Poet, Priest and Prophet
The life and thought of Bishop John V Taylor
ISBN 0 85169 272 9
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland London 2002 £14.95
(price at publication of review)
Reviewed September 2003; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2003
John V. Taylor was one of the most creative and imaginative churchmen of the second half of the twentieth century. General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society after Max Warren and then Bishop of Winchester, he was, as the title of David Wood’s book suggests - poet, priest and prophet. That in itself is an unusual combination, but only tells the half of it. As Rowan Williams states in his Foreword, putting him alongside Michael Ramsey, ‘they represented an exhilarating largeness of spirit and imagination; they made you believe that this largeness was the native air of Christians and to live in such an atmosphere was the most desirable thing in the world’.
David Wood is an Australian priest who has devoted years to his study of John Taylor’s life and thinking. The book engages with both. The gaps, I feel, are in the biographical part, whereas the treatment of the theology is thorough and compelling. It cannot have been easy, for John, for all that there are consistent themes that run through his writing, was not a systematic theologian. But David Wood has explored his writings with real devotion and identified the threads that run right through, whether in his first great book, The Primal Vision (1963) or his last major work nearly thirty years later, The Christ-like God (1992). In between, of course, was The Go-Between God (1972), his formative book on the Holy Spirit, better known than the others and one of the most influential theological books of our age.
I am not sure that Wood captures the latter years in biographical terms. John’s chairmanship of the Doctrine Commission and his time as Bishop are all covered in one chapter that does not quite convey the way these parts of life were. There was a passion about his theology that was sometimes frustrated by the safeness of the Doctrine Commission, which told him, in effect, that if he wanted to explore in a fresh way the doctrine of impassibility and the vulnerability of God, an area where John was much influenced by Jurgen Moltmann, Rosemary Haughton and fellow Commission member, Bill Vanstone, he must do it on his own. He did just that a few years later in The Christ-like God. I was disappointed too in the fact that John’s retirement years in Oxford received almost no treatment. Retirement for John meant liberation, but a freedom in which he could write, teach, converse, make connections, and he did this fruitfully for fifteen years right up to his final illness.
But these are small omissions alongside a reverent but scholarly treatment of a fascinating Christian life and of a theology that breathed life into all who heard it expounded.
Michael Perham is Dean of Derby.
From 1981 to 1984 he was Chaplain to Bishop John V Taylor
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