Eric Mascall and the knowledge of God

In the last couple of weeks I’ve reached something of a resting point in my work on the Anglo-Catholic philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall. Slightly to my surprise, the project expanded to fill what are now five articles or book chapters, two published and three coming very soon. Readers have in general been very supportive of the work, but also somewhat curious: why Mascall, and why now? One peer reviewer, while complimentary about the article in question, suggested that ‘it would be worth emphasising the importance of Mascall lest readers should find themselves wondering why somebody who was often regarded as a dinosaur and who was quite outside the theological mainstream should still be worth studying’.

The identity of that reviewer was of course withheld from me, but I very much suspect that he or she is a theologian. For the historian, there is (at one level) quite an easy answer to their question. Mascall seemingly read everything published in English theology during his career, and much else besides, and his work covered the full range of dogmatic theology and philosophy of religion. He also wrote a very great deal, and over fifty years. As such, his work is an excellent lens through which to look at what was going on in English theology from the 1930s right through into the 1980s. He also involved himself very publicly in several of the controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, most notably aspects of the ecumenical movement, and the ordination of women, being widely acknowledged as one of the most cogent spokesmen for a particular kind of conservative Anglican catholicism. For all this, his historical interest is clear, I think.

But to say so avoids a deeper question about most, if not all, historical work: why this subject, now? To which current preoccupations in church and society do these stories speak? To be sure, there are still those in the Church of England who cannot accept ordained women; the question of Anglican-Methodist unity is still open. But what I think interests me most about Mascall is a question of method and attitude that, as he saw it, underlies all these other questions.

In his later years, Mascall several times argued that the most salient division within the church was becoming one between ‘those who believe in the fundamentally revealed and given character of the Christian religion and those who find their norms in the outlooks and assumptions of contemporary secularised culture and are concerned to assimilate the beliefs and institutions of Christianity to it’. For my own part, I think this a false dichotomy, though I don’t want to pursue the thought here. But for Mascall, holding to this formulation was made easier by his fundamental conviction that the content of that revelation could be known, with a clarity and certainty that relatively few of his contemporaries could really feel. This conviction in Mascall was formed as a young man in the 1930s and never left him. As I shall show in a moment, it was as chalk and cheese in relation to the kind of liberalism that held sway in the universities at that time. The revival in interest in Mascall in recent years may in part be due to an appetite for the kind of uncompromising restatement of a kind of orthodoxy that he provided; other readers, I suspect, find this approach – which might be described as ‘dogmatic’ – impossible to engage with. My own fascination with Mascall is to do with the peculiar intensity of his pursuit of truth, to which I am myself drawn, but cannot quite fully inhabit.


Writing as a young man in the 1940s, Mascall felt himself to be in the vanguard of a confident Anglo-Catholicism, the success of which seemed evident in events like the 1933 centenary of the Oxford movement. The liberalism against which he set himself had several features, but fundamentally (he thought) it dealt too lightly with the accumulated treasure of Christian tradition, and was too ready to assume that unaided human reason could ‘erect an entirely new theological edifice to twentieth-century specifications’. As a result, it left itself open to the adoption of the governing assumptions of its time; of marrying the spirit of the age, only to be a widow in the next. Mascall’s first two books of academic theology appeared in the 1940s: He Who Is: a study in traditional theism (1943), and Christ, the Christian and the Church (1946). What follows is a reflection on how they were received by some of his readers.

Eric Mascall. (Rights situation unknown).

Mascall’s early books were certainly thought to be an attack on ‘liberalism’ by some older men who owned the name.  In 1941 A. E. Garvie, the Congregationalist philosopher of religion, reviewed three of the books in a series entitled Signposts (which Mascall co-edited) that included Mascall’s Man: his origin and destiny. Garvie could not, as one twice the age of the oldest of the authors, accept the general tenor of their argument; the matter required ‘more appreciation of the values of modern thought … and a more progressive attitude to the catholic tradition, as needing more adaptation to those values’ than the three displayed. Like Garvie, Clement Webb was approaching the age of 80 and long since retired as Oriel Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford when he reviewed Mascall in the 1940s. Webb wrote as ‘an old man, undertaking against the vigorous assaults of his juniors the defence of principles which inspired and guided the minds of his generation’. Mascall, and others like him, were too much taken ‘by a mood of self-congratulation, excited by a sense of being carried forward by a flowing tide that has left behind the out-of-date fashions of yesterday and the day before.’ But Mascall seemed to define liberalism by its faults rather than by its essentials. Though there was a temptation to be ‘mere idolaters of the passing mode’, for Webb, liberalism was characterised more by the commitment to following an argument where it led. Men like Webb and Garvie were no more committed to the new for its own sake than to the old, but to what seemed to the free and conscientious mind to be true.

That this critique was not merely that of the old and comfortable was evident from the review of Christ, the Christian and the Church by Alan Richardson, a near contemporary. Mascall’s insights were at a disadvantage ‘through being set forth in thought-forms which without reinterpretation are no longer credible to the great majority of non-Roman Christian thinkers today.’ Dark allusions to unnamed ‘liberals’ were not enough, Richardson thought, to rescue Mascall from his ‘refusal to look at the difficulties which the rise of the critical method has created for the traditionalist theory of Natural and Revealed Theology’. Even a figure as sympathetic as Donald Mackinnon had reservations. Mackinnon, then teaching philosophy at Keble College Oxford, was in fact younger than Mascall, and wrote two of the books in the Signposts series. Reviewing He Who Is, Mackinnon thought Mascall too dismissive of the modern philosophers, the exposition of whom was Mackinnon’s daily work in Oxford, and of Kant in particular. ‘One could wish again that Fr Mascall had dealt more sympathetically with the difficulties that minds, fashioned by the methods of modern science, find in learning to think ontologically. It is not mere stupidity, but a problem of reconciling perspectives that may, if we handle it sufficiently carefully, deepen our very insight into being itself.’ For Mackinnon, as for Clement Webb, Mascall’s method was of little help to those who felt the force of conflicting approaches and wished, however messily, to hold them together.

So Mascall’s work attracted criticism on account of its content. But there was also a question of tone, as Mascall’s apparent certainty itself gave readers pause for concern. Clement Webb noted the impression given in He Who Is of definiteness where none was quite justified. Mascall seemed ‘curiously unappreciative of the difficulties which yet indubitably beset [the Thomist approach] and may at least excuse those Christian thinkers who have found themselves unable to subscribe to it… he is always the man who has found the right explanation, not the seeker after a truth which eludes a perfect statement in terms needing no qualification and subject to no dialectical development.’ ‘I am bound to confess’, Webb wrote later, while reviewing Christ, the Christian and the Church, ‘that Mr. Mascall, when he is pluming himself on his “orthodoxy”, constantly puts one in mind of those Pharisees in the Fourth Gospel who were so sure they were Moses’ disciples and confident in their knowledge that God spake unto Moses’ that they need take no account of anything that seemed to conflict with it. Alan Richardson detected an ‘un-Anglican outlook and temper’ in Mascall, marked by special pleading of his own orthodoxy and an unwarranted willingness to ‘make pronouncements where many would prefer to keep a reverent silence.’ Mascall had ‘magisterially pointed out the errors of a great number of eminent theologians but we are still left wondering how he knows that he is right and they are wrong.’ This very certainty was in itself decisively different from the liberal temper, and an implicit rejection of it.

Though Mascall in 1943 was a young man with a vision in a time of national crisis, this fundamental certainty was never to leave him. It was particularly plain to see as Mascall took up the cudgels against the liberal theology of the 1960s and 1970s; his combativeness was a product of the cosmic seriousness, as he understood it, of the task in hand, and the consequences of getting it wrong. It was Mascall’s unbending conviction that made him a prominent opponent of the Anglican-Methodist union scheme in the late 1960s, a product of what one critic called his ‘theology of the trenches’. But it has to understood in the context of his equally clear sense of the limits of human knowledge. The mind, without the aid of grace, can never progress from natural theology into the fullest knowledge of God as derived from revelation, and there were still limits once it had. Just as revelation surpassed reason, ‘so does the experimental knowledge of God that is granted to the mystics surpass revelation.’

This was given fullest expression in the book which was perhaps closest to Mascall’s heart, the short popular exposition of the Christian’s vision of God, Grace and Glory (1961). Mascall returned to the mystical writers that had influenced him deeply in the 1930s: Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and (in particular) St John of the Cross. In the latter’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel Mascall found the paradox that faith, as it purified and perfected the understanding, brought certainty but without clarity: ‘the more accurately we come to know God, the more fully we understand that His infinite and transcendent being outstrips our finite powers of apprehension.’ It was the gift of faith that allowed the Christian to hold on in the dark night of the understanding, in the face of (in Jacques Maritain’s words) ‘that sacred abyss before which the angels fall trembling with love and terror.’ Mascall’s work drew the boundaries of what may be known of God more widely than some of his critics thought legitimate. But it is at those boundaries that the sheer distance that remained between God and human understanding could be seen most clearly. The apparently unwarranted certainty that so perplexed Clement Webb was only one part of Mascall’s constitution, and has to be read in relation to its other elements.

There was also a certain aesthetic element to Mascall’s understanding of knowledge. One of the pen portraits in Mascall’s memoir is of the poet, novelist and theologian Charles Williams. Mascall noted the pure aesthetic effect on Williams of the grasping of an aspect of the truth of God, while reading He Who Is. Williams had found himself ‘savouring a particular doctrine with an almost physical delight … it was in my mouth “sweet as honey”; it melted exquisitely into my corporeal organism and bestowed a richness.’ Although Mascall never quite explicitly owned the same kind of experience, that he admitted it as a type of experience is clear in He Who Is. Speaking particularly of mathematics, he wrote of the true grasping of a theorem, where ‘premisses and conclusion are related as parts of a whole possessing a definite – one might even say, an aesthetic – form.’ The theorems that were often described as beautiful were those that ‘stimulate precisely this kind of intuitive grasp of theorems as a whole.’ The scholar had ‘penetrated to the nature of the object and made it part of himself.’ Such an experience, or one analogous to it, was possible in metaphysics, but Mascall’s whole written output is suffused with a sense of the beauty of doctrine too, if only it could be stated as clearly as the human mind was able. There was beauty both in individual doctrines and the inevitable way in which Mascall thought he knew, both intellectually and aesthetically, that they all corresponded. And so part of the explanation for what Webb saw as arrogance, and what later looked like an impossible inflexibility to many on the other side of debates about ecumenism or the theology of the 1960s, was a sense that a beautiful, pristine system was at risk of being sullied or besmirched.

Some of this material is adapted from part of a forthcoming article on Mascall and his embrace of Thomism, forthcoming in the Journal for the History of Modern Theology. For more on Mascall, see the project page.

Eric Mascall and the rise, fall and (partial) rebirth of “Christian sociology”

The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was one of rapid change in the British churches, and in their attitudes to the society around them. The period saw a sweeping relaxation of the ‘moral law’ in the UK, an emptying of that law of its Christian content; from suicide to capital punishment, divorce to abortion, male homosexuality to censorship, the direction of travel was clear. There was British military involvement in Korea, the Suez crisis, and an American war in Vietnam, all of which engaged Christian opinion sharply on all sides of the argument; all this unfolded under the pervasive threat of nuclear conflict. Christians also disagreed over the post-colonial politics of Rhodesia and South Africa, and the welcoming or otherwise of immigrants from former colonies in the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. There was increasing Christian concern about the effects of unrestrained capitalism on both people and environment, both in the UK and abroad; the early Seventies saw economic instability that cast doubt on the economic settlement of the post-war period.

Eric Mascall, subject of a forthcoming article in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, is not usually associated with the debates that raged around all these issues. While at Christ Church Oxford (1945-62), and then at King’s College London until retirement in 1973, he produced a formidable body of work, in philosophical theology, Christology, ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the relationship of Christianity and the natural sciences. Mascall was also deeply involved in the more immediate affairs of his day: a trenchant critic of developments in liberal theology, and an enthusiast for ecumenical progress on a catholic basis, while a vigorous opponent of other schemes which seemed to depart from it. However, the social, political and moral life of England outside the churches seemed not to concern him to anything like the same extent.

However, this picture of Mascall is overturned entirely if we consider two short periods, one at the very beginning of his public career and one in retirement. In both cases Mascall was drawn directly and deeply into political, social and moral comment. The first period began in the mid-1930s, when Mascall was a curate in London, and spans his time teaching at Lincoln Theological College; it ended in the mid-1940s, when Mascall’s first significant books of academic theology were beginning to appear. In these early years, Mascall’s output was in fact weighted significantly towards questions of society, economics and ethics, though these rather extensive writings have been largely overlooked. More fragmentary, but significant nonetheless, was Mascall’s return to some of the same questions from the mid-1970s onwards, after his retirement from King’s College.

Eric Mascall. (Rights situation unknown).

My new article examines the two periods in turn. It explores Mascall’s involvement in the 1930s and 1940s with the so-called ‘Christendom group’ of Anglo-Catholic writers on society. The bewilderment of the 1930s and the war years, Mascall believed, had its root in the loss of a proper sense of the human person: made in the image of God, both bodily and spiritual, dependent on the action of God for their very existence, open to the action of grace, a worker on earth yet a pilgrim on a journey towards glory. The fulfilment of humankind, and of the society in which men and women were to live, was contingent on a right relation of each person to God, and the subservience of society, economy and politics to human need, properly understood in that context. Mascall was not alone in expounding such a view. He was, however, rare among his contemporaries in living and continuing to write into the mid-1980s, and thus being able to look back on the eclipse in the 1950s and 1960s of much of what he had advocated. I argue that the waxing and waning of Mascall’s public interventions mirrors the rise, eclipse and (finally) a partial revival of a kind of catholic understanding of man and society which was sometimes given the name of ‘Christian sociology’.


The time immediately before and during the Second World War was a moment in which the whole political and social life of the West seemed to be in flux, and indeed in danger. In the UK, the political and economic settlement often dubbed ‘liberal’ was widely perceived to have failed even before the outbreak of war. In the search for solutions, Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike broke in every direction: for the kind of strength and stability that fascism seemed to offer; for a communist alternative, and for paths in between. The term ‘Christian sociology’ denoted something other than the ostensibly neutral descriptive discipline of the sociology of religion as practised in the universities. The label was most often applied to the thinkers of the inter-war period associated with the journal Christendom, with whom Mascall was closely connected. The group’s outstanding thinker was V. A. Demant, canon of St Paul’s cathedral in the 1940s and, later, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology in the University of Oxford. ‘The change I am now indicating’ wrote Demant in the first issue of Christendom, ‘is one which insists that a Christian judgment is demanded not only on the conduct of men within, but upon the nature of the social structure itself. A Christian sociology recognizes that there are objective social relationships which are to be judged better or worse from a doctrinal Christian standpoint.’ Mascall attended the annual conferences of the Christendom group, and also the summer schools of sociology organised by the Church Union, which ran for thirty years. He was also present at the so-called ‘Malvern Conference’ of 1941, convened by William Temple, archbishop of York, at which the influence of the Christendom group was strong. Mascall read, and wrote for Christendom, and contributed to other publications emanating from the group.

Mascall’s analysis of society was consistent, and is to be found reiterated across his writings of the period. There was all around a common frustration with the modernist experiment: ‘man to-day, like Frankenstein with his monster, sees himself on the verge of destruction by his own creature.’ The root cause, for Mascall, was the loss of the Christian doctrine of human nature and purpose. For Mascall ‘our very existence from moment to moment depends on the never-ceasing creative love and power of God.’ This anticipated the formal metaphysical treatment of the same theme in He who is (1943), but it was the social implications with which Mascall was concerned in 1940.  Men and women had no natural power of knowing God, but as a result of the taking of human nature by the incarnate Christ, the Christian was open to the action of God’s grace, progressing gradually towards the final vision of God in heaven. In the meantime, man is ‘a dweller in two worlds at once; his citizenship is in heaven, and his sojourn on earth is brief, uncertain and, unless it is brought into relationship with his eternal destiny, extremely unsatisfying.’ All human activities must result in frustration if made ends in themselves, ‘but if they fall into line … in such a way that his life as a whole is making him more and more fit as time goes on for the vision of God in heaven, they are to be accepted …. as the gifts of God.’

For Mascall, the markers of a true Christian society were properly ordered relationships between three things: man, existing solely for the glory of God; ‘things’ (that is, all the rest of the created world), existing ‘for the good of man’; and money, solely the facilitator of the production and distribution of things. But the ‘humanist adventure’ had removed God to a distance at which He could be safely ignored. In the meantime, the whole created world had been subjugated instead to the production of things, and man existed only to produce and consume. Goods and services that served no social purpose, or even caused harm, were produced if they returned a profit to capital, while things that satisfied real human needs were left unmade. Workers laboured in inhuman conditions in order that others should accumulate; unemployment was always to be solved by the making of additional unnecessary things, in response to artificial demand created by advertising. And the demands of the machine drove nations into competition with each other, sometimes armed, and into ‘ruthless and avaricious exploitation of God’s earth.’ All this was an inevitable result of the neglect of the right relations of God, man, things and money; to solve it, a revival of personal religion, though vitally important, would not be sufficient. ‘It means putting an end to the profit motive as the main incentive in industry and to opportunism in politics. And if it is objected that this is too much to hope for, the only answer … is that if it is not done then our civilisation is inevitably doomed to perish.’

The ending of the war, and the creation of the welfare state that followed, brought a loss of impetus for the kind of social thought that Mascall pursued. Christendom ceased publication in 1950. Anglican social concern was far from exhausted, but insofar as it did not achieve its vast aim of a refounding of society on catholic principles, the Christendom group was a failure. The first phase of Mascall’s public intervention had also largely come to an end. In 1943 there appeared He Who Is, his first book of academic theology; his second, Christ, the Christian and the Church (1946), was substantially complete when, in May 1945 with the war at an end, he took up a temporary position at Christ Church Oxford which was in fact to be his until 1962. In July, the Labour party won a general election by a landslide and the political and economic landscape had thus changed utterly. For the rest of his career before retirement in 1973, his work was dominated by metaphysics and dogmatic theology, ecumenical prospects and dangers, and the threat of the secular theology associated with John Robinson and others.


Mascall’s apprehensions of the prospects for theology had darkened as he approached retirement in 1973. This was perhaps in part a function of increasing age, and of the fact that several of his closest interlocutors in earlier years had predeceased him. It was certainly the case that by the late 1960s the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England had lost a great deal of the expansive self-confidence, in the context of which Mascall had been formed in the 1930s. There was also a more general theological disorientation, Mascall believed; English theology had lost sight of its proper responsibility to the Church, become wrongly oriented in scope and employed the wrong tools. One aspect of this more general crisis was, he thought, an evisceration of the tradition of Anglo-Catholic social theology.

Why had this happened? The problem was theological at root: the loss of the dual sense of man as both spiritual and bodily, a pilgrim journeying towards a heavenly life, but also created and creaturely. Christian sociology could only be possible where natural and supernatural were distinct, but held together nonetheless. By the early 1970s, Mascall thought, this connection had been obscured by secularising theologies such as that of Honest to God and (from the USA) the work of Paul van Buren, Harvey Cox and others. After a long examination of Honest to God in 1965, Mascall had concluded that ‘the programme which [Robinson] sets forth … so far from transforming the secularised world in which we live by transfusing into it the redemptive power of Christ, would simply reduce Christianity to a condition of impotence by conforming it to the pattern of the secularised world.’ Similarly, the attempt by Van Buren to understand the gospel in secular terms ‘excludes any criteria that might help Christians to heal the ills of the contemporary world by understanding secularized man in Gospel terms.’ To empty the concept of God of any transcendent or personal element was to sever any connection between nature and grace; it was to rule out the possibility that the relation of man and God demanded a social life other than the status quo. Mascall noted a tendency of such theologies to a kind of political and social quietism, a sanctification of the present.

The problem was not only with the doctrine of God, but specifically Christological. A highly influential intervention was the 1978 Reith Lectures by Edward Norman, published as Christianity and the world order. Norman argued that ‘the teachings of the Saviour clearly describes a personal rather than a social morality’; the involvement of the divine in the structures of time did not require Christians to attempt ‘inappropriate explanations of secular culture.’ This, Mascall deduced later, was the result of a faulty Christology: an assertion that in the Incarnation ‘the visible and the unseen world were briefly joined’. But the Incarnation was no passing episode, but permanent, in which Christ had joined human nature up to himself in a ‘complete and indissoluble union’, from which the whole of Catholic social theory flowed: there was in Norman’s work an ‘extreme confusion of thought [arising] from a basic error in Christian doctrine, which distorts all his subsequent argument.’

But there were some signs of hope in the 1970s, Mascall thought. He was encouraged by the long succession of pronouncements from Roman Catholic sources, from the decrees of the Second Vatican Council to very recent statements from John Paul II, and regretted the ‘quite abysmally minimal’ attention that these had attracted among Anglophone theologians. But in Gaudium et spes, the longest of the documents of the Council,  ‘nothing less is offered to man … than the traditional Gospel that the Creator of the universe has entered into his own creation, becoming what we are in order that we might become what he is.’

The other source of hope was rather closer to home, in the form of the so-called Jubilee Group. Formed in 1974 by Rowan Williams and Kenneth Leech, it was motivated by a sense that Anglican Catholics were politically lethargic and prone to (in Leech’s words) ‘sickly pietism and a right-wing stance on political and social issues’, having learned little either from the movements of the 1930s or from the Vatican Council. Mascall contributed in 1979 to a Jubilee Group pamphlet in response to Edward Norman. He was particularly appreciative of the Essays catholic and radical, edited by Leech and Williams in 1983, and their call to ‘a critical orthodoxy and … a theological critique of capitalism’; in their ‘disquiet and anxiety at the present failure of Anglican Catholics to meet [the need] I seem almost to hear the echo of our own voices fifty years ago!’


When read as a group, Eric Mascall’s seemingly rather scattered writings on politics, economics and ethics are bound together by his understanding of the relation of Creator and creature which, though it was refined in his specialist philosophical writings as his career progressed, exercised largely the same force in his social thought from beginning to end. Though Mascall was hardly unique in his understanding, his expressions of it were among the clearest and most forceful published in the war years. As well as this, his long career, and continued critical engagement with the same issues, deep into retirement, affords the historian a useful vantage point from which to view the rise, eclipse and (finally) partial rebirth of ‘Christian sociology.’

Eric Mascall and the ordination of women

I am now happily in a position to share the full text of an article due for publication in the summer of 2023, in Studies in Church History.

It is entitled ‘E. L. Mascall and the Anglican opposition to the ordination of women as priests, 1954–78’.

The article examines the grounds on which the Anglican philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall opposed the ordination of women, in a series of influential publications from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It examines their basis in Mascall’s understanding of the church, the Incarnation and the ontological status of the sexes. In view of the counter-cultural emphasis that Christ had put on the equality of men and women otherwise, Mascall argued, it was not accidental that Christ was incarnated male, and that all the apostles were men. Within the Church, the very manifestation of Christ’s body on earth, the clergy did not act merely as representatives, or even as agents, but as ‘the very organs through whom [Christ] himself acts’; there was an ‘essential identity’ between Christ’s personal ministry on earth and that which he now exercised in the church. As such, it was ‘highly congruous that the manhood through which he acts is male as he is male’. Even more starkly, Mascall argued that this was not a matter of symbolic congruity alone. Beneath all the racial, temperamental and cultural differentiations of human beings, there was not, for Mascall, a single human nature, common to male and female but sexless in nature. At the most fundamental ontological level, there was no essential human being, only men and women. ‘Christ exercises his priesthood in the Church through human beings who possess human nature in the same sexual mode in which he possesses it.’ A women priest was not undesirable, or merely symbolically incongruous; she was impossible.

The article also sets these theological objections in the context of the particular atmosphere of the Anglo-Catholicism of the period, convulsed by ecumenical advance at the Second Vatican Council and (as Anglo-Catholics understood it) the danger of moves towards the Protestant denominations in England. Just as the Anglican Communion approached a point of decision about the ordination of women, Mascall was fighting to fend off what he saw as a misconceived scheme to unite Anglicans and Methodists in England. At the same time, ecumenical prospects both with Roman Catholics and Orthodox seemed brighter than ever before, which the ordination of women threatened to derail. Whilst Mascall allowed that women priests might one day be embraced by the worldwide church, together, the peculiar atmosphere of the period seemed to make it the least auspicious time to make what would be a unilateral and far-reaching decision.

The article also situates Mascall’s interventions in a wider realignment of conservatives within the Church of England, away from older party divisions between evangelical and catholic towards a new divide between conservative and liberal. In Mascall’s words, the most salient division within the church was becoming one between “those who believe in the fundamentally revealed and given character of the Christian religion and those who find their norms in the outlooks and assumptions of contemporary secularised culture and are concerned to assimilate the beliefs and institutions of Christianity to it”.

Download the full article (PDF, 6000 words).

(For the avoidance of doubt, for my own part I don’t agree with Mascall on this issue; for all their sophistication, and the clarity with which they are expressed, I just don’t feel the force of his arguments. But (as I explain) the opponents of the ordination of women have so far either been overlooked or (to a degree) caricatured in the historical literature so far, and I hope this article goes some way to putting that right.)

For more on my ongoing project on the life and work of Eric Mascall, see the project page.

New podcast: Eric Mascall and the purpose of the theologian

A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest on the Holy C. of E. podcast, talking about the work of Eric Mascall. It is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts, or below.

There’s nothing like an unscripted conversation to expose all of one’s verbal tics. But, in between all the ‘kind of’s and ‘in a sense’s, there’s Mascall, metaphysics, anthropology, ecclesiology, demythologization, the universities, and the theological colleges. Alternatively (if that all sounds a bit much), it’s about what theology should be about, who it is supposed to serve, and why Mascall thought his contemporaries had got it wrong.

It is based on this recent article of mine on Mascall.

For more information on my ongoing project on Mascall, see here.

Iris and the Christians: what did the British churches make of Murdoch, 1954 – c1983

The audio recording of a public lecture given at the University of Chichester on 19th February 2022, as part of a study day at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre. My thanks are due to Miles Leeson for the invitation, and to the audience for a very engaged and stimulating discussion afterwards.

(52 minutes.)

I examine Christian reactions to Murdoch’s work in three areas: her strictly philosophical work on metaphysics and ethics, and her novels. I explore the remarkable closeness of Murdoch’s distinctive preoccupations to those of British theologians in the period. However, her position outside the usual circles of Christian discourse made it difficult for her to be heard and, when she was, her fundamentally atheistic position made her philosophical work hard to digest. The final third of the paper then looks at Christian readings of her novels, in which readers found much more congenial material with which to engage.

Authors discussed include: (among the theologians) Don Cupitt, Colin Gunton, Eric Mascall, Alasdair Macintyre, John A.T. Robinson, Keith Ward; among the critics: Bernard Bergonzi, Ruth Etchells, David Holbrook, Valerie Pitt. In relation to aesthetics, there is some discussion of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts.