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
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.
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
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
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
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.