Church History as a Guild

Elesha Coffman

It's commonplace to refer to one's corner of the academic world as "the guild." I've been thinking about that designation since the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, at which the relationship between ASCH and the American Historical Association came up for discussion. In what ways does ASCH function like a guild? In what ways might it function more like one? And what is its relationship to other guilds?

According to Wikipedia, because, yes, I do know that little about the history of guilds, this form of organization combines elements of a professional association, a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. There's not enough money involved in church history for it to qualify as a cartel, so I'll confine my musings to the other three types.

The main task of a professional association is to set standards. Think of the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association. You don't get to practice medicine or law unless the relevant professional association signs off on your training and your credentials. If you practice medicine or law badly enough, the professional association might step in to make you stop.

ASCH doesn't quite work this way. One does not have to attend an ASCH-accredited school or pass an ASCH exam to "practice" church history. Instead, our various PhD-granting institutions control our training and certification. ASCH sort of sets standards for the field through the journal Church History and at conferences, in the sense that any work presented in these venues has been deemed by an ASCH-affiliated authority (the journal editors, the program committee) to be legitimate, praiseworthy church history. ASCH can't revoke anybody's license, though. On a practical level, if someone trained as a church historian publishes elsewhere, or attends a different conference, or doesn't pay her ASCH membership dues, her career prospects might not be affected. The fortunes of the society, by contrast, are affected rather significantly by these choices.

A trade union is also concerned about how its members are trained and whether their work maintains quality standards, but it is best known for advocacy in the area of working conditions. Trade unions seek for their members better pay, fairer contracts, safer facilities, and more generous benefits.

ASCH doesn't work this way, either. The American Association of University Professors engages in this kind of advocacy. Many of the larger, subject-specific organizations, such as the Modern Language Association, American Academy of Religion, and the AHA, also keep an eye on working conditions, but they don't have much leverage. (For example, the fact that saddling composition instructors with 125 students per semester violates all kinds of MLA guidelines didn't deter Arizona State University.) I'm not aware of ASCH engaging in this area. We members grumble and sympathize about working conditions, but there wasn't a single session at the most recent meeting on a career management topic, let alone anything smacking of advocacy.

I don't want to minimize the value of grumbling and sympathy. If the ASCH doesn't much resemble a secret society, my third aspect of a guild, it is nonetheless a society--sometimes likened to a congregation--that fosters supportive relationships, promotes mentoring, and enables personal and professional networking. Maybe that's the best a small academic society can do. If so, it needs to lean on a larger organization, or band together with several small ones, to achieve critical mass for standard-setting, workplace advocacy, and networking beyond the congregation.

The background for these musings was the proposal floated at the ASCH business meeting to stop holding the big annual meeting in conjunction with the AHA every January and instead shift sessions to the ASCH spring meeting. The proposal raises all sorts of logistical issues but also brings to the surface deeper questions about the role and capabilities of the ASCH. The framework of the guild might not be helpful for thinking through these questions, but discussions are ongoing, and we who consider the ASCH an intellectual home need to come up with some answers. I welcome comments here or by e-mail.


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