A distaste for definitions

15 February 2011

Alec Ryrie considers the theologians of English pragmatism


Scripture, Tradition and Reason: A selective view of Anglican theology through the centuries
William Marshall

The Columba Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

I ADMIT that when I saw the title of this book and read its contents page, my heart sank. Here was a book on Anglicanism by a former tutor in an Anglican theological college, with chapters looking at a series of Anglican heavyweights: Cranmer, Taylor, Maurice, Ramsey, and points between. I feared that this was “Anglicanism” at its worst.

By this I mean “Anglicanism” as an -ism: a denominational identity, that is, an identity constructed so as to exclude people: the approach, all too common, that declares what counts as properly “Anglican” and what doesn’t. And somehow its lists of heroes never include certain great leaders of the Church of England (Perkins, Wesley) and always in­clude others (such as that slippery apologist for religious coercion, Richard Hooker).

This kind of Anglicanism can be smug in its blithe confidence that it is as inclusive as it needs to be, and more concerned with its relationship with churches on the other side of the world than with churches up the street. It is what I fear from the Covenant.

But William Marshall’s book has reassured me to some extent. This is largely the work of his first chapter, “Is there such a thing as Anglican theology?” My instinct is that the answer has to be “No”; or, at least, that if “Anglican theology” is not coterminous with “Christian theology”, then “Anglicanism” has become something different from Christianity, and I want no part of it.

Marshall talked me down from my high horse, however, by suggest­ing an empirical approach. He is not asking what Anglican theology in its Platonic essence might be, but what Anglican theology has in fact been: what common features and family resemblances have emerged and persisted. And, although I might quarrel with his choice of theo­logians, it is a good question, well asked and well answered.


His key answer is in his title: Hooker’s famous triad of sources of authority. There is, of course, noth­ing distinctively Anglican about this. As Marshall points out, it is impos­sible to be a Christian theologian and not to use this triad. He care­fully traces how each of his theo­logians have balanced its elements, even where they do not acknow­ledge it. All I missed here was an acknowledgement of the fourth source of authority: experience.

Two other themes that Marshall emphasises throughout are prac­tical­ity and modesty — practicality in the sense that Anglican theology has tended to be pastoral and pragmatic rather than systematic, abstract, and philosophical. These are virtues. But they are virtues char­acteristic of secure and com­placent establishments — and of Englishmen. And Englishmen they are: not only are all of Marshall’s main characters male, the index does not list a single woman who was not a 16th-century monarch.

As for modesty: from Jewel to Temple and beyond, Marshall’s theologians are determined to deny that they are preaching “Anglicanism”, and to define the essentials of the faith in as minimal and inclusive a fashion as they can. The persistence of that impulse among Anglicans is remarkable, although we are not always as inclusive as we think. Marshall’s careful account of how the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral half-includes episcopacy in the essentials of the faith is a case in point. Not even Hooker went that far.

A final theme keeps surfacing, but Marshall does not emphasise it in the same way: state power and establishment. Most of his theo­logians managed to make a virtue of the unequal relationship between Church and state in England, though some — Keble most ob­viously, Wake and Temple, too — kicked against it. All had to nego­tiate it.

It remains the great unspoken fact of the Church of England’s life, and the great division between the C of E and the rest of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England’s calling is to be a national Church without becoming either a state Church or a sect; Marshall’s examples remind us how hard it is to walk that fine line.

In other words, this book is a splendid and thought-provoking primer on some fine theologians; and it is an accessible introduction to quarrels that should be long dead, but which refuse to die.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.

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