A blog by Paul Fisher, library and archive volunteer.
There they were: 24 large box files and fat lever-arch files containing the Sermons, Lectures and Addresses of the Very Reverend Dr Sydney Hall Evans CBE, Dean of Salisbury 1977-1986.
As a volunteer in the Salisbury Cathedral Archives, cataloguing this jumble of paper was what the archivist Emily coyly referred to as my “opportunity” to help fulfil the practical requirements of my distance-learning archival qualification from the University of Dundee. Several months later - working at the rate of one day a week - eleven archival boxes and innumerable brass paper clips have given Sydney’s papers a better sense of order, and they are now identifiable and accessible by way of the Salisbury Cathedral's online catalogue database.
Some of the boxfiles that Paul was faced with...
Somewhat daunted by the volume of the papers, I also wondered whether, in looking at the sermons, lectures and addresses of a churchman trained in the 1930s, I was about to open a window onto a world somewhere between that of the Barchester Chronicles and “All Gas and Gaiters”, where the question of the day would be about the quality of the sherry in the Bishop’s decanter. Or would there be an overwhelming weight of obscure theology? Far from it. The first file yielded Sydney Evans’ lectures on Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics, and it quickly became clear that, as John Baker was to say, the “manifold interests and enthusiasms” of Sydney’s mind were always, whatever he was doing or saying, “vividly present . . . as the setting in which any serious person of our time must live”. As for theology, “when trying to illustrate a point of belief or behaviour it was to the poet or the novelist that he turned rather than the professional theologian”.
Who was Sydney Evans? Born in Bristol in 1915, he went to Bristol Grammar School, then read Theology at St Chad’s College, Durham, where he was President of the Durham Union Society in 1937. Ordained in 1939, he spent several of the war years as an RAF Chaplain, and, in 1948, was made Warden of St Boniface College, Warminster, the graduate theological training department of King’s College, London. He was to spend nearly 30 years at King’s College, ultimately as Dean from 1956 until 1977, and was then made Dean of Salisbury. He retired in 1986 and died in 1988.
His relatively early appointment as Warden of a college, after only a couple of curacies, suggests that his educational talents had quickly become apparent. One of his pupils has said that “his singular ability to discern vocation and inspire . . . generations of ordinands” meant that he trained “hundreds, if not thousands of priests”, and “exercised one of the most impressive episcopies” of the twentieth century. His public reward was to be made CBE for services to theological education in 1975.
What can this body of work tell us about the outlook of a distinguished Anglican clergyman in the middle to later decades of the twentieth century? While the sermons demonstrate “a coherence in his understanding of the Christian faith”, there is no overbearing theological weight or systematic theology behind them. They often read as if they were delivered in the manner of a fireside chat, or maybe an after-dinner conversation in an Oxbridge Combination Room. Each is prompted by a specific occasion, purpose or subject. “Sydney starts in the world where you are, and tries to help you see it differently, to see it . . . as it really is, not as custom or apathy or even conventional religion colour it to be”. One of their most appealing characteristics is their wide range of reference to literature, art and music, employed as a means to a better understanding of the world and of God: “His belief in the power and duty of the artist to evoke the splendour of God, to challenge a materialist society, and to enliven and refresh dull or weary hearts and minds was a persistent element in his life and thought and is a theme which runs, sometimes subliminally, through many of the sermons”.
He was widely read, deeply thoughtful and observant of the world around him. Whether in Salisbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, a college, school or parish church, in South Africa or Connecticut or on a cruise ship, he was as likely to preach about a newly published book or a newsworthy event than on the day’s Gospel text. So he spoke about the then challenging Honest to God (1963) by the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson – who had defended in court the paperback publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and about Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967), as well as about Woodstock, the foundation of the Royal Air Force and the moon landings.
Undogmatic, he was a perceptive commentator on all manner of subjects, capable of tracing a consistent interpretative path through uncertainties and confusions, engaging his listeners to accompany him on a journey of understanding rather than handing them a book of lessons to be learned. His definition of the human condition, and perhaps in a way the summation of his theological approach, was, simply, that we are beings “who have to do with God”.
Three prominent features of Salisbury Cathedral owe a debt to Sydney Evans. First, his part in the restoration of the Library between 1979 and 1983 and the installation of new bookcases made from elms grown in the Close is recorded by an inscription outside the door to the Library.
Second, a plaque mounted on the internal wall of the Cathedral tower states that, “The stones of the central decorative band of the spire are a memorial to Sydney Hall Evans . . . by whose foresight the great work to save the spire was begun”.
And, third, the “Prisoners of Conscience” window sums up much of what Sydney stood for. As well as commissioning the window, he delivered a sermon on the subject. How appropriate that this “man of terrifying resolve and . . . uncomplicated simplicity” should be talking about prisoners of a state of mind rather than of physical durance. Individuals who have made their own judgment about the truth of a matter and a decision about where they stand on an issue of good and evil: prisoners of a fierce conviction about what is right and what is wrong. One manuscript version of this sermon has embedded in it Sydney’s own tiny but exact drawing of the Amnesty International logo, the single lit candle entwined in barbed wire. In his own words: “At this ultimate point of decision each individual stands alone. Each point of final resolution is personal to each individual”.
Dean Sydney Evans' drawing of the Amnesty International Candle
We can see at once Sydney’s historical reach – he quotes Martin Luther’s “I can no other” and Thomas More’s “Thus far and no further” as clear statements of what it means to be a prisoner of conscience – as well as his understanding of contemporary literature, describing William Golding (“our neighbour”) as “a most disturbing analyst of human wickedness, the dark shadow side of every human institution exercising power and an element in the personality of each of us”. He says, though, that the real impulse to create the window came from hearing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, based on the Russian proverb, “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world”.
The window, installed in 1980, was made in Chartres - where John of Salisbury was Bishop in the twelfth century - the medieval centre where, Sydney said, “the tradition of creating great blazes of colour in . . .darkened churches” began. It was the work of Gabriel Loire and his son Jacques, using predominantly blue glass, which for them represented peace, and a combination of medieval and modern methods and materials. Here indeed, in work commissioned by Sydney, “the power and duty of the artist to evoke the splendour of God, to challenge a materialist society, and to enliven and refresh dull or weary hearts and minds” came together with a rich seam of historical reference as well as great moral force.
Martin Dudley, who became Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, studied with Sydney Evans in the 1970s, the time, he said, of “existential philosophy, the campus war against American involvement in Vietnam, the challenge to apartheid and to discrimination . . . and . . . sexual liberation”. He wrote in the New Statesman in 2008, that “the study of theology at King’s College, London was rigorous, critical, comprehensive, and above all engaged with a rapidly changing world. As Dean Sydney Evans posed the existential “Who am I?” he taught us not to accept the “I” as a fixed point but a point in motion, always becoming”. That the context of Martin Dudley’s article was to justify his decision to bless the civil partnership of two male Anglican priests - for which he received a public rebuke from the then Bishop of London - suggests that 20 years after his death - and maybe still even today - Sydney Evans’ teaching retains contemporary resonance and challenge.
A pamphlet written by Sydney Evans; note the fictional addresses of 'Little Doubting' and 'Faith Hills'
Quotations are from Sydney Evans’ sermons, lectures and addresses in the Salisbury Cathedral archives, or from:
Martin Dudley, “Why I blessed gay clergymen’s relationship”, New Statesman, 17 June 2008.
Sydney Evans, A True Knowing, ed. Suzanne Eward, with a foreword by John Austin Baker (Salisbury, 1990).
Sydney Evans, Prisoners of Hope, ed. Brian Horne and Andrew Linzey (Cambridge, 1990).
Sydney Evans, Apostolate and the Mirrors of Paradox, ed. Andrew Linzey and Brian Horne (Oxford, 1996).