improve-my-writing-skills-first-drafts-are-crapI’ve recently had the privilege of undertaking a writing retreat to get my contributions to a book on childhood and religion I’m co-editing completed. I managed to get far more writing done than I normally can, which led to think ‘why?’.

First things first, writing isn’t easy, but it is immensely satisfying. It’s great to get something down on paper, which you may have wrestled with, and which expresses precisely what you want to say.

Below are a few thoughts about the writing process: they are more practical than profound; personal than universally applicable.

  1. Have somewhere you can hide away for a few hours. In the course of a normal week I might write in a number of different places. A coffee shop, at the kitchen table,  or on a train, are more often than not more effective places to write than at my desk, or in a library. I think this is because having others around – as long as the noise levels are not too intrusive – enables me to focus in a more concentrated way. Perhaps the effort of shutting out the low hum of others’ conversation helps?
  2. Don’t fight distraction. It’s a lesson from meditative techniques that distraction, amidst attempts at concentration, is normal. When focus is lost by a fleeting thought, or an aeroplane overhead, gently bring yourself back to your writing activity.
  3. Set yourself realistic targets. I’ve found there’s nothing worse than having whole days (or even whole weeks) devoted solely to writing, without planning how the time is going to be used. I’ve tried the pomodoro method, which chunks up time helps a little. The more useful approach for me has been to have a daily/writing target of either 300 or 500 words. This probably doesn’t sound a lot, but added together over a few days or writing sessions it can quickly amount to a significant piece of writing. Of course, I’m talking about first-draft level of writing; refining the quality of the writing does take somewhat longer. Even so, you may have a 30 min train journey, or 15 minutes between appointments, try using them to write. Even if it’s just a few words, or refining some you’ve already written, this is time well-used.
  4. Attend to the creature comforts. I find it really useful not to have to think about where the next meal is going to be coming from whilst writing. Having planned for necessities like this in advance, or having someone else do so, as in my writing retreat, is essential.
  5. When you’re stuck, take a break. Don’t just sit there, go for a walk – even if it’s only around the room. Do some more reading, or do something entirely different and come back to the writing another time. However, try not to make this a permanent block, setting the writing aside for an extended period can leave it unfinished. This goes back to my point above. Writing is not easy.
  6. Reading and refining. As a historian I find it’s really important to go back to my sources to sharpen or deepen my analysis. Taking time to do this when I’m stuck, however familiar I believe myself to be with my material, can help stimulate further thinking which extends and argument or provides a nuance or element of detail.
  7. Order and precision. One of the benefits of writing in chunks is being able to order text so that it flows, intersects or leads to making an argument, or point of analysis. Finding a clearer way of saying something, which is fair to your evidence, is part of the redrafting process. It is not unusual for documents to run into multiple drafts (between 30 and 50 is the norm for me).
  8. Publish or perish. I find it’s important to set a document I’m working on aside for a few days before finally submitting it. Coming back to a text after working on something else, or simply taking a breather, gives you a better sense of the clarity of your draft, and helps you to spot any silly errors you’d missed. Getting someone else to look the text over at this stage can be important too. A critical friend’s fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference, even if you decide not to take into account some of their advice (after all it is yours!). There does come a point, however, when you simply have to let go and submit what you have written.

The Writing Process

The Professionalization of Religious Education

Last week I co-hosted (with Rob Freathy, Friedrich Schweitzer and Henrik Simojoki) an international symposium on the professionalisation of Religious Education. Sponsored by the Westhill Trust and the University of Exeter, the symposium arose from our ongoing collaborative work on the professionalisation of RE in historical perspective (Freathy et al, 2014). 

The 15 papers presented at the symposium sought to address a range of issues and questions. Amongst these were:  what is meant by the professionalisation  of RE? How does this relate to the professionalisation, professionalism and professionality of other careers, such as that of law and medicine? How does the professionalisation of RE relate to the (de)professionalisation of teachers generally? Is there anything different or unique about the professionalisation and professional role of RE teachers? How is being an RE teacher  experienced presently and historically? Why research all this in international and comparative perspective, and how might this to be done? 

Selected papers from this symposium are to be published in joint editions of the British Journal of Religious Education and Zeitschrift für Pädagogik und Theologie next year. In the meantime, Rob, Friedrich, Henrik and I are planning further research in this area. It would be good to debate the broader issues around the (de)professionalisation of RE more widely too. 


Rob Freathy, Stephen G. Parker, Friedrich Schweitzer & Henrik Simojoki (2014) Towards international comparative research on the professionalisation of Religious Education, Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education, 35:2, 225-241

How important can one person be? The challenges of getting personal in historical research

I have recently published the article ‘Mediatising Childhood Religion’.1 The published paper began life as an invited contribution to a regular seminar series. I decided to focus upon John G. Williams’ thinking about children – his ‘idea of the child’ – for this paper, but whilst working this seminar contribution up into a publishable article I began to wonder if I was making too much of one man’s ideas and influence? Some two years on, the paper now published, this blog is a reflection upon some of the challenges I faced in turning this paper from one kind of output to another. Here I want to especially reflect upon the problems involved in finding an individual in history, and attempting to realistically measure their significance.

At the heart of the published paper remains a discussion about the contribution of one person to the question of how should one pray with children, both as a parent and as a broadcaster. This was a vexed question for the BBC as it sought to establish a prayer slot for children in 1940, and a worship service for schools that same year. Could one avoid ‘talking-down’ to children, pitch prayers seriously enough, but without being tedious?

The Reverend John G. Williams – formerly a Church of England curate with some teaching background – was someone who seemed to understand the problem and provide the answer, both in having some idea of what to do and to be able to model it. By the early 1950s Williams had established himself as a regular and pioneer broadcaster, being described by his peers as a ‘genius’ when it came to communicating religion to children. His was a conversational broadcasting style, which addressed the interests and concerns of children (albeit as adults might perceive them), asking children to reflect with him on these rather then tell them what to think.

His broadcasts were published as a series of volumes Children’s Hour Prayers (1948), Listen on Wednesday (1949) and Switch on for the News (1951). His reflections on childhood religion  and how it might be fostered were published in a series of articles entitled ‘The Child’s First Steps in Religion’2 and later in the more substantial volume ‘Worship and the Modern Child’ (1957). His ideas seemed to resonated and reached as far afield as South Africa, his ‘First Steps’ series being republished in the South African Christian Education Movement’s journal in 1955.

Despite this, how could I justify writing about the influence of one man – a seemingly minor figure in broadcasting history, and religious education? Would such an article about Williams be of interest to more than a minority; and besides just how influential was Williams anyway?

What’s fascinating for me as someone who came to history late in the day, at PhD stage only, is how the question of just how objective one can be when it comes to the subjects of study. This seems quite straightforward when the individuals one studies aren’t particularly likeable. When reading the papers of one bishop Ernest Barnes (of Birmingham, 1924-1953), for instance, his obvious lack of personal warmth and courtesy not only put me off him as a character, it made it more straightforward to read the sources in relation to him objectively. Even so, oddly, in his case I still managed to develop a degree of respect for him, seeing in his coolness a dispassion that enabled him to exercise good judgment – say in relation to lobbying government on particular matters during the Second World War, where others reacted to the tide of events in more reactionary ways.

What is more problematic – for me at least – is when one develops a fondness for individuals being researched. How can I represent an individual in a balanced way, when whilst reading their letters, papers and thinking – when eventually being in touch with family members, and hearing and reading of the affection with which they are recalled? Eventually it becomes possible to develop fond feelings for someone whilst studying them so closely; not only knowing them, liking them and respecting, wishing one could have conversed with them over a cup of tea sometime.

Thankfully, I’m not alone as an historian in having such feelings for my subjects. As Joanne Bailey points out, historians are emotional beasts.

Moreover, how does on measure the importance of a single life in history? This is easy to answer when considering politicians, prime ministers and leading prelates, but what about individuals, or even sole clergyman – such as Williams – who appear on the scene at the beginning of a single decade, only to have disappeared by the end of it? How can one claim significance for someone whose role is relatively minor and brief? Does the limited agency some exercise in their lifetime render their value historically minimal?4

I think methodologically the solution to the question lies in using the ‘minor’ biography as a lens through which to see other, wider matters. As a sole agent in history the individual exercises their purpose amidst a network of contemporary concerns and events, and in this way they are part of the web by which history is constructed. Williams had brief prominence at a time when BBC broadcasters were still learning their art. He was able to bring – from his relative successes in leading children’s work in church – some experience of how to communicate with children from this context. He wouldn’t have been uniquely placed to do this,  but his contribution to communicating to children through radio came from a church tradition of Sunday schooling (Froebellian and Romantic in influence), which recognized the authenticity of children’s spiritual agency as something to be fostered rather than imposed upon.5 Though Williams himself wrote of indoctrination, he thought of this in a kindly sense, as assisting the child to a spiritual maturity according to their own inclination rather than by the imposition of adults.

The individual biography might also be seen in the context of others. Are others around the person saying similar, contrasting or dissonant things? These can temper some of the tendency to put someone ‘on a pedestal’.

In Williams’ case I was able to find direct criticism of his contribution to shaping worship in schools by the later religious educationist, John Hull. John Hull, in his School Worship: an obituary, thought Williams’ views on worship indoctrinatory in a harmful and inappropriate way. Where Williams assumed worship to be teaching children how to be religious, in the context of the 1970s Hull thought this to be an inappropriate aim for school assemblies.

How come? Was my beloved Williams ill-motivated and wrong? What might this mean? Was he proposing (and enacting) some kind of spiritual abuse in his broadcasts? In the article I try to seek an answer to these questions by not only saying they were ‘men of their time’ but that these differences represent a repositioning of religion in the public space of the school, which occurred over the years between the 40s and the 70s.

1 Stephen G. Parker (2015): Mediatising childhood religion: the BBC, John G. Williams and collective worship for schools in England, 1940–1975, Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, DOI: 10.1080/00309230.2015.1013559

2 John G. Williams, “The Child’s First Steps in Religion I,” Religion in Education 18


4 Setting aside the important part by those democratizing forms of historical investigation, which rightly focus upon those that have been marginalized in the historiography.

5 Davies, R.A. (2011).’Brilliance of a Fire: Innocence, Experience and the Theory of Childhood’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45:2, pp.379-397.

The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion and Childhood

I’m pleased to be able announce that I am to be a contributing editor to the Bloomsbury Reader in Religion and Childhood with Anna Strhan and Susan Ridgley. The volume. to be published in 2016, will cover aspects of the history of childhood, childhood and the media, children’s religious literature, anthropology and religious studies.

As well as republishing a choice of ‘classic’ material, a number of authors have been commissioned to write some new cutting-edge pieces from their latest research. Themes include the definitions of the child and children’s agency in religion, forms of religious education across religions, the materialities of childhood religion, and the ‘religious domination’ of childhood.

Studies of religion as an aspect of childhood are surprisingly rare, but this is a growing field that the Reader intends to resource. I’m very pleased, and feel very privileged, to be working on this project with others.

Do Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACRE) have a future in the ‘new’ RE?

I’ve been taking part in a Twitter debate provoked by @MrShepstoneRE‘s reflections on a recent letter to SACRE by Lord Nash. I don’t propose to comment on the many issues covered by the blog, simply to focus upon the matter of SACRE, which the blog author describes as ‘an outdated, old-fashioned system of localism which has no place in a modern, interconnected nation such as Britain’.

In responding to this, and the good quality Twitter debate which ensued, first let me say that I am not (necessarily) arguing for the status quo. I’ve been involved in SACRE myself over a number of years, and I not naive about their imperfections – though I will say that of these relate to uneven levels of funding, differing levels of leadership, and the sometimes non-existent training for SACRE members themselves.

So should any review of the function and aims of RE throw the SACRE baby out with the bathwater? I don’t think so, at least not until the following have been considered.

1. We desperately need evidence on how SACRE operate ‘on the ground’. Do SACRE work? It behoves the RE community to provide evidence upon which to base any evaluation. Individual experience and hearsay of their ineffectiveness in operation and lack of  influence in shaping good practice is not enough. Where SACRE clearly do have a positive impact, we need to know how and why. I am pleased to read that the review of RE being undertaken by the RE Council includes SACRE.

2. We need a longer view of how SACRE (and more importantly in relation to this debate Agreed Syllabuses) came to be and why. Agreed Syllabuses grew out of the need to resolve severe sectarian Christian differences in the early decades of state education about what should be taught in RI in schools. They were locally agreed because education at the time was locally organised and supported. The mechanisms by which the syllabuses were agreed resolved (more or less) religious differences around the subject, and worked to ensure that the religious instruction occurred was less partisan. The legislation of 1944 was constructed around the positive results of these early experiments in local religious negotiation.

There is historical evidence in this illustration to show that localism is not necessarily anathema to progress in curriculum development (prior to any National Curriculum). National determination in RE may not necessarily be the universal panacea it appears. On the contrary, national determination might well silence community voices that ought to – perhaps now more than ever –  be heard. In accruing decision-making to a central authority (who might this be?), the extent to which real religious difference at a local level is acknowledged could be weakened. Local involvement in the structures governing RE might be seen as a positive example of local democracy in operation.

3. Change in the governance of the RE curriculum needs to reflect change in the public role of religion and society. On all this, the sands are still very much shifting. The current legal arrangements with regard to SACRE provide an (imperfect) arrangement for the voice for religious communities to be heard in RE. Until we decide that the determination of curriculum content in religious education is for professionals alone (notwithstanding that RE professionals themselves are not also sometimes religious adherents) we need a mechanism that provides for the voice and influence of a range of religious groups.

4. We mustn’t inflate the influence SACRE and Agreed Syllabus Conference have over the content and aims of RE, certainly not beyond Key Stage 3. The responsibility for examination RE at GCSE and A-level lies elsewhere.

5. SACRE have become increasingly dis-empowered by the erosion of influence and resource of local authorities and the growth of academies. Much of their ineffectiveness may well be the result of this agenda, and religious educationalists need to decide whether the general trends which have driven this are ones with which they are prepared to be aligned. Religious education is always political.

Finally, blog readers will be interested to know that some of the issues discussed in passing here will be the focus of a special issue of the Journal of Beliefs and Values, to be published in April 2015. In this special, which draws together a range of papers and perspectives from a couple of conferences of 2013, the ‘Future of RE’ is debated from an historical and philosophical perspective.

William Temple and the Malvern Conference (reprised)

William Temple, bishop of Manchester, then archbishop of York and Canterbury, was a hugely significant figure of the early twentieth-century, whose interests spanned politics, numerous voluntary group interests  and involvements (especially educational ones), and ecclesiastical life. A prodigious theological thinker, Temple regularly broadcast for the BBC. He is especially remembered for his active personal involvement in working for ecclesial unity, laying the foundations for a World Council of Churches, as well as being an active campaigner for social reform, and sometime member of the Labour Party. Temple was directly involved in negotiations towards the 1944 Education Act, and wrote and broadcast often in favour of the creation of a welfare state. His untimely and early death, in 1944, after only two years at Canterbury left a hiatus, hard to imagine today in relation to a national religious figure. He was dubbed the ‘the People’s Archbishop’.

In January 1941, William Temple convened and chaired a conference – held just a few miles from where I’m writing this blog – at Malvern College, on various aspects of Church and society. It was meant as a follow-on to the Conference on Politics, Economics and Citizenship (COPEC), held in Birmingham in 1924, which Temple had chaired, and a report Temple had led upon producing (Men Without Work), published in 1938.

The Malvern Conference itself was attended by @180 delegates and amongst the speakers were T.S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers and Sir Richard Acland. It concerned itself with examining a range of issues around the relationship between Church and society. However, by some assessments the conference was deemed a relative failure, especially in comparison to COPEC, because it raised more issues than it seemed to resolving, and demonstrated divisions amongst contributors about the ways in which Christian values might be operationalized.

Even so, the conference may be regarded as important because of the issues which were discussed and the extent to which it captured the temper of the time. In particular it strove to explore the relationship between the Christian vision for society and national cultural and social life.

Today we have morally and religiously more plural circumstances, but many of the matters discussed at Malvern remain resonant – matters which coalesce around notions of social justice.

2016 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Malvern Conference, and planning has begun in earnest to hold a similar event hosted by the University of Worcester, and in conjunction with William Temple Foundation. It is hoped that such a conference will foreground the connection between the legacy of William Temple and the university, as represented by the Malvern Conference of 1941, and by the university’s foundation as a post-war, post-1944 Education Act, teacher-training college. The gift of a bust of Temple, donated to the university by the sculptor Victor Heyfron in 2014, to mark the 70th anniversary of Temple’s death, provides a material link with this personality and the locality.

It is intended that the conference will foster regional, national and international networking on subjects of historical and contemporary political and social significance, with invited keynotes and parallel sessions across the fields of history, politics, education and health. The three-day conference will have backward- and forward-looking strands, measuring Temple’s and Malvern’s legacy and the issues facing the voluntary and public sector today.

In the lead up to the conference, some 15 months away, I shall be blogging on issues related to the original conference, and the event-in-the-planning.

Bust of William Temple donated to the University of Worcester, and unveiled on 5th June 2014.

GCSE and A-Level Reform: Religious Studies Consultation

The consultation on GCSE and A-level Reform, not least in Religious Studies, offers a once in a generation opportunity to consider a repositioning of the subject, and a restatement and/or appropriate readjustment in the aims and purposes of the subject.

The background to this in relation to Religious Studies as expressed in the accompanying ministerial letter is undoubtedly matters of ‘security’ and the assertion of particular ‘British values’. Religious Studies is to play its part in fostering the ‘non-negotiables of ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’, according to ministerial assertion. These assertions are unsurprising, and it mustn’t be imagined that Religious Studies is any less political today than it has ever been. The work I’ve done with Rob Freathy on developments in Religious Education in the 1970s underscores this.

On the whole the proposals for the new curriculum and examinations look to be ‘more of the same’ in many respects, which must be of relief to over-stretched teachers., Even so, the decision to re-introduce textual studies as a major strand of optional study is a surprising (even if welcome one), not least as the erosion of such study within school and university curricula over decades will require a significant investment in resource to make scriptural and textual studies possible.

This all begs the question, what kinds of knowledge, skills and empathies are needed in order to understand religion, not only as a phenomenon to be studied, but as one which is remains a dynamic in the lives of huge numbers of people? The syllabus proposes that alongside textual studies, the systematic study of religion and its philosophical, ethical and social scientific are the doorways to such knowledge and understanding. I’ve found the comments of Peter Vardy on all this convincing.

Some thoughts of my own:

1. Where is the history of religion (history is mentioned just once in the document)? I don’t just Church History here – but rather the histories of various religions as lived and believed in by its adherents in particular places and time.

2. Without an historical consciousness of religion, how can the differences between religions (and within particular religion) be properly grasped? Respect and tolerance are easy words if one does not understand the visceral significance of one’s history (and its recollections, myths and distortions) for the contemporary religious believer.

3. The myth of a settled religious past and a divided religious/secular present is relativised by a study of history. The vital and diverse ways people believed, disbelieved and negotiated belief and secularity in the past is an antidote to such easy imaginings, and only comes by a close study of religious history.

4. History isn’t entirely ignored here, it being deployed explicitly and implicitly in the consultation. Thus, Nick Gibbs asserts  ‘In the same way that a well-educated GCSE history student would be expected to learn about more than just British history, we expect well-educated religious studies GCSE students to know about more than one religion’ (pg1). I don’t think this comparison works, not least in that what the latter commits young people to requires an even more ambitious task, particularly if religion is an undiscovered country for the student embarking upon the study of it.

What is more, history is being implicitly invoked by the minister in his rendering of  the discourse of ‘British Values’. The alignment of ‘British Values’ with a particular tradition – namely Christianity – here is surely a problematic one, tending to polarise ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way many Christians must find uncomfortable. Such assertions are themselves unhistorical, and can only be understood to be such by study of the history of religion. Knowledge of religious history tempers the easy equation between expressions of particular values and ideal and their outliving. This historical tempering of ideals serves to humanise religion, something important for a mature understanding of its place in personal and social life.

Children’s Hospital: the Chaplains

I attended a preview event of a new observational documentary ‘Children’s Hospital: the chaplains‘ yesterday evening. To be aired on Monday from the 27 October for 6 weeks, those there watched the first of these episodes alongside the ‘stars’ of the programme, the chaplains, children and parents of Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital. The series depicts 4 months in the life of a multi-faith chaplaincy team in one of the largest dedicated hospitals for children in the UK.

It was a moving preview event, made all the more so because by the end the people sitting around you, whose stories had been featured, seemed no longer to be ‘strangers’ by the end. It was a curious experience to have other people’s traumas  reconstructed for you, and then to be told the remarkable as well as the hugely painful punchlines.

There seemed to be some mystery around how the programme came to be commissioned, but as one of the team pointedly said in his closing remarks, the series will have done its job if it shows that religion is good for sick people. This statement fascinated me, because it framed the broadcast as challenging the climate of opposition to religion by portraying its positive usefulness. As one of the Muslim chaplains said in the episode, ‘we may have different beliefs, but we are united in that we all believe in God’.

Multi-faith chaplaincies necessitate collapsing difference in order to operate in a climate nervous about religion. Professional credibility is about being able to act and be, rather than to theologise.  The training of chaplains in such contexts is about equipping individuals with ‘spiritual tools’ rather more than forming them to articulate theological distinctiveness.

Chaplains, it seems, are those with a profound and resilient religious faith who are simple there when families and children need them. They are, as it were, an additional layer in the cake of the wide ranging care being offered. In the episode we saw them simply listening to the roller-coaster emotions of parents. We saw them praying with and for, sometimes even appearing to pray to, the children, articulating the fears and hopes of the current situation. We saw them using touch and eye-contact to affirm and reassure. None of this seemed unnatural or intrusive.

The history of chaplaincies shows that their role has always been fundamental in health care. Even as religion has found itself marginalised, chaplaincy has persisted as a practice, even as the role has transformed to accommodate the changing religious culture around it.

In the context of broadcasting about religion, this documentary is informative of both religious change and how professional carers operate in an environment of such change.

Even so, the chaplains in this programme are but a by-line to the children, whose stories we see unfolding. I look forward to seeing how all this pans out across the series.