Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Master: The Life and Word of Edward H. Sugden

I'm pleased to announce the publication, by Uniting Academic Press, of the result of a symposium at Queen's College last year on Edward H. Sugden, its first Master. My contribution is chapter 9, "Reading Wesley's Sermons in Edwardian Melbourne." You can purchase a copy through Rainbow Book Agencies. Here is a brief excerpt.

"The Edwardian era was a very religious one which, at least for A.N.S. Lane produced far more interesting religious figures than those of the Victorian age which preceded it. It was the age of religious controversialists such as G.K. Chesterton, and of such figures as William James and H. G. Wells who, though not themselves religious, gave Christians much to think about and contributed significantly to public religious discourse...Though his life extends well beyond the Edwardian period, Sugden was in many ways an Edwardian figure and the designation 'Edwardian' is a legitimate description of his social, cultural, ecclesiastical and theological milieu, and more than simply a play on words...Thirty two years after [his arrival at Queen's] Sugden having become a well known, much loved and sometimes controversial church leader [published] an annotated edition ofJohn Wesley's Standard Sermons...The fact that Sugden's work is still in print is perhaps a testament to an ongoing interest in Wesley's Sermons rather than in Sugden himself. The description in the Preface to the American edition of 1986, published by Zondervan, describing Sugden's work as 'the best existing edition of Wesley's standard sermons' cannot be taken seriously and is certainly not the case. It had then already been replaced by the superior critical edition of Albert C. Outler published in 1984...While somewhat helpful in placing each sermon in its context in Wesley's life and ministry and the eighteenth century world in general, [Sugden's annotations] add nothing to the more critical work done on the Sermons since Sugden's time... [they] are perhaps most valuable in providing insights into the practices of the Methodist Church of his day and there are many interesting sidelights for the reader... "

"The world of an eighteenth century Anglican priest and that of an early twentieth century Methodist minister were very different worlds indeed. Conservative Methodists were holding on to the earlier world; liberal evangelicasl [like Sugden] were pushing forward to a new one. Sugden's annotations are symptomatic of this development. To study Sugden's notes on Wesley is to see two worlds in collision, as the 'reasonable enthusiasm' of Mr. Wesley meets the rational modernism of Mr. Sugden. Few Methodists today would make much fuss over theistic evolution or biblical criticism. At the same time, while we have not entered a post-critical world, we do seem to have entered a post-liberal one. A post-liberal reading of Wesley would, I think, be willing to accept his 'storied world' without the need to dismantle it. A reader need no longer share the worldview of his or her subject in order to enter into a sympathetic understanding of it. Sugden cannot resist the need to 'correct' Wesley, yet he makes little effort to read him in light of Wesley's own Anglican theological tradition or the wider Christian interpretive tradition. He exhibits the rhetoric of modernist dismissal of all things ancient and pre-Darwinian. One may read Wesley today with a less defensive posture. Though some twentieth century Evangelicals hardened into Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism itself continued as the thoroughly modern movement it had always been, despite its own claim to be resistant to all things new. Sugden's edition of Wesley's Sermons reflects a recurring pattern in Evangelical religion - the unsettling tension between engaging with modern thought and holding to 'the faith once delivered.'"

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Ross said...

Fascinating. Hopefully we'll be able to order a copy for the Resource Centre.

Chris Russell said...

'... Evangelicalism ... continued as the thoroughly modern movement it had always been, despite its own claim to be resistant to all things new'.

This may be an old post, but I find your comment intriguing. How do you account for the paradox that is evangelicalism?

Glen O'Brien said...

Chris, your question would require an entire book to answer. According to David Bebbington's famous definition Evangelicals are conversionist, biblicist, cross centred, and reforming (to paraphrase). They have always utilised contemporary art forms and technology to achieve their evangelistic ends (though not always well) and this sometimes leads to what I think you mean by 'paradox.' For example (and this is a very broad generalisation) where Fundamentalists might boycott rock music altogether as 'of the devil,' Evangelicals are much more likely to adopt rock music as a mode of communicating the Gospel. Is that a 'paradox'? Or simply pragmatism?

Ross - please do!

Chris Russell said...

Glen, the paradox strictly is that evangelicalism is a 'thoroughly modern movement' but this contradicts 'its own claim to be resistant to all things new'. Another way in which you put this in your post is that Sugden reflects 'the unsettling tension between engaging with modern thought and holding to 'the faith once delivered'.

I think you are right about a conflict of this sort within evangelicalism, but I would locate it, instead, within the reforming wing that Bebbington identifies. The paradox arises because reforming (i.e. the Church) involves engaging with the world in a new way i.e. outside the established Church, but in a way that also involves it in returning believers to the true faith of the early Christians.

This mode of being is problematical for Christianity. A reforming evangelicalism ends up having to reform itself continually, which is how Protestants have succeeded in fragmenting the Church.

This theory. at least, helps me understand the emergence of what I would call 'liberal evangelicalism' in the second half of the twentieth century. This is an evangelicalism that inter alia has no problem with Higher Criticism to say nothing of that cool Batplane.


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