ERIC LIONEL MASCALL was for many years one of the major figures in British theology and well respected on the Continent and in North America. In his more than 20 books, he expounded Anglican theology in its Catholic form and was perhaps the most influential in a group of like-minded theologians, most of whom have predeceased him - Austin Farrer, Gregory Dix, Lionel Thornton, Gabriel Hebert, to name some of them.
Mascall was publishing theological books, essays and reviews for more than 50 years. But his early studies were in mathematics. He took a First in the subject at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and had the distinction of being a wrangler. He did not regret the years he had spent on mathematics and believed that the discipline of that subject was a considerable help in his later theological work. He also tended to make a slight boast of the fact that he had never had a formal theological training.
He did teach mathematics for three years at Bablake School, Coventry, from 1928 to 1931, but soon realised that this was not his vocation. Those who knew him will not be surprised to learn that he could not maintain discipline in the classroom. For some time he had become increasingly attracted to theology, and eventually he sought and received ordination.
It was obvious that someone with intellectual qualifications as impressive as Mascall's was fitted for a teaching position in the Church, and from 1937 to 1945 he was Sub-warden of Lincoln Theological College. It was during this time that he wrote the book which established his reputation as a major theologian, He Who Is (1943).
The title is St Thomas Aquinas' name for God, and the book was subtitled 'A Study in Traditional Theism'. It discussed the meaning of the concept of God, restated the traditional arguments for his reality, and examined the relations between God and the world. In all this, Mascall was guided by the philosophical theology of St Thomas, and it would be true to say that, like St Thomas, Mascall found faith and reason to be not enemies but mutually supportive. Thomism continued to be the basic philosophy underpinning Mascall's natural theology, which reached its climax in his Gifford Lectures of 1971, The Openness of Being. In these lectures, Mascall went beyond traditional Thomism into the new territory of 'transcendental' Thomism.
Mascall wrote on many theological themes as well as natural theology; these included ecumenism in The Recovery of Unity (1958), science and religion in his Bampton Lectures, Christian Theology and Natural Science (1956), regarded by many at the time of its publication as the best book on the subject in English.
Meanwhile Mascall had moved on from Lincoln to Christ Church, Oxford, and from there to the Chair of Historical Theology at King's College, London. While teaching there, he lived in the clergy house of St Mary's, Bourne Street, and served in the parish as an unofficial but highly distinguished curate.
Another side of Mascall is to be seen in his polemical writings. He became increasingly disenchanted with the liberal theology that was already taking over the Church of England. His most sustained polemic was The Secularisation of Christianity (1965), a detailed critique of Bishop John Robinson and other so-called radicals. But Mascall's polemics depended on argument, and were free of any malice. He used to say 'I shall be critical but courteous,' and usually he succeeded.
His last book was marked by a serenity more typical of the man than polemic. This book was published very shortly before his death, and consists of memoirs drawn from his long life. He entitled the book Saraband, the name of an old-fashioned stately dance. This serious-minded scholar, author of so many learned books, had a tremendous sense of humour, sometimes expressed in verse, of which he published a short selection in his popular Pi in the High (1959); and we find further examples in these memoirs. Some of the word-pictures are hilarious, from the Cambridge lecturer blowing the dust off his ancient notes to the canon of Christ Church who filled the bowl of his pipe with leaves picked up in the Meadow and topped it up with cigar-ash from the Senior Common Room ashtrays.
As a cleric who combined learning and orthodoxy with rationality, an honest regard for truth with courtesy toward those who differed, and tempered it all with a sense of humour, Mascall may have been the last of a type which the Church of England can ill afford to lose.
with which is associated the Guinea-Pig The Owl, who has enormous eyes, In consequence is very wise. The Guinea-Pig, whose eyes are small, Has no intelligence at all. Good Dr Mascall's soulful eyes Are intermediate in size, And so he is, as you'd expect, Of mediocre intellect. from
Dr Mascall's Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Because I do not want to read again Because I do not want Because I have had as much as I can stomach Of tolutiloquacious works by unselfcontrolled Teutons Tithing their mint and anice and cummin in microscopic shavings Chasing one another's tails in ever-contracting circles And groping blindfold for absent black cats in darkenened rooms Forever learning and never coming to the truth.
from E. L. Mascall's book of 'humorous (or . . . what is intended to be humorous) verse', Pi in the High, illustrated by Barbara Jones (Faith Press, 1959). 'To take oneself too seriously,' he writes in his Foreword, 'is bad theology.' Drawing, left, by Barbara Jones for 'The Owl' -----------------------------------------------------------------