Category Archives: Religion and Theology

Building the Modern Church

“… a powerful contribution to the field of architectural history and religious studies”

Robert Proctor’s book on Roman Catholic Church architecture spanning a critical twenty year period from the mid-1950’s, has been enthusiastically received by architectural historians since its publication in April 2014. Proctor has been praised for the depth and thoroughness of his archival research…

“The book is clearly written, avoiding professional jargon (whether ecclesiastical or architectural), and is well illustrated with black and white and (fewer) colour plates. There is also a useful series of plans. This is an indispensable guide for all those interested in a hitherto little-regarded but extraordinarily rich subject”.

To celebrate the book’s publication, the author took part in a tour organized by the Twentieth Century Society, which visited post-war Roman Catholic churches in West and North West London, all of which featured in the book. A copy of the tour notes is available to Click Here to download

Another important accolade for this book is news that it has been shortlisted for the prestigious Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion, more information about this award and the other shortlisted books can be found on the SAHGB website

Read all the excellent reviews and information on this book, including sample pages by visiting: Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975

Robert Proctor is Senior Lecturer on Architectural History & Theory at the University of Bath, UK.

Sensible Religion? A Reflection by Dan Cohn-Sherbok

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Over the years, Ashgate has  been proud to publish important titles by celebrated authors and editors in the field of Theology. Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, editor of Sensible Religion alongside the Very Revd. Christopher Lewis, here reflects on what is required from Religion in order for it to hold personal significance. 

Several months ago I attended a retirement party for my co-editor, Christopher Lewis at Christ Church, Oxford. Christopher had been the Dean of the College, and a dinner was held in his honour. The former Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History was on our table. After dessert I told him about the book Christopher and I just published with Ashgate. ‘It’s called “Sensible Religion”‘, I said.

He leaned back in his chair and chortled. ‘That’s certainly an oxymoron.’

‘An oxymoron..?’

‘Religion isn’t sensible,’ he said. ‘It transcends ordinary experience. It’s about the supernatural. The stories in the Bible aren’t sensible. Moses parting the Red Sea; Jonah being swallowed by a whale; Jesus ascending into heaven. The 3rd century Church Father Tertullian said he believed in the resurrection because it is impossible.’

That was the end of an otherwise agreeable evening. But the Regius Professor was on the wrong track. What is needed today is not magic or fantasy or the irrational. Religion needs to make sense if it is to be relevant. It must appeal to the mind as well as the heart if it is to have significance in people’s lives.

Our book, which contains contributions from leading religious thinkers from across the world’s major traditions, explores the ways in which religion can enrich the lives of believers. The book is based on the conviction that rational, sensible and sensitive religious belief can be a major force for good in the modern world.

Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok is Professor Emeritus of Judaism at the University of Wales. His co-editor Christopher Lewis is Dean of Christ Church at the University of Oxford. Sensible Religion was published by Ashgate in September 2014.

The Photography for Being a Pilgrim- A Guest Post by Marilyn Deegan

Posted by Corey Boudreau, Sales and Marketing Coordinator

To mark the book’s selection as an Editor’s Choice, Marylin Deegan describes the events which led to the publication of Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago


Being a pilgrimThe photography for Being a Pilgrim actually started many years before the project was ever suggested by Lund Humphries.  In 1992 I travelled to Conques, one of the towns on the pilgrimage route and itself a pilgrimage destination to the abbey church dedicated to St Foy, at the invitation of Kathy Ashley and her collaborator Pamela Sheingorn. Kathy and Pam were working on major studies of the cult of St Foy and asked me to take the photographs to accompany their texts. I was very happy to do so.

In 1992, and on our next trip in 1993, the technology I used was all analogue: a Canon EOS 1000fn film camera with a range of lenses and a tripod. The images were to be captured on both black and white film and on colour slides, which meant going around and photographing everything twice. Being only a keen amateur, I didn’t have dedicated cameras for each type of film. And then of course there was the uncertainty of not knowing if everything had been captured properly: was anything blurred?  Was the light right? The external scenes were fine, but inside, where there was little light, long exposures (a minute or more) had to be used, which introduced a great deal of uncertainty.

In the film world, we had to wait until we got home to see what we had produced. Mostly we worked with black and white film, and so I would get the negatives developed, with 3 sets of contact sheets, one for each of us.  Kathy and Pam worked in two different locations in the US, and I was based in Oxford.  Although we had email, we mostly worked on the images by telephone (‘sheet three, image 32a, middle cropped out and darkened a bit’). Then I got them printed and sent them off by post. The colour slides were less of a problem, and we worked from some of these for the images in Being a Pilgrim.

By the time we were commissioned to produce Being a Pilgrim in 2005/6, technology had moved on and we were using exclusively digital photography for new photography. This had many advantages, the main one being instant review of the pictures: it was transformative knowing straight away if we had or had not got a good shot. However, the digital brought problems as well. The ability to take as many shots as we wanted, from all sorts of angles and at different settings, meant that at the end of 3 years of photography trips we had 4000 images and had to choose just 250. And the 4000 was actually a selection of what we had taken, given that each evening when we were travelling, Kathy and I would review the day’s work and reject any images that were obviously flawed. But working together between the US and Europe was much easier—I would email batches of low resolution images and we would chat about them online or by phone. Knowing that we were looking at the same image at the same time made all the difference. The older images that were on slides were scanned in and edited alongside the newer born digital ones.

There were other problems with the photography—a big one was the weather! We had to travel to a fairly tight schedule to visit all the places we needed to see, and sometimes arrived in fog, mist or rain. Certain scenes were enhanced by a bit of atmosphere, most weren’t. So we did the best we could. Sometimes a shot was impossible and we had to get an important image from elsewhere; the famous chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe perched on top of a steep rock at Le Puy en Velay is a good example. We had to buy an image from Corbis images as the chapel wasn’t even visible the day we were there. Other images that were less than the best they could be because of adverse weather were much improved with Photoshop. Another problem was time of day: sometimes we arrived at a site with only a half day in which to complete that day’s photography and the light wasn’t at the right angle. This necessitated return visits or more Photoshop.

Would I do anything differently now? Well, we finished the photography in 2008, and digital imaging has moved on rapidly. The lens quality and sensitivity of digital cameras are now so good that I can get excellent, publishable images using a handheld semi-professional compact camera like the Canon G15. This would mean for many shots no flash, no tripods, no long exposures, and therefore fewer problems with getting permission to take photographs: there are many churches and museums where cameras are allowed but no flash or tripods. This wouldn’t work everywhere: some very dark interiors needed exposures of a minute or more, with a good deal of post-processing. It would also mean that we might not have to carry so much equipment around: large camera, lenses, tripods, etc.  I’m not sure that the pictures would necessarily be better, but they would be easier to get.


About the Author: Marilyn Deegan is Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College, London. She is a medievalist, and a freelance writer and photographer.

Being a Pilgrim – A Guest Post by Kathleen Ashley

Posted by Corey Boudreau, Sales and Marketing Coordinator

Kathleen AshleyTo mark the book’s selection as an Editor’s Choice, Kathleen Ashley describes the events which led to the publication of Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago


Published books almost always result from years of thought, research and writing; however, when I was asked in 2005 to write a book on the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, I can honestly say that the idea had never crossed my mind. Luckily, I had visited Santiago just the year before – a “holy year,” when the saint’s day July 25 falls on a Sunday. During July of holy years, ceremonies in the cathedral are more frequent than usual and the whole town reverberates with performances of music, dance, drama, and processions. Increased numbers of pilgrims and tourists arrive for the festivities, and the excitement continues night and day. With that Santiago experience still fresh in my memory, I was intrigued by the book request.

Being a pilgrimAlthough the subject of pilgrimage had never been my primary research focus, it did intersect with many of the topics I had written about during my scholarly career. A saint’s shrine was the destination of medieval pilgrimage, and I had written two books and many articles about saints and their cults. Pilgrimages typically attract fervent devotees whose personal goals may be at odds with the structures put in place by church authorities; I had always been fascinated by religious phenomena that depended upon an unstable conjunction of popular energy and official control. In particular, the pilgrimage journey — which included traditional stops at other saints’ shrines and local landmarks – demonstrated ritual practices and popular beliefs; exploring the Santiago pilgrimage between the 9th and the 18th centuries would allow me to test my theories about ritual and learn about the folklore alive on the routes. The promise of following my interests with a new focus on pilgrimage was certainly enough to persuade me to take on the project.

I further realized that the Santiago pilgrimage raised larger issues about how we understand history. Who has not wondered when reading about another time and place what it was like to live then? What did pilgrims experience as they traveled across unfamiliar territories and arrived at the shrine in westernmost Spain? I decided to make the pilgrim experience my unifying theme in Being a Pilgrim. I would organize the book by examining the legends of the saint that attracted pilgrims, the individual preparations (both material and ritual) for such an arduous trip, as well as the social infrastructures across Europe that enabled thousands of pilgrims to travel far from home. Imagining them en route, I tried to include the kinds of sights they would have seen – from religious buildings and art to new cities and challenging landscapes – and stories both new and familiar they would have heard. Finally, their arrival in Santiago was surely an exciting culmination of the pilgrimage, with dazzling rituals and festivity in and around the cathedral. To bring the experiences of individuals alive, I could use the many pilgrim narratives produced throughout Europe between the 12th and the 18th centuries.

Once my central concept for the book and a general outline of the nine chapters was accepted by the publishers, the next stage was research and planning for the photography trips along the main pilgrimage routes through France and Spain. I took the trips with my photographer-friend Marilyn Deegan, whose 250 color photos are no doubt the most memorable part of the book. Our travel adventures and the challenges of matching text and image will be the subjects of another blog.


About the Author: Professor Kathleen Ashley teaches at the University of Southern Maine and has published widely on medieval popular culture, hagiography and cultural history.

A fresh view of religion and society in the Diocese of St Davids since the Reformation

This is a guest post from Professor William Gibson, Oxford Brookes University, editor of Religion and Society in the Diocese of St Davids 1485–2011


The post-Reformation diocese of St Davids may not at first sight seem a particularly prepossessing topic for a collection of essays. The city of St Davids, with a population of just 1,600 today, lies over seventy miles west of Swansea in beautiful but remote countryside. The diocese of which it is the capital spread over much of south Wales until it was divided in the 1920s. But however remote and distant from the metropolitan centres of England and Wales it was, the diocese was a religious crucible in the post-Reformation centuries. Despite being the place from which Henry Tudor invaded the country in 1485, and in which some Tudor ancestors were buried, St Davids did not avoid the turbulence of the Reformation. Robert Ferrar, bishop in 1555, was burnt in Carmarthen for his stubborn Protestantism. In the following century the diocese was the home of the translation into Welsh of the Prayerbook, for five years it was part of William Laud’s high church ‘laboratory’ as bishop and the source of Rhys Pritchard’s highly influential hymns, Cannwyll y Cymry.

Perhaps more astonishing is how the diocese became the home for three major religious movements: the Welsh Puritan movement of the seventeenth century, the evangelical ‘revival’ of the eighteenth century which made Wales the stronghold of Calvinistic Methodism for two centuries and (in addition to a string of minor revivals in the nineteenth century), the 1904-5 Evan Roberts revival. The reason why the people of South Wales became so committed to revival is unclear but the enthusiasm for them and the effect they had on the lives of the poor has perhaps been underestimated. Equally underestimated is the interest that ordinary people in Wales took in theology and theological differences. Even today many Welsh villages have three, four or five chapels of different denominations; in the past this meant that tradition, teaching, family and other ties drew the past one chapel to worship at another. It is one of the condescensions of history to assume that, in the past, matters of theology and religious ideas were ‘beyond’ the reach of most people. In fact the diocese was home to a long succession of distinguished theologians (Jeremy Taylor, George Bull, Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris, Connop Thirwall, Rowland Williams ). It also housed a series of significant theological institutions: Trefecca College, the United Theological College at Aberystwyth, the Carmarthen Academy, the Memorial College at Brecon and St David’s College, Lampeter. It probably offered more theological educational opportunities than any area in the rest of Britain.

One of the ways in which Welshmen and women identified with their religious and political traditions was through the celebration of St Davids Day and in the nineteenth century, as mass participation in public events grew, the day and the saint were appropriated by all sorts of religious and political groups keen to demonstrate their popularity and association with Wales through celebration of St Davids Day. So groups of all political, social and religious complexion wrapped themselves in the black and yellow flag of St Davids.

In such an environment, disestablishment of the Anglican Church became a ‘project’ of the Nonconformist churches and the Liberal Party. Like other aspects of Welsh history it has become the source of many myths. One of which is to overlook that, despite other claims, the true architect of the new Church in Wales was Bishop John Owen of St Davids –who even came up with the name ‘Church in Wales.’

Religion and society in St DavidsAll these themes, and more, are the subject of essays in Religion and Society of the Diocese of St Davids 1485-2011, edited by John Morgan-Guy and me. And the story is brought up to date with a final essay on the diocese since 1926, surveying the bishops and the principal changes in the area in the last century.

Professor William Gibson, Oxford Brookes University


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Sara Khan on the battle for British Islam

Following the attacks in Paris last week, one of the contributors to our book Sensible Religion, Sara Khan, spoke on the BBC Panorama programme ‘The Battle for British Islam’. The programme is available to UK viewers on BBC iPlayer.

Sara Khan is Director and Co-Founder of Inspire, a non-governmental advocacy organisation (NGO) working to counter extremism and gender inequality. Her chapter in Sensible Religion is entitled “Retrieving the equilibrium and Restoring Justice: Using islam’s egalitarian teachings to Reclaim women’s Rights”.

The chapter examines Islam’s teachings on women’s rights and the purpose of shariah as a dynamic and sophisticated process for establishing equilibrium, securing justice and serving the public interest. It also explores the dominance of a literal decontextualized and patriarchal interpretation of Islam’s religious texts which has influenced sections of Muslim thought. It outlines the historical and contemporary reality of some Muslims, in manipulating and misusing Islam for their own authority whether political, economic or social to those Muslims who through the combined use of modern day Islamic law and international human rights law have secured the rights of Muslim women.

Read the full text of the chapter in Sensible Religion here.