Obituary: The Rev Professor Anthony Dyson
Saturday 17 October 1998
His career was characterised by the conviction that academic theology and the churches alike could expect no credibility in the modern world without seriously engaging with other insights into the human condition, notably history, literature and, latterly, the new biotechnologies. With exceptional vision, he recognised the profundity of the social and cultural changes that had occurred in Britain since 1945, and the seriousness of their impact on patterns of religious belief and practice. He anticipated many of the issues now held to be at the cutting edge of Christian social thought, and was frequently ahead of his time in pioneering innovative patterns of clergy training, theological education and interdisciplinary research.
Dyson was born in Ashton-under-Lyne and attended William Hulme Grammar School, Manchester, before reading Modern Languages and Theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He trained for ordination in the Church of England at Ripon Hall, Oxford, between 1959 and 1961 and served a short curacy in Putney from 1961 to 1963. He then returned to Ripon Hall in 1963, first as Chaplain and then as Principal.
It was clear that a distinguished career as an academic theologian awaited him, as he rapidly gained a reputation as a talented and progressive scholar with a concern to render Christianity intelligible to the modern world. His doctoral work on Ernst Troeltsch and his early books Who is Jesus Christ? (1969) and The Immortality of the Past (1974) established him in a purely academic context; but as a reforming Principal at Ripon, he set about modernising patterns of training for ordinands and introduced new ideas - including greater attention to the specific demands of urban ministry - and a greater rigour into the world of the theological college.
As the Church of England began to experience the effects of numerical decline, however, it became clear that the provision of theological training would have to be rationalised. Dyson negotiated a merger between Ripon and Cuddesdon College, Oxford, in 1974, effectively doing himself out of a job. He moved to St George's House, Windsor, to become Canon Theologian.
The intellectual environment suited him well. St George's specialised in residential courses for up-and-coming clergy and interdisciplinary symposia at which leading scholars, practitioners and policy makers exchanged ideas across a wide range of social, political and ethical topics. This aspect of the job enabled him to foster the very engagement between Church and society that he had always advocated. However, he became increasingly dissatisfied with what he regarded as the stultifying ecclesiastical conventions, and decided to make a move, accepting a lectureship in 1977 in modern theology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
Three years later Dyson succeeded Ronald Preston to the Samuel Ferguson Chair of Social and Pastoral Theology at Manchester, a position which seemed tailor-made. His predecessor had established the Chair as one of the leading appointments in Christian social ethics, and the secular constitution of the Faculty of Theology kept it free of confessional or ecclesial restrictions.
Dyson's own teaching and research interests began to move further into emerging areas of bioethics; he was a member of the Warnock Committee of Human Fertilisation and Embryology, where his characteristic courtesy, attention to detail and intellectual intregity were much valued. He continued his commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration by helping to establish the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy at Manchester, which incorporated colleagues from law, philosophy and medicine as well as theology. With John Harris, a co-director of CSEP, he wrote and edited several works in bioethics, including Biotechnology and Ethics (1994).
As well as his personal writing and teaching, Dyson continued to exercise a decisive leadership in the field of pastoral studies and practical theology, helping to transform it from a field dominated by clerically dominated "hints and helps" into a respectable and rigorous academic discipline. As editor of the journal The Modern Churchman (now Modern Believing) from 1982 to 1993, he expanded its constituency from its traditional roots in liberal Anglicanism to become an organ of the latest academic work in social ethics, politics and religion and contemporary theology.
As a young man, he had been greatly moved by reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, which inspired a lifetime's sympathy to the values of feminism. Characteristically, he was an early leading protagonist in the campaign for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England, and a formidable debater and writer with opponents. At Manchester, a combination of student demand and his own interests led to the creation of Britain's first undergraduate course in feminist theology in the mid- 1980s.
By the early 1980s the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease were beginning to be apparent. Inevitably, his own research output was diminished by his condition, and his latter years at Manchester were perhaps characterised more by his continuing personal influence as teacher, supervisor and mentor than by the intellectual intensity of earlier periods. Despite his condition, however, he continued to maintain a prodigious work-rate, and published a further general introduction to bioethics, The Ethics of IVF, in 1995.
Tony Dyson always gave the highest priority to his contact with students, generations of whom grew to appreciate his characteristic combination of gentleness of spirit and sharpness of intellect.
Anthony Oakley Dyson, theologian: born Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire 6 October 1935; ordain-ed deacon 1961, priest 1962; Chaplain of Ripon Hall, Oxford 1963-69, Principal 1969-74; Canon Theologian, St George's House, Windsor 1974-77, Custodian 1975-77; Lecturer in Theology, University of Kent at Canterbury 1977-80; Sam-uel Ferguson Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology, Manchester University 1980-98, Academic Director, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy 1987-98; married 1960 Edwina Hammett (two sons); died Manchester 19 September 1998.
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