Michael Ramsey and his encounter with other faiths

[This paper was given at this year’s Ecclesiastical History Society conference. It is currently under consideration for publication[Updated 28/11/13] It has now been accepted for publication in Studies in Church History volume 51 (due in 2015), but here’s a summary version of it, on which I’d be delighted to have any comments or reflections. Here also is the full draft version as a PDF (Ramsey and other faiths – DRAFT 14-09-13). Please don’t cite this version, as it may not stay here permanently.]

Ramsey’s theological formation had required little in the way of theological engagement with the other world religions, either abroad or at home. His view was summed up in a short address at a commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi. In the final analysis, ‘[w]e who are Christians proclaim that Christ is the perfect and final revelation of God.’ However, Christians ‘reverence the divine image in every man’ and that divine light had shone ‘in good men of other religions’. Gandhi had ‘made non-violence his ideal, put simplicity of life before wealth and comfort, put the things of the spirit before material things, made the cause of the poor and outcast his own…’ Ramsey prayed that ‘to us the same light will shine and we shall follow it.’

There were however other forces in play in Ramsey’s make-up. He had as an undergraduate been active in Liberal politics, and interpreting his actions involves separating out political motivation from religious, whilst recognising that often the two ran together. Ramsey was not a son of the established Church, but had grown up within Congregationalism; a background which gave him an acute sensitivity to the position of the religious minority in a hostile environment. And finally, Ramsey’s interventions were part motivated by a simple Christian compassion; the same compassion that he felt for homosexual men vulnerable to blackmail by dint of their criminality, or for couples in irretrievable and damaging marriages that could not be dissolved without subterfuge.

There was an older strain of inter-faith endeavour, which lacked the rigour and realism of Cragg or Chadwick, and which Ramsey knew was a dead-end. There had been several attempts at world congresses or fellowships of religions, some of them eccentric, some of them well-supported, all of them well-meaning but unrealistic. Among the more respectable was the World Congress of Faiths, but Ramsey had a basic disagreement with the approach: ‘I do not believe that “religion” is a kind of banner under which we should all unite as if it contained the essence of what is good versus “irreligion” as its opposite.’ There was also an attempt to create a national Council of Faiths. It argued that the threat to any one faith was not conversion from one to another, but of unbelief, and so it was in the interest of all the faiths to support each other against a common enemy. Ramsey thought the idea of securing the official support of the churches nationally to be hopelessly unrealistic, and instead favoured local co-operation.

There were troubled parts of the world where Ramsey had a more direct interest as head of the Anglican Communion. In 1967 civil war in Nigeria led to its disintegration into a Muslim majority north, and a mostly Christian east. Ramsey spoke against the supply of arms, tried to promote fundraising for aid, and sent delegations to both sides to intercede. Another failed state in which Anglicans were at risk was Sudan, which collapsed into civil war between Muslim north and partly Christian south in 1965. Ramsey met with the Sudanese ambassador to London, and spoke out against the ‘terrible and relentless persecution of Christians’. The balance was however hard to strike between being a disinterested peacemaker, and at the same time the confidant of religious leaders on one side of a conflict.

In the UK, it was the Sikh community that was first to establish community representation nationally, in the form of Shromani Khalsa Dal UK, (The Supreme Body of Sikhs in Britain). The Supreme Body invited Ramsey, as head of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, to address its first national conference. Since 1942, the archbishops had been joint presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews, and Ramsey was in constant demand to address meetings and cut ribbons on new buildings. This type of religious summitry was a game with well established rules. There were however broader issues of identity at play, in which ideas of Englishness in all its racial, cultural and religious aspects interacted with brute economic and social fact in local neighbourhoods.

On the matter of immigration, Ramsey denounced the 1962 Act as both a reneging on historic responsibilities of Britain to its former colonies, and as an offence against basic Christian belief in the equality of all in the eyes of God. The rapid introduction in 1968 of legislation to deny entry to the UK to refugee Kenyans of Asian descent was a similar abrogation of national duty, but also threatened to upset the precarious balance of community relations by creating mistrust amongst the immigrant communities behind whom it was intended that the door be shut.

Ramsey knew of which he spoke. Prime Minister Wilson had asked Ramsey to chair the new National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, set up by the government to monitor the situation of immigrants in the UK. The NCCI was involved in an attempt to outlaw discrimination on religious grounds. The 1966 Racial and Religious Discrimination Bill sought to extend the general principle of the 1965 Race Relations Act to close a possible loophole for those who claimed to be ready to serve coloured people but not Hindus, Moslems or Sikhs. Amending the 1965 Act in this way was essential to protect the Jews as a religious, rather than as a racial group. The Bill failed at second reading, but it shows the Church of England using its position to act on behalf not only of other Christian groups, but of other faiths.

However, Ramsey had gained a reputation as a friend of the minority, which made him the subject of direct appeals for help in specific situations: over the levelling of Muslim graves in Greenford cemetery; over discrimination over the wearing by Sikhs of turbans and beards while working for Wolverhampton transport; over the siting of a new gurdwara in the borough of Hammersmith, over which there were injured feelings. Ramsey as archbishop was viewed as an honest broker in difficult matters, and as a friend of the minority, whether Christian or not.

To what extent could the Church of England, and Ramsey in particular, be held culpable as the nation engaged, in Enoch Powell’s phrase, in ‘heaping up its own funeral pyre’? It was not only Powell who thought that the Church should have accommodated less, and resisted more, the process of assimilation of aliens in culture, language and religion. Ramsey was under police protection for a time in June 1968, most likely for his role with the NCCI. In September supporters of the National Front marched to Lambeth, and others disrupted a meeting in Essex in December with cries of ‘Traitor !’ There was also limited but significant support amongst Anglican clergy and laity for a fascistic view of Britishness that centred on both race and Christian religion, in which Ramsey represented precisely the liberalising tide that had moved the established church away from its traditional role.

By and large Ramsey was not much exercised by apparent symbolic defeats for the established church in relation to other faiths. He intervened in the case of Savile Town St Mary, a chapel of ease in Dewsbury, as local Christian and Muslim communities wrestled with the prospect of allowing a redundant building to be taken over for Muslim use. ‘I should regret the making of a contrary decision’ he wrote ‘having regard to the whole missionary situation in this country and overseas.’

The phrase is a key one. Ramsey knew that the safety and peace of Anglicans elsewhere was partly dependent on how the established church in a Christian nation dealt with its own religious minorities. And the situation in the UK was a missionary one too, no longer one in which an easy congruence of church, nation and people could be assumed. Ramsey oversaw the freeing of the Church of England from parliamentary control of its worship and doctrine, and the decisive separation of the moral law from Christian discipline, with regard to divorce, abortion, and homosexuality amongst others. He did what he could to support the civil rights of religious minorities, and to aid constructive religious dialogue that was at the same time realistic about the real claims to uniqueness and finality of each faith. Without quite being a programme of work, all these developments had a coherence: the Church of England was, in its own eyes if not in law, becoming less established and more national; a church less bound to the state but retaining a national dimension in its sense of its own mission. The church’s work was increasingly in a more equal partnership with other Christian churches, but also in an embryonic but significant way, as a defender of faith.

One thought on “Michael Ramsey and his encounter with other faiths

  1. Pingback: Race, religion and identity in Sixties Britain: Ramsey and other faiths | Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

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