Professor Alan Gilbert

It is with great sadness that British Religion in Numbers records the death of Professor Alan David Gilbert in hospital in Manchester on 27 July, having suffered from a serious illness for the last few months. He was just 65 years of age.

In recent times, Alan has perhaps been best-known as an outstanding academic leader, not least from his service as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania (1991-95), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne (1996-2004) and inaugural President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester from 2004 until his retirement on 30 June 2010.

But for many of us, Alan will be best remembered as one of a new generation of social historians, others being the likes of Hugh McLeod and Jim Obelkevich, who, during the 1970s, revolutionized research and writing on what had hitherto been traditionally-conceived and narrowly-focused church history.

In Alan’s case, an important tool of the revolution was the application of (relatively simple) quantitative methods. This was admirably demonstrated in his 1973 University of Oxford DPhil thesis, completed at Nuffield College, entitled ‘The Growth and Decline of Nonconformity in England and Wales, with Special Reference to the Period Before 1850: An Historical Interpretation of Statistics of Religious Practice’. This must be one of the most frequently-cited Oxford Arts theses ever.

Some of the thesis was reworked into an acclaimed and still widely-referenced book on Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change, 1740-1914 (London: Longman, 1976). Simultaneously, Alan was collaborating with Robert Currie, his former doctoral supervisor, on a major religious statistics project funded by the then Social Science Research Council. This gave rise to Robert Currie, Alan Gilbert and Lee Horsley, Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles Since 1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

Alan had left Oxford in 1973 to pursue a career at the University of New South Wales. As he worked his way up the academic ladder, from Lecturer to Pro-Vice-Chancellor, his time for original academic research was inevitably squeezed. But, in addition to working on Australian history, he continued to produce the occasional essay or article on British religious history and, in 1980, a thought-provoking book, The Making of Post-Christian Britain: A History of the Secularization of Modern Society (London: Longman), of which this writer was (in retrospect) perhaps too critical in a review for the October 1982 issue of English Historical Review.

It was no more than a happy coincidence when, in 2007, one of Alan’s Manchester colleagues, Professor David Voas of the Institute for Social Change, was awarded a large grant from the Religion and Society Programme of the Arts and Humanities and Economic and Social Research Councils to launch what has become British Religion in Numbers.  

However, apprised of Manchester’s success in winning this project funding, Alan took a keen interest in our progress. In particular, he was extremely helpful in securing the copyright permissions which have enabled British Religion in Numbers to mount on the project website the complete statistical tables from Churches and Churchgoers. These can be found at:

http://www.brin.ac.uk/figures/#ChurchesandChurchgoers

Alan’s illness and tragically early death, literally weeks after handing over the reins at The University of Manchester, deprived him of any retirement whatsoever. Scholarship will be the poorer for losing out on the new research and writing to which Alan would doubtless have devoted his energies.

At a personal level, much of my own preoccupation (some might doubtless say obsession) with the quantification of religion has been inspired by Alan’s pioneering work. My files still contain my notes on the seminar he and Currie gave at Nuffield College on 9 March 1972 on ‘Patterns of Religious Activity in England in the Nineteenth Century’, which energized me to seek out statistical evidence for my own doctoral topic.


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One Response to Professor Alan Gilbert

  1. David Voas says:

    When I first began to take an interest in religious statistics at the end of the 1990s, I wrote to Hugh McLeod to ask him where to look. His answer was brief: Churches and Churchgoers. Even now, nearly a quarter of a century after publication, it is the single best book on British religion in numbers. If half of the reason to create BRIN was the desire to update and make accessible the work that Clive Field and colleagues produced for Reviews of UK Statistical Sources: Volume XX – Religion, the other half was an urge to build on what Currie, Gilbert and Horsley achieved.

    As important as it is, this work will only be mentioned in passing in most obituaries. Alan Gilbert accomplished so much as a scholar, university leader and person that his achievements, when passed in review, crowd each out.

    I was delighted to discover, shortly before I joined the University of Manchester, that the mysterious author whose work I found in the library would return from the other side of the world to become its president and vice chancellor. Others will record the contribution that he made to the institution; I can only add that he played a key role in setting up the Institute for Social Change, and without the investment that he initiated it is very likely that BRIN would be based elsewhere.

    Although Alan Gilbert undoubtedly had the charismatic authority necessary to lead a large institution, he was a calm and friendly presence in meetings and informal encounters. I was invited last year to present some research at a conference of the university governors, and when everyone else had left he stayed behind to discuss religious statistics. It closed the circle that opened for me a decade earlier when I started my work by studying his.

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