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Divines familiar and less so

13 November 2015

William Jacob finds this selection and weighting a surprise

Austin Farrer: he gets a 40-page study in the book under review

Austin Farrer: he gets a 40-page study in the book under review

The Anglican Imagination: Portraits and sketches of modern Anglican theologians
Robert Boak Slocum
Ashgate £60
Church Times Bookshop £54


THE aim of this book is to capture the concept of Anglicanism in “portraits” of ten characters who can be said to embody something of “the Anglican spirit”.

In his preface, Dr Slocum suggests that “balance” is at the heart of Anglican life and practice, and that “Anglicans tend to be more pragmatic and occasional than systematic or speculative,” with a tradition that is “practical and flexible in application”, responding to a particular demand or occasion, often set out in sermons, with the experience of “common prayer at the heart of Christian faith as practiced by Anglicans”.

Anglican theology, he suggests, “upholds the truth that God works through people, and in their daily lives”. As a result, “Anglicanism can be messy,” with “loose ends and unsettled question, and disagreement”. The ten portraits are intended to display important perspectives on modern Anglican theology.

The chosen ten are six American Episcopalians: William Porcher DuBose, William Stringfellow, Phillips Brooks (who may ring a faint bell for English Anglicans, as the author of “O little town of Bethlehem”), Jackson Kemper, James DeKoven, and Marilyn McCord Adams, who was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford; three English Anglicans: Austin Farrer, John Polkinghorne, and Charles Gore; and one Scot, who also worked in the United States, and was Lady Margaret Professor at Oxford, John Macquarrie.

Slocum provides a brief outline of each person’s life, mostly posts held, and then a lucid and accessible account of some of his or her writings. It was interesting to learn something of some people who are little known on this side of the Atlantic.

The essays vary in length, between 40 pages for Farrer and six for McCord Adams, and in their coverage of a person’s oeuvre. Only two of Adams’s books are referred to; surprisingly, given Gore’s vast output, only his essay on the Holy Spirit in Lux Mundi and his The Holy Spirit and the Church, are discussed; as are only two of John Macquarrie’s considerable output. Phillips Brooks, Kemper, and DeKoven wrote only sermons, although some of Kemper’s manuscript letters to his daughter are quoted.

The description of them as “modern Anglican theologians” is puzzling. Kemper was born in 1789, and three of the other Americans died in the 19th century. Only two of the theologians discussed are living. The choice of theologians discussed is also puzzling. It hardly seems appropriate to claim to present “modern Anglican theology” without including at least one Evangelical, some people who are not white, and people from the Anglican Communion beyond the United States and England, more than one woman, and more than one layperson.

The ten characters briefly portrayed may display something of the Anglican spirit, but the case is not really made for their theology as distinctively “pragmatic”, “practical and flexible in application”, or arising from the experience of common prayer, except that, for some of them, the only sources are sermons. There is little about “messiness” and “disagreement”. Modern Anglican theology offers much more than these essays suggest.

The blurb suggests that this book will be “an invaluable resource for students of Anglican theology and anyone who seeks to understand the distinctive perspectives and contributions of Anglicanism relative to living faith”. Anyone hoping to learn about the distinctive scope and depth of modern Anglican theology, who pays £60 for these 173 pages of text, will invest in a very limited picture of Anglican theology over the past 180 or so years.


The Ven. William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.

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