Michael Ramsey, ‘Honest to God’ and the edge of the Church of England

[Honest to God, by John A.T. Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, is fifty this year. It has been described by Rowan Williams as “the last religious book in the UK to have… a mass readership.. a most unlikely best-seller”, and has assumed iconic status in the history of the Church of England and of secularisation. In this extract from my forthcoming book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, I argue that despite his regrets in later years, Ramsey had no choice as archbishop but to publicly censure one of his own bishops.]

The public furore over John Robinson’s Honest to God is perhaps the single most well-known public theological event of the 1960s, and perhaps even of the twentieth century. The book appeared in 1963, in the now iconic series of slim pocket paperbacks from the SCM Press, with on its cover a modern sculpture of a earnest young man in thought: Modern Man grappling with the challenges of ‘religionless’ Christianity in a time of crisis.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Already well known for his intervention in the Lady Chatterley trial, the bishop of Woolwich had published his exploratory work in recasting the traditional language of faith in the hope of reaching those alienated by the habits and language of the traditional church. Its arrival was announced in an article in the Observer entitled (against Robinson’s better judgment) ‘Our image of God must go.’

To focus too closely on whether Robinson was right or wrong, a prophet of a credible young church or a destroyer from within, is to miss some important wider questions. The central issue for Michael Ramsey was the limits of doctrine in the Church of England, and the means of setting them. Recent commentators have divided over the subject. For Edward Norman, the church was, and is, bound to repeat such incidents, since it is without any central means of defining doctrine and accommodating its development. For others, George Carey amongst them, such episodes rather show the elasticity of the Anglican polity, in which the very absence of a rigid central curia holds open a safe space for such theological adventure.

Feelings were running high; and Ramsey learned of an intention to have the book and its orthodoxy debated in the Convocation of Canterbury. Mervyn Stockwood, bishop of Southwark, feared a petition from within the diocese for proceedings against Robinson in Stockwood’s own court. There appeared to be a real threat of what would be widely viewed in the media as a heresy hunt, and in two forums neither of which were well constituted to do the job. This was to be avoided at all costs.

Yet Ramsey needed to do something. Try as he might, he could not see how Robinson, despite his protestations, had stayed within the field of historic orthodoxy, even allowing for the apparent cloudiness of some of Robinson’s writing. He told the bishops that the book ‘removes the conception of God known to us in the Bible and the Creed, and while some sort of doctrine about God and the Deity of Christ emerges, it is impossible to identify this doctrine with the doctrine of our Church which as Bishops we have promised to uphold.’ Conservatives were always ready to remind him of this consecration vow to ‘drive away strange and erroneous doctrine’, and so Ramsey needed to act, and quickly, using the only tool available to him: his own personal authority.

Ramsey gave a television interview, stating that Robinson had been ‘utterly wrong and misleading to denounce the imagery of God held by Christian men, women and children […] and to say that we can’t have any new thought until it is swept away.’ The statement was short, and blunt, and provoked Robinson to protest; but Ramsey was at the time also writing the pamphlet that was to be published three weeks later as Image Old and New; an attempt not at debunking so much as to show that the Church was prepared to engage with the issues whilst at the same time emphasising the necessary limits. Finally there was still the matter of an heresy hunt in the Convocation, and ‘with great reluctance’ but some success Ramsey used part of his presidential address to meet the point.HonestToGodDebate-cover-blog

To what extent could Ramsey have handled the affair differently ? He later acknowledged that there had been ‘in the background a widespread crisis of faith which cried out for another kind of spirit in meeting it.’ Perhaps Ramsey was not quite engaged with some of the theological currents with which Robinson’s mind was flowing; they were certainly not those he found most congenial. That said, Image Old and New shows a quite sufficient grasp of the main issues for the needs of an archbishop, if not indeed of a professional theologian, and neither had Ramsey come to them anew in 1963.

Ramsey certainly regretted the pastoral damage done to his relationships with both Robinson and Stockwood. The correspondence with Robinson is amongst the most painful in the Ramsey Papers, and his chaplain thought he had never seen Ramsey so upset. And it was perhaps in the church’s pastoral role that Ramsey was caught behind the pace. Ramsey was well aware of the estrangement of much of the public from a church guilty of ‘assuming too easily that the faith may be taken for granted and needs only to be stated and commended.’ But such commendation was only possible if ‘we go out and put ourselves with loving sympathy inside the doubts of the doubting, the questions of the questioners, and the loneliness of those who have lost their way.’ In the case of Honest to God, however, he was slow to grasp the depth of that estrangement. The testimonies brought together in the later The Honest to God Debate clearly show that Robinson had touched a great many people, and to the quick, and it was this that Ramsey was slow to appreciate.

Ultimately, however, Ramsey had no choice. For all the comfort and relief that the book had brought to some, it had also caused acute distress to others. A priest in Ramsey’s former diocese of Durham felt that the ground had been cut from beneath the ordinary parish clergy, facing questions from their flock which they could not answer: ‘what are we poor priests to do ?’ If there was a pastoral need to meet the doubts of the doubting, it was to be balanced with a responsibility to the existing faithful.

More fundamentally, Ramsey’s hands were tied by his responsibility to the integrity of the Church of England as a whole. There had to be something, however small, that distinguished a church from a voluntary society for the discussion of religious opinions; and that something was fixity in doctrine at its core. Just months before the storm broke, Ramsey spoke of ‘the hard adventure of blending depth of conviction with the utmost reverence for the mind and conscience of other people’. The church had a difficult double role, of ‘encouraging freedom of enquiry and adhering to a definite faith revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the historic creeds.’ In a phrase of Mandell Creighton, there was a need to balance ‘“the right of the individual to be free and the duty of the institution to be something.”’ Once Ramsey had been convinced that Robinson, however unwittingly and however well intentioned, had subtracted from that essential something, then there was no option than to act.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Ramsey, ‘Honest to God’ and the edge of the Church of England

  1. Pingback: What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ? | Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

  2. Pingback: On being haunted by Owen Chadwick | Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

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