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Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

Who are the new publics for the work we do in Religious Studies?

Jonathan Tuckett of the Religious Studies Project attended our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives conference in February, armed with an iPhone. Drawing from the themes of the conference, he came up with some (difficult) questions to ask the attendees – including our students Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson, and Lecturers Marion Bowman, David Robertson and Suzanne Newcombe.

If you missed it, watch part 1 here.

Conference Announcement | Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances

Kents Hill, Milton Keynes | February 19-21, 2018


Themes | Education, Media, Pilgrimage, Politics, Ritual, Spirituality

Keynote Speakers | Bettina Schmidt, Philip Williamson, Steven Sutcliffe

At a time when the public role of the University is under increasing scrutiny, how can we ensure that research and teaching about religions reaches new publics? What can we do to enhance religious literacy both within and beyond religious and non-religious communities? How is ritual and performance involved in communication between religious communities, the academy, policy makers and the broader public? Are there ways in which we can learn from the past in better understanding such channels of communication?

Bringing historical perspective to the contemporary role of religion in the public sphere, this conference will include contributions from practitioners and third-sector organisations, who bring their perspectives to the academy to consider the public impact of Religious Studies.

The Open University invites proposals for papers and panels. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Secular and political rituals
  • Faith-based organisations in the secular state
  • Religious rhetoric in the public sphere
  • The changing historical relationship between religion and the state
  • Ritual theory
  • Religion and the Media
  • Spirituality and well-being
  • Religious literacy, education and policy-making
  • The role of inter-faith groups
  • Pilgrimage
  • Secularisation
  • Historical case-studies on religion, performance and the public

Full Call for Papers here, or visit

Abstracts (200 words) should be submitted to by 30th October 2017. Papers will be 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for discussion. The organisers also welcome proposals for panels. Panels will be 90 minutes, normally including three papers. Panel proposals should include panel title, abstracts for each paper and the name of the convener/chair. We also welcome proposals and suggestions for alternative and innovative formats.

Deadline for paper/panel submissions: 30th October 2017

Notification of acceptance of papers/panels: by 15th November 2017

Online registration for conference open from: 30th October 2017

For any enquiries, please contact the Conference Organisers Paul-François Tremlett and David G. Robertson on

A Harvest of Fieldwork

As I recover from another academic conference, and contemplate the news that I’ve been awarded university funding to go full-time on my PhD here with the Open University, I’m looking back over an epic summer. This was my first sustained fieldwork experience after a number of exploratory visits to sites in previous years.Theo article

My research project investigates diverse, post-lineage forms of modern yoga practice, in some unusual environments. My focus is in part the practice itself – what it looks like and how it is experienced – but also the culture that sustains it. Mostly, that means immersing myself in a series of camps and small festivals held over the rather short British summer. It’s a culture I knew already a little, but this summer took my understanding of my subject, and the process of fieldwork itself, to a whole new level.

Continue reading

On the death of a guru

Celebrating arti at the recently opened Swaminarayan BAPS Mandir in Preston

Celebrating arti at the recently opened Swaminarayan BAPS Mandir in Preston

On the 13th of August 2016, Pramukh Swami, the President and guru of the transnational Hindu movement Swaminarayan BAPS, died in his 95th year. Just over two weeks earlier, I had been doing a recce in the Swaminarayan BAPS Mandir (temple) in Preston for a film sequence we are making for our latest module (Exploring Religion). The devotion of members of the community to their guru was evident in almost everything they said.  Even more poignant in the light of events was their hope that, although Pramukh Swami had been in poor health for some years, they would yet have the joy of celebrating his 100th birthday in five years’ time.

I only learnt of Pramukh Swami’s death when the community contacted us to postpone the actual filming. What struck me almost immediately was that I had not learnt of this through the British media. Still in the media’s so-called  ‘silly season’ during the peak holiday period and the summer recess of parliament, I checked with several people closely involved in the study of religions, but none  recollected having seen or heard any mention of Pramukh Swami’s death in the British media. Newspapers in India, of course, were full of the news of the death of this major Hindu personality. I did come across tweets of condolence from a few British politicians, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and later found an appreciation of Pramukh Swami’s life by Mark Tully (dated 29th August) in the online Guardian. But I waited in vain for wider coverage in the British media, other than in outlets specifically designed to serve British Asian communities such as Asian Image and Eastern Eye.

The British Hindu community, although often said to lack the media profile of some other religious groups in Britain, is a large and active one. Swaminarayan BAPS is currently the most dynamic strand of the Swaminarayan tradition with a highly visible presence in Britain because of its flagship mandir in Neasden (inspired by Pramukh Swami). Pramukh Swami, who had led Swaminarayan BAPS as President (from 1950) and then guru since 1971, had a global standing, and not just because of his temple-building, which had earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Just as many Britons now have known no monarch other than Queen Elizabeth II, who came to the throne in 1952, so too, many Swaminarayan BAPS devotees have lived their whole lives under the inspiration and guidance of this one guru.

The limited interest shown by the media in Britain in the death of Pramukh Swami, an event of monumental significance for a large number of British Hindus, is surely revealing. Not about ISIS nor the wearing of burqas nor about gender and sexual politics in the Church of England, perhaps his death simply was not deemed ‘newsworthy’? Odd, really, when accounts of transgressions by gurus in India have previously found their way into British newspapers, although these gurus have had far less impact on British society than Pramukh Swami.


[I have delayed this blog as it would have been inappropriate to post this kind of reflection in the days immediately after the death of Pramukh Swami, although this is the period to which the blog refers.]

Gwilym Beckerlegge

IHR Modern Religious History seminar

Some of you may be aware of the Modern Religious History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, which is convened by two members of the department – John Wolffe and John Maiden. The autumn series has now been confirmed, below.


Modern Religious History seminar

Autumn term, 2016-17

The seminar is held in the Olga Crisp room (N102) at the IHR, at 5.15pm. We usually go for drinks, followed by dinner, after the talk.

2 November – Dr Roland Quinault (IHR): Gladstone and the Roman Catholic converts.

16 November – Dr Andrew Holmes (Queen’s, Belfast): The United Kingdom as an Ulster-Scottish project: Presbyterianism, literature, and politics in the nineteenth century.

30 November – Dr Michael Ledger-Lomas (KCL): Faith and scholarship in Victorian England: Henry Wace and the Dictionary of Christian Biography (1877-87).

14 December – Dr Uta Balbier (KCL) “Praying for Billy”: religious practice and the shaping of a transnational evangelical community during the Billy Graham Crusades, 1950-1960.



BASR 2016!!

A very strong OU Religious Studies presence at BASR Conference this year: four faculty, four PhD students and 2 former PhD students. All taking a very active part in proceedings, giving papers, chairing round table discussions, etc.BASR 2016

Apply for fully-funded PhD studentships at the OU

To mark the launch of our Graduate School in October 2016, The Open University is making a strategic investment in up to 30 PhD studentships. As part of this initiative, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is keen to receive applications for studentships in history/historical studies or sociology (both broadly defined to include historical and/or sociological approaches to any area of the Arts and Social Sciences). Open University Graduate School PhD studentships will cover full fees and stipend (currently £14,057 p.a.) for 3 years commencing October 2016 (or shortly thereafter). Applications are invited from both UK and EU citizens for full-time study.

Specialist expertise in religious history in the Religious Studies department at the OU includes evangelical and charismatic movements in the 19th and 20th century North Atlantic world, modern Hinduism, historical approaches to religious conflict, and the history of pilgrimage.

You can find out more information here –