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Theology for Changing Times, edited by Christopher R. Baker and Elaine Graham

11 January 2019

Anglican social thought moves forward in this book, says Peter Selby

“DAD would begin his research with a concept, and would then read massively around that subject.” So writes Lesley Atherton in her preface to this wide-ranging and thought-provoking exploration of the work of the late John Atherton.

That brief sentence describes very well a legacy of a theological method well illustrated in this collection of essays, dedicated to honouring him by giving an account of his “public theology” and, in the process, seeking to chart the future of the discipline.

After the editors’ introduction, the first essay is by Atherton himself: “By their fruits you shall know them”, a text that he uses to headline his insistence that a Christianity “fit for purpose” has to engage with material well-being: income, the market, and social change. This programmatic essay shows very clearly how Atherton’s project was nothing less than the “rebuilding” of Christianity in a form that would engage with society as it is.

So, while, as a consultant to the Archbishops’ Commission, he had valued Faith in the City, he was also, as the next essayist, Hilary Russell, makes clear, very critical of its failure to provide a sharp-enough critique of capitalism. Russell also points to a vital characteristic of Atherton’s thought: its rootedness in local community. Manchester was his deep love and the most significant inspiration for his public theology, though, as Peter Sedgwick argues in the next essay, that did not mean that he and his co-workers in the University, the Cathedral, and the William Temple Foundation constituted a “Manchester School” with an orthodoxy all of its own.

Stockholm was also a source of intellectual nourishment for Atherton, and Carl-Henric Grenholm’s essay is a critical analysis of Atherton’s engagement with political economy from the standpoint of Christian social ethics — an engagement involving some risk, and certainly not, on the basis of Grenholm’s analysis, an enterprise for the faint-hearted seeking simple solutions.

Atherton saw Christian history in terms of “ages”, the pre-modern period as one of atonement and the 20th century, in particular, as the age of incarnation; and this he connects with the way in which Churches engaged with industry and the arrival of large corporations. Malcolm Brown suggests, in a move to take Atherton’s methodology forward, that we might now be living in the age of partnership and reconciliation.

John Reader takes up a current issue, that of virtual currencies, and asks what are the ethics of blockchain, as an example of how Atherton’s thinking might illuminate the digital age. William Storrar’s essay asks one of the most challenging questions in the book: what Atherton’s way of doing public theology has to offer to an age of public anger anger needs to be “bent” towards constructive solutions.

Anna Ruddick and Maria Power press similar questions, respectively, about developments in urban mission and the place of Catholic public theology in the Northern Ireland context.

The range of these essays is huge, as befits the range of Atherton’s own reading and reflection. Some of the language — for instance, the titles of the introductory and concluding pieces by the editors — suggest a complexity that might deter readers from the more specific concerns that the essays in the book, and Atherton’s own thinking, illuminate so profoundly.

This book is, in fact, deeply encouraging. It honours Atherton’s massive achievement in taking forward the theological engagement in societal issues of Maurice, Gore, Westcott, Tawney, and Temple, as a tradition that, as this book shows, we deeply need, and for whose developing future we should continue to work.

It is good that (Roman) Catholic Social Teaching is so much more valued and understood in the British context than it used to be; the Atherton inheritance shows that that is not the only tradition that can illuminate today’s public questions.

This is a book that will not yield its fruit without effort. Readers should not be put off by the reading lists or some of the terminology; there is hopeful challenge here, not least because a failure by Christians to meet Storrar’s challenge of “bending” the public anger that surrounds us towards justice and peace will have such devastating consequences for us all. Atherton’s deeply rooted, utterly committed, widely read thinking will be vital for a long time to come.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the future of public theology
Christopher R. Baker and Elaine Graham, editors
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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