Oxford don who prayed his dogma

30 November 2006

The Truth-Seeking Heart: An Austin Farrer reader
Ann Loades and Robert MacSwain, editors

Canterbury Press £16.99 (1-85311-712-9)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Raymond Chapman on a thoughtful anthology

ALTHOUGH Dr Rowan Williams has named Austin Farrer as “possibly the greatest Anglican mind of the 20th century”, much of his published work is difficult to obtain. We should be grateful to the editors for this selection of extracts, which ranges widely across his writings, including sermons, articles, and chapters from books.

Farrer came from a Baptist background, was ordained as an Anglican priest, and passed most of his life at Oxford, where he died in 1968 as Warden of Keble College.

He was far from being like Belloc’s “remote and ineffectual don”. He engaged with the intellectual and social issues of his time, particularly the challenge of logical positivism, confronting them with a deeply orthodox faith that never refused to admit and examine the difficulties within it.

He was a philosopher as well as a theologian, and a lover of literature: the combination as it appears in these pages is irresistible. Serious arguments are sometimes lightened by amusing fantasies, little anecdotes that draw the reader into his confidence and make the thought more accessible.

The editors have arranged the extracts under the headings “Scripture, Tradition, Reason” — the familiar bases of Anglican doctrine and praxis. Farrer was deeply Anglican, with a strong Catholic loyalty to the Church, but distrust of anything suggesting infallibility. Everything was to be tested against the record of scripture and the deposit of faith handed on from the beginning.

If this does not sound like a book for Christmas reading and giving, let it be added that his style never lapses from an elegant simplicity, and that his writing stimulates devotion as well as intellectual response. Two brief quotations from different works must stand for many that can inspire reflection. “We are not free to rewrite the Gospels from the impression we form of Christ’s bearing upon us today”: a warning against the possible abuse of Experience as a fourth plank in the foundation of faith. “No dogma deserves its place unless it is prayable, and no Christian deserves his dogmas who does not pray them.” This is a book to be read and cherished.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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