A shocking sentence and a correspondence

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I wrote to the Church Times over the weekend because of a shocking sentence in a book review by the Revd Dr Edward Dowler of Anthony Thiselton’s new book Systematic Theology (London: SPCK, 2015). Here it is:

Although Thiselton comes from the Evangelical end of the Anglican spectrum, he is, on the whole, balanced, and his range of reference is wide. [my italics]

I was shocked and dismayed at the patronising implication that Thiselton is an exception to the norm, since he is an evangelical who reads widely, and writes in a balanced way—the implication of Dr Dowler’s ‘Although’ is that this is not to be expected of evangelicals.

Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times responded to my letter by declining to publish it. I reproduce the correspondence below, and would welcome comments. He clearly does not think there is anything amiss in displaying such prejudice.

Dear Sir,

I was shocked and disappointed to read the Revd Edward Dowler’s patronising comment on Professor Anthony Thiselton’s new book Systematic Theology in this week’s edition of the Church Times. Mr Dowler writes, ‘Although Thiselton comes from the Evangelical end of the Anglican spectrum, he is, on the whole, balanced, and his range of reference is wide’ (my italics). I had—evidently mistakenly—thought we had got beyond the days when people (and priests in particular) in the Church of England categorised whole groups of people as biassed, unlearned enough not to read widely, and to be criticised simply because of the group to which they belong. Most surprising of all, this is one of the most eminent Anglican scholars of his generation whom Mr Dowler patronises in this way: Professor Thiselton is one of the very few scholars who could have held a professorial chair in three disciplines—New Testament, Systematic Theology, and Philosophy of Religion—and has published a string of important books in all three areas. He served with distinction on the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission, and was a much-valued member of the General Synod.

Perhaps most shocking of all, your editorial pen allowed this patronising comment to get into the published version of the review. I would really have hoped that your editorial hand would have thought that the days of such comments were long gone, given that you aspire to be an Anglican newspaper for the whole Church of England, and would thus have invited Mr Dowler to rephrase his review. I think you and Mr Dowler owe Professor Thiselton an unreserved apology.

Sincerely,

Steve Walton

Reply by Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times:

Dear Professor Walton

Thank you for your note. I think that this is the first time we have been criticised for allowing someone to be called ‘balanced’.

The truth of the matter is that we receive many theological books for review from different wings of the Church, and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that authors take in the whole sweep of opinion. For those who know Professor Thistelton’s work, Edward Dowler’s might seem an unnecessary statement; but the general readership of the Church Times benefits from having these things spelled out.

I conclude, therefore, that this is an unfair criticism, and shall not be publishing your letter.

With best wishes

Paul Handley, editor

To my eye, Mr Handley has missed my point entirely—and this may be because of poor and unclear communication on my part (my letter may not have been explicit enough). We emailed back and forth a couple more times, and I was unable to persuade Mr Handley that this key sentence was insulting and displayed prejudice, and thus should lead to an apology. So consider the following sentences:

Although she is a woman, she writes quite well and displays wide reading and balanced judgement.

Although he is black, he engages with a wide range of scholarship and writes in a balanced way.

These would (rightly) be considered insulting and prejudiced and could not be printed today. So why is it acceptable to insult evangelicals in this manner—or any other group in the Church of England, for that matter?


7 thoughts on “A shocking sentence and a correspondence

  • Doug Chaplin

    Perhaps you should have sent a different letter:

    “Dear Sir,

    I was interested to read Fr Dowler’s review of Anthony Thisleton’s Systematic Theology. Although Fr Dowler’s turn of phrase suggest he continues to hold typical catholic prejudice regarding evangelicals, I thought the content of his review showed a remarkably balanced appreciation of the book.

    Yours”

    Reply
  • Derek

    Well done, Steve, for trying to get that across. The worrying thing is that the editor doesn’t get it. Your point about women and black people is telling. And why would he not publish?
    It’s even more interesting in the light of Ian Paul’ recent article on the same newspaper noting that most of the key bishops are now evangelical.
    I hope lots of them and others will hear about this and make appropriate comments.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  • Philip Richardson

    Steve, I thought you expressed yourself very clearly and fairly. Thank you for tenaciously representing the views of the rest of us. Both the review and the response from the Church Times were very disappointing. Here is another sentence that I think the Church Times would be very unlikely to print (at least I hope so!): “Although the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is from the evangelical wing of the Church of England, his statement yesterday was expressed in a way that was, on the whole, thoughtful and balanced . . .”

    Reply
  • Pingback: Further on a shocking sentence—a different correspondence | Acts and More

  • Mark Smith

    I wonder if you could take this sentence two ways
    “Although Thiselton comes from the Evangelical end of the Anglican spectrum, he is, on the whole, balanced, and his range of reference is wide.”

    The generous way – although X is thought of a being associated with one end of the theological spectrum he is balanced and includes the views of all perspectives. – this assumes the writer could have also equally have written of another author “Although Father Joe comes from the Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, he is, on the whole, balanced, and his range of reference is wide.” If you interpret it this way it is nothing to do with assumptions that all evangelicals are narrow – and more to do with commending a work to the wider church. This is how I read it on first reading .

    The other reading is of course that evangelicals are assumed to be narrow.

    I think the sentence is ambiguous and it is hard to come down one way or the other from a simple reading of the text Which you choose is likely to be effected by previous experience or prior knowledge of the author.

    I think the sort of prejudice against evangelicals you write of does exist (as do other assumptions about catholics) – and they do need to be challenged where they occur – but i have my doubts in this case

    The examples you gave about women and black people only apply if the second less generous reading is assumed.

    Black people or women are not by definition associated with a set of doctrines or schools of thought in the way evangelicals, catholics or liberals are , so if the primary meaning is intended to commend the author to other schools of thought then the anology could itself be considered inappropriate and patronising.

    Personally I don’t know enough about Dr Dowler to judge his intentions – I wonder if the editor found himself in a similar place.

    Mark

    Reply
    • Steve Walton Post author

      Thanks for a thoughtful response, Mark. See further the posting I’ve put up today.

      Reply

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