Laureation address: Revd Professor Diarmaid Macculloch

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters 
Laureation by Professor Andrew Pettegree, School of History

Friday 13 September 2013

Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of our leading public historians. In the last ten years he has been the author of three blockbuster books:  The Reformation: A History; A History of Christianity and, most recently, Silence: A Christian History. Collectively these books have won every distinguished prize available to historians, to add to the Whitbread prize awarded to his breakthrough biography of Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Anglican communion.  A History of Christianity became a lavish BBC series.  But more than most this blossoming career as one of our most public faces of historical scholarship was the result of an unexpected mid-career convulsion, that obliged Diarmaid to rebuild and reshape what had until that point been a relatively conventional academic career.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is by birth a man of Kent.  But the family also has a deep and long-standing connection with St Andrews. In 1909 the university awarded an honorary degree to the Rev. Canon John Arnott MacCulloch for his distinguished work on Scottish and European folklore.  This was Diarmaid’s grandfather, and a much cherished distinction.  Indeed, since Canon MacCulloch was essentially an autodidact, and the son of a tinker, this was the only degree that he held.  Diarmaid himself was educated at Churchill College Cambridge, where he graduated from the demanding school of Professor Geoffrey Elton.  In 1978 he began teaching at Wesley College, Bristol, a Methodist institution.  Diarmaid, a committed Anglican, embraced the challenge of expounding the importance of church history to trainee ministers whose sense of vocation was very much anchored in the here and now.  Looking back Diarmaid credits a large part of his relish for taking history beyond the academy to these formative years as a teacher.  It was in these years too that Diarmaid became more widely known as an exceptionally insightful scholar and gifted lecturer.  A talent for finding the oblique angle and a mischievous sense of humour helped.  He greatly irritated more insular historians with a paper comparing the comparative influence of England and Cyprus in sixteenth century Europe (not to England’s advantage); and I remember a brilliant paper in the difficult closing slot of a conference, on serfdom in Tudor England, demonstrating that a strange miscellany of otherwise respectable characters (including a fellow of my then Cambridge College) were in fact serfs.

The crisis for Diarmaid came in 1990.  For some years Diarmaid had been thinking of ordination in the Anglican Church.  He was also a long standing and prominent member of the Gay Christian Movement.  The Bishop of Bristol, having sponsored Diarmaid’s application for training, now declined to allow him to go forward to the priesthood.  This precipitated a complete change in Diarmaid’s career path.  Shortly thereafter he decided to leave Wesley College and embarked on five years as a freelancer.  The immediate fruits of these years were the monumental biography of Thomas Cranmer, the principal architect of the English Protestant church, and the author of the superb liturgy that has somehow withstood numerous attempts at modernisation.  Diarmaid’s portrait of Cranmer, a definitive book that played an important role in reclaiming the biographical form for academic history, demonstrated two particular qualities that would come to characterise his work from this point on.  Firstly, a profound, and deep learning in theology but also in European history: Diarmaid, against the trend of the shocking insularity of so much of English Reformation scholarship, anchors Cranmer in the wider European movement of which he was so much a part. Secondly, Diarmaid brought to this book an extraordinarily wide cultural frame of reference, not least a most remarkable sensitivity to the music of language and the impact of ecclesiastical space: both, I think, an echo of his early training as a church organist.

Cranmer was published, to huge acclaim, shortly after Diarmaid accepted a position at Oxford University, where he is now Professor of the History of the Church.  In 2003 he published his wonderful study of the European Reformation, Europe’s House Divided, a book of breath-taking range, balance and poise.  But this, as it turned out, was only the preliminary to a still more ambitious work, his history of Christianity, subtitled The First Three Thousand Years.  Here the years at Wesley brought their ultimate reward, for Diarmaid was able to expound a learning that ranged across the whole range of Christian history, including, as the title makes clear, the Hebrew Bible in the millennium before Christ.  Sales of the book and the accompanying television series attracted a large public audience and also led to further academic recognition.  Diarmaid had become a Fellow of the British Academy in 2001 and in 2012 was knighted for his services to scholarship.

His latest book, Silence: a Christian History, addresses a subject close to Diarmaid’s own heart.  Through the centuries Christians have often kept silent: as an act of devotion or conscious aestheticism, but also through fear, prudence or ambition.  Diarmaid traces the history of these silences, those who imposed and enforced them, and those who suffered in silence: often a silence tortured by guilt and self-recrimination.  It is a passionate book, but also a book of hope, as changing social mores permit the previously silent to find their voice.  In an age where institutional churches are beginning, albeit with great reluctance, to embrace the reality of the twenty-first century, Diarmaid makes clear that the oppression and intolerance that have so often characterised Christianity, a religion of charity and forgiveness, will not be forgotten.

Today we honour a scholar of exceptional gifts, enviable facility with words, and outstanding learning.  But we also honour a public figure of great courage, wit and grace.