Stephen Sykes Memorial Address (Proverbs 1.1-34, John 1.1-18)

This address was given by Professor David F. Ford,  Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge, at a memorial service for Bishop Stephen Sykes at Great St Mary’s University Church, Cambridge on Saturday 14th February 2015

Does not wisdom call,

   and does not understanding raise her voice?

On the heights, beside the way,

   at the crossroads she takes her stand;

beside the gates in front of the town,

   at the entrance of the portals she cries out:

‘To you, O people, I call,

   and my cry is to all that live.

O simple ones, learn prudence;

   acquire intelligence, you who lack it…’

Proverbs 1:1ff

Stephen Whitefield Sykes

1 August 1939 – 24 September 2014

Last month in a committee room in Parliament Jean Vanier, founder of the international federation of L’Arche communities, where those with and without severe learning disabilities live together, addressed an audience of MPs, peers and others on the subject: ‘Why do the strong need the weak?’ ‘People with disabilities have a gift to give’, he said. How can we create places where the stronger and weaker can meet each other, speak heart to heart, and even be friends? What would our society be like if there were more places where those who are different – abled and disabled, rich and poor, more and less educated, young and old, mentally ill and healthy, powerful and powerless, could meet and be close to each other?

I was at the time preparing this memorial address, and thought of Stephen Sykes in recent years: suffering from a somewhat mysterious illness, in a wheelchair, often disinhibited in what he said, disabled in certain ways, yet capable of wonderful warmth and very frank conversation, and with something radiant about him. Those out of the blue phone calls that many of us received in recent years had the feel of the friendships found in the foyers of L’Arche. They were conversations not about getting things done, or organizing the church or the academy, or completing a publication; they could be about almost anything, often with random connections; but they were conversations of communion, times when somehow one felt in touch with Stephen, spirit to spirit, heart to heart, in ways that had been less easy to find in the years when he was in full health. And as one of his friends in this diocese, who got a call from him every month or so, wrote to me: ‘he would display flashes of the old mischievous humour which assured me that the person was still very much intact.’

For most of his life, Stephen was one of the strong. There was what a colleague called his ‘Rolls Royce mind’. He was an all-rounder: thinker, teacher, sportsman, family man, friend, public speaker, author, senior academic, leading churchman, pastor, college principal, international ecclesiastical statesman, and more. The velvet voice, the graciousness, the combination of humour, reserve and a probing intellect, the extraordinary skill at handling meetings and seminars, and what can only be called ‘charm’: all this made for a winning yet definite personality, and a distinguished career.

After schooling in Monkton Combe, first class theological qualifications in St John’s College, Cambridge, and ordination training in Oxford, for ten years he was Dean and Fellow of St John’s, and a lecturer in our Faculty of Divinity. Then for another decade he was Van Mildert Canon Professor of Theology in Durham University and Cathedral before returning to Cambridge to become Regius Professor of Divinity, Fellow of St John’s College and an Honorary Canon of Ely Cathedral.

Then in 1990 he accepted the invitation to become Bishop of Ely, a decision that surprised many. Opinions differ about whether this was wise, some regretting the loss to the academy of a superb teacher and of the books that might have been written, and some questioning his appetite and even ability in pastoral and administrative work. From my own knowledge (after I succeeded him as Regius Professor he became my bishop here for eight years), and from many I have spoken to in the diocese, for all the many difficulties Stephen faced – this is not an easy diocese – he gave himself utterly to the work and found it a fulfilling vocation, not least in the role of teacher. He was a dedicated teacher, of his clergy above all, and I have heard from many how nourishing and encouraging were the theological sessions he presided over so capably. I have been especially struck by how hidden much of his ministry was during these years, and it is therefore very difficult to have an overview of it. In recent weeks, as I asked people who knew him how he was as a bishop, there has been one story after another of gratitude, of hours spent in one to one conversation, of support for good initiatives, of encouragement given to vocations not just in church ministry but in all areas of society, and of handling those difficult, often disciplinary, cases that take up so much of a bishop’s time today. And then there were his enthusiasms. His son Richard’s wonderful address at Stephen’s funeral in Durham Cathedral gave a vivid picture of some of the enthusiasms of Stephen the family man; in his time as diocesan bishop he also frequently had enthusiastic ideas, though follow-through was not always his strength. I will say more about Stephen and institutions in a few minutes when I discuss his concern with power.

In 1999 he took up his last post as Principal of St John’s College, Durham. After the institutional weight of Ely Diocese this return to his dear Durham was something of a liberation. He revelled in the conversational and worship life of a small college, while continuing to chair the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England and maintaining international commitments through the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission and with Lutheran churches in continental Europe and beyond. Of all the other Christian traditions, Stephen was probably closest to Lutheranism. I vividly remember on two occasions, in Strasburg and in Niagara, seeing him close-up, in his element, in round table consultations with weighty Lutherans for whom, as for Stephen, theology really, really mattered. It was a time when you could still experience smoke-filled rooms, and you knew the meeting had reached its critical point when the Germans lit up and prepared to do intense, detailed, phrase by phrase battle on the Augsburg Confession, or the relationship between justification and sanctification, or bishops. The pugnacious side of Stephen, passionate about theological integrity, loved it.

What about Stephen’s theology? That concern for doctrine, and an insistence that Anglicans do have important doctrines that matter, meant that he continually engaged with and taught the best theology he could find, past and present, whether Anglican or not. He maintained that ‘Anglicanism has a specific content, and that it ought to expose that content to examination and criticism; it ought also to encourage specific individuals to write systematic theologies or extended treatments of Christian doctrine.’ 1The Integrity of Anglicanism p.68. He did strongly encourage many of us younger Anglicans to become systematic theologians, by which he meant doing constructive, rigorous and imaginative thinking for the contemporary church and world. Rowan Williams writes that Stephen ‘had a massive influence on a generation of younger theologians learning their trade in the 1960s and 1970s. 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 dominated by a combination of skeptical 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.’

This did not endear him to some fellow Anglicans, and there were parts of his own church with which he did not have great sympathy, especially the liberal to radical broad church Anglicanism represented here in Cambridge most radically by Don Cupitt. Stephen’s books on the integrity of Anglicanism and on unashamed Anglicanism deserve to be read and reread by those in any church seeking a corporate Christian wisdom for today. It is a wisdom that is scriptural (Stephen’s evangelical roots continued to nourish him); liturgical (for him worship was the place where Anglican theological understanding is best appreciated); richly ethical (he was morally passionate on many issues); and modern, in the sense of facing thoroughly the challenges of modernity, especially as thought through by leading Christian thinkers of the past two centuries, beginning with his beloved Friedrich Schleiermacher on whom he wrote a short book. And it is a civilized wisdom – informed by literature, music, the arts and several cultures.

His Anglicanism was ecumenical in the sense that what he found essential to Christianity, as articulated in his major work, gestated over so many years, The Identity of Christianity, is shared with many mainstream churches, while also allowing for deep disagreement on important matters. But I think the publications cannot do justice to the core dynamic of his theology, which was conversational. I think of hours and hours spent with him over forty-five years. He was my Director of Studies in St John’s College here – I recall the extraordinarily sensitive, rigorous yet humanely gentle introduction to theology as not only a discipline but also a vocation. There were weekends with other St John’s theology students in Wales at his summer home, when theology was woven into long walks and climbs, followed by musical evenings. There were innumerable supervisions, seminars and discussion groups. He later became my doctoral supervisor, and I remember, after he had moved to Durham and I had decided to give up on the dissertation, the walk by the river during which he persuaded me to persevere. In Durham there were residential sessions in his home as a group of us talked through our contributions to a book on Karl Barth that he edited. There were those ecumenical consultations, meetings of the Society for the Study of Theology, six years of residential meetings of the Doctrine Commission which he chaired on the sensitive issues of time, money, sex and power; and much more. And that was just what I happened to take part in. Many, many others took part in this conversational theology. It was not about forming a school of thought or a movement but about seeking truth and wisdom together, with many arguments and differences. The Oxford New Testament scholar Bob Morgan was part of a group of Stephen’s contemporary theologians, including Daniel Hardy, who even holidayed together with their families in Wales at the Sykes home. Bob recalls how during those discussions Stephen responded robustly to the Nottingham theologian Dick McKinney’s anti-church and anti-Anglican attacks, and comments: ‘I guess this was a factor in Dick’s eventual Anglican ordination.’

Perhaps Stephen’s main formative contribution to theology in this country was in brokering a conversation between theology here and both continental European and North American theology. His time in Harvard was important in widening his horizons to include Americans, though it was with the Yale theologians that he talked most, especially valuing the friendship of Hans Frei. Among the Europeans he knew Schleiermacher and Barth best, and valued the whole tradition of German-language Protestant and Catholic theology that developed in continental universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here in Cambridge he brought such theology into the syllabus for the first time, and in the Christology seminar that he founded he made sure that it was integrated into Faculty discussion. One of Hans Frei’s main contentions in his posthumous masterpiece, Types of Christian Theology, was that Schleiermacher and Barth are not, as often held, polar opposites. Rather, they are adjacent types with a great deal in common, and the differences between them identify the most crucial questions for any theology that wants to be both deeply Christian and engaged with the best contemporary thought. I would situate Stephen’s theology, like that of Frei himself, at this point of lively engagement between the approaches of Schleiermacher and Barth.

I am unusual, though not alone, in considering Stephen’s last book, Power and Christian Theology (2006), as his best and most profound. Brian Hebblethwaite has called it ‘one of the most important books to come from the pen of a British theologian since the Second World War’. 2Personal communication, quoting from his reference for Stephen in support of the conferral of his Doctorate in Divinity by the University of Cambridge. Stephen was fascinated by questions of power, authority, force and influence. He wrestled with them year after year, through the Bible, theology, philosophy, history, and sociology, and in practice in his positions of responsibility in academic, ecclesiastical and political institutions (he greatly relished his time in the House of Lords). I had a ringside seat 3I was a member of the group of theologians who published the book, On Being the Church. Essays on the Christian Community, Edited by Colin E. Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1989) in which Richard Roberts’ critique of Stephen Sykes on power appeared, ‘Lord, Bondsman and Churchman: Power, Integrity and Identity’ (pp. 156-224). at the massive confrontation between his one-time colleague in the University of Durham, Richard Roberts, and what Richard identified as the dominant sub-plot of Stephen’s theology and practice: an Anglican approach to authority that had failed to learn the lessons of Hegel’s parable of lord and bondsman, of Marxism, of psychoanalysis, of feminism and of liberation theology. Stephen did not respond in print to Richard’s polemical broadside, ‘Lord, Bondsman and Churchman: Power, Integrity and Identity’, in which he analysed Stephen’s theology in The Integrity of Anglicanism and The Identity of Christianity.

It was seventeen years later, in 2006, that Stephen published Power and Christian Theology, and it only had two footnotes to Richard. It is not so much an answer, more an alternative wisdom, one distilled from very different sources and very different institutional commitments. I am reminded of the description of the correspondence between the twentieth century German theologians Barth and Bultmann as the efforts of a whale and an elephant to find common ground. Richard’s hermeneutic of suspicion stands as a bold, prophetic word of radical Gospel warning in the face of the distortions, corruptions and deceptions of hierarchical power. Stephen’s wrestling with the complexities and ambiguities of power in theory and in practice, his striving for discernment of what responsible leadership might be like in the light of the Gospel, of tradition and of multifaceted hermeneutics of suspicion, his nuanced retrieval of the wisdom of Pope Gregory the Great’s sixth century Liber Regulae Pastoralis (Book of Pastoral Rule, or Pastoral Care), and much more, result in a book that all bearers of power and responsibility in the twenty-first century could with profit have by their bedsides and on their Kindles and tablets. It might be seen as Stephen’s attempt to bring together today’s two readings from Proverbs and the Prologue of the Gospel of John: a passion for wisdom, for life and for God that is incarnate in all the messiness incompleteness of present reality.

I had a moving testimony to the reach of his theology earlier this week in Jordan. It was a gathering of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu leaders and heads of interreligious organizations and movements, convened by Prince Charles and King Abdullah of Jordan to address the issue of religion-related violence and to explore the possibility of a global covenant of religions to draw more deeply and effectively on the resources of the religions for building peace. Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had been a student of Stephen, was there. I told him of this morning’s memorial service and later he handed me a heartfelt message about how important Stephen had been to him and fellow Orthodox leaders. He concluded: ‘His kindness, warmth and insight have lingered with me to this day. We pray that his soul rests in peace, and that peace and comfort come to all who love him.’

I have also had a lovely postscript to that confrontation with Richard Roberts in a message from Richard. He writes: ‘What I would like to emphasise on the basis of my time as a close colleague of Stephen Sykes was his humanity. Our time in Durham during the eighties was probably for both of us one of the happiest periods of our lives. I was licensed to know Stephen well; I was also aware that Stephen, along with all my colleagues in Durham at that time, were, in diverse and sometimes not wholly commensurate ways, Christians. For us all, theology was not a game – or simply the means to maximising outcomes in RAE or REF scores. Our students were cherished; our work was a vocation uncorrupted by managerial oppression. We were expected to lead by example, and, despite manifest frailties, we took those responsibilities seriously to heart: as the great Professor Kingsley Barrett once put it to an undergraduate who objected to Saturday morning lectures (then still the practice on my arrival in Durham): ‘I work six days a week, why shouldn’t you?’’

But the last word on Stephen should not be about theology or about power. It should be about Joy – Joy his wife, who only survived him by six weeks. Maggie Guite recalls how Stephen once took part in a debate in the Durham Union on the motion ‘This house believes in Marriage’. She says: ‘He was eloquent and typically clear in his defence of the institution, but the best bit was the story at the end. It was about the time he and Joy went out for the evening and left the children with a babysitter; when they came back, all three children had been sick, and the babysitter had dumped all the sicky sheets in the bath. The children and the sheets took quite a long time to deal with, and at the end Stephen and Joy went to the kitchen to have a cup of tea – only to discover that the cat had been sick on the floor! And they just laughed helplessly together. ‘This’ (I think he concluded) ‘is what marriage is about’. He won the debate decisively with this speech…’

I loved the welcome from Joy that was printed in the service sheet at Stephen’s funeral. She said: ‘It is 55 years almost to the day since, having walked out of the schoolroom in Bristol into the lecture theatre at Cambridge, I met a handsome if rather smug young man hosting a bible study meeting. We quickly established that he and I lived in the same street and were keen to see each other again; it took a little while longer to realize that we shared the desire to raise a family in the knowledge and love of God.’

Today we share in the grief of that family, especially Juliet, Joanna and Richard, at the double loss of both Stephen and Joy, and we join in Patriarch Theophilos’ prayer of blessing on them, and on all who mourn Stephen and are deeply grateful for him.



1 The Integrity of Anglicanism p.68.
2 Personal communication, quoting from his reference for Stephen in support of the conferral of his Doctorate in Divinity by the University of Cambridge.
3 I was a member of the group of theologians who published the book, On Being the Church. Essays on the Christian Community, Edited by Colin E. Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1989) in which Richard Roberts’ critique of Stephen Sykes on power appeared, ‘Lord, Bondsman and Churchman: Power, Integrity and Identity’ (pp. 156-224).

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