Theology Reforming Society

Revisiting Anglican Social Theology

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Stephen Spencer
  • London, UK: 
    SCM Press
    , October
     2017.
     288 pages.
     £35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780334053736.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Stephen Spencer’s volume Theology Reforming Society: Revisiting Anglican Social Theology aims to examine the history of Anglican social, political, and economic thought, and “to contribute to the ongoing discussion about how to evaluate and apply Anglican social theology in the years ahead” (xvi). The book is a series of chapters originally given as papers for a conference at the Mirfield Centre—home of the Community of the Resurrection—fulfilling the terms of a trust established in memory of Henry Scott Holland to “provide a series of lectures on the theology of the Incarnation and its bearing on the social and economic life of man” (vii). The conference and in turn the book also build on Malcolm Brown’s Anglican Social Theology (Church House, 2014).

Chapters are arranged historically, beginning with two focusing on the life and work of F. D. Maurice, often considered “the founding father of Anglican social theology and even, in many people’s minds, of Christian Socialism itself” (1). Two chapters then deal with some of those who followed in the footsteps of Maurice: Octavia Hill, Brooke Foss Westcott, Henry Scott Holland, and Charles Gore. The historical section of the book is then rounded off with two chapters—one of which is contributed by Spencer himself—on William Temple and the “Temple Tradition” as “the heart of the unfolding narrative of Anglican social theology from Maurice through to our own day.” The situation in our own day is the focus of the final two chapters, including Malcolm Brown on “Anglican Social Theology Today and Tomorrow,” before a concluding afterword by Peter Manley Scott.

From the perspective of the descriptivist or interpretivist investigator of Christian political thought—as opposed to one bringing a normative viewpoint to their reading—this is a very useful book, bringing to light the theological and political ideological details of Christian Socialist (or, it might be preferred, Christian social) thought in a very helpful manner. Jeremy Morris’s opening chapter on F. D. Maurice, for example, seeks to uncover the theological bases of Maurice’s political thought and action, and present Maurice’s vision as “a much more integrated model for a Christian social theory or social theology than is often contemplated” (19). Morris also makes a well-reasoned argument for the genuineness of Maurice’s socialism—albeit, not a state-focused form of socialism—where others, myself included, have perhaps been too quick to dismiss him as a paternalist, considering that a genuinely socialist Christian Socialist awaited the appearance of Stewart Headlam, James Keir Hardie, and others.

Other examples include Paul Avis’s work on Westcott, Scott Holland, and Gore, as well as Spencer’s on Temple, an insightful overview of Temple’s core theological principles of God’s redemptive purpose and mankind’s inherent dignity, and an examination of Temple’s methodology for deriving political and social principles from the theological. Diane Ryan’s chapter on Octavia Hill is particularly valuable for its introduction to the life and work of a sometimes-overlooked figure, particularly given that histories of Christian Socialism and Christian social thought are often dominated by men.

From another perspective—the perspective of one supportive of or sympathetic to Anglican social theology—this book is also a valuable contribution. The historical examination of these key thinkers is accompanied by an examination of what can be learned and applied to the contemporary situation—for example, Spencer on Temple’s thought and methods is followed by Susan Lucas on “The Temple Legacy Today: Beyond Neoliberalism,” in which Lucas argues for the use of Temple’s work in order to cultivate an alternative to neo-liberalism which can be articulated by the Church. Brown’s chapter, and Matthew Bullimore’s on “Public Theology or Ecclesial Theology,” fall into this category also, with Bullimore drawing from the likes of Augustine of Hippo Regius, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Temple to offer practical suggestions for what the Church should do. From the former perspective—that of the objective researcher—these chapters are perhaps less useful, but from this perspective they will be very helpful and are indeed a necessity for the book to carry out its stated aims.

It should be noted that Theology Reforming Society is not a good place to begin for anybody as yet unfamiliar with Anglican social theology. The book builds on previous work on the topic, and it does not draw clear unambiguous conclusions—Manley Scott’s afterword ends with a series of questions rather than conclusions—so the effect would be rather like beginning with the middle installment of a movie trilogy. This is not a criticism—the book does not claim to be comprehensive, nor an introduction, and it makes clear that its aim is “to contribute to the ongoing discussion” rather than conclude that discussion. References to previous works are helpfully provided, and those new to this topic might do better to begin with Brown’s earlier 2014 work.

Finally, Brown and Manley Scott both discuss the need for the evangelical section of the Church of England to be integrated into the development of Anglican social theology for, as Brown argues, while evangelicals are now “in the vanguard of social action,” “the evangelical theological objections to social action from the 1980s … have not been superseded by a new evangelical theology supporting social action, or a new evangelical theology supporting social action (129)”. Anglican social theology, however, relies first on an understanding that social change is part of God’s redemptive work in Christ, and second, as Manley Scott suggests, on an agreement that care for the poor is part of the Church’s pastoral—rather, by implication, than its evangelistic—work. This seems contrary to the evangelical view of redemption as the individual being reconciled to God, and therefore raises questions as to whether there can be an evangelical version of Anglican social theology without evangelicals having to modify their theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony A. J. Williams is Tutor in Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Spencer is a Tutor at the Yorkshire Ministry Course based at Mirfield and a parish priest in Yorkshire. He is the author of several books including The SCM Studyguide to Church Mission and Christ in All Things (Canterbury Press, 2015).

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