January 6, 2017 by Amy Ryall
Over the course of six weeks in October and November this year (2016), Dr Charles West, with the help of MA student Emily Bowes, co-ordinated a series of talks at Sheffield Cathedral that discussed the co-existence of religion and law in contemporary and historical perspectives. Here, Emily reflects on how it all went.
This talk series took an ambitious narrative beginning with the emergence of Judaism in the Old Testament and finishing with the nature of Church establishment in a global context today, covering clerical exile in the Roman Empire, the benefit of clergy in Medieval England, the Protestant Settlement of Early Modern England, and Sharia Courts in contemporary British Society.
This wide range of topics drew a fairly small (around 20 people) but committed and diverse audience, from students and volunteers at the Cathedral to those on spiritual journeys and retired clergy members.
The range of people who attended the talks was in part due to the venue, Sheffield Cathedral. The Cathedral has recently been rebranded as ‘A Place for all People’, with the aim of engaging with the city as a whole and not just with Christians. The Cathedral provided the talks with a neutral space that was outside of the university context, and thus more accessible to the wider public. The aim of the venue and the purpose of the talks thus married together.
To understand the impact of the talks on our audience we created a questionnaire each week. The core question was: ‘how has this talk changed your own perception or understanding of the topics discussed?’ This question aimed to identify the impact upon each individual that the talk had made. The answers we received were on the whole positive, pointing to a desire to learn more. One of the attendees highlighted how the first talk had ‘already caused me to question some of my thoughts’, while another wrote ‘I will do more research on this topic which shaped the church we have today.’ This enthusiasm to learn more and to expand their knowledge was a key theme of the answers.
In the last questionnaire of the series we asked: ‘how much has this series of talks developed your understanding of the relation between religion and law?’ Based on a scale of one to five (one being not at all, and five being very much), over 40% of those asked answered that they felt that the series had ‘very much’ developed their own understanding.
It was found that out of those 43%, it was those who repeatedly came to the talks throughout the six weeks who saw the greatest impact, and saw the talks as a series of interconnected themes rather than individual topics. This points towards the deep engagement of a small number of people. This had its advantages in that a dialogue was developed with the attendees, and links could be drawn across the series.
But it also meant that the series did not reach out to as many people as we may have hoped. So, alongside the talks, I wrote a blog post reflecting on each, and emailed it round those who attended. The blogs received over 200 hits by the end of the talks, and the Cathedral audience often wrote or verbally expressed their enjoyment of the blog, and how it had helped them to reflect on the issues raised every Wednesday lunchtime – yet the posts only received one comment.
This talk series therefore generated a traditional exploration of historical and contemporary issues that was to a large extent outside the realms of the Internet and modern technology. The lack of online engagement limited the overall audience reach, and also hampered the ‘co-production of knowledge’, which (for example) a vigorous debate on the blog could have facilitated, as opposed to the straightforward ‘knowledge transfer’ format of the talks.
Yet this lack of engagement on the Internet compared to the engagement at the talks also highlights how digital public history can exclude people – many at the series said it was precisely the ‘face-to-face’ element of the series that they enjoyed. For those who attended the talks, the blog was helpful but was seen as complementary, and certainly not a replacement for the talk itself. Our audience was less interested in taking part in a discussion, and more in finding out things they didn’t know much about.
This series then not only discussed the relationship between religion and law in contemporary and historical perspectives, but also sought to engage with the public about this relationship, and thus to introduce new ideas and topics as well as providing commentary on topics already well known. The audience knew what they wanted, and welcomed the series. As one person wrote on their questionnaire: ‘please continue with this initiative’.