Canon Professor Edward Bailey

by
15 May 2015

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Ted Harrison writes:

THE concept of implicit religion has, since the late 1960s, informed and enriched both theology and the sociology of religion. Canon Professor Edward Bailey, who died on 22 April, aged 79, was the first person systematically to examine the idea that many secular activities have a religious dimension. In the process he created a new field of academic study.

His work led to the foundation of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality. He edited its journal, and organised the annual Denton Conferences, bringing academics together from many disciplines and countries who all valued the contribution made by implicit religion to their own work.

This May's conference, which Edward planned in his final months, is the 38th. The conference takes its name from its venue, Denton Hall in the Yorkshire countryside, the headquarters of the family engineering business N. G. Bailey, of which Edward was a non-executive director for many years.

Born near Leeds in 1935, Edward attended Oundle School. Then came National Service, and Edward, who was already considering ordination, chose to serve in the ranks of the RAF. He read history and theology at Cambridge, and, after graduating, travelled to India on a World Council of Churches scholarship, and for two years studied development issues. It was there that his ideas on religion and society began to take shape.

He returned to Cambridge, to Westcott House, to prepare for ordination, and was ordained deacon in 1963, and priest in 1964. After a curacy at St John the Baptist, Newcastle, Edward was appointed assistant chaplain at Marlborough College. Attending a conference on education on behalf of the school, he met the religious-studies scholar Fred Welbourn, then at Bristol University. "Is it possible to read anything on secular religion?' Edward asked him. "No," came the answer. "Nobody has written on that subject. You had better come and do some research with me." So Edward returned to academic life, to work towards a Ph.D.

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Thus Edward began formal and pioneering work exploring spirituality within a secular context. Part of his original research involved getting a job in a pub, to observe the rituals of bar life.

Two significant events occurred around this time in Edward's life. Helping in the Gloucestershire parish of Winterbourne during an interregnum led to his being the Rector, from 1970 to 2006.

Also studying at Bristol was a family friend, Joanna Light, training to be a teacher. They married in 1968, and Winterbourne became the family home to Edward, Joanna, and their children, Christopher, Catherine, and Charlotte. Edward credited Joanna with inventing the term "implicit religion".

The demands of parish life, however, working up to 80 hours a week, delayed the writing of his thesis, which he eventually completed in 1977, after taking sabbatical leave.

Recognition of implicit religion within higher education came slowly and often reluctantly. It did not fit neatly into existing categories of study and in some ways was a challenge to both theology and sociology. Denton, however, attracted papers from around the world, and Edward visited universities in Europe, the United States, India, China, Japan, and New Zealand, as his ideas spread.

He became a visiting professor at Middlesex and Staffordshire Universities, but a centre for the study of implicit religion at Middlesex was short-lived. A research post in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge has, however, been created, and most recently Glyndwr University has offered Implicit Religion within its postgraduate courses.

Edward was keen, too, that his work was not confined to academia, and that it informed popular practice and discussion, in both church circles and wider society. His mailing list of interested individuals grew to 900, and the Winterbourne rectory hosted regular study days for those at the practical end of religious study and teaching.

Edward questioned a widely held assumption that religion was the sole prerogative of institutions devoted to religion. He valued difference and sought to discover the sacred within what might otherwise be dismissed as profane; to find the spiritual within contemporary secular society. He noted that "everybody has a religion of some sort," a faith by which they live, albeit as an unconscious core at the centre of their way of life and being.

Both in parish ministry, which Edward saw as his primary calling, and far beyond, he sought to share new insights into faith in the modern world. Over the years, his enthusiasm, generosity, and encouragement of others won him great respect and affection. His intellectual legacy is now in the hands of the many people who have been influenced by his work.

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