Eric Lionel Mascall OGS FBA (1905–93)

A Presentation at General Chapter 2022 by the Revd Dr Robert MacSwain OGS

Austin Farrer

When the Superior asked if I would share a few words about Eric Mascall during General Chapter, I said yes immediately. I wrote my doctoral thesis on Austin Farrer, one of Mascall’s closest friends and colleagues in both church and university, and while I have certainly not read all of Mascall’s substantial body of work—or even half of it—I engaged with his important early texts on theism as part of my background research on Farrer.[1] But I am also increasingly interested in Mascall in his own right and particularly the way his career divided into various stages, and how his academic reputation has waxed and waned over the decades. Fortunately for us, a historian named Peter Webster has recently published some very helpful articles on Mascall that I will touch on at the end. For he has indeed been neglected, but is hopefully now due for a revival of attention.

Let me begin with his basic biography and career, and here I am drawing initially on two pieces by appreciative but not uncritical fellow theologians from the Church of England: John MacQuarrie and Brian Hebblethwaite. Eric Lionel Mascall was born in London in 1905 and was educated at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith. He then went to Pembroke College in Cambridge in 1924 where he read mathematics. While his affiliation with Anglo-Catholicism began in school, in Cambridge he encountered the Oratory through his Dean of Chapel, Edward Wynn. Mascall finished university with first-class honours in mathematics, which bestowed upon him the distinctive Cantabrigian title of “wrangler.” Afterwards he taught mathematics at a boys’ school for three years, but was very unhappy doing so because, as he put it later, “he ‘had no training in teaching, … was no good at athletics and … was a bad disciplinarian’.”[2]

This negative experience encouraged Mascall to explore a vocation to Holy Orders and he thus went to Ely Theological College for one year. Ordained in 1932, he held two short curacies before beginning his long and distinguished academic career in philosophical, systematic, and historical theology. As Hebblethwaite explains: “In 1937 Mascall was invited to become sub-warden of Lincoln Theological College…. His first major book, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism, appeared in 1943. It was a lucid re-examination of natural theology and established Mascall’s reputation as an exponent of Thomism. It was submitted for, and received, the Cambridge BD the same year.”[3] Mascall remained at Lincoln until 1945; was based at Christ Church, Oxford, from ’45 to ’62; and was then Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College London from 1962 until his retirement in 1972. He was professed in the Oratory in 1938 and remained a member until his death in 1993.[4]

I will continue the summary and evaluation of Mascall’s scholarly work in a moment, but here let me pause and observe how extraordinary it was, even when things were rather less professionalized, for someone to achieve such notable academic distinction in a field without ever earning a conventional degree in it. Leaving aside the BD by submission and additional higher or honorary degrees that I will get to later, Mascall’s only taught degree was a BA in mathematics, and as noted a moment ago he only spent one year at theological college. He thus began publishing and teaching in theology without a single degree in that subject, and ultimately went on to become a full professor of divinity at a leading English university. This trajectory is a clear testimony to his brilliance and the way in which he managed to teach himself and master the fine points of both philosophy and theology.

After providing the basic details of his career, John MacQuarrie described Mascall as a “convinced Anglo-Catholic, [who] was perhaps the most influential in a group of like-minded theologians of the Church of England, all approximately his contemporaries, including Austin Farrer, Gregory Dix, Michael Ramsey, and Gabriel Hebert. He worked in the Thomist tradition and was well acquainted with the thinking of Catholic theologians on the Continent, especially France.”[5]

Turning back to Hebblethwaite’s account, he likewise wrote that Mascall’s “steady stream of publications consolidated his position as one of the country’s leading Anglo-Catholic theologians. Particularly noteworthy were Christ, the Christian and the Church (1946), a study of the incarnation and its consequences; Existence and Analogy (1949), recommended to all students of analogy; Christian Theology and Natural Science, the Bampton lectures for 1956, and for many years regarded as the standard work on the subject; The Recovery of Unity (1958), a substantial contribution to ecumenism, commending, first and foremost, common study of the truth of Christian doctrine; and The Importance of Being Human (1958)…offering a reasoned Christian anthropology.”[6] MacQuarrie concurs with this general assessment, adding that “it was not only problems of philosophical theology that Mascall tackled. His contributions ranged over the whole area of theology,” including ecclesiology and sacramental theology.[7]

Hebblethwaite goes on to claim that “Mascall’s works were hardly original”—although, as we will see in a moment, our Visitor has a slightly different view of at least Mascall’s later work in ecumenical theology. Although Hebblethwaite complains that Mascall’s books were “full of long quotations from other authors,” he then says with evident approval, “but they constituted an unparalleled attempt to set out, rationally, the truth content of the classical Christian tradition and to relate it, without a hint of accommodation or reduction, to the discoveries of the sciences.” He added that in “a broadcast review of The Recovery of Unity Owen Chadwick observed that ‘among the living thinkers of the Christian Church, Dr Mascall is in a minority of one’, but also that he, like Hooker, exhibited ‘the sane, clear-headedness of a devout mind’.” Hebblethwaite concludes this section of his entry by observing that the “stature of his work was marked by further higher degrees, the Oxford DD in 1948 and the Cambridge DD in 1958. (Later honours included an honorary DD from St Andrews in 1967 and fellowship of the British Academy in 1974.)”[8]

That’s enough about Mascall’s life and career. I now want to turn to a more autobiographical perspective from our Visitor, Rowan Williams, who pays an interesting and provocative tribute to Mascall in the introduction to “Christology and the Nature of the Church,” a lecture he delivered as part of a series in Mascall’s honour held at St. Mary’s Bourne Street in London. Bishop Rowan says:

Eric Mascall was a major inspiration to me throughout my first studies in theology and all through my research. With an entirely characteristic kindness, he responded to a letter from me when I was still a raw undergraduate and had plucked up my courage to ask his advice on matters of ecclesiology. Later he was generous in his counsel when I was writing a thesis on Vladimir Lossky, who had been a friend of his; he helped me immensely in ‘plotting’ many lines in the history of relations between Orthodox and Latin Christianity, and [take note, Brian Hebblethwaite!] his later work in particular showed a wonderfully creative pursuit of new directions in this crucial area. … I was delighted when he agreed to examine my thesis, and I have long felt that I can claim to be, in virtue of this, a little bit of an adopted member of his wide and varied intellectual family.[9]

Bishop Rowan then continues:

More than anything, though, he defined for me the place where theology belongs. His was a profoundly integrative mind; and to turn from reading him on Thomism to reading him on the eucharist and thence to reading him on John of the Cross and Abbot Chapman was to be educated into a coherent vision of what was then (and still is) none too common in Anglican thought. … He remains, I believe, seriously underrated – not least as a straightforward systematic theologian, with a rare breadth and sureness of touch. Perhaps the best I can do today is to send you back to him and to encourage you to encourage new generations to read him.[10]

Bishop Rowan has more than once suggested that Austin Farrer, the topic of my doctoral research, was perhaps the “greatest mind” of the Church of England during the 20th century, but one of my teachers, Fergus Kerr, a Scottish Dominican who also delivered a Mascall Lecture at St Mary’s Bourne Street, once said to me that he thought Mascall’s academic achievement was even more significant than Farrer’s. I will let Bishop Rowan and Father Kerr settle that dispute themselves!

I said earlier that I was interested in the way that Mascall’s career divided into various stages and how his academic reputation has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Without being too rigid about the boundaries, it seems that his scholarly career had three basic stages: early, middle, and late. The early stage was during the 1940s when he wrote his major studies on philosophical theism such as He Who Is and Existence and Analogy, but he continued to work in this crucial area even later, as in his Gifford Lectures from 1971, The Openness of Being. To this early stage also belong his main doctrinal works such as Christ, the Christian, and the Church and, a bit later, Corpus Christi (1953). To the middle period, basically during the 1950s, belong his constructive explorations in ecumenical theology and theological anthropology and theology and science. But then the 1960s and 70s happened, and as commentators such as MacQuarrie and Hebblethwaite among many others observe, Mascall’s third phase was mostly one of fairly reactionary and polemical critique of liberal developments in the Church of England.

Typical of this period were Mascall’s later arguments against the ordination of women, partly but not entirely on ecumenical grounds. A representative volume is The Secularization of Christianity (1965), his critique of John Robinson’s Honest to God and likeminded theologians. MacQuarrie says: “The writing was brilliant and exposed some of the superficialities of the views criticized. But perhaps it failed to address some of the real concerns which Robinson and his allies had espoused.” MacQuarrie continued: “Similar judgements could be passed on most of the other books which Mascall produced in the final years of his life. They lack the constructive qualities of his earlier work. An exception is his short book, The Triune God [1985], in which he reflected on the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith. Some critics believed that this book made an important contribution toward reconciling Eastern and Western doctrines of the Trinity.” MacQuarrie then claims rather boldly that Mascall “remains as a witness to whatever is enduring in the conception of a Catholic Anglicanism.”[11] However, perhaps because of the polemical and controversial nature of this third and final phase of Mascall’s career, his more substantial and creative earlier and mid-career work has been largely eclipsed and forgotten, which is a shame. Indeed, Bishop Rowan suggests that such neglect is typical of Mascall’s entire generation, including Farrer and Dix, as well as Ramsey, despite the enduring value of their work.[12]

An encouraging sign of renewed interest in Mascall’s legacy may be found in some recent essays by the aforementioned Peter Webster: two have already been published—“Eric Mascall and the Responsibility of the Theologian in England, 1962–1977” and “Theology, Providence and Anglican-Methodist Reunion: The Case of Michael Ramsey and Eric Mascall”—and at least two more are forthcoming: “Eric Mascall and the Making of an Anglican Thomist, 1937-46” and “E. L. Mascall and the Anglican Opposition to the Ordination of Women as Priests, 1954-1978.”[13]

Much more could and should be said about our brother Eric Mascall, such as that his time in the Oratory coincided with the diametrically opposed Liberal Catholic theology of Alec Vidler. Despite both being Oratorians, Vidler’s own work did not escape Mascall’s severe critique. One of the interesting and valuable points in Webster’s article on “Mascall and the Responsibility of the Theologian” is that it addresses their relationship, showing how despite their vehement differences, the Oratory notes of the “Labour of the Mind” and the “Love that Makes for Peace” might still manage to coexist. Our necrology entry on Mascall notes his sense of humour and gift for light verse, most endearingly and enduringly expressed in his classic collection of satirical and parodic poetry, Pi in the High. In the Foreword to that Mascall wrote, “To take oneself too seriously is bad theology.”[14] And that seems to be a good note on which to conclude.

[1] Eventually published as Robert MacSwain, Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Leuven: Peeters, 2013).

[2] Brian Hebblethwaite, “Mascall, Eric Lionel (1905–1993),” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Volume 37 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 136–38, quoting from 137, drawing on Mascall’s memoir Saraband.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Date of profession from the OGS necrology; Hebblethwaite mentions his affiliation on 137.

[5] John Macquarrie, “Mascall, Eric Lionel (1905–93),” in The SPCK Handbook of Anglican Theologians (London: SPCK, 1998), ed. Alister E. McGrath, 170–72, quoting from 170.

[6] Hebblethwaite, 137.

[7] MacQuarrie, 171.

[8] Hebblethwaite, 137.

[9] Rowan Williams, Christology and the Nature of the Church: The Fourth Mascall Memorial Lecture given in St Mary’s Bourne Street, 6th November 1999 (London: St Mary’s Bourne Street, 1999), 1. The copyright page of the pamphlet says: “This edition is for private circulation among members of the congregation of St Mary’s and the brethren of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd.” I am grateful to our Visitor for permission to share more widely here.

[10] Ibid.

[11] MacQuarrie, 172.

[12] See his “Honest to God and the 1960s” in Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003), 103–20, especially 109–11.

[13] See for details.

[14] E. L. Mascall, Pi in the High, illustrated by Barbara Jones (London: The Faith Press, 1959). Note that the dedication is, “To Austin and Katherine Farrer—my patient audience,” and the Farrers are also mentioned in several poems.

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