end of the second world war, Pauline Webb hoped she might be able to follow her father’s footsteps as a Methodist minister. But, to her great disappointment, the British Methodist Conference rejected the ordination of women, and only changed its mind thirty years later. So she began as a religious education teacher, but with a strong interest in missionary work overseas. Two years later she was called to become the youth secretary for the Methodist Missionary society, and grasped the opportunity with full enthusiasm. It was a particularly exciting time when significant changes were happening in the mission field. Throughout Asia and Africa the handover of political control by the former imperial powers was matched, in the churches, by a similar devolution to local control from the European-based missionary societies. Webb’s first assignment was to go to India and write a script for a film on the newly-established Church of South India, formed out of former British-controlled denominations. This was followed by a similar experience in West Africa.

These assignments enormously widened her horizons, both politically and theologically. She came to see her mission as focussing on four areas of witness and service to which the new world conditions were calling the churches. These were to mobilize concern in the churches for the problems of world poverty, to arouse anger against the evils of racism, and particularly South African apartheid, to build up support for women’s opportunities and vocations, and to campaign for church unity. Her autobiography therefore concentrates on the part she played in these respective spheres and the leadership she courageously provided on a global scale.

Pauline Webb quickly realised the advantages provided by the new techniques in communication. She became adept in using both radio and television, and later on the internet. Hence the book’s title. And her ability to direct such communications skills to the causes she had at heart was undoubtedly the reason why she was invited to become the organizer of religious broadcasting overseas for the BBC in London, where she served for ten exciting years. At the same time she effectively developed her skills as a preacher and promoter of new ideas in furtherance of her aims.

Her opportunities to do so were greatly enhanced by her work on behalf of the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva. First established in 1948 to bring the Protestant aand Orthodox churches closer together in doctrinal unity, the WCC quickly grew with the addition of new churches overseas. And by 1968, when Webb was first sent as a British Methodist delegate to its Assembly, its horizons were expanding to see the church’s world mission in social and political, as well as merely ecclesiastical terms. This Uppsala Assembly had a prophetic ring when it called on all the member churches to unite against the evils of racism and to accept the responsibility of fighting world hunger and poverty. Since these were at the top of Webb’s priorities, it was hardly surprising that she was elected for a six-year term as the WCC’s Vice-Moderator, a leading lay position. This brought her to the heart of the organization’s affairs, and established a very close connection for the next three decades.

One of her first tasks was to assist in the establishment and promotion of the World Council’s Programme to Combat Racism, which raised consciousness as well as funds, and supported beleaguered agencies such as the African National Congress in South Africa. This campaign aroused enormous hostility among more conservative churchmen, who denounced the World Council for promoting terrorism and violence, and even accused it of using church funds to purchase weapons. Webb spent a great deal of time refuting such charges, and pointing out that the small sums sent to Africa were explicitly for humanitarian, not military, purposes. But the argument became part of the wider process of trying to involve the churches in the world’s most significant crises – a stance which many churchmen regarded as politically one-sided, and beyond the scope of any church organization even at the world level. This prophetic witness was exactly what Pauline Webb thrived on, and her engagement in such endeavours was both energetic and rewarding. She was continually on the move attending conferences in different partts of the world, from Mauritius to the Yukon, so that at times the book reads like a stimulating travelogue. But this was all part of the sincere effort of the World Council to bring the concerns and decisions of its leadership down to the ordinary women and men in the pews, and thereby to seek to overcome the barriers of language and distance from its headquarters in Geneva. Webb proved to be a most effective ambassador for such an enterprise. Her infectious enthusiasm, and her steady and unstrident advocacy, especially for women, made her a most welcome guest wherever she went. And her talks on the BBC World Service gave her a platform to share her experiences and her witness to a very wide audience.

It may perhaps be regretted that she did not include more of the substance of the numerous talks and sermons she gave, since this would surely have confirmed the impression of an impassioned and dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. So too it would have been good if she had said more about how the World Council evolved over the years from a theology mainly concerned with church order to a theology whose major emphasis was on human liberation. Inevitably not all the initiativess she so resolutely sponsored have been successful. World poverty is still unresolved. The Christian churches have also just begu to realize their need to relate to other faiths. The position of women still remains marginal in many societies. But undoubtely, Pauline Webb can take heart, and even some of the credit, for the role the World Council played in helping to dismantle apartheid in South Africa, when it offered a platform for such leaders as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. As one who inherited great visions from the past, and contributed to their realization in the present, Webb’s legacy, now handed on to younger church members, especially women, is to inspire them to new and greater visions for the future.


1c) Anke Silomon. Anspruch und Wirklichkeit der “besonderen Gemeinschaft”: Der Ost-West Dialog der deutschen evangelischen Kirchen 1969-1991. (Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006. 764 pp. EUR 99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-525-55747-1.

1d) Katharina Kunter. Erfüllte Hoffnungen und zerbrochene Träume: Evangelische Kirchen in Deutschland im Spannungsfeld von Demokratie und Sozialismus (1980-1993). (Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006. 346 pp. EUR 59.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-525-55745-7.

These two books were reviewed for H-German on July 30th 2008 by Benjamin Pearson, Department of History, Northern Illinois University, and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

German Protestants between East and West

Between 1945 and 1989 the Protestant state churches enjoyed a unique position in German politics, society, and culture. As the German nation was divided into competing Cold War camps, churches remained among the most important bridges between the two Germanys. Until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Protestant state churches in the FRG and the GDR maintained close institutional ties as common members of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD). Indeed, even as the Berlin Wall made it more difficult to maintain personal and institutional contacts, they maintained formal unity in the EKD until 1969, when the East German churches split off to form the Bund der Evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR (BEK). Throughout this period of formal unity, the Protestant churches and their affiliated organizations played a leading role in maintaining inter-German dialogue and contact, and in giving expression to the desire of many Germans for political reunification. At the same time, the churches in East and West also developed in different directions, responding to their contrasting social and political circumstances. The creation of the BEK in 1969 offered the East German churches new leeway to reinvent themselves as a “church within socialism,” while West German Protestants were also forced to come to terms with the seeming permanence of both ecclesiastical and political German division. Yet, even after 1969, the Protestant churches in the two German states still claimed to be united in a form of “special community,” maintaining a variety of formal and informal contacts. Both of the books examined in this review deal with the nature of this “special community,” with the important bonds and the significant differences between Protestants in the West and East German states. Anke Silomon focuses on the formal relations between the EKD and the BEK at the highest levels of church leadership. Following a lengthy assessment of the scholarly literature, the book’s extended introductory section surveys developments in the churches between 1945 and 1969, paying particular attention to the process of formal institutional division that led to the creation of the BEK. The remainder of the book addresses two attempts by the leaders of the EKD and BEK to maintain some form of high-level contact, first in a Beratergruppe and from 1980-1991 in the work of the smaller and more specialized Konsultationsgruppe, which focused on the churches’ mutual responsibility to foster world peace. In both of these sections, Silomon maintains a relatively close textual focus on the discussions between group members, with a primary interest in what these interactions can tell us about the nature of the “special community” between the EKD and BEK. She concludes that the Beratergruppe was successful in maintaining the ideal of contact and communication between the West and East German churches, but that it fell short of achieving fully the claims of “special community” between the churches. The group was hindered in these pursuits by the lack of a stable membership over time–exacerbated by the restrictions facing West German church leaders on visiting the GDR–and by the failure of the EKD and BEK to invest their members with greater authority. It remained a useful sounding board for both churches, allowing them to share ideas and experiences with “brothers and sisters” on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but it failed to take on any greater significance. TheKonsultationsgruppe, in contrast, developed into a more fruitful forum for discussion and common action. Founded in 1980, in the wake of the churches’ common statement commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the onset of war, this group was a smaller, more narrowly focused forum where members of both churches could find common ground in exploring the theme of world peace. The proceedings of this group also demonstrated the gulf between the experiences and beliefs of West and East Germans. However, the members were able to engage in much more extensive and fruitful deliberations about basic theological, political, and social ideas.

An extremely well-footnoted and dense reconstruction of the work of the Beratergruppe and the Konsultationsgruppe, Silomon’s study provides an invaluable reference to others pursuing work in closely related fields. However, this high level of detail, accompanied by a reluctance to engage in broader contextualization and analysis, limits the book’s usefulness to the general reader. One cannot help but wish that Silomon had engaged more extensively with the influence of these deliberations on the world outside of the churches, or, indeed, even on the lives and beliefs of ordinary church members.

In contrast, Katharina Kunter’s Erfüllte Hoffnungen und zerbrochene Träume targets these groups explicitly. Kunter focuses not on the church hierarchy of the EKD and BEK, but on a dense, decentralized network of pastors, theologians, and lay people working in the ecumenical “Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation” in the 1980s and early 1990s. In her complex, multi-layered analysis, Kunter details the origins of this ecumenical process, examines the separate and common work of the East and West German churches, and–most importantly–explores the ways in which the ideas and basic assumptions of German participants in this movement were strongly shaped by their different religious and political experiences in the two German states.

Founded in the early 1980s, the Conciliar Process was a broad, decentralized ecumenical movement under the aegis of the World Council of Churches and European Council of Churches. Small groups of European Christians had been engaged in efforts to foster world peace and social justice since the 1960s and 1970s, and these efforts gained an especially public resonance in the protest movement against the deployment of American Pershing missiles in Europe of the early 1980s. With the failure of these efforts, a small circle of German theologians–most notably Heino Falcke in the East and Ulrich Duchrow in the West–hoped to channel the frustrations of anti-nuclear protestors into a form of positive engagement for world peace. Their joint effort came to fruition when the East German delegation to the 1983 assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver issued a public call for the creation of an ecumenical peace council. This movement was given an additional boost in 1985 when–under the guidance of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker–the German ProtestantKirchentag, the massive lay assembly of West German Protestants, chose the promotion of world peace as its overriding theme. Other large ecumenical conferences continued this work throughout the 1980s while, at the same time, countless smaller consultation and discussion groups emerged across Europe.

As Kunter persuasively argues, the activity of the Conciliar Process, especially at the local grassroots level, played an important role in energizing a generation of Protestant activists in both German states. In the West, several of these activists have since risen to prominent positions of church leadership. However, the effects of the movement were much more pronounced in the East, where ecumenical dialogue for the promotion of peace and social justice created a new, critical public space for East German Protestants. By the late 1980s this increasingly bold and public activity was broadening to include fundamental criticism of the injustice of the East German state itself. Turning their attention to the possibilities of a better, more democratic socialist system, members of Conciliar Process played a leading role in the emergence of East German civil society groups in 1989-90.

Yet, many of the members of these groups, frustrated when their efforts to theorize democratic socialism were overtaken by political events, came to see the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of Germany as a failure and a missed opportunity. In a similar way, figures on both sides were disappointed by declining interest in the movement following the events of 1989-90. Although their efforts had a lasting impact on the churches, in particular by opening up the hierarchy to new ideas and by grooming a new generation of leaders, Kunter argues that the movement failed to sustain a lasting impact on ordinary church members. This disillusionment was compounded, especially among former East Germans, by their difficulty in finding a place for themselves and their experiences in the West German church. In one of the most interesting sections of her work, Kunter locates the origins of this disillusionment in the different religious and political experiences of Protestants in the two German states. She argues that East German Protestants were strongly shaped by their experiences as outsiders in the GDR. Their religious attitudes were rooted in family and congregational life, where they found a separate space for themselves in East German society. This pietistic, oppositional perspective in turn led many to embrace a utopian form of political theology that denigrated all forms of real existing politics. The religious attitudes of their West German counterparts, by contrast, were much more overtly political from the very beginning. In describing the evolution of their beliefs, the West German Protestants in Kunter’s study only rarely referred to the influence of family and congregational life. Instead, most pointed to the formative role of a personal religious-political awaking in their teens or twenties that continued to influence their religious belief and identity as Protestant Christians. This underlying difference in religious identity formation has contributed to numerous misunderstandings within the churches since the early 1990s and remains an important factor in the mental gulf that continues to divide the reunited EKD. Both of these books offer the reader insights into the complex relations between the Protestant churches in West and East Germany both during and after the Cold War. While Silomon’s work will be of primary interest to church historians, Kunter’s has the potential to appeal to a much wider audience. By situating her work within the worldwide ecumenical movement, broadening her research to include a wide spectrum of theologians and laity, and providing a densely layered and compelling analysis of the larger significance of her findings, Kunter has written a work of church history that should appeal to anyone interested in the intellectual and cultural underpinnings of recent German politics.

Benjamin Pearson

2a) W.Daniel, Reconstituting the “Sacred Canopy”. Mother Serafima and the Novodivichy Monastery, in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol 59 no. 2, April 2008, p. 249-71.

Wallace Daniel is an American scholar who has devoted much time to studying the rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia since 1991. His travels took him to the Novodivichy Monastery, or rather nunnery, just outside Moscow, one of Russia’s noblest shrines. There he met the Mother Superior, Serafima,, who for five years from 1994, at the age of 8o, undertook the enormous task of restoring the monastery to its former glory. Monasteries have always occupied a special place in the life of the Russian people. They preserved memory, nurtured the spirit, taught ethics and offered a special way of looking at the world. In the post-Communist society, with its rampant cult of individualism and consumerism, such a service, Mother Serafima was convinced, was badly needed. She therefore opposed the secular trend by promoting the cause of charity, not just to help the poor, but to evoke the Christian virtue of Miloserdie, dear heartedness, which should empower Christians in their relationships with others. Mother Serafima’s short years of service were filled with activity to revitalize not only the external and physical, but also the internal and spiritual vitality of this great monastery. Wallace Daniel’s tribute is therefore well deserved.

Journal note: Church History, the quarterly journal for the American Society for Church History, now edited from Florida State University, has a new pictorial coloured cover page, which is most attractive.

The contents are however the same as before. The latest issue, for June 2008, has a perceptive article by Dae Y. Ryu on “The Origins and characteristics of Evangelical Protestantism in Korea at the turn of the twentieth century” as well as reviews of the two latest volumes in the Cambridge History of Christianity, viz, Vol V: Eastern Christianity, and Vol. IX: World Christianities c. 1914 to c. 2000.

Best wishes to you all,
John Conway