Summer Conference 2020:
The Churches and Rites of Passage
The theme of the 59th EHS Summer Conference will be The Churches and Rites of Passage. As ever, the intention is to attract a broad spectrum of papers from across the history of Christianity.
How have the rituals which the Churches evolved to mark key points in the lifecycle developed over time, and how have people’s perceptions of them changed?
This theme is intended to prompt sustained reflection on the historical development of rites of passage within Christianity, andwhere possible on the hinterland between formally articulated ecclesiastical positions, and people’s hopes and fears as they sought to articulate the changed status of themselves, or their loved ones, at the key moments in life and death. This is a theme with great current relevance: school RE syllabuses frequently consider how the world religions mark these events, while Grayson Perry’s recent TV series explained and reinvented ‘modern’ rites of passage for largely secular people. For rites of passage are more than simply liturgical events. As well as investigating the liturgy and doctrine of rites of passage, communications are welcomed that explore how weddings and funerals have generated tensions with ecclesiastical structures, or indeed floated free of them. As the Churches have declined in the West, the rites of passage over which they once presided have developed new rituals and rhythms. Witness debates about same-sex marriage, roadside shrines and the disposal of cremated remains, to name just three.
Each of the rites of passage recognised within historic Christianity has its own particular cultural history and theological significance. Some have been seen as sacramental in nature, generating controversy at the Reformation, for instance, about what was actually taking place in such rites. There are also important methodological questions to be explored about how historians should evaluate the evidence from the sources. How mindful should we be, for example, of Dominic Erdozain’s warning that ‘rites of passage are presented as bulwarks of popular religiosity when their causal, perfunctory and largely instrumental use would suggest otherwise’? How useful is Arnold van Gennep’s theory of liminality, and what else about his approach to rites of passage might still be helpful to us?
Proposals for twenty-minute papers are welcomed on any of the life stages for which the Churches have developed rites and ceremonies: baptism, churching, confirmation, marriage, ordination and death, as well as informal or local rituals and celebrations.
These might address, but are not limited to, any of the following questions:
- What have rites of passage meant to the participants, both the clergy who have mediated them, and the lay people who have been intended to benefit by them?
- How have rites of passage helped (or hindered) individuals to make sense of themselves?
- How have they shaped and reshaped and challenged communal identities?
- What do Christian rites of passage tell us about generational change and transfer?
- How have they been depicted in art?
- What are the recurrent themes in sermons delivered during rites of passage?
- What social festivities and celebrations have been incorporated, and with what effects?
- How does formal ritual relate to larger social ritual?
- How have responses to rites of passage been gendered? Why, for instance, was the traditional ceremony for churching after childbirth challenged, and when did ‘thanksgiving’ overtake it?
- How have Christians responded to or resisted changes in the law, e.g. on marriage?
- How have changes in medical and hygiene practice changed rites of passage, e.g. the widespread adoption of cremation? And why have Christian denominations responded to this in such a variety of ways?
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