2007-08 Conferences: The Church and the Afterlife

Theme for 2007-08: The Church and the Afterlife

University of Leicester, 18-21 July 2007

London, 12 January 2008

Death, despite advances in medical science, is still something experienced by 100% of the population. What happens afterwards, if there is an afterwards, is one of life’s great conundrums. For Christians, and for the Church in all its branches, belief in the afterlife, and an eventual Last Judgement, is a basic component of the faith, and therefore raises questions which cannot be avoided or evaded. What happens at death? Where do the dead go?  What happens to them there? Even more important for the living: Can anything be done in this life to prepare for the next? How (if it is even possible) can the living influence their fates to ensure a successful transit through the afterlife and a favourable judgement at the Day of Doom?

Over the centuries, the Church and its members have wrestled with such issues. The afterlife has acquired its own geography, with the division between Heaven and Hell, and the interpolation of Purgatory among Catholics. Christians have developed strategies for eternity, seeking to ameliorate divine wrath through prayer and charitable deeds, or throw themselves wholly on divine mercy by adopting a theology of justification through faith (alone or not). Visionaries have had glimpses of the hereafter; ghosts, and saints, have returned from the lands of the dead to warn and exhort. In its institutional history, the Church has had to sell its image of the afterlife in processes of conversion, and respond to the threat of rival understandings.

Even from this simple summary, it is clear that ‘The Church and the Afterlife’ has considerable potential as a theme for an EHS conference, with wide application in both time and space. It is, however, important to note that this is not a conference about ‘The Church and Death’, but about what happens after death. Chronologically, the theme can range from the Visionary of Patmos – or even the Harrowing of Hell – to the current debate about the existence of Limbo, taking in en route the emergence of Purgatory, its later rejection (by some) at the Reformation, the rise of Victorian spiritualism, and a host of other evolutions. In terms of terrestrial geography, the theme tempts movement away from the Church’s traditional European heartland, to consider the significance of the Christian approach to the afterlife in missionary contexts, the encounter with alternative views in societies and cultures with their own ideas of the life after death (such as China), and experiences in colonial America and Africa. With comparisons and contrasts over time and space, there is plenty of scope for stimulating papers and equally stimulating discussions, to produce a lively and rewarding conference.

Main Speakers for the Summer Conference:

R.N. Swanson (Birmingham), Leslie Brubaker (Birmingham), David Bagchi (Hull), Paul Rule (Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco), Mike Snape (Birmingham)

Speakers for the Winter Meeting:

Frances Young (Birmingham), Clive Burgess (Royal Holloway), Paul Gifford (SOAS)

Robert Swanson

President-Elect for 2007-8

For the programme of the Summer Conference, click here.

The resulting volume was published as Peter Clarke and Tony Claydon, eds, The Church, the Afterlife and the Fate of the Soul, SCH45 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009).