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The English took slowly to Barth . . .

16 November 2010

. . . but the Welsh and the Scots saw the point of him earlier, declares Alec Graham


Barth Reception in Britain
D. Densil Morgan
Continuum £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

TOGETHER with a brief look at Ulster in the post-war period, this book covers precisely the area indicated in its title. The reference to Britain is all-important; for, despite the publication in 1933 of Sir Edwyn Hoskyns’s epoch-making translation of the Römenbrief, reception of Karl Barth’s works in England was slow and patchy.

In the 1920s, however, first in Scotland and then in Wales (both countries that had strong Calvinistic traditions), Barth’s thinking was attracting attention. The Welsh scene is sometimes ignored, or receives only cursory treatment by English authors, principally, no doubt, on account of unfamiliarity with the Welsh language. Thus the careful treatment of the Welsh scene is particularly valuable. The book itself emanates from the University of Bangor and is “dedicated to theology at Bangor”.

As interesting as the treatment of the various phases of Barth reception in Britain are the analysis of Scottish church life in the 1930s and the description of the English theological scene in the same decade. They make truly astonishing reading for us who live in such a different theological world.

Nowadays we all are heirs of Barth, whether we realise it or not; his influence is in the very air that we breathe, even among conservative Evangelicals, some of whom (strangely) distance themselves from Barth and his work. Yet, remarkably, even in the third decade of the past century (and perhaps later) it was possible to graduate in theology from an English university with no more than a vague awareness of Barth’s contribution to theological understanding.

This study is full of interesting information and evaluation. It deserves to be widely read, and it will no doubt be used as a work to which readers will wish to return for reference. It is, therefore, all the more regrettable that it is marked by numerous mistakes in spelling, particularly of the names of English anthems, of the titles of German books, and of German words in the text (and, I wonder, in the spelling of Welsh?).

This, however, in no way diminishes the hope that the author will find time to develop his treatment of this subject in the period after Barth’s death in 1968. In such a sequel, the author may be able to add a dimension to Barth reception in Britain by evaluating Barth’s influence on Roman Catholic thought in this island since the Second Vatican Council.

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham is a former Bishop of Newcastle.

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