Demanding and Endearing

Requiescat: Stephen Sykes

By Rowan Williams

The death of Stephen Sykes at the end of September — after many years of debilitating illness borne with great courage — has deprived the Anglican family of an unusually resourceful and penetrating theologian, who had a massive influence on a generation of younger theologians learning their trade in the 1960s and ’70s. When I went to Stephen for supervision in my student days, I found a teacher of exceptional commitment and integrity — and a very demanding one, who would relentlessly question clichés, inspirational vagueness, and attempts to be too clever. At a time when British theology departments were rather dominated by a combination of sceptical biblical scholarship and extremely cautious philosophy of religion, it was bracing and encouraging to find someone who believed so strongly in the actual study of doctrine as a serious intellectual exercise. The volume of essays on Christology (Christ, Faith and History) that Stephen edited with John Clayton in 1972 was and remains a significant moment in the revival of British systematic theology.

Part of the impetus for this came from Stephen’s unusual level of acquaintance with continental European theology, and he played a unique role in opening up conversations between continent (especially Germany) and island in areas other than New Testament scholarship. As so often, he saw his role as that of a bridge-builder and catalyst: much of his most important early work was in getting groups of theologians together to collaborate in fresh areas. I had the privilege of working with him and others on a book about Karl Barth in the late ’70s, when Barth was still shamefully little studied in the U.K. But he also produced significant work under his own name alone: a lucid little book on Schleiermacher, studies on atonement and ecclesiology, and of course some really groundbreaking work on Anglican identity. He was never happy with the rather lazy idea that there was no real theological distinctiveness about being Anglican — though he was also very suspicious of what he considered the Anglo-Catholic kidnapping of Anglican identity by means of an unhistorically narrow theology of the episcopate.

He was nothing at all of a “party” man. His roots were in a strongly conservative evangelicalism, but most of his own thought reflects a mainstream, creedally orthodox and philosophically literate Reformed perspective that had moved decisively away from that early conservatism, without turning either to liberal or to Anglo-Catholic solutions. It was a somewhat unusual position at the time (although it could be said to be a pretty faithful modern version of classical 17th-century Anglican thought) and an immensely valuable contribution to the spectrum of conviction in the Church of England. Stephen was always a committed Church theologian, and it was no surprise that he was chosen as a consultant to the 1988 Lambeth Conference (he wrote a great deal of the section of the Conference report dealing with doctrinal issues). When he became Bishop of Ely in 1990, he continued to contribute substantially and creatively to theology in the Church of England as well as being a hard-working and pastorally sensitive diocesan. After his return to academic life, he once again acted as mentor and midwife to many younger scholars — though the onset of illness sadly limited what he could do after his eventual retirement.

Enormously and imaginatively kind, he could also be shy and rather intense. As I’ve said, he was a deeply demanding teacher in the very best sense, and his students felt great warmth and loyalty towards him. His legacy is a rich one in all sorts of ways. Among those who, in the early ’70s, really began to turn the theological scene around in England, his name must be in the very first rank, and the debt owed him by both church and academy in England and much more widely is a great one. Speaking personally, I owe him a renewed sense of confidence and excitement about systematic theology, a sympathetic interest in a German Protestant world I had been too ready to ignore (probably as a result of too much Bultmann as an undergraduate), constant stimulus and encouragement to think and write, and years of generous friendship, which did not exclude some lively disagreement. He was a great gift to us all and the loss is correspondingly great. May he rest in peace, and may his family know God’s faithful presence and comfort.

The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2003 to 2012, is master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge.

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