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Obituary: THE RT REVD STEPHEN WHITEFIELD SYKES

by
24 October 2014

UPP

Beefing up the bench theologically: Bishop Sykes (right) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who had consecrated him, in 1990

Beefing up the bench theologically: Bishop Sykes (right) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who had consecrated him, in 1990

Professor David Thompson writes:

THE Rt Revd Stephen Sykes, who died on 24 September, aged 75, was a leading theologian of Anglicanism, spending his career at Cambridge and Durham universities, though he may never have been completely at ease as Bishop of Ely.

His principal achievement was to insist that Anglican and English-speaking theology should take seriously the need "for original argument in what might be called theology proper", by which he meant fundamental, doctrinal, and systematic theology, theological ethics, and the history of Christian theology as it related to current questions of doctrine. For a century, Anglican theology had been based on patristic and biblical study, reflecting the Anglican Reformation emphasis on scripture, tradition, and reason.

Sykes built on that patristic foundation at Cambridge to engage with modern German theology and its systematic rigour. While recognising that a certain liberalism was inevitable in all modern theology, he also believed that a conservative starting-point was best. Schleiermacher was a key influence upon him, and Sykes felt that Karl Barth's criticisms had been exaggerated.

Sykes was educated at Monkton Combe School, and had a conventional Evangelical upbringing. His undergraduate career was spectacular, with a double first in Theology at Cambridge, followed by a starred first in Part III Theology, specialising in Dogmatics. Nevertheless, he also engaged in Protestant preaching on the streets of Dublin.

After reading for ordination at Ripon Hall, Oxford, he was elected Dean of St John's College, Cambridge, before he received his MA degree, and to an Assistant Lectureship in the Faculty of Divinity. After lecturing initially on the "History of Christian Doctrine from Nicaea to Chalcedon", he left that to Maurice Wiles, and turned to "Modern Theology from Schleiermacher to Bultmann" - the first time such a course had ever been given. With the 1970 reforms in the Cambridge syllabus, Sykes (by then a Lecturer) introduced one of his favourite topics, "Methods, Sources and Norms in Theology", and continued to lecture across a wide range of subjects.

In 1974, he was elected to the Van Mildert Chair in Theology at Durham. Here he enjoyed his involvement in the life of the cathedral as a residentiary canon, and wrote some of his most substantial books, particularly those on the nature of Anglicanism, which he sought to defend as a distinctive tradition within the Church, with its own integrity and identity. For these he will be most remembered.

Almost certainly, his theological perspective was influenced by the need that Sykes felt to respond to the "death of God" theology, popularised during his formative undergraduate years. Without some common understandings about "God, man and salvation" (the title of another lecture course) there could be no common framework for Christian discourse; and this he explored throughout his career. He sometimes wondered why the syllabus required students to spend so much of their time studying heresies rather than Christian orthodoxy.

When Henry Chadwick retired as Regius Professor at Cambridge, Sykes was an unsurprising choice to succeed him in 1985. In this period, he introduced a Christology seminar for undergraduates, and later the Systematics graduate seminar, which still continues. For several years, he ran a course on "Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth", an interesting topic for someone who said more than once that he could see himself as a Lutheran. Whereas Chadwick had been an advocate for the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, Sykes supported the development of Anglican-Lutheran relations.

The choice of Sykes to succeed Peter Walker as Bishop of Ely in 1990 was less obvious; and he did not find the decision to accept the invitation an easy one. Although he had pastoral experience as Dean of St John's, he had never been involved in parish ministry, apart from his time as an assistant curate while he was Regius Professor. But it was also suggested that the episcopal bench needed some theological strengthening.

He introduced a new style of managing diocesan affairs, establishing a strict and direct relationship between expenditure and fund-raising (stewardship), between planning and budgets, clarifying the link between choice of priorities in ministry and mission, and the willingness to pay for it by generous giving. It was a time when all institutions were under scrutiny to justify themselves and the costs they involved.

Sometimes he lost battles in the diocesan synod about cost-cutting, when these were set against the public demand for clergy on the ground. Being somewhat reserved, he did not mix easily on parish occasions in the diocese. Despite his years of experience in college governing body and university faculty board, genuine consultation in the ecclesial sense did not come easily to him. He tended to make up his mind first, and consult afterwards, which could leave others feeling that the consultation was not genuine.

The cut-and-thrust of academic debate, which he enjoyed, did not transfer easily to a pastoral structure. He had lectured on the theology of power, but formed his ideas against the background of situations where the powers were evil, as in Nazi Germany.

During these years, he also served as chairman of the Church of England's Doctrine Commission (1996-2002). His wider work for the Anglican Communion took shape in his membership of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, established after the Lambeth Conference of 1988, which led to the Eames report of 1997, and included a substantial enunciation of theological first principles.

In 1999, Sykes accepted the invitation to become Principal of St John's College, Durham. He had previously been president of the council, and found it a more congenial theological and ecclesial context in which to work. He was given a professorship in the University, and served as an assistant bishop in the diocese. In 2006, he retired, but remained in Durham for family reasons.

Sadly, he was struck by an illness that eventually confined him to a wheelchair. He continued to do as much as he could in his new circumstances, and always remained cheerful in adversity. His death came quite suddenly, leaving his wife, Joy, one son, and two daughters.

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