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Explorations in Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy: People preoccupied with God by Ann Loades, edited by Stephen Burns

16 June 2023

John Saxbee reviews a collection of writings by the late Ann Loades

ANN LOADES has been justly described as one of the most distinguished theologians of our time, and was only the second person to be awarded a CBE for “services to theology”. We now have the chance to scan her career through her engagements with 20th-century theologians — mostly Anglican — who, like her, were “people preoccupied with God”.

She died late last year as this book was in press. It contains ten articles spanning 35 years, with a final chapter written especially for this collection. An afterword by Robert MacSwain pays tribute to her “passionate intellect”; and Simon Oliver, in his foreword, commends her passion for lay theologians who left a lasting impression on modern theology, and especially Anglican theology, clearly evidenced here.

First is Evelyn Underhill, whose mysticism Loades puts into the context of her biography, ecclesiastical journey towards Anglicanism, and evolving mystical Christology. Her reflections on the part played liturgically by the eucharistic celebrant are instructive and especially moving. The second chapter focuses on Underhill’s undistinguished ventures as a novelist, but there are some memorable bons mots to savour, involving “cadaverous curates” and a young woman displaying “aggressive chastity”!

Next, Dorothy L. Sayers takes us to “the place of the images” — ourselves as made in God’s image, and how Christian faith contains images that enable us to live that faith in a fallen world. Through a kaleidoscope of genres, she articulated these biblical and credal images. Her plays, detective novels, the theological essay The Mind of the Maker, and her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy all contributed to challenging a war-weary world with an essentially social gospel. As Loades puts it, “She firmly repudiated any nonsense about religious faith being merely the private affair of an individual.”

Loades’s own formidable contribution to the part played by women in articulating Christian faith and spirituality in the 20th century owed a great deal to Sayers’s inspiring example. This is reflected in a revealing chapter on Dante’s Beatrice as modelling the intellectual, emotional, bodily, and sacramental contribution of women to Christian tradition.

This leads seamlessly into Loades’s forensic deconstruction of C. S. Lewis on gender issues in general, and on the ordination of women in particular. Her high regard for Lewis is evident in the piece “C. S. Lewis: On Grief”, but she was unafraid to call him out when his influence on popular Christianity might have been detrimental.

In reflecting on Lewis’s A Grief Observed, she provides a touching account of how the death of his wife, Joy, affected their mutual friend, Austin Farrer. The latter’s Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited may well have been influenced by Lewis’s text, and it is to Farrer’s book that Loades devotes one of the most insightful essays in the whole collection.

Meanwhile, her succinct summary of Lewis’s theology is typically perceptive: “. . . it shows us someone who has the courage to let his passion and honesty pervade his theology . . . probed for its resources, tested for its adequacy, developed in some directions, made flexible and promising in unexpected ways, still kindly in its astringency”.

Lewis struggled with Farrer’s signature assertion that “the Incarnation is how God brings good out of the blackest evil,” but came at last to an appreciation of his friend’s theodicy. And it is to the relationships between Farrer and his friends which Loades turns in a chapter on how he became “a beacon of light” to so many contemporaries representative of a wide social and ecumenical spectrum. Underhill, Sayers, and Lewis feature in short profiles of these friendships, together with Helen Waddell, Iris Murdoch, and Helen Oppenheimer, so reinforcing Loades’s commitment to feminist thought and its evolving influence.

Two profoundly rich and rewarding chapters on Simone Weil exemplify Loades’s facility in summarising, contextualising, and, above all, rendering relevant 20th-century theology for our 21st-century Church and world.

Finally, Loades straddles the Millennium with a substantial chapter on the past 50 years of Anglican theology. A select group of her contemporaries are profiled, with emphasis on the use and abuse of power in ecclesiastical contexts, and with particular reference to misogyny, homophobia, and the sexual abuse of children. Here, she is at her most combative, drawing extensively on the work of Stephen Sykes and his exposure of flaws in the exercise of episcopacy, to make the case for reform.

Being such a prolific speaker and author, she often repeats herself, as this collection demonstrates. But this tends to emphasise thematic threads, and is never in vain. It certainly doesn’t detract from this stimulating and revealing posthumous testimony to a theologian of rare courage, character, and conviction.

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


Explorations in Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy: People preoccupied with God
Ann Loades
Stephen Burns, editor
Anthem Press £80
Church Times Bookshop £72

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