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Truth and the Church in a Secular Age, edited by David Jasper and Jenny Wright

06 September 2019

Peter Sedgwick on the witness of Scottish Episcopalian theology

THE Scottish Episcopal Church is small, but it has contributed much to theological thinking over the years. This book is a collection of essays by its members.

Most of the authors are members of the Episcopal Church’s Doctrine Commission. Some teach in universities, while others are parish priests or bishops. Some are ordained, some not; and the breadth of outlook is considerable, as well. Some, such as Trevor Hart, who was Professor at the University of St Andrews and is now a parish priest, stand firmly in the classical Anglican tradition, while Alison Jasper describes herself as a Christian feminist working to “exclude the politics of domination”. The overall theme is concerned with how the Church can claim to uphold the truth in an age of “post-truth”.

The book begins with a splendid essay by Nicholas Taylor on the biblical understanding of truth, or aletheia in the New Testament, and how that truth is discerned in the liturgy. Liturgy and prayer, as a repository of truth, is a constant theme throughout the book. Hart is excellent in discussing Richard Hooker and John Henry Newman, while there is careful philosophical exegesis in the chapters by David Jasper and Scott Robertson. A couple of essays take up the question of truth and the sciences. One of the great merits of this book is the way in which it includes pastoral issues (there is a fine essay by Bishop Gillies), social justice (Jenny Wright), and feminism (Alison Jasper). The breadth of chapters is great, both in their topics and theological standpoint.

There is a consistent emphasis throughout the chapters that truth is something that confronts us, in our encounter with the world and through the self-giving of the Word, Jesus Christ. Bringing that reality to expression in language is a responsible and demanding task. That is how liturgy reveals the truth. Those called to lead the people of God in worship are also given the task of making the supernatural and transcendent visible in our world.

This search for truth is also closely linked to the nature of goodness, or human flourishing (eudaimonia in Aristotle, and much theological thought after him). The danger of post-truth is that it turns away from this demanding task to an easy acceptance of enchantment, manipulation, and power. That does not mean that theology should assert its claims independent of its context, by reverting to a biblical or ecclesiastical fundamentalism. Theology needs to be self-critical, aware of where it has come from, and engaging in dialogue with those outside the Christian tradition (page 63, Wright).

This is a demanding agenda, but the book is clearly the result of extensive discussions. The Scottish Episcopal Church has done much in recent years to reach out to the wider public through an online journal (search for Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal), the Grosvenor Essays, and now this book. While, sadly, not cheap at £35, this book represents a tremendous effort by a small Anglican Church to engage rigorously but very accessibly with the question of truth and Christian faith. It is a wonderful contribution, and it is much to be welcomed.

Canon Peter Sedgwick was formerly chair of the Church in Wales Doctrine Commission, and Principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff.


Truth and the Church in a Secular Age
David Jasper and Jenny Wright, editors
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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