Conversations in print: Anglican theology and the edited collection

[This is an adapted extract from my new book, The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures, published this month by Cambridge University Press.]

Anglican theology has had a long tradition of groups of scholars coming together to publish collections of essays on a particular topic. Every edited volume has its own story, of a discipline at a point in time and of a group of scholars, each with their particular perspectives. Some of these volumes are motivated purely by the logic of a particular line of enquiry. Others are more consciously intended as interventions to shape, or even disrupt, the nature of the discipline itself; to force an acknowledgement of new methods, theoretical frameworks or subjects that had hitherto been marginal. Others still have an overtly political purpose (in the broadest sense of the term), to bring expert insight to a larger issue of public concern, or to push the Church to address that issue.

But I want in particular to draw out the fundamentally conversational nature of the edited collection. Born themselves often from ongoing interactions among groups of scholars, edited collections often display those conversations, with all the elements of consonance and dissonance that entails. In their turn, these volumes often become points of reference in the continuing conversations within the discipline. Theology is a particular case in that it has has an ongoing relationship with those outside the academy – namely, the churches – on the practices of which they dwell and to which they aspire to speak. But even in areas of the humanities with less obvious external readers, the edited collection still facilitates conversations among scholars in a unique way.
The cover of the first edition of Soundings, from 1962.
In the late 1950s, Alec Vidler was fellow and dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and held one of the commanding heights of the discipline in England, the editorship of the journal Theology. Vidler had been asked by younger colleagues in the divinity faculty to convene a group to address a dissatisfaction with the general state of Anglican theology. His memoirs record regular meetings of a dozen scholars at which papers were read and discussed. After a long weekend conference, the group was convinced that there were fundamental issues in theology that needed to be faced; the result was Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding, published in 1962 by Cambridge University Press. Its effect in the universities was far-reaching. In 1965, a Cambridge graduate seminar was established in Christology to work through some of the issues that had been raised. Although the two volumes had only one contributor in common, the resulting collection of essays – Christ, Faith and History: Cambridge Studies in Christology (1972) – acknowledged its debt to Soundings.

Soundings was in the planning as the centenary approached of another controversial volume of English theological essays, Essays and Reviews (1860), a bid by a group of scholars, mostly clergy, for the freedom to engage with the revolutionary new findings of biblical criticism. For the Soundings group, the issues were more philosophical, but Vidler, in his preface, explicitly set Soundings in a line of succession from Essays and Reviews, at least in character. In turn there appeared New Soundings: Essays on Developing Tradition (1997), a conscious echo of Vidler’s book. It too was the work of a group of scholars who had taken time and ‘stepped back from the ongoing life of the Church, viewed its preoccupations … this has, perhaps, become something of a tradition in itself.’

Also in Vidler’s line of succession was Lux Mundi (1889), officially censured by the Church just as was Essays and Reviews. The twelve authors, all of them Anglicans and all of them clergy, had been together in Oxford between 1875 and 1885, a number of them meeting each year as a ‘Holy Party’ for several days of study and discussion. They wrote as Christian ministers, accepting the Christian faith as still sufficient as a means of interpreting human existence. But in a time of intellectual and social transformation, there were required ‘great changes in the outlying departments of theology, where it is linked on to other sciences, and … some general restatement of its claim and meaning.’

Lux Mundi has come to be regarded as a milestone in theological history. It also served as a model. On its own centenary in 1989 it attracted not one but two further edited collections, both reflecting on its legacy and the current state of the debate over the issues it raised. Both volumes set themselves the task of the kind of overarching assessment of the field that Lux Mundi had essayed, and adopted a similar structure. Both emerged after several years’ deliberation, in one case a whole decade. As with Lux Mundi, the authors of The Religion of the Incarnation had all been connected with the University of Oxford, and all but three remained so. The contributors to Keeping the Faith in contrast were not all Anglicans, and not all from the UK, and as such had less opportunity to interact in person save for a week-long conference, although debate and mutual refinement continued by correspondence. They saw themselves as in ‘theological fellowship’ with the Lux Mundi men, an explicitly Christian articulation of a sense of community that is latent more widely.

At several times in the last century, then, groups of Anglican theologians came together to address the discipline as a whole, in volumes that have themselves become models to emulate, and landmarks against which scholars could triangulate in changed conditions. But it was also the case that Anglican theology in England, intentionally or not, was part of broader conversations with readers outside the universities, with other disciplines, and with the nation at large.
The cover of the first edition of The Myth of God Incarnate
Possibly the single most controversial work of English theology of the seventies was The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), edited by John Hick, then professor of theology in the University of Birmingham. Its seven contributors were theologians from universities and Anglican theological colleges in Oxford, Cambridge and Birmingham. Two of them were, or had been, holders of the regius chairs of divinity in Oxford and Cambridge. (Two had contributed to Christ, Faith and History.) The authors were motivated by what they perceived to be the need for a fundamental reorientation in Christology. Like Soundings, the book had emerged through a sequence of meetings, five over three years. Even more so than Soundings (over which the public controversy was considerable), it reached far beyond the universities, and the dispute it generated was a significant moment in recent theological history. The book sold some thirty thousand copies in its first eight months.
The cover of The Truth of God Incarnate
The far-reaching implications of the argument both inside and outside the academy prompted a rapid response, including several further sets of essays of varying characters. One, a form of rebuttal, was from a group including both bishops and academics including the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, John Macquarrie; The Truth of God Incarnate was published in an inexpensive edition by a religious trade press (Hodder) within weeks, and has the character of a set of review articles. The following year, Hick and his fellow essayist Michael Goulder of the University of Birmingham brought together the group with some of their critics. Macquarrie, who had been so incensed by the book that it had ended up in his wastepaper basket, apparently declined an invitation to take part, but another of the Truth group, Brian Hebblethwaite, fellow and dean of Queen’s College, Cambridge, did not. This expanded group met in a sequence of ten meetings over two days; some of them private, some of them debates attended by a hundred or more members of the public. The result was Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued (1979), an arrangement of the participants’ original papers and responses to them. Meanwhile another group of scholars in Oxford had begun to meet to discuss the issues raised by Myth, and to find a way of expressing its thrust more positively, the result being the essays in God Incarnate: Story and Belief (1981).

Each of these volumes, then, was an attempt of a group of theologians to speak to sections of the discipline but also to the contemporary Church, while a significant lay readership, without access to university libraries and thus journals, were able to listen in. There has also been a related and equally durable genre of edited volume, in which scholars and religious leaders speak, as it were, to the nation directly, on social and economic issues. Borne of a sense of political and social turbulence was Christianity and the Crisis (1933), its thirty-two contributors drawn together by the Anglican priest and Christian socialist, Percy Dearmer. It proceeded from the theology of human existence and the nature of a Christian society – for the assumption was that this was the natural state of English life – to practical matters of international relations, education, economics, the family, work and leisure. The authors included economists, political theorists, a university vice-chancellor, philosophers and others from outside both the Church and the academy.

Among the contributors to Christianity and the Crisis were both archbishops of the Church of England, one of whom – William Temple, of York – later convened the so-called ‘Malvern Conference’ of 1941, the papers of which were published. Looking forward to the end of the war, the conference brought figures such as T. S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers together with members of Parliament, clergy and theologians to work out ‘what are the fundamental facts of the new society, and how Christian thought can be shaped to play a leading part in the reconstruction.’ The degree to which this model retained a valency is evident in On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future (2015), edited by Temple’s successor at York, John Sentamu. Based on a series of private colloquia at Sentamu’s official residence which began shortly after the financial crisis of 2008, it included clergy and theologians, politicians, economists and senior figures from local government and the voluntary sector. Although squarely aimed at a general readership, it directly references Temple’s Malvern conference as its inspiration.

One particular strand of interventions has been on the relationship between the established Church and the nation, as that relationship came under increased scrutiny. Church and Politics Today: The Role of the the Church of England in Contemporary Politics appeared in 1985, in a climate of increased tension between Church and state which was both symbolised and heightened by the dispute between Archbishop Robert Runcie and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the memory of the Falklands War. Edited by the political scientist George Moyser, it brought together clergy, university-based theologians and others actively involved in politics, including one MP. That the particular question of the establishment of the Church of England remains unsettled was evident in The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (2011), edited by three historians in the University of Oxford, and drawing together historians, theologians and political scientists, most (although not all) of whom were also from Oxford.

The edited collection, then, has been a means of brokering conversations of all kinds in Anglican theology. Some were among professional theologians; scholars have been brought together to add to and to assess the state of an issue, or the current state – indeed, the whole purpose – of a discipline. As well as assessing the present, they have also looked to the future. These volumes have also been conversations between those within the academy and those outside who were more directly involved in the contemporary life of the Church of England; others again were between theologians and scholars from other disciplines and professionals in other spheres, as theology and ethics met with economics and politics. Sometimes these volumes have been the natural outgrowth of a common intuition among a group of scholars, as with Soundings; at other times, they have been assembled by an editor or a publisher, sometimes specifically to include scholars with opposing views. What emerges overall, however, is the profoundly communal and conversational nature of the theological task.

The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures is published by Cambridge University Press at £9.99 in paperback.
Read the conclusion.