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Full-time AHRC Postgraduate Studentship in Religious Studies

From Sunday Schools to Christian Education: The Christian Formation of Contemporary Youth in Historical Perspective


This three-year, full-time funded studentship, tenable from 1 October 2008, is being offered by the Religious Studies Department of The Open University in collaboration with Christian Education. It is funded through a collaborative studentship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under the Youth section of the joint AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme.

The project will

  • Significantly enhance knowledge of historical processes that were central to English religion and society in the twentieth century, and hence to the context of organized Christianity today.

  • Develop a balanced academic understanding of Christian formation among young people in the contemporary churches.

  • Pioneer an understanding of the ways in which historical analysis and contemporary practice can inform each other.

The collaborative framework will be essential in enabling you to gain a balanced understanding of contemporary concerns and challenges, in establishing the foundation of trust necessary for effective fieldwork, and in ensuring that the outcomes are of genuine interest and applicability to current and future practice.

Partner Institutions

Religious Studies Department, The Open University

The Religious Studies Department at The Open University (OU) is one of seven departments in the Arts Faculty. It is committed to the scholarly and objective study of religion, through both teaching and research. Research in Religious Studies at the OU focuses on contemporary religion and modern religious history (since c.1800). It spans a variety of traditions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism, modern ‘integrative’ spirituality) and employs complementary approaches (historical, ethnological, sociological, psychological) and methodologies (e.g. archival research, qualitative fieldwork, quantitative surveys). The geographical spread of expertise is broad, including Australasia, North America, India and Japan, as well as Britain, Ireland and continental Europe (especially Italy and Serbia). Particular strengths include contemporary spiritualities; Protestant Evangelicalism; religion and locality; civil religion, identities and citizenship. There is a developing interest in religion in material, visual and performance culture.

There are currently 6 full-time and 10 part-time students registered for research degrees in the Religious Studies Department.

Christian Education

Christian Education (CE) provides advice, resources and opportunities for teaching and learning in the school, the church and the family group, carrying forward the work of the National Christian Education Council (NCEC, formerly the National Sunday School Union) and the Christian Education Movement (CEM). The two organisations are now joined together to maximise their delivery of high quality training and resources for Christian educators and for teachers of Religious Education in schools. Christian Education is an active partner in Roots, publishing fresh materials every two months. Additionally Christian Education publishes other one-off materials for use in Christian youth work as well as for children’s work in the churches. As such the organisation sustains an involvement in children’s and youth work networks across the churches particularly those sponsored by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. This ongoing work will provide an active set of contacts and introductions for the research studentship to reflect on the myriad opportunities for children and young people currently available through the Christian churches.


The Study


The aims of the study are these:

  • To promote effective working relations between academic researchers, and a cluster of organizations promoting formation of Christian faith among contemporary youth

  • To develop a successful interdisciplinary engagement between History and Religious Studies

  • To provide a strong historical perspective for the evaluation of the impact of Christianity on young people today, and hence on the wider society

  • To inform current and future practice and policy in Christian education by encouraging practitioners (and those in training) effectively to apply insights drawn from history.

  • To offer an innovative and wide-ranging training and learning experience to a new researcher

  • To disseminate findings to a wide academic and non-academic audience.


The project will be designed to:

  • Enhance understanding of the reasons for the past success and more recent collapse of the Sunday School movement

  • Apply this knowledge in a constructively critical evaluation of the current activities and impact of Christian Education, its associated organizations and selected individual churches

  • Contribute to addressing fundamental programme questions, particularly
    (a) assessing the implications of changes in religious structures
    (b) considering how religion has in the past, can in the present, and might in the future, play a constructive role in the welfare of societies.

Intellectual Issues and Problems

The decline and eventual collapse of the Sunday School movement is one of the most conspicuous but under-researched trends in the religious and social history of twentieth-century England. It has been estimated that in 1901 over 75% of children between the ages of 5 and 14 were registered at a Sunday School. The Sunday School Union (later National Christian Education Council), of which Christian Education is the organizational ‘descendant’, reported in 1910 that it was linked to over 1.6 million children and young people in England and Wales. By 1965 that figure had declined to 427,000 and then in a mere seven years there was a further 37% drop to 272,000 in 1972. In 1979 even an internal document acknowledged that the movement was in its death throes. Such an eclipse within the lifetimes of some of the children who had attended in the first decade of the century demands thorough explanation and its long-term implications merit careful assessment. To date, however, historical analysis of this process has been limited: for example, the only published book-length survey (Cliff, 1986) provides a valuable narrative background but lacks analytical depth; Rosman (2007) raises important questions, but lacks the space to explore them in any detail.

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century are proving fertile in new initiatives and activities designed to communicate Christian faith to children and young people. (Large and small minorities in contemporary British religious life also provide other models, for example the Islamic madrassahs, which will provide further context for this project, although it is not envisaged that they will be studied in detail.) Such efforts are however limited in their scale and impact and are focused primarily on the offspring of a minority committed adult constituency. In the light of the past scale of the Sunday School movement, it seems pertinent to assess whether such relative marginalization has to be accepted as an inevitable consequence of secularization, or whether there remains unrealized potential for the Christian churches to play a wider role in the socialization of a larger cross-section of young people. Recent research prompted by the Anglican Church Mission Shaped Church project (Savage, Collins-Mayo et al, 2006) has suggested that young people need both time and space to develop basic formative spirituality and that churches cannot assume that young people are spiritual seekers. Historically the Sunday Schools were most successful when they offered a range of activities and services going well beyond the specifically religious. Savage, Collins-Mayo et al (2006) and Withers (2006) both suggest that the church may be more successful in attracting young people if it is more accepting of their culture, values and lifestyles. Using the focussed case-study of the Sunday School Union/National Christian Education Council, this project will ask: what is the potential for their successors to break out of the ‘ghetto’ of organized religion, and were they do so, how can it be ensured that their impact will be a constructive rather than divisive one?

Approach and Working Methods

The project will combine tightly focused historical archival and library research, with study of the contemporary situation through analysis of printed literature, observation of working methods, and fieldwork in a few selected churches. You will employ your research time in three main ways:

  1. Study of the Sunday School Union/National Christian Education Council archive deposited in Birmingham University Library, concentrating on understanding the dynamics and impact of the movement at two critical short periods in its history, its apogee (c.1905-10) and its final steep decline (c.1965-72).

  2. Work in the Christian Education offices in Selly Oak, Birmingham, analyzing current and recent literature, shadowing staff, observing meetings, and thereby gaining an understanding of current activities and organizational strategies.

  3. Fieldwork in selected churches using Christian Education literature, to be identified in consultation with both academic and non-academic supervisors. Such fieldwork will involve in particular observation and interviews.

The diversity of methodologies will give you a rich and varied research training. Moreover we anticipate extensive potential for cross-fertilization between different aspects of the project: for example historic and contemporary literature can be compared; an understanding of decision-making in a contemporary religious organization can inform analysis of the ‘dry bones’ of past minute books; fieldwork interviews can be conducted not only with young people to gather information on the contemporary situation, but with their parents and grandparents to gather oral history evidence relating to historical developments.

Cliff, P. B. (1986) The Rise and Development of the Sunday School Movement in England 1790-1980 Redhill: National Christian Education Council.

Rosman. D. (2007), ‘Sunday Schools and Social Change in the Twentieth Century’, pp.149-160 in S.Orchard and J.H.Y. Briggs, The Sunday School Movement: Studies in the Growth and Decline of Sunday Schools, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

Savage, S, S. Collins-Mayo, B. Mayo, G, Cray (2006) Making Sense of Generation Y: the world view of 15-25-year-olds. London: Church House Publishing.

Withers, M. (2006) Mission-shaped Children London: Church House Publishing.


Throughout the project you will be encouraged to integrate the historical and contemporary aspects, through a concentration in turn on organizational strategy, printed literature, and reception/impact.

Oct 2008 - March 2009 (based in Milton Keynes). Induction, initial training and literature survey. Induction to Christian Education; exploratory visits to Birmingham University Library archives.

April – Sept 2009 (thereafter based in Birmingham) Assessment of organizational strategies through study of historic minutes and observation of contemporary activities.

Oct 2009 – March 2010 Evaluation and comparison of contemporary and historic published literature.

March – Sept 2010 Church-based fieldwork to gather evidence on contemporary and recent impact; library research to evaluate historic picture.

Oct 2010 – Sept 2011 Although you will be encouraged from the outset to draft material and develop writing skills, the whole of the final year will be committed primarily to writing up the project, filling in the inevitable lacunae in research and developing a mature judgement of the wider significance of the material gathered.

Dissemination and Outcomes

In addition to your PhD thesis, you will be encouraged throughout to work towards eventual publication of results in academic journals and also to offer shorter and more accessible reports in a form valuable to Christian Education’s practitioner constituency. Christian Education’s well-respected journal, the British Journal of Religious Education will, subject to normal peer review processes, provide an ideal channel of dissemination to both academic and practitioner constituencies.


You will participate in the University’s doctoral training workshops, which are based on the generic training pack U501 Doing Postgraduate Research. and other institutional training events run by the Research School. A more focussed training programme will take place in the Faculty of Arts where the Religious Studies Department is based.


Stipend, expenses and facilities

The AHRC will fund all your tuition fees and your maintenance grant will be paid to you by the OU at the national standard level (£12,940 in 2007-08). Christian Education will make an additional contribution of £1,000 annually to your maintenance. Your training and approved project related costs will be covered.

Project Supervisors

The supervisors at the OU will be Prof John Wolffe and Dr Helen Waterhouse. Professor Wolffe has published widely on modern Religious History. He has analysed religious change in twentieth-century Britain in various publications, including God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland (London:Routledge, 1994) and ‘Religion and “Secularization” ‘ in Francesca Carnevali and Julie-Marie Strange, eds Twentieth-Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change (2nd edition, Harlow: Pearson, 2007). In The Expansion of Evangelicalism (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006) he has discussed the earlier history of the Sunday School movement.

Dr Waterhouse’s research interests are focussed on contemporary religion, principally Buddhism in the UK. She has an ongoing research project on children and young people in the Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai International–UK which is investigating the religious formation of children in a tradition other than Christianity.

The supervisor at Christian Education will be the Chief Executive Peter Fishpool. Mr Fishpool is qualified in and has practised in work with children and young people in the churches throughout his working life. He will provide his own engaged perspective from which to test reflection and analysis.


It is essential that the successful candidate:

  • has a masters degree in a cognate discipline (which is likely to be, but is not limited to Religious Studies, History, Theology, Religious Education, Youth Work), or excellent progress towards a masters degree

  • has experience of studying primary source material

  • is willing and able to undertake fieldwork after appropriate training

  • is willing and able to work within the Religious Studies Department’s non-confessional ethos

  • will be able to obtain Criminal Records Bureau clearance to work with children and young people

In addition, it is desirable that the successful candidate has

  • some experience of working with children and young people

  • an understanding of current issues in Christian education

Research Degree Study at The Open University
For generic information on The Open University’s research degree programme please see the prospectus, which can be downloaded from http://www.open.ac.uk/research/research-degrees/index.php or is obtainable in hardcopy through Marie-Claire Leroux (see below)

Informal enquiries may be made to Professor Wolffe (j.r.wolffe@open.ac.uk) or Dr Waterhouse (h.j.waterhouse@open.ac.uk).

Please apply on the standard research degree application form, downloadable from http://www.open.ac.uk/research/research-degrees/index.php. (For a hardcopy please call Marie-Claire Leroux, Religious Studies Department Co-ordinator on 01908 652032 or e-mail her m.leroux@open.ac.uk) With the application form please enclose
a) a covering letter (up to two sides of A4) explaining how your previous experience and current interests make you a suitable candidate for this studentship;
b) a sample of recent written work (eg a portion of an MA thesis) of up to 5,000 words.

Closing date 13 June 2008. Interviews will be held on 3 July 2008

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