Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 10: Issues for the teaching of Church history, and religious education that hopes to develop pupils' historical perspective on the development of the Christian church
This practical section looks at some of the issues that inform the teaching of Church history across the religion curriculum. And it considers how religious education might help develop in pupils some understanding historical perspective on how the church has changed and developed since you Testament times.

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section

1. Introductory video giving an introduction to the content covered in this section. Click the icon or here to view the introductory video in streaming mp4 format. Or right click if you want to download the video using the "save link" option

Brief overview of content of this section

Some teachers are finding that they have a difficult time trying to engage students with the study of any history. So it is likely that they would find the teaching of church history are rather daunting topic.

This section argues the case as to why some panoramic understanding of how the Christian church has developed over the centuries would be a valuable component in the education of young people today – whether formally religious or not.

The rest of the section is primarily practical in orientation, presenting some areas of teaching, pedagogies and resource materials that might be used for teaching some aspects of church history across the religion curriculum.

It will be pointed out that taking an historical perspective within classroom pedagogy can be particularly useful for teaching a whole range of religious topics E.g. The rosary, angels and devils, the historical Jesus, etc.

Audio lecture mp3 file of this section

2. The audio file lecture
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This presents the content for this section -- the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture (15 minutes) will refer every now and again to particular parts of the accompanying text below that will easily be identified -- here you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text. At times you will also need to pause the audio to look at particular sub-presentations such as video clips and powerpoint presentations. The audio lecture and the text go together.

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture)

Teaching church history across the religion curriculum
Why study church history in religious education?
The need for a core of church history across the religion curriculum
How much and what sort of church history?
Teaching strategies and lesson planning for teaching church history
The use of resources that illustrate key issues for the teaching of church history
Resource 1: Church history for Junior/Mid secondary students. From St Paul to the early Middle Ages
Resource 2: An example study of power and authority in the Medieval Papacy

Resource 3: How historical perspective can be a useful teaching strategy for covering topics in theology and scripture -- and not just with church history (Angels and devils; the Rosary)

Teaching Church History across the religion curriculum

The greatest stimulus to progress and belief in the future
is knowledge and understanding of a past.
John Boardman, The Oxford History of the Classical World

Not to know what took place before you were born is to remain forever a child.

Pope John XXIII regarded History "as the teacher of life".  His own study as a Church historian made him conscious that the Church has always been in a state of flux.  Hence, for him there was no fear of change.  Only those who were ignorant of Church History, he claimed, could think of the Church as a static institution resistant to change.

A study of Church history is only one part of religious education.  However, it is an essential part.  A balanced understanding of the development of the Church and its role in the world is crucial in young people's education.  Too often, disenchanted students believe the Church to be an outmoded institution impervious to their needs and incapable of constructive change.  They seem to have a half-expressed, amorphous idea of a Church which came into existence after Christ's death and which has changed little since then.  To bring the story of Christianity to life for students means involving them in the study of an evolving community of believers and saints, sinners, great thinkers, writers, musicians, artisans and artists who contributed to a heritage that has shaped Western civilisation.

This first part of the section will try to answer three questions about an important place for Church history in Catholic school religious education:-

  • 1.  Why study Church history?
  • 2.  The need for a core of Church history across the religion curriculum.
  • 3.  How Much and What Sort of Church History?

1.  Why Study Church History in Religious Education?

The teaching of Church History should try to give students a panoramic view of the history of the Church.  This can help them learn to understand how and why the Church has changed over its 2000 year history.  This can hopefully let them see the changing role of Christianity in society as it responded to the needs of people through the ages, and how it shaped society and how it was in turn influenced by the societies in which it existed.  Change is one element necessary for vitality in the church.

Through Church history, religion teachers can help students understand both the human experience and the theological meaning in what was happening in the changing Church.  Not only will this help them recognise that developments in the past can have relevance to their own life experience, but they can learn how to discern patterns in history and how to interpret history in a way that colours their understanding of present events and their ideas of what might happen in the future.  They can become more conscious of historical influences on human beliefs, behaviour and culture.

Andre Godin, in a major review of research concerned with religious development, suggested that an "awakening of an historical consciousness" was one of the five fundamental tasks of religious education in promoting the spiritual maturity of young people (A. Godin, 1971, Some Developmental Tasks in Christian Education, in M.P. Strommen (Ed.), Research on Religious Development: A Comprehensive Handbook, New York: Hawthorn, Chapter 4.). Out of interest, it is useful to note here the other four developmental tasks suggested by Godin:- 2) the development of symbolic interpretation;  3) the progressive transformation of a magical and superstitious mentality;  4) a progressive reduction of 'moralism';  5) a gradual 'purification' of Christian beliefs.)

Explanation of the Term 'History':  Church history in the context of history generally

What is envisaged here about the nature and the scope of Church history in religious education does not aim at a comprehensive, detailed study of the history of Christianity.  In the strict sense of the word, 'historical' may be a misleading title.  Rather, the spirit of the word 'historical' would be more appropriate.  Perhaps a better description of church history across the curriculum would be 'the story of Christianity' -- which changed as it continually elaborated and renewed the message of the Gospels to address new needs and different circumstances.

An old text oh school history teaching noted: "History can do much to help students orient themselves intellectually in space and time." (R.D. Walshe and W.A. Little, 1971, Ways We Teach History, Sydney: History Teachers Association of New South Wales, p. 9.)  Past events have shaped the society in which we live.  Most people have a natural curiosity to know how this has happened.  A balanced understanding of modern society is not possible without some understanding of history.  The more one can link past and present, the clearer becomes one's perspective on the present and its problems.

A study of history should not be regarded as a preoccupation with the past, but as an essential component of a future-oriented education.  As the historian Pelikan noted:

Knowledge of the traditions that have shaped us, for good or ill or some of both, is not a sufficient preparation for the kind of future that will face our children and our grandchildren in the 21st century - not a sufficient preparation, but a necessary preparation. (J. Pelikan, 1984, The Vindication of Tradition, Yale: Yale University Press, p. 20.)

Thus the teaching approach for Church history that is advocated is one that retains the value of an historical study but avoids its more daunting aspects.

A study of church history should concentrate on important events that show the workings and the development of the Church, and it underlines their relevance to the present.  The events chosen for study could be the ones that have shaped Christianity in significant waysthat show the forces that were at work at the time to bring about changes and the forces that tended to stifle changes.  The choice of events is to a certain extent subjective.  But, in essence, the study of these events answers fundamentally important questions:-

  • How do these events show a Church responding to the needs of its people?
  • How does it keep alive the message of the Gospels for succeeding generations?
  • Who were the people, women and men of the time who were faithful to their commitment to Christ?

Some problems associated with the teaching of Church History

The best way to study Church history is not an easy thing to resolve.  Firstly, there is an emotional response to history which may stem from unhappy experiences of being taught a litany of facts and dates.  The teaching of History in Australian schools has come a long way in the latter part of the 20th century.  Good History teachers would always make the subject come to life, but the reality was, and in some cases may still be, that history was perceived as a boring, dull subject.  The driest thing that Mouse could think of when the bedraggled company gathered at the edge of Alice's Pool of Tears, was History:


The first question, of course, was how to get dry again ...  At last the Mouse, who seemed to be a person of authority among them called out, "Sit down, all of you and listen to me!  I'll soon make you dry enough ..." "Ahem!" said the Mouse with an important air.  "Are you all ready?  This is the driest thing I know.  Silence all round, if you please! ... William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the Pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpations and conquest.  Edwin and Morcar, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria ..."

  "Ugh!" said the Lory, with a shiver.

(From Alice in Wonderland, by L. Carroll).

And quite rightly so;  we are with the Lory!  However, there have been many changes in teaching method in History, one of the most significant being an emphasis on linking historical material with relevant current affairs to draw out comparisons and to stimulate discussion.  A comparison of student history texts at both junior and senior levels in the 1950s and early 1960s with history texts published recently will aptly show how much more the student is drawn into a study of History with photographs, original materials and written and oral exercises which involve the students in the imaginative re-creation and decision-making of historical events.

This too needs to apply to student learning in church history – similar progressive history-teaching strategies need to be adopted.  The teacher is not seen as a "mere passive sustainer of culture".  The teaching strategies suggested later in the text aim at involving both teacher and students in an imaginative exploration of significant events in the history of Christianity.

Another problemTeaching a topic entitled 'the Church' is often difficult because of the negative attitudes of many young people to the institutional Church.  Adolescent attitudes to the Church can be a prominent part of their indifference to religious education.  However, a study of Church history can help them learn about the Church and its traditions in a non-threatening way.  Also, for those who feel that aspects of the Church's present official teaching and practice are unsatisfactory, a knowledge that during history the Church has shown a capacity for change can give them renewed hope.  If they sense that change is not possible, they may lose heart.  A knowledge of changing Church structures and changing emphases in Church teachings can help students understand the development of the Church through gradual changes brought about by people like themselves.

Some teachers will object to a study of Church history on the grounds that it is not relevant to the needs and interests of students.  Such a view may be drawing on a narrow concept of relevance;  it may also be reinforcing the tendency in our society to be too present-oriented and to devalue the past.  This tendency is highlighted by the media which often seem to equate relevance with the 'here-and-now' and to regard the past as 'out of date' and disposable.

Meeting student needs:  To promote a knowledge of and respect for Church history does not mean that teachers must neglect students' needs.  Any good teaching will pick up links between the content and students' experience.  However, the aim to be 'relevant' does not require that the curriculum be more or less dominated by current youth interests and concerns, particularly where what is proposed as relevant is defined by the media, especially social media.  The school is one significant agency which should be able to offer real alternatives to young people as to what might be relevant to their education.  As Postman noted in relation to his idea of a 'compensatory' educational role for schools: "What has the most relevance to students is that which the information environment least provides them." (N. Postman, 1979, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, New York: Delacorte Books, p. 131)

Optional additional resource and reference
click here or the icon to download the follow-up resource text:

See, G. Finlay, 1987, A 'Turangawaewae' for Young Catholics: A Case for Tradition in Religious Education, Catholic School Studies, October, 60, 2, 16.) This last reference is one of the best short articles arguing the case as to how having a sense of tradition and knowledge of church history is so important for a contemporary, relevant religious education which looks towards the future.

Some teachers may claim that the teaching of Church history does not allow students to "express their feelings".  This view may work from a model which is excessively concerned with drawing out of personal responses from students.  It may also fail to understand the way in which a study of Church history can involve students imaginatively.

2.  The need for a core of Church history across the religion curriculum

One of the common difficulties that appears in many secondary Religion programs is a lack of cohesion and direction.  For example, there may be topics on the Old Testament, New Testament, Sacraments, Jesus, Personal Development, etc. placed here and there throughout the program without apparent sequence and without any self-evident reason why a topic is more suitable at one point in the program than at another.  There may also be unnecessary repetition and the placement of topics which are inappropriate for students of a certain age group.  The units in a program can have a 'fruit salad' appearance, an aggregation of topics that do not readily show connections with each other or with some central theme.  The pattern of topics may be determined by what particular teachers want to teach without regard for any overall syllabus.

A Suitable pattern of church history across the religion curriculum

It is not easy to settle on some appropriate overall curriculum framework for religious education in the secondary school.

Religion curricula have different frameworks.  One example is systematic theology: the content is organised under headings like the nature of God, Revelation, Scripture, Jesus, the Church, etc.  This approach applies to the school a framework used in seminaries and theological studies.  Unfortunately, as discussed in an earlier section, this ecclesiastical approach to curriculum is not really suited to religious education for contemporary students in Catholic schools.  To my way of thinking, the contemporary Catholic diocesan programs do not appear to have any main organising principle (apart from an ecclesiastical one) and the content gives the impression of an aggregate of vaguely related topics.

One way of giving coherence to a Religion program is to have an historical core structure that is sequential in its development of content.  The core traces the history of Christianity from its Judaic origins through to a study of contemporary Church documents.

An example of an historical core structure for a secondary religion curriculum is illustrated in the table below.  The core content is in the left column.  Topics which can be related to the sequence of core church history are listed in the second column.

NOTE:  No attention has been given here to church history in the primary school religion program.  Certainly elements about the gospels, Jesus and the early church will come in there.  But it is suggested that the systematic study of church history begins in Year 7.  In the primary school religious education, the students need to get a basic early familiarity with their religious tradition that is appropriate for their age level and level of maturity.  That does not require a systematic church history.

Table Suggestions about how a sequence of the story of the church (Church history) might be structured across the secondary religion curriculum and about how other topics can be related to this sequence.

Year levels

Core content on the story of the church

Other topics that can be closely related to core church history


The Hebrew Bible – showing the Judaic background to Jesus and Christianity

The formation of the Gospels in the early church.

Jesus in the gospels.

The life and work of St Paul

Introduction to the origins of the early Christian church (spread of Christianity, persecutions, catacombs, desert fathers etc.).

The nature and functions of sacred literature

The liturgical year

The place of Mary in early Christianity

Rites and symbols

Sacred places

Sacred dress

Development of the sacraments


The mediaeval Christian church

The Reformation and counter-reformation and their impact on European society

Historical questions about topics like the Inquisition

Religious art and music

Role of the hero and the role of great saints

Other Christian denominations formed at the Reformation

Luther – and conscience

Luther and interpretation of Scripture

Study of a particular gospel


The changing Catholic Church in Australia after Vatican II as a significant influence for change in the church

The role of the church in contemporary society

Some contemporary religious issues

The human search for meaning

How and why secularization occurred.

Changing expressions of theology


Sects and cults

Psychology of prayer.

Optional special information about sequence of study and resources for the different areas of church history. It was not possible given time limits to research what is now available in the way of resources. So this older list from the 1990s has been included. It does show the sorts of resources that were used then both for students and for teachers. Many of these materials are still useful if they can be acquired.

Matching the church history content with students' interests and needs

The core structure suggested in the table(Hebrew bible, Jesus, New Testament, Medieval church, Reformation, contemporary church) appropriately matches some of the distinctive needs and interests of students in their different phases of development through Year levels 7-12.

In Years 7/8, most students are amenable to working with and seeking information.  They have a natural enthusiasm for stories and history, and for doing projects and drawing maps.  The topics in these years tap their interests with work on creation stories, history of the Jewish people, geography of the Holy Land, the life story of Jesus, the journeys of Paul, the early Church, persecutions and catacombs, etc.

In Years 9 and 10, students tend to be more restless and more ready to argue and question.  Though at first it may appear inappropriate, the study of the Medieval church and the Reformation allows them scope to give vent to their feelings in a constructive way.  A good coverage of personal development topics is also important for students in these years.

In Years 11 and 12, there is an increased emphasis on moral issues and on assessment of the role of the Church in modern society as it responds, or fails to respond, to change.  These topics are more in keeping with the students' developing maturity.

The sequential core proposed above avoids repetition and gives direction and progression to the students' experience of religious education in the secondary school.  There is still a flexibility which allows for the treatment of some of the main content areas (for example, the person of Jesus, the Gospels) at different levels by the younger and older students.

3.  How much and what sort of church history?

How much Church history is to be included in a secondary Religion program depends on several factors:-

  • 1).  How confident the Religion staff feel about teaching Church History if they have little background;
  • 2).  What resources are available;
  • 3).  The background of the students.

The following matters need to be considered carefully if the study of Church history is to make a valuable contribution to students' education.

Selecting what Church history to teach inevitably creates problems.  Without some overall picture of the history of the Church, the selection is difficult, especially when few teachers have little if any background in Church history and few have the time to study the area to gain expertise.  Then, when the scope of Church history is considered, teachers can be daunted by the prospect of having to teach such a large volume of material.

The best way of helping staff feel more confident about the teaching of Church history is to arrange selected areas for teaching in conjunction with student texts which are available and with a clear content outline showing what main ideas are to be developed in each area.

Teachers should not be afraid of doing small sections of Church history.  The sections chosen should show the Church in change or the Church responding to need.

Another question to be considered is "What amount of Church history should be covered in particular schools and even in particular classes according to their distinctive needs?"  Just how academic the treatment of Church history will be also needs to be adjusted according to the class or the school clientele.  A school with a strong academic tradition could select more Church history.  In a school where there are few student resource materials and where students, because of background or environment, are disadvantaged, fewer units of Church history might be more appropriate.  Even where only a little is done, enough should be done to show the important personages in the Church and to see how the Church changed in response to the needs of different times.

For teachers unfamiliar with History teaching method, a good place to start is to look at the many excellent junior history text books available in school libraries.  These will give teachers an idea of how to present historical data to students in an appealing and informative way.  Teachers can also see that the subject matter is selected and written to challenge but not to lose students.  At the end of each chapter most texts will have a number of exercises and activities for students.  Some texts have suggested approaches and strategies for extension work.  This can guide teachers in the choice of extra materials they may find in other texts.

A minimum of Church History that might be done in religious education is outlined here:- Jesus;  Formation of the Gospels;  St Paul and the spread of the early Church;  early Christian communities;  the martyrs;  heroes and heroines of the Church in the Middle Ages;  monasteries;  Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

All these topics are suitable for junior classes up as far as Years 9 and 10. 

For Years 10-12, a study of the coming of Christianity to Australia, the United States, the Pacific Islands, etc. would be appropriate, as would a study of the Second Vatican Council and the role of the Church in the contemporary world.  (In the Pacific Islands, it would be more appropriate to do a detailed study of the coming of Christianity to the islands and less European-oriented Church history.)

If more history content were to be introduced, students could study some of the early Church Councils, the way the Church combated heresies, such as Arianism, Donatism and Manicheanism; the development and continuation of monasticism from the 5th to the 12th centuries;  a short history of the Papacy to the 15th century;  the Crusades;  mendicant religious orders;  missionaries following the Reformation and Counter-Reformation;  great saints and scholars.

The social and ethnic background of the students should also be kept in mind when planning the inclusion of Church History in a Religion program.  For example, if there is a significant percentage of migrant children in the school, it would be worthwhile to include a study of the establishment of Christianity in the countries of origin of the students;  similarly, a study of the distinctive contribution to Christianity of the saints of those countries could be included. 

Teaching strategies and lesson planning for teaching Church History

1.   Dramatisations. Students can act out important historical events and the making of decisions that have had an influence on the course of Church history. In doing this they can become more aware of the forces that swayed decisions and more aware of the issues that people had to deal with; this can help them understand similar situations that occur today. Dramatisations are also suitable and helpful with junior classes. Examples for dramatisation could include:- the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem; the Council of Nicaea; Roman persecutions of Christians; the Edict of Milan; the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches.

2.   Interviews/Oral Histories.  Dramatised interviews with significant historical characters can be a way of exploring historical events and decisions as noted in 1. In addition, this work can help students improve their interviewing skills and become more aware of what underlies television interviews; this would touch areas such as:- scope of data, skill in reporting, searching questions, accuracy of information, depth of analysis, conflicting interpretations, possibility of bias, use of stereotypes. Parallels with television interviews could be noted briefly and the interviewing process itself could be evaluated to some extent. All of this work may help improve students' media sensitivity and it can relate to other media study and interpretation in English classes. Resource persons can be called on to shed light on the topics being studied.  For example, interviewing Catholics educated in Catholic schools in the 1940s and 1950s as a preamble to the study of the Australian Church;  interviewing people from other Christian churches as a part of the study of Christian denominations.  Interviews can be taped.

Interviews and the recording of oral history with resource persons can be useful when students look at contemporary aspects of Church history. Interviews/oral history can also be valuable for making links between past movements in Church history and the present. For example, students could interview missionaries to find out how they understand their missionary work today; or members of religious orders to see how their view of monastic life compares with what the students have studied in the unit on monasticism in the early Church.

3.   Cartoons.   Cartoons can be drawn by students to explain/illustrate stories or incidents, and to highlight important concepts. For example:- St Paul presenting the case for Christianity to people in Greek cities; the Christians in the catacombs; the celebration of liturgies in early Roman house churches; Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. . Cartoons are suitable for junior classes and can be very useful for summaries by the less able students. The cartoons do not have to be elaborate -- stick figures are sufficient.

4.   Excursions.   Visits to the local church or chapel can be used to show changes in liturgy and architecture, and to illustrate the history of change in the sacraments, e.g. Penance/Reconciliation.  Also, reference to paintings and ornaments can underline the significance of symbol and ritual. Parallels can be drawn with secular rituals. Students can prepare video - smartphone coverage of their excursions for viewing at a later date in class. The question of changes in structures and practices by comparison with the early Church and Medieval Church can be raised for consideration.

5.   Documents.  The use of original documents can be brought into the study to add a note of realism. It helps stimulate discussion; for example:- samples from the letters of Paul -- some of his journeyings and his preaching could be examined; the letter of Pliny to Trajan and the Emperor's reply; sample of writings by the Church Fathers. Extracts of articles and proclamations from the Reformation - some inveighing against Luther, some condemning the Church.  These are very colourful and never fail to evoke comments. Many history books give extracts of articles and proclamations. See especially J Comby, How to Read Church History Vol. 1, SCM Press, London, 1985.

Looking at extracts from original sources adds colour and authenticity to the study. It helps students to identify imaginatively with the people, the times, events and decisions being studied. In some sense they are working as historians. They can exercise and extend their analytical and interpretative skills.

6.   Internet searches:  Individual and group projects can make use of Internet searches and compilations.  Some  help may be needed in directing students to useful sites.  Some YouTube videos cover various topics that are related to church history. Some care is needed to help students learn not to be overwhelmed with the available information. Always useful will be the capacity to draw comparisons and contrasts with contemporary events/history.

7.   Group Discussion Exercises.  Discussions can be used to help students in their analysis and interpretation of Church history. Discussions can also help show how history is used to interpret the present. While it is particularly difficult to develop historical perspective in young people, some movement in this direction can be achieved in discussions. At times, discussion exercises can be used as an imaginative exercise to lead into a topic; hopefully the issues raised in the discussion activity will be relevant to understanding the topic, e.g. if students were a group of bishops in the middle ages considering what they should do to cope with the dramatic explosion of the population in the cities; Asking students to imagine they are present at the Council of Trent and make decisions to renew the Church and to combat the negative effects of the Reformation. Discussions can also be used to allow students time to consider contemporary religious and social issues, e.g. euthanasia, capital punishment, sex-role stereotypes. 

8.   Newspapers, Journals, Magazines.  Some reference can be made to the media to build links between Church history and contemporary events. It helps students develop their historical sense when they can see that forces and attitudes that influenced events in the past are still at work today. Similarly, students' interpretation of the present can help them understand the thinking that influenced past events. Also, students can write (as an individual or class effort) newspaper-like accounts of events, e.g. the early persecutions, corruption in the Medieval Church, 'crusades' to restore Christianity, saints like Francis and Dominic. Use can also be made of media material to stimulate discussion on topics under study.

9. Videos, Films, Slide sets. The crucial matter here is good choice of programs. They should be previewed and the teacher needs to be clear about the key ideas covered. A varied response should be planned; avoid always handing out a routine 'reaction' sheet, while periodic use of such sheets can be very effective in keeping students' attention on the presentation. Sometimes the teacher needs to give a short introduction that will focus students' attention on the subject matter. Focus questions can be used to help students draw information that is relevant to the issues they are to consider.

10. Maps, Pictures, Posters, Charts, Models. These can be displayed on the classroom walls or on display boards. Similarly, student work and projects can be displayed to advantage. Even photographs in books can be shown to the class if they cannot be enlarged and put on display.

11. Library Resources. There are many good student text books on Medieval history that include material on Church history. Suitable texts could be used for library projects. See also Internet searches.

12.   Music.   (This needs to be used judiciously.) Church music from a particular era can be played to evoke something of the mood of the times. The extract should not be too long, as many students are 'turned off' classical music. The students are not asked to 'enjoy' it but to work out:- what effect this music had; what objectives did the composers have in mind when they presented it? What does the music tell them about the style of worship and the character of the listeners? (c/f See the example on teaching about Plainchant in chapter 12 of Missionaries to a teenage culture on School Worship:  Liturgy, Paraliturgies and Prayer). Just note the part on teaching about Gregorian chant. This chapter was also referred to in the section on prayer across the religion curriculum.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The following suggests ways in which Church history can become a more effectively taught part of the Religion curriculum.

The teacher does not merely impart historical details to students but uses relevant details to:

  • 1. 'tell a good story',
  • 2. help students understand an important event that is part of their heritage, and
  • 3. bring the past to life.

The imaginative ability of most students is keen and their capacity for identification great. Most have no difficulty entering into the drama of great events, empathising with great characters and taking sides in conflicts.

Allowing this to occur means teaching at sufficient depth for students to be able to visualise the behaviour of characters and to have an idea of the main elements of the society at the time. They can then appreciate the feelings of the people concerned and have some understanding of the ideals that motivated them.

The planning of lessons

It is helpful to link each lesson or topic with the preceding one. A few minutes can be spent at the beginning of a lesson explaining its scope and recalling questions and elements from previous work. This can reinforce what has been done and help give a sense of direction and progression to the study. This way the students are more likely to appreciate that the past lessons are meaningful and that the course is progressing.

Students should have access to a study guide presented in either verbal or written form which sets out the scope of the topic. This need not be elaborate. It could contain some of the following elements, depending on the length and complexity of the topic.

  • 1. A statement of the aim.
  • 2. The central questions and problems that are to be discussed.
  • 3. What kind of study skills will be involved - e.g. excursions, reporting, discussions, assignments.
  • 4. Use of library facilities, e.g. reference material guide.

The introductory lesson is a very important one.  Raising interest in a new topic is crucial.  Generally speaking, interest in new work should not be hard to achieve.  Below are some suggested strategies:-

  • 1.   Allowing students to recount what they may know on the topic, no matter how peripheral that knowledge may be.
  • 2.   Posing questions that stimulate curiosity.  As well as motivating the students, these questions can help them see what sort of information is needed.
  • 3.   Presentation of audiovisual / internet video material or other information can be relevant and can provide introductions to the topic - e.g. the film  Mecca - The Forbidden City as an interest-arousing introduction to the study of Islam.
  • 4.   Pinning up maps, pictures, cartoons and quotations.  Display of objects around the room which are relevant to the topic that is going to be studied - e.g. map of the Holy Land, a Map of Paul's journeys, pictures of Catacombs - scapulars, holy pictures.
  • 5.   Giving a thumb nail sketch of the social background of a period - manners, dress, way of life.

If the strategies used for a particular topic do not work effectively, the teacher should be prepared to try something different the next time and not be daunted by failures.  While not expecting students to be enthusiastic all the time, the teacher should be constantly trying to find ways of engaging the students' interest and getting them involved in studying religious material.

It is helpful for teachers giving parallel courses to work together in preparing material and aides, thus increasing the quality of teaching materials.  Sometimes each class can work on a particular aspect of a topic and then have a mutual information-sharing exercise, e.g. classes could research different aspects of the Reformation - one could consider Calvin, another Wesley - (Luther would be the core study for all classes).

Finally, there needs to be variety within each lesson - a balance between listening as the text is read aloud or listening to teacher presentations, reflecting, discussing, reporting and some time given to written work.   This last need not be very detailed, but at least some record of the major points discussed/debated.  This is a valuable exercise that focuses student attention.  It is also valuable in promoting relevant discussion.  The organisation of work along these lines does not have to make Religion lessons inflexible.  There is always scope for the 'unplanned'.  Opportunities can be taken to comment and reflect on prominent contemporary events and pressing social problems, to pray for people involved in disasters or bereavements and to celebrate a happy event for a class member.

The use of resources that illustrate key issues for the teaching of church history

This part of the section will make use of some student resource materials. Have a brief look at the materials suggested (this will involve some choice) and this will hopefully do two things – firstly, help participants become aware of the sort of content in church history that young people might learn; and secondly, indicates some of the teaching strategies that might be used with these resource materials in either religious education classes or in history classes.

Firstly attention will be given to any one or more of the student resources on church history – from St Paul to the early Middle Ages.

Secondly an example of a more controversial aspect of church history will be examined – how the development of church teachings was influenced by the sociopolitical environment of the time.

And thirdly, an example of how historical perspective might be used for teaching a theology topic – on the understanding of angels and devils within Christian thought.

Below are links to 5 student booklets on church history from St Paul to the early Middle Ages. In addition to skimming one of the books, participants may be able to make use of these resource materials, particularly if they are teaching in junior to mid secondary classes. Following the title of the series showing the various sections within the five books, there are links to each of the chapters in the five books. They are in PDF files. These could be downloaded and used with students, particularly where students make use of computers where the files could be used in class also in individual student projects projects.

Resource 1: Church history for Junior/Mid secondary students. From St Paul to the early Middle Ages

The links to the various chapters in the five books are in the right-hand column.



1-01 St Paul and the Growth of the Early Christian Church

1- 02 Influences on Early Christianity 30-400 CE

1- 03 The Growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire 30- - 400 CE

1-04 The Church of Rome: Why Rome became the most important Christian City in the Roman Empire 60-600 CE

1- 05 How the Early Christians Prayed and Worshipped 60-600 CE

2-01 Some Exceptional People in Early Christianity 300-450 CE: Teachers, Preachers and Hermits

2- 02 Challenges to the Early Christian Church: Persecutions and Heresies

2- 03 Monasteries

3-01 The Barbarian Invasions — 400 to 1000 CE

3-02 Missionaries — The First 12 Centuries

3-03 The Church of the East and the Church of the West

3-04 Soldiers of Allah, Soldiers of Christ

4-01 The church and society in the Middle Ages

4-02 Life in a Medieval Village Community

4-03 Pilgrimages and Shrines in the Middle Ages

4-04 Women in Medieval Society

4-05 Mystery and Morality Plays

4-06“The Interlude of Youth", a Morality Play fro Sixteenth Century England

5-01 The Papacy

5-02 Persecution and Peace: the Inquisition an the Truce of God

5-03 Mendicant Orders and Confraternities

5-04 The Black Death


6-01 Teachers' Guide and overview of content and teaching trajectory for each of the five books of content.

6-02 Notes on teaching strategies for church history (already presented in the main section text)

Resource 2: An example study of power and authority in the Medieval Papacy

Click here for a word file with an example of a brief study of the exercise of power and authority in the Medieval Papacy. Read about Pope Boniface VIII. See the characterisation of this pope in the book Vile Florentines.

See how the famous Papal Bull published by Boniface VII in 1302 which stated that "Outside the Catholic church there is no salvation". How was this document of teaching influenced by the historical / political / social / cultural conditions of the time? It contrasts strongly about what the Vatican II documents said about the exercise of power, and about independence of church and state.

There is a need to be aware of the importance of 'interpreting' doctrines and teachings within the religious/cultural situation of the time when the teachings were made. This principle was noted by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Note how a recent pope apologised for the wrongful treatment of Galileo. He admitted that the church's ruling against the scientific account of the revolution of the earth around the sun was wrong and inappropriate. There are numerous other examples: One pope banned the drinking of coffee which he regarded as a "devil's beverage" and this was reversed by a later pope who liked coffee. Note too how the teaching about Limbo was changed -- understanding why Limbo was invented originally helps understand why this teaching was dropped.

Resource 3: How historical perspective can be a useful teaching strategy for covering topics in theology and scripture -- and not just with church history (Angels and devils; the Rosary)

Click here for the material on "Angels and Devils" written by the scripture scholar John L McKenzie. It looks at how angels and devils were understood and interpreted in pre-Christian times within Judaism. It suggests how they were regarded in Jesus own time. And it shows how interpretations have varied within Christianity since then.

In earlier work, it was shown how taking some historical perspective has been valuable when teaching about Jesus and about Scripture and prayer.

Click here for brief notes on a recommended 'historical', open inquiring approach to teaching the Rosary. Also available is an article with background historical material for teachers for teaching about the rosary.

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