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The Origins of Anglican Moral Theology, by Peter Sedgwick

08 February 2019

Robin Gill sees signs of a distinctive approach to ethics disappearing

PETER SEDGWICK is a scholar-priest who has contributed much to the Anglican Church. He is very widely read, did serve for many years on the Board for Social Responsibility, focusing and writing on mental health and criminal justice, and was finally Principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff (and a member of ARCIC), for a decade before retiring a couple of years ago. He has now returned to his roots as a church historian and theologian in this ambitious new book, arguing that Anglicans need to be reminded of a distinctive “developing tradition (or family resemblance) . . . in Anglican moral theology, made up of contesting but ultimately reconcilable rival traditions”.

This is no easy task, as he recognises frankly at the outset. He was taught at Cambridge by the cultural historian Quentin Skinner, who remains notoriously sceptical about any “history of ideas”, and, at Durham, by Stephen Sykes, who spectacularly failed to locate the distinctiveness of Anglicanism (championing the Book of Common Prayer as our most distinctive feature at the very moment when it was fast disappearing from parish churches).

Yet Sedgwick insists both that a history of ideas is possible, as long as it does not ignore their social context, and that the Anglican moral tradition emerging between 1530 and 1690 does have three abiding and distinctive features:

“First, the theologians who shaped that tradition believed that it was crucial that moral case reasoning should not be separated from a spirituality that was devotional and ascetical. . . Secondly, authority in Anglican moral theology was drawn from plural sources and was not to be found simply in Scripture, or the decisions of monarchs, bishops or presbyteries, taken on their own. . . Thirdly, the place of reason is closely related to the work of the Holy Spirit.”

The first half of this book traces these three features variously in the resources held in common by the Western Church before the Reformation — the Bible, the Fathers and medieval theologians (especially Aquinas). Much of what he writes here is dependent on secondary sources and can be found in many introductions to Christian ethics/moral theology (a distinction that he now insists upon, but ignored in some of his earlier writings).

The most original and valuable part of this book is the second half, where he locates these three features within Tudor and Caroline Anglican theologians — including William Tyndale (claimed as a sort of proto-Anglican), William Perkins, Richard Hooker, and Jeremy Taylor. Hooker, in particular, is examined at depth in two scholarly chapters.

I am sure that Sedgwick is right to insist that Anglicans should be more aware than they are of their Tudor and Caroline theological roots; and this book provides a significant spur to such greater awareness. In present-day university departments of theology and religious studies, however, it is difficult to achieve this. Most university teaching today has become ecumenical; so it is difficult to justify spending too much time on, say, Hooker, when theological giants such as St Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther need to be given due attention. Anglican seminaries, in contrast, could make better use of this book — if only to encourage students to give greater attention to the supposed distinctiveness of Anglicanism.

The word “supposed” here is deliberate. Despite his best efforts, I am not totally convinced by Sedgwick’s main thesis. His three features of Anglican distinctiveness could apply just as well to Aquinas in the past or to non-Anglican followers of Edward Schillebeeckx in the present. Roman Catholic theologians who are in a religious order characteristically do not separate reason from spirituality, let alone regard scripture as their sole authority.

In the other direction, some lay Anglican theologians in universities (when fewer academics today are ordained) do now make such a separation, and some conservative Evangelical Anglican theologians do seem to insist upon scripture alone. Many Roman Catholic theologians also take biblical criticism seriously, and denominational lines have become more blurred.

Perhaps it is only in largely negative terms that some Anglican distinctiveness can be detected: Anglicans, while retaining a threefold ministry, do not have a pope; they do not have a requirement of clerical celibacy; and they do not have dogmatic moral teaching (say, on abortion or contraception) that has little support even among their own adherents, let alone within Western society more generally.

Anglicans also used to take pride in living harmoniously with moral differences, but, alas, it has become hard to sustain that boast in the 21st century.

These negative features make a very slender basis for claims about distinctiveness. Nevertheless, Sedgwick’s bold efforts in this hard-working book should generate much further discussion. For this and for its careful scholarship, it is very welcome.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology in the University of Kent, Editor of Theology, and Acting Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Gibraltar.


The Origins of Anglican Moral Theology
Peter H. Sedgwick
Brill £68
Church Times Bookshop £61.20

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