Sobornost: the story of a journal

[A review for the journal British Catholic History.]

Aidan Nichols, OP, Alban and Sergius. The Story of a Journal. Leominster: Gracewing, 2019, pp.xii + 514, £25, ISBN: 978-0-85244-937-0

Rare in the scholarly literature are what one might call ‘biographies’ of periodicals, but Sobornost, the subject of this useful and important study, is no ordinary academic journal. Founded in 1928 as the Journal of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, it provided a channel through which Orthodox writers and (usually, but not only) Catholic thinkers in the Church of England could interpret themselves to each other. The author, the theologian Aidan Nichols, a Dominican of Blackfriars in Cambridge, has himself written extensively on two of the towering figures of Russian Orthodox theology – Vladimir Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov – and this book will surely establish itself as indispensable to those interested in the theological history of England in the twentieth century, and of the ecumenical movement in particular.

The narrative arc that Nichols traces is easily summarised, and is given briefly in the introduction, and then at slightly greater length in the first chapters of each of the book’s two parts. Those two parts cover two periods: the first from the beginnings until the end of the 1960s, and the second, the period from that point to the present. Between the wars, exiled Russians and Catholic Anglicans found things of benefit in each other. In the Anglicans, the Russians found sympathy and a willing audience. As well as that, given the apparent strength of Anglo-Catholicism in the 1930s, the idea of organic reunion between the churches was not entirely fanciful, and any hope of such reunion (from an Orthodox point of view) was contingent on the strength of that part of the Church of England. For their part, Anglicans were in need of ecumenical partners, caught as they were between an apparently aloof Rome on the one hand, and ecumenical advances to the Free Churches on the other. In the Orthodox they found an episcopally ordered church, organised nationally, with strong traditions in spirituality and liturgy. In its attempt to balance and place in dialogue voices from both traditions, Sobornost provided what Nicholls calls ‘a spiritual and intellectual feast.’ The majority of the dominant figures in Anglican Catholic theology were either involved with the Fellowship or at least wrote for the journal. Michael Ramsey, future archbishop of Canterbury, was among them; Gregory Dix, Gabriel Hebert, Lionel Thornton, Eric Mascall all make their appearances.

From the late 1960s, however, the character of the journal changed, to one that was much more univocal, broadcasting from east to west, and which also shifted from Russian to Greek. This shift Nicholls attributes to changes on the Anglican side. The change was gradual, and to an extent masked by the official, and highly visible, Anglican-Orthodox dialogues that began in the 1970s. But the Anglo-Catholicism of the late 1960s and onwards lacked the confidence of the earlier period, having been profoundly unsettled by the Second Vatican Council. The impact of the radical liberal theology of the Sixties, added to the apparent relaxation of Anglican sexual ethics and the impending ordination of women, all combined to make ecumenical conversation with Anglicans seem less promising. Anglicans had, it seemed, taken too many wrong turnings to be reliable as ecumenical partners. Though one might want to question the accuracy of all this as a depiction of the real state of the Church of England, as a periodisation of perceptions it is certainly convincing enough.

Following the two chronological chapters at the beginning of each part there follow a sequence of thematic chapters, in which Nicholls characterises the content of the journal, pausing for moments of direct theological dialogue with its contributors, and to draw out that which he considers to be of continuing value. It is of these chapters that criticism can be made, at least from the point of view of the historian reader. What certainly emerges is a rich and detailed picture of the contents of the journal, which is very valuable. However, the account is often rather too full, as Nicholls makes extensive use of extremely long paraphrases of certain articles, of three or four pages or more at a time. For this reader, these are both wearying and arguably unnecessary, since the articles themselves are widely available in print. As it is, these chapters could well have been drastically shortened without any loss of impact.

More widely, what is often obscure in Nicholls’ account is the wider historical context. The names of authors flash by, but are too often not fully placed in their context. How accurate is the picture of their churches that these authors paint? How representative are these authors, and of which strains of thought in their churches? How do these authors come to be published, and not others? What can be known of the networks of individuals that lie beneath the public output? To be sure, it would be too much to ask that this study answered these questions exhaustively, but more was required nonetheless.

These cavils aside, Aidan Nicholls has provided a valuable study which will form part of the infrastructure for future research on ecumenical relationships in England and beyond. The absence of an index is a grave defect in a work so full of individuals, but the book is generously produced and reasonably priced. It deserves a wide readership.

The Church of England and learning disability after 1945: a first sketch

This is the unrevised text of a paper delivered at the conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Exeter in 2017.
Although the effect is now jarring, I retain contemporary language in quotations (and paraphrases of quotations), including terms of reference to people with disabilities which we would not now use.
Alternatively, there is an audio recording of the paper.

In January 1981 Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury, stood up in the House of Lords to support the International Year of Disabled People, called by the United Nations. The needs of the disabled in the UK were great, he argued, and insufficiently provided for, but before the churches started ‘preaching to others’ it was necessary that ‘we will have a look at our own attitudes, facilities, use of buildings and resources’. To this end he had already issued a challenge to the Church of England, circulated among the bishops and distributed to the parishes. The disabled, he told the Lords, are ‘a special care of the churches, because Christians cannot regard them as on the edge of society or objects of pity but as those who are at the centre of the discovery of depth in trust, love and sharing. …. The care of the handicapped always draws out unsuspected qualities from those engaged in it, and when you minister to others they minister to you.’

But, Runcie stressed, there was more to be done by the state on its own account. In these early years of the Thatcher administration the economy was in a severe recession and deep cuts had been imposed in public spending as part of a dramatic restriction in the scope of the action of the state. It should, Runcie believed, ‘be a principle of government that available resources should go first to the weakest and the most vulnerable. … even in a time of stringency we must try to ensure that those who begin life with mental or physical handicaps do not suffer further because of what we fail to do.’ Those in government needed to remember ‘that while they struggle to solve our economic problems, there is also a moral imperative without which we shall never achieve the re-creation of a real community life for our people.’

Here, then, was the leader of the Church of England using his privileged position to call both his own church to action and the state to attend to its conscience. To some extent, this was a continuation of a role that successive archbishops had exercised to a greater or lesser degree according to both circumstance and inclination. In 1913 Randall Davidson had lent significant support in private to ensure the safe passing of the Mental Deficiency Act, the most important piece of law of the early century, which was apparently at risk of being shelved by a government with one eye on an impending general election.

However, this apparent continuity masks a rather more circuitous history. This paper is (I believe) a first attempt at setting out a broad chronological and analytic framework into which to place research on the official relationship between the Church of England and issues relating to learning disability since 1945.

It is the first attempt, since the independent growth of several separate bodies of scholarship have left an unexplored space in between them. This conference shows the depth and variety of recent work on religious education in general; the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Eiesland and others in the last three decades has pointed towards a specific theology of disability for the contemporary churches to use; social historians, historians of medicine and historians of disability have in their different ways recovered the experience of disabled people and the changing ways in which disability was understood by medical professionals, and the frameworks of social policy in and through which the state and voluntary sectors addressed them.

As yet unexplored, however, are the specific issues that disability raised for religious education both in schools and in churches, the experience of disabled people in local congregations, and the ways in which Christians theologised about disability before the advent of ‘disability theology’ proper.

I focus particularly on learning disability, since the issues in relation to physical disability, whilst in many ways similar, were quite distinct. If membership of the Body of Christ was in part contingent on the ability to declare assent to certain key propositions, what was to be done with those who were unable to make any such declaration? If membership was instead conceived in terms of participation in the sacraments and (more broadly) in participation in the social existence of the local church, what was the place of a person with autism, for whom difficulties with social interaction were cardinal?

I focus particularly on the Church of England, for reasons of time, although I would suggest that all the denominations faced the same issues to a greater or lesser extent and are similarly underinvestigated. The unique position of the Church of England gives the investigation an additional angle, since it was often the conduit of contact between secular professionals, government and the other churches, both in Parliament and more generally. This paper focusses in particular on those official relationships, between successive archbishops of Canterbury, the central policy development bodies of the church and those parts of the state and voluntary sector concerned with the issues.

This paper begins with the immediate post-war period, but only as a convenient break point in what are in fact multiple parallel chronologies: related but distinct threads that develop according to their own logic, in the histories of education, health, psychiatry, social policy, and ecclesiastical history proper. Three shifts did however occur in these years that together make the post-war period a useful beginning in a tripartite chronology that I shall propose. The 1944 Education Act and the 1945 regulations that put it into effect in relation to ‘handicapped pupils’ provided for compulsory state education for all children who were able to benefit. This transferred responsibility for all but those thought to be entirely ineducable from the mental deficiency hospitals to a new kind of segregated special school, in which the churches had no part to play.

The 1948 National Assistance Act further cemented the taking by the state of responsibility for the maintenance of the disabled from the voluntary sector. This annexation of responsibility by the state was a loss of influence for the churches in one sense, but a gain in others, since the Church of England had both the means to influence the formation of law and public policy, and was by many expected to do so. In addition, the 1944 Act had the effect of making a clearer distinction between mental illness (which remained the responsibility of what was shortly to become the National Health Service) and learning disability. That said, the common confusion in the public mind between the two was to remain, and not only amongst the public but also amongst the governing class (and throughout the period.)

In addition, there had been a distinct intellectual change since the 1930s, which had seen energetic Christian advocacy of voluntary sterilisation for the ‘feeble minded’, based on the assumption that learning disability was inherited. As such (the argument went) it was the Christian course of action to prevent future suffering if it could be prevented and could confidently be predicted. The immediate postwar period, and specifically the revelations from within Germany of the Nazi programme of eugenic murder of the disabled, also (I suspect) had a chilling effect on some of the Christian engagement with eugenics. Although Bishop E.W. Barnes of Birmingham continued his enthusiastic advocacy of sterilisation of those who were unfit to breed and the euthanasia of those born disabled, he cut a more isolated figure after 1945.

Quite apart from the associations with Nazism, the assumption of hereditability had become increasingly discredited amongst scientists, and so as the Christian case for sterilisation was weakened, perhaps fatally, space opened up further for an acceptance of disability on its own terms rather than as a problem to be eradicated. Such a position was later put forward by Michael Ramsey, for instance, in the context of the debate over abortion law reform in the late 60s, in opposing the eugenic termination of a foetus with a physical deformity on the basis that it were better not to be born: ‘While we must strive to remove suffering’ Ramsey argued, ‘we do not foreclose the ways in which in the midst of frustrations and handicaps some of the glories of human lives may be seen.’

Phase One: 1945 – c.1959
The first of my three phases was from the end of the War until the late 1950s, during which we find the Church in a responsive mode with few signs of proactive engagement with any of the issues. The bishops in Parliament were closely engaged with the progress of the Education Act in 1944 and the regulations that followed, but not with the specific provisions in relation to special schools, since they did not concern the church schools directly. A Royal Commission was appointed to examine the law in relation to mental illness and disability in adults, reporting in 1957, the findings of which were taken into the Mental Health Act 1959. Once again, the bishops in the Lords seem not to have intervened in the debates on either the report or the Act. There was however some activity amongst the staff of the new Board of Social Responsibility, set up in 1958. The history of the BSR remains to be written, but it appears to have taken a wider view of its role than did its predecessor bodies: to advise the bishops and others in the church, provide evidence to government, and in general to be the eyes and ears of the institution in relation to everything from nuclear arms, to unemployment to medical ethics.

Prompted by the Royal Commission, the British Council of Churches held a conference in 1957 on ‘mental health and the churches’,. This was followed by a similar one on the new Act in 1959 organised by the Central Churches Group of the otherwise secular National Council for Social Service; it was chaired by a bishop, Dudley Narborough of Colchester. Both events dealt with mental health and mental disability whilst being more careful than was common to distinguish between the two. Both were exploratory but marked with a sense of impending change. Lady Norman, vice-chair of the National Association for Mental Health (that was later to become MIND) told the 1957 conference that ‘the Churches had a responsibility to promote right thinking and an enlightened attitude in this field’, but after 25 years’ experience she was heartened by the increased interest among Christians she was seeing. BSR staff attended both events, circulated resulting papers, and collected press cuttings on the general issues, but nonetheless remained in a reactive mode until the early 1960s.

Phase Two: the Sixties (roughly)
In the early 1960s two distinct currents seem to coincide: the gradual identification of learning disability as a subject distinct from that of mental health; and movements within the Church of England to develop and communicate its own view. In 1964 there was a conference on the subject of ‘the church and the backward child’, about which I have been able to discover almost nothing, but there was some contact between its delegates and the authors of Number Unknown. A guide to the needs and problems of the mentally subnormal child and his family (1965), produced by the Children’s Council of the Church of England’s Board of Education. It was followed two years later by All Children are Special, which focussed more specifically on schools, also produced by the Childrens Council.

As was common with the church’s central bodies, Number Unknown was the product of a working party composed of experts in various fields, usually chosen on the basis of being either Anglicans or at least sympathetic to the churches. It included a diocesan advisor on RE, the headmaster of a unit for children in one of the mental deficiency hospitals, two supervisors of training centres located in the community, the chaplain of a unit for mentally deficient children located in a mental hospital for adults, as well as a statistician. Aimed primarily at clergy whose training would not have prepared them for a pastoral response to disability, it was a remarkably advanced document when considered in its context. The pastoral care of parents after the first diagnosis of their child is discussed sensitively, but without pity or condescension, as is the key importance of baptism in the process of accepting a disabled child. Local congregations, it argued, would find their capacity for intercessory prayer enlarged by welcoming a family with a disabled child, and church members could find new ways to serve, not least in pastoral counselling.

What of the disabled child? How might he (or she) be involved in worship and learning? The approach would need to be different, the report argued, not least in the matter of communion since the Book of Common Prayer laid down certain stipulations as to what a person must be able to say and do before being admitted. However, these could be fulfilled in other ways, it argued, since disabled children very often showed ‘a wonderful intuitive power of realising God’s presence and a quality of devotion which exceeds that of many ordinary young people.’ To be sure, there was a widespread idealisation of the disabled child in the churches of which this is an example, but the effort to elaborate an early theology of the matter was notable.

Could the ‘severely subnormal’ person meaningfully take part in the communion, it asked? The answer was strongly affirmative: ‘It operates on many levels and expresses a relationship between God and man … in ways deeper and broader than those of a strictly intellectual operation. Each worshipper responds according to his capacity. As the severely subnormal person offers himself to God with his own simplicity and sincerity… there is available to him that growth in holiness which comes by grace in the Christian life, and the means of grace are for him as well as for others.’ The report was debated in the Church Assembly, after the bishop of Portsmouth, himself the uncle of a disabled child, had persisted for over a year in keeping it on the agenda. After a short debate, the Assembly welcomed the report, agreeing that there was a problem to be addressed and that not enough was known about it, but not what ought to be done.

Number Unknown was no work of theology proper, and as such it is not straightforward to uncover the roots of its thinking, other than in the general resources of the Anglican approach to the sacraments. Theologians have (more recently) attended to older writers as precursory and foundational to the more recent theology of disability, notably Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but although these writers enjoyed something of a vogue in the post-war years, it was not for this purpose that they were used. The period from the late 60s until the early 1980s saw a rather pragmatic Anglican approach gradually become hedged about by more substantive theological work on disability done elsewhere. In France, Jean Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in 1964, and his writings on theology and learning disability began to be published in the early 1970s, although not immediately in the UK. In the USA, Stanley Hauerwas’ two most significant works on disability – Responsibility for Devalued Persons and Suffering Presence – did not appear until 1982 and 1986 respectively.

More important in catalysing Anglican engagement with disabled people was their increased visibility. Due in part to the Mental Health Act 1959 there was a gradual move (though still not complete by the 1980s) in public policy away from institutional living towards what became known later as ‘care in the community’. The churches were gradually confronted, therefore, with greater numbers of the disabled living in their parishes, and so a practical response became more and more necessary. But the Church still also had a role to play in the formation of the law. In 1970 a private member’s bill became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, which imposed additional duties on local authorities to ascertain and meet the needs in their area. Briefed by the Board of Social Responsibility, the bishop of Bath and Wells, Edward Henderson, intervened in the House of Lords to ask for independent representation of the interests of those with learning disabilities who were unable to press their own case.

Period Three: the 1970s
My third period is the 1970s, during which there was a general quickening of activity within the Church of England: piecemeal, in places exploratory, and without yet significant additional theological work – but substantial nonetheless. The more public and ceremonial work that archbishops often have to do continued: Donald Coggan took over from Ramsey as president of MENCAP, and Runcie followed suit. There was experimentation with new forms of worship, notably amongst the group of chaplains in the remaining hospitals; more concretely the diocese of London was in the early 1980s beginning to discuss deploying an ordained man specifically to minister to the disabled, the first venture of its kind of which I am aware.

There was also a growing international and ecumenical context: Partners in Life, a 1979 report from the World Council of Churches had English representation in the shape of Leslie Newbigin, by then retired from the Church of South India to the UK. The International Year for Disabled People in 1981 (with which I began) had an ecumenical committee overseeing matters to do with the religious life, chaired by a Roman Catholic. By the time Robert Runcie chose to publicly support the Year, the Church of England had moved from being a watcher, a relatively passive recipient of knowledge from the secular professions, to an institution that realised the moral imperative of responding to the challenge learning disability posed, both in its own life and in calling the state to its duty. Even if much of the heavy theological lifting remained to be done, the Church was in its characteristically pragmatic way doing what it could.

Boundaries, dangers and ways ahead: Anglican evangelicals and the edited collection

In the first chapter of my forthcoming little book on a neglected aspect of British academic life, I examine the recent history of British theology through an unaccustomed lens: the role of the edited collection of essays. These have worked in several ways: as a means to take stock of the state of a discipline (for example, Lux Mundi, or Soundings) or to address the nation on matters of social and political import (such as the essays from William Temple’s now famous Malvern conference of 1941.) There were also a plethora of volumes on very specific issues of doctrine and practice. But there is another purpose that such volumes played (which I don’t pursue in the book for reasons of space): of both policing the boundaries and assessing the health of the different parties that are a constant feature of Anglican history. In this post, I look at Anglican evangelicals in particular.

Within the groupings or parties in the Church of England, and the networks of theologians in both universities and theological colleges that tended to speak to and for them, the edited collection has often provided an opportunity to take stock at times of particular opportunity or danger. Though I’m particularly interested here in evangelicals, the late 1960s were just such a time for the Anglo-Catholic constituency, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and concrete moves towards reunion of the churches in England. The party had in the nineteenth century been a ‘a militant minority, feared, vilified’; now, instead it had been accepted – had enjoyed, indeed, a period of some dominance between the wars – but as a result Anglo-Catholics ‘lost their definition as a party’. Catholic Anglicans Today (edited by John Wilkinson in 1968) was an attempt to articulate that distinctiveness afresh.

In Anglican evangelical history, one particularly tenacious interpretation of the fortunes of the party has been one of inter-war obscurity, followed by gradual revival from the Sixties (centred around John Stott) ending in simultaneous dominance and diversification by the late 1980s. The recent collection of essays edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden did much to revise and qualify that narrative, and I don’t intend to defend it in fact. But it is possible to see that story both articulated and made normative in the several edited collections of the period, some of which I examine here.

Take for instance, the volume Evangelicals Today (Lutterworth Press, 1973). Where Catholic Anglicans Today was defensive, Evangelicals Today was bullish, a sign that Anglican evangelicals saw the balance of power within the English church shifting in their direction. The editor John C. King placed particular importance on the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1967, the event that became universally known by its venue, Keele University; the Keele conference came to be seen as the moment at which the evangelical constituency decided to engage positively with the wider Anglican church. (The conference itself was prepared by a set of essays, published under the title Guidelines.) King took as his point of comparison another volume, published in 1925 with the title Evangelicalism: ‘a vintage expression of a type of evangelicalism which has all but passed away’: narrow in concern where Keele had been wide-ranging; defensive where King’s contributors were open to new directions of thought. Though King had a normative point to make, the 1925 volume was indeed defensive in character, a response to a general ‘theological unsettlement’ made yet more acute by the effect of the First World War. In its turn some of its contributors engaged directly with two other collections of essays, as representatives of the theological modernism against a defence was required (the two were Foundations (1912), and – from within the evangelical stable – Liberal Evangelicalism: an interpretation (1923).

Twenty years later, the balance of power had shifted even further, such that Michael Saward could declare in 1987 that evangelicals were ‘very firmly in the driving seat of the Church of England.’ Energetic and outward-looking, the future for the party was bright since more than half of the new clergy in training were in evangelical theological colleges. Even though a sense of crisis could be detected in the wider Church of England, Gavin Reid (later a bishop) could in 1986 assemble a group with the common conviction that the answer to the question Hope for the Church of England? (published by Kingsway) was a positive and an evangelical one. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a slew of volumes that attempted to make sense of the new state of affairs. Evangelical Anglicans: their role and influence in the Church today (SPCK, 1993) was the product of one of those busy theological colleges – Wycliffe Hall in Oxford – many of the staff of which were also members of the university’s theology faculty. Their mood was one of ‘a settled confidence, reflecting a sense of belonging and purpose which is becoming increasingly typical of evangelical Anglicanism today.’

Not all Anglican evangelicals were so sanguine, however. Restoring the Vision: Anglican evangelicals speak out appeared in 1990 (MARC/Monarch), edited by Melvin Tinker. ‘Many fear’ argued Tinker, ‘that evangelicalism in the Church of England has become so broad that it has become thin, compromise has replaced conviction and the once crusading spirit has been tamed into a conforming spirit.’ It was under Tinker’s guidance that The Anglican Evangelical Crisis appeared in 1995 (Christian Focus), addressing many of the same themes.

The confidence of the Wycliffe authors was misplaced, Tinker argued in the later volume; just as had been the sense of the editor of Catholic Anglicans Today in 1968, the evangelical movement out of isolation after the Keele conference had come at the cost of a loss of identity and theological distinctiveness. The contributors to The Anglican Evangelical Crisis, all linked to the newly formed conservative organisation Reform, were a more mixed group than the Wycliffe authors, with stronger links to theological colleges and seminaries in the USA and Australia. Its final chapter, by Don Carson, takes the form of a review article on the divergences between the two volumes, works that were ‘so divergent that a complete outsider would find it hard to believe that they emerge from what is widely assumed to be more or less the same camp’. The two ‘camps’ were distinct enough to bring representatives of both together to debate the issues in general, and the existence of Reform in particular. The question was asked: Has Keele Failed?, a volume edited by Charles Yeats, chaplain to University College, Durham, and published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton.

It is not a straightforward task to assess the precise impact of these books, especially when sales figures are hard to obtain, and when the culture is not one in which there are citations to be counted. But Anglican evangelicals, like others in the Church of England and the other churches, were often to be found coming together in collections of essays to assess the state of the party, to check its boundary markers, to warn of looming dangers and to suggest ways ahead. The impact these collections had was of a particular kind, distinct from books by individual authors. Historians of evangelicalism have much to gain from a fresh look at its publication culture.

Eric Mascall: a bibliography

Although at an early stage, I am pleased to be able to unveil a new project, compiling a bibliography of the theological writings of E. L. Mascall, Anglican theologian and priest.

Eventually it should encompass all his writings. They appear in book and pamphlet form; in collections of essays edited by others; in learned journals in more than one discipline, in particular theology and philosophy; in more general and popular periodicals, and in the press. For now, there is available (in Github) an initial list of his principal books, as author and editor.

Eric Mascall.
Via Wikipedia, copyright holder unknown. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:E.L.Mascall.jpg )

Born in 1905, Mascall studied at Cambridge, reading mathematics, and emerging with first class honours. After three relatively unhappy years as a schoolteacher, he trained for the ministry at Ely Theological College. After serving his time in London parish, he entered academic life, being sub-warden of Lincoln Theological College from 1937 until his removal to Christ Church, Oxford in 1945. Mascall was to move only once more, from Oxford to King’s College London in 1962, to be professor of historical theology, from which position he retired in 1973.

So far Mascall has attracted relatively little biographical attention, although his memoir, entitled Saraband, does some of the same work. But in his time, and particularly from the early 1940s until well into his retirement he was a prominent figure in England and (increasingly) abroad, and particularly amongst Anglo-Catholics. His purely academic interests ranged from Thomas Aquinas to the sacraments, to the theological status of the Virgin Mary, to the relation between theology and natural science. He was also a prolific reviewer of the books of others, and a trenchant polemicist against some elements of the ecumenical movement (whilst an enthusiast for others), against certain trends on modern theology, and against the ordination of women.

I myself have spoken about Mascall’s reactions to John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God, and to Anglican-Methodist reunion in a 2017 lecture, and I hope to be able to announce its publication before too long. In the meantime, the time is ripe for a fresh look at Mascall, and I hope this bibliography will be a foundation for it.

Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

[A short talk given to a symposium on Visual Communion, organised by Art and Christianity and held at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester on Saturday 2nd March. On the panel with me were Frances Spalding, art historian and biographer of John Piper, and Simon Martin, director of Pallant House Gallery, where Walter Hussey’s private art collection is kept and shown. The theme was Hussey’s commissions for Chichester, and the 1966 tapestry by John Piper in particular. What follows is derived from my recent book on Hussey.]

Today I want to put Walter Hussey in theological context, and (since our theme is Visual Communion) to look in particular at his own liturgical and Eucharistic sense. In general I think that Walter Hussey is the most significant individual patron of the arts in the 20th century Church of England. Today, however, I want to suggest that Hussey was not very theologically driven, and almost entirely unliturgical, at least in relation to the visual arts.

Hussey was an instinctive patron: he knew what he liked, and went out to get it. A regular visitor to London galleries while at his first parish in Northampton, and from Chichester when dean of the cathedral, his interest in the London artistic scene was first developed when a curate in Kensington in the 1930s. He was also an assidous seeker of expert advice. His network of connections grew as he commissioned art, music and poetry for Northampton in the 1940s, which he used both as a source of intelligence and of expert witnesses whom he could use to help persuade his church council to assent to his plans. Hussey’s network was unique among provincial clergymen, and by and large he allowed it to do his thinking for him.

Even when given the opportunity, Hussey did not articulate his theology of art in any depth, but two themes emerge. Both derived from others, and neither was new in the 1940s: art as a means of instruction, of conveying a message, and art as offering.

In 1949 Hussey wrote that a piece of religious art ‘should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’ Speaking shortly before he retired in 1977, he argued that the artist ‘may, by forcing us to share his vision, lead us to the spiritual reality that lies behind the sounds and sights that we perceive with our senses.’

The work itself was also an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The artist may well enjoy the act of making, and at some level feel compelled to do it, Hussey argued, but ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’ Hussey was fond of quoting Benjamin Britten’s comment to him that ‘ultimately all one’s music must be written to the glory of God’. There was a pervasive sense in his thinking that the act of making was in itself religious in some way.

So much for Hussey’s theology of the arts. What do I mean by suggesting that Hussey’s approach was unliturgical in relation to the visual arts? To begin with, I certainly do not think that Hussey, as a clergyman responsible to leading liturgical worship, was unconcerned with its conduct. Woe betide the chorister with brown shoes beneath his cassock rather than the regulation black; the two boys carrying the candles in procession had to be of the same height for the visual effect. All was to be done decently and in order.

My point is rather that his patronage was purely aesthetic: the object is everything, and the context of use in which it sits – the regular worship of real people in a particular place – is largely secondary.

David Stancliffe, retired bishop of Salisbury, reviewed my book on Hussey, and made the following point, with which I largely agree:

Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, [Basil] Spence, who described the building as a jewel-case for the series of commissions it contained, and in a way this is rather what Hussey’s commissions feel like.

Take, for instance, the Chagall window at Chichester, Hussey’s retirement project, which stands as a commentary on his work. The theme (which Hussey gave to Chagall) is of ‘the arts to the glory of God’, and though a beautiful thing, it is a work of art about the idea of sacred art; a piece on (or rather, in) a gallery wall, for solitary contemplation. Tucked away in the north quire aisle, it bears no relation to any chapel or altar.

The Mary Magdalene chapel in Chichester cathedral

In contrast, the Graham Sutherland painting Noli me tangere is on an altar, but it is not one that is used to any great extent, by virtue of its location in the building. The whole ensemble in the Mary Magdalene chapel is – to my non-specialist eye, as an historian rather than a critic – the most perfect thing in the building: altar, candlesticks, rail and painting form a perfect whole in union with the stonework and with the prevailing light. But it is something that demands to be seen, either from a distance or from close up, rather than being an invitation to prayer.

What about Piper? Surely it is ‘liturgical’, given where it is, behind the high altar? Here I turn to Hussey’s relationship to the Eucharist in particular.

Everything in Hussey’s background should have disposed Hussey to being more focussed on the Eucharist than was typical amongst Anglicans. St Matthew’s, in which Hussey’s father ministered, was founded as an Anglo-Catholic counter to the strength of the Nonconformist churches in Northampton. John Rowden Hussey had first instituted a Sunday Eucharist each week (not yet the almost universal practice that it is now), then a daily one; St Matthew’s also had reservation of the sacrament at a time when it was a highly controversial practice. In 1925 the church hosted the annual Eucharistic Congress of the English Church Union, a national celebration of Anglo-Catholic identity. Emphasis on the Eucharist was a badge of identity for a highly self-conscious movement. Nothing of this would Hussey then have unlearned when moving from Northampton to study first at Oxford and then for ordination at Cuddesdon College.

The Eucharist in progress at St Matthew’s, Northampton. 1940s-1950s. Image: Peter Webster

Once at Chichester, Hussey’s practice was to reserve the role of celebrant at the principal Sunday service to himself. This may have been a felt necessity, a measure of the centrality of the Eucharist to his thought and feeling. I suspect it is more likely that it was simply something he saw as central to the proper role of a dean. (It may also have been a means to avoid preaching, which was not a strength.)

In his musical commissioning for Chichester, Hussey was clearly thinking about the Eucharist, as evidenced by the commission of a mass from the American composer William Albright in 1975. There had previously been a scheme for a new setting of the communion service in English from Benjamin Britten. It was first mooted in 1967 by Britten and pursued for years by Hussey, but without success before Britten’s death in 1976.

Given all this, one might have expected Hussey, when he saw the opportunity to remake the area around the high altar at Chichester, to focus on the Eucharist in particular. I make no comment on Piper’s tapestry as a piece of work in and of itself, but a little thought experiment will make the point. If you were to take it and place it in some other place in the building, would its symbolism become unintelligible? That is, is the iconic scheme very closely tied to the altar and the work that goes on there? The answer is very clearly not, but if it was eucharistic in its content, it surely would.

The Piper tapestry at Chichester, viewed from beyond the Arundel screen.

(Members of my audience in Chichester made the point that the tapestry can be glossed in Eucharistic terms, which is true, particularly the figure of the cross, but the subject – the Trinity, to which the cathedral is dedicated – was suggested by Piper’s ally Moelwyn Merchant, and there is no evidence that Hussey tried to guide Piper towards a Eucharistic scheme. They also made the point that the remarkable glow of the tapestry that can be seen from the west doors draws the visitor into the building towards the altar where the most important work of the cathedral goes on. This is also quite true, but this is a much more recently recovered idea of sacred space – the notion of liturgy as pilgrimage – which was far from Hussey’s thinking.)

Fundamentally, Hussey did not start with the thought: “here is an opportunity to have a great artist respond to the fundamental liturgical act of my Church, around which my whole formation was orientated”. Instead, his first thought is: “here is a drab and dark space with an existing reredos that is of a poor standard and is out of proportion to its surroundings. Let’s make it look better.”

I argue then that though Hussey is a highly significant figure, but his patronage is centred on the artistic object itself, rather than on where it is located and to what use it might be put. His influence has been limited by the fact that, at a time when all the churches were thinking very hard about their worship – architecture, layout, words – Hussey (by and large) was not.

[My book on Walter Hussey is published by Palgrave Macmillan.]