*** DEBUG END ***

Tussle over the ‘Sunday school’

23 September 2016

Andrew Davison on divinity dons and undergraduate tests

“A rigorous academic diet”: the boy Thomas Wolsey, from Ipswich, was schooled at the old Grammar Hall of Magdalen College, Oxford, which served as the college’s school from 1480 until 1928. He went on to teach there, before further opportunities came to him; and the rest is history. The story is very readably told in John Matusiak’s Wolsey: The life of King Henry VIII’s cardinal, now reprinted in paperback (The History Press, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-7509-6535-4), from which this illustration is taken

“A rigorous academic diet”: the boy Thomas Wolsey, from Ipswich, was schooled at the old Grammar Hall of Magdalen College, Oxford, which s...

The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford — 1833-1945
Daniel Inman
Fortress Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70



HISTORY books often achieve their force by demonstrating either that the past was unlike the present in surprising ways, or that it was more similar than we might have expected. For most readers, The Making of Modern English Theology no doubt fall firmly in the first category.

It did so for me. Theology has been taught at Oxford for centuries. I contributed for a few years, and, in as much as I thought about the history of teaching theology there at all, I imagined that the present-day endeavour was basically in long historical continuity with what had always happened, some historical drift aside. I was wrong, as Daniel Inman relates in laying out this fascinating story.

Until the creation of the Honour School in theology at Oxford — the event round which this book pivots — the place of theology was both remarkably broad and remarkably shallow. It was broad, indeed, until 1932. Before that, undergraduates as a whole had to pass an examination in Divinity in order to graduate, entitled “Rudiments of Faith and Religion”. On the other hand, the curriculum was singularly uninspiring and undeveloped, and revolved around a Sunday-school-on-speed familiarity with nugatory biblical facts, examined viva voce.

It was a catechism class of the most unimaginative sort. Candidates faced questions such as “Give an account of the plagues of Egypt in their right order” and “[Describe] the foreign and domestic policy of Hezekiah.” It led to knowledge of a “homeopathic dose” of theology, as one critical bishop put it. None of this brought the Church or the faith into good repute; nor did it prepare clergy well for ordination. No wonder the new theological colleges burgeoned. The culture of research among the theology professors was sluggish.

Much of Inman’s book is concerned with attempts to reform this situation, and it would therefore be easy to see the story as one simply of throwing off obfuscation; but something else was also clearly at stake. What critics of reform valued most of all in the old settlement — and E. B. Pusey was the arch-critic among them — was a sense of theology as the common patrimony of all students, not only of an elective few. Moreover, those critics also nobly shuddered at the thought of competitive examinations in theology, which they thought was “unworthy”: the “Rudiments” exam was pass/fail.

Today, we might look askance at that syllabus, but its emphasis on knowledge of the Bible and the faith of the Creeds should leave us feeling somewhat bashful about recent lists of “outcomes” for theological training, issued by Ministry Division. They have been decidedly coy about any requirement that ordinands should know the content of the faith. As I remember from my days teaching in theological colleges, the emphasis from central office has been on students’ being able to “articulate their responses” to the faith (or something like that) rather than on knowing what the deposit of faith itself might amount to in any objective sense.

The period so ably recounted in this book was one of much soul-searching on what the teaching of theology is about, and those arguments from a century ago make thought-provoking reading today. Much of what eventually transpired seems well judged: a move to ecumenism and to greater lay involvement, for instance, and to a concern for scholarly rigour, combined with a sense that theology belongs to a living and enduring community of faith.

If the picture is mainly one of change, it is worth remembering unexpected continuities. A few of the Oxford theology professorships are still reserved for clerks in Holy Orders, and, while a wholesale laicisation of the fellowships followed the 1877 Oxford University Act, the chapels remain in good heart today, and their feared implosion (to which the foundation of the Oxford Pastorate and Pusey House was a reaction) has not come about.

Inman’s focus is on Oxford throughout. Cambridge is mentioned from time to time, and so are other universities as they arise, but only rather marginally. That tight focus helps the book, but it puts the title under stress: modern English theology was not “created” primarily at Oxford, despite the legend at the top of the back cover. Indeed, as the author relates, many of the developments that were so fiercely fought over at the older university passed through Cambridge with little opposition. No matter: wrangling makes for a more engaging story than the nem. con. trajectory in the Fens.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and currently a research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)