The Revd Professor Sarah Coakley FBA is a formidable scholar. She earned degrees at New Hall College, Cambridge, before writing a doctoral thesis there on the Christology of Ernst Troeltsch, a philosopher of religion and history. Later she gained a Master of Theology (ThM) at Harvard Divinity School where she studied as a Harkness Fellow. A renowned university teacher, she served first in Lancaster University, then as a tutorial fellow in theology at Oriel College, Oxford, and from 1993 to 2007 as Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.
In 2007 she took up her appointment as Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, the first woman appointed to this chair, where her inaugural lecture was titled ‘Sacrifice Regained: Reconsidering the Rationality of Christian Belief’. Since 2018 she has been an Honorary Professor at St Andrews University, and from 2019 a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.
Coakley has described her interests as wide-ranging; they traverse the fields of sociology, anthropology, science, medicine, philosophy, spirituality and liturgical studies. A systematic theologian, she has contributed books and scholarly articles on the philosophy of religion and of science, patristics, the intersections of law and medicine with religion, gender theory and feminist philosophy.
But Professor Coakley is also a priest who has served congregations in Waban, Massachusetts and Littlemore, Oxford. When she went to teach at Harvard she discovered amongst the seminarians ‘a great longing to find an embodiment of someone who both practiced as a theologian and could integrate this with the life of a minister. And, of course, this is a very long-standing vocation in the Church of England, as it is in Calvinism – the particular vocation of a priest-scholar.’ She went on to model this combination by being placed in a parish as an associate priest whilst doing her normal theological and philosophical work in the university during the week.
What is most attractive about Coakley’s approach to theological study is the way she weds systematic theology and contemplative prayer, maintaining that it is through the spiritual, prayerful practice of Christianity that one has a real apprehension of what doctrinal statements are all about. Systematic theology, she maintains, must be embedded in the field, and have its doctrines tested and purified as much through an analysis of the prayer and worship that sustains it as in its outworkings in the world.
‘I’m not looking for a new hegemony of the intellect’, she said in a recent interview; ‘I’m looking for an integration of the highest intellectual endeavours with the truly transformative implications of this kind of work for all other parts of the self.’
The Lecture will be delivered online on Thursday 20 October 2022 at 5pm (UK time) with Professor Coakley speaking from the States. To register on Eventbrite, please click here.
Photo used with Professor Coakley’s permission