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Legacy to theology and society

09 September 2016

John Saxbee on John Hughes and his ideas


Graced Life: The writings of John Hughes
Matthew Bullimore, editor
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27



JOHN HUGHES died in a motor accident on St Peter’s Day 2014, aged just 35 years. As Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, he had already established himself as one of the Church of England’s finest young theologians. As Andrew Davison expressed it in his Church Times obituary: “John’s death has left the Church poorer both in heart and mind.” His long-time friend and erstwhile collaborator, Matthew Bullimore, has brought together his published articles, plus two seminar papers, and provided a generous and informative introduction.

The book is in two parts. The first focuses on Creation with an especial emphasis on the theological nature of work, rest, and worship. Part Two contains essays that deal with the Church in the world. Here, Hughes’s interest in the possibility of Christian culture, and the Churches’ social teaching, is to the fore.

The opening piece dates from Hughes’s undergraduate days, and is remarkably precocious. He uses King Lear as the basis for an exploration of the politics of forgiveness. Hughes argues that only a theologically and eschatologically grounded view of forgiveness can secure its socio-political applicability.

Two essays reflect his interest in the writings of Sergei Bulgakov, a Russian Orthodox theologian who converted from Marxism to Christian socialism. The first focuses on Bulgakov’s critique of Aquinas on creation ex nihilo, while the second endorses his challenge to scientific positivism so as to ensure that science is “the handmaiden of life, not its master. . . It is grounded in the always already creative divine wisdom.”

The only monograph by Hughes was on the understanding of work within a theological critique of capitalism, and two essays focus on this theme. Here, as in later essays on Christian social thought, an all-pervasive utilitarianism in contemporary culture is his main target. He seeks to integrate divine and human labour, and to celebrate the convergence of work, rest, and worship within a teleological framework in stark contrast to the secularisation of work in Marxist and neo-liberal ideologies.

While Hughes can engage on equal terms with the often obscure and complex arguments of philosophical theology, his piece on Christian apologetics, which opens Part Two, demonstrates a complementary gift for crystal-clear and robust analysis. After what he believes to be the wrong turns taken by modernism and post-modernism, he shows how faith and reason need no longer be rivals in the cause of Truth.

Unfortunately, his joint article with Bullimore does not answer the title question, “What is Radical Orthodoxy?”, with anything like the same degree of clarity. But his allegiance to this influential movement played a key part in his thinking, and its chief movers readily acknowledge his contribution.

Jacques Maritain coined the term “integral humanism”, and it was developed by Henri de Lubac. This argues for an integral relationship between nature and grace in opposition to attempts by both Catholics and Protestants to compartmentalise them. Church Times readers will be especially attracted by Hughes’s exposition of “integral humanism” as an evocative way of understanding the established Church of England in its relation to culture and society. Here we get some sense of how Radical Orthodoxy might inform on-going debates about the Church of England’s direction of travel, and the voice of John Hughes in those debates will be sorely missed.

The final three essays focus on the possibility of Christian culture with reference to the writings of S. T. Coleridge and T. S. Eliot, and Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Hughes highlights the part played by integralism and gift exchange in the Anglican social tradition, and the collection concludes with a cautiously optimistic survey of recent Anglican social thought in the face of numerous contemporary and future challenges to human flourishing and global sustainability.

There can be little doubt that Hughes would have been a significant contributor to the renewal of Christian social teaching, especially in the Church of England. This is yet another reason to lament his untimely death.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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