Behind the shining armour


Matt Pickles | 05 Jan 12

Diarmaid MacCulloch 2
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church in Oxford University's Faculty of Theology, was knighted for services to scholarship in the 2012 New Years Honours list. In addition to his distinguished academic career, Professor MacCulloch has become a familiar face on our TV screens as presenter and writer of the award-winning BBC2 and BBC4 documentary series, Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity. Here, he tells Arts at Oxford what the knighthood means to him.
Firstly, as a reverend, professor and now a knight, how should we now address you?
'As you'd expect in this great country of ours, it's quirky. If you were to bother with something like a large mouthful of it (and I guess you wouldn't, very often), it's Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Knight, since I also happen to be a Deacon of the Church of England. This form of address is thanks to a custom which I'm told originated during the reign of that model of Anglican piety, King Edward VII: clergy of the Church of England are not addressed as Sir unless they are hereditary baronets or got ordained after being knighted. Australian and New Zealand Anglican clergy who were knighted routinely used to ignore this rule, but I expect that was to do with the weather down there. This circumstance also means apparently that Her Majesty doesn't lower a sword onto my shoulder, but does something else, the nature of which I will no doubt discover on the day. It's a pleasant anomaly.'

What was your reaction to being knighted?
‘I was astonished and delighted to be honoured in this way. The great thing about these awards is that they always represent some particular field or subject, and the field that is being given a thumbs-up by this award is church history in particular, the religious history that I’ve studied, but it's also all arts and humanities subjects in universities. This award is saying that the sort of subject I have studied matters; it is good for the nation.’

What set you on the path of studying church history and theology?
'Matters ecclesiastical have long been a family business; my father and his father were both Anglican clergy (Scottish Episcopal and C of E) and I spent a happy childhood in one of those wonderfully absurdly large and decayed country rectories where Agatha Christie could set a murder (the Church has sold them all off now) in a Suffolk parish which also has two beautiful medieval churches. My father loved history, and so as a family over meals we talked about it as others might talk about football. And then my first job, rather accidentally, was teaching in a Methodist theological college, where from Day One in my late twenties I taught all the church history, Plato to Nato, to prospective Methodist ministers. No escape there from religious history, even though my Cambridge doctorate had been about the political aspects of the English Reformation.'

How has the field of church history and theology more generally changed since you began your career?
'The delight of it has been that church history has moved out of its old insularity, the tribal history of various denominations cultivated by themselves, to connect up with other aspects of history - politics, social structures, anthropology. Consequently others now see it as part of the mainstream of study; and the world's general turn to religion in the last forty years has underlined the urgency of knowing about religion in the past. Academic historians may not believe in a particular theology, but certainly far more of them now see the sense in understanding how it has worked for others.'  

What motivates you as an academic?
'An intense curiosity about humans both alive and dead, and a fatal urge to want to tell other people about the results of my curiosity. I'd do this even if they didn't pay me.'

Why do you think communication by academics to the wider public is important?
'For all the reasons above. Religion hugely matters to millions on millions of human beings currently alive, and therefore we vitally need to understand it, in its own terms, rather than imposing some external logic on it.  Much of it is bad religion, because it is wilfully simple religion, and over-simple religion very commonly depends on taking an over-simple view of the past. That needs complicating without being confusing.  It's the enjoyable task of the historian to tell a complex story, but to tell it in a way which a lot of folk will understand. It would be very selfish for academics to keep our research to ourselves.'

What is next for you?
'The next series, already in the can, is for BBC2, and is called How God made the English - a look at how the English came to be, and what happens to Englishness now that religion is apparently less central to it, and that the three-centuries-long project of Britishness is disintegrating. That's out sometime this winter. And in April/May I have to deliver the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, on 'Silence in Christian History: the witness of Holmes's Dog'.  So my task this spring is to spend six hours talking about silence. Wish me luck.'

Professor Diamaid MacCulloch, Professor of the history of the church

Top image by Chris Gibbions. Bottom image: Professor MacCulloch filming the BBC documentary 'A History of Christianity'