Michael Ramsey – an autistic archbishop ?

[Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury between 1961 and 1974, and possibly one of the greatest holders of the office in modern times, was also widely known for his eccentricity and difficulty in social situations. This post suggests that Ramsey was autistic, in an age before the term had been coined. It goes on to consider whether Ramsey's own spirituality, and expectations of others about it, served as an explanation for his eccentricity to contemporaries who had no other means to understand it.]

Working on my book Archbishop Michael Ramsey, it soon became clear that almost everyone who had encountered him had a ‘Ramsey story’; some account of his eccentricity and extreme social awkwardness. Tales abound of long, sudden embarrassed silences during one-to-one meetings; of fidgeting, waving of arms, clumsiness; of unpredictability in liturgical processions that was the vexation of his staff. Ramsey was ‘odd’, or ‘eccentric’;’ ‘shy’; ‘a bit tangential’. This was the man who allowed a group of American soldiers into Durham Cathedral during the war, and forgot to return to let them back out again.

Arthur Michael Ramsey (1961)

Each of the students of Ramsey has his stock of such ‘Ramsey stories’. Some recount them gently and affectionately. One, a former member of Lambeth staff Michael De-la-Noy introduced a note of moral culpability. Ramsey had ‘no small talk’ but was at fault in that ‘he simply will not do anything to cultivate any. He is uncompromising in his relations with people; he will do nothing to get onto your wavelength. Either you get onto his or you never meet.’

I was born the year that Ramsey retired; and was still in school when he died; and so I have no Ramsey stories of my own. The task of any historian wishing to understand the man as well as the archbishop involves marrying the apparently contradictory sides of Ramsey’s life. Why should one so compelling in print and in public speaking, and with such a close interest in pastoral care, also be so inept in certain social interactions ?

But this apparent contradiction might be explained if it could be established that Ramsey had autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). As an historical method, this kind of retrospective diagnostics has its precedents. Several attempts have been made to explain the madness of King George III; and more recently surgical evidence has been put forward to suggest that Benjamin Britten had syphilis. ASD, however, presents no physiological symptoms, but is a behavioural disorder. Since ASD is diagnosed in the living from patterns of behaviour, it is possible to read Ramsey’s autism with some confidence from the accumulated witness evidence of those who met and knew him.

Taking my cue from the work of Uta Frith, one of the clusters of behavioural traits associated with autism is inflexible and/or repetitive physical movements. These are often linked to hyper- or hypo-sensitivity in one or more of the senses, and are seen as a form of self-stimulation; a means of obtaining additional sensory input that is often experienced as calming. Particularly common is vigorous and apparently purposeless waving of the hands, which features in several accounts of Ramsey. When struck with a solution to a theological problem, his hand-waving in a Lincoln cafe was such that the waiting staff would not serve the tea.

There were more such behaviours than hand-waving. As a child, Ramsey would leave the dining table and rush around the garden, or run up and down his bedroom at night, striking the wall at each end. Colleagues and students at Lincoln Theological College were often distracted in the college chapel by Ramsey’s ripping of handkerchieves, or convulsive fidgets, or rubbing his face.

Also very common in people on the autistic spectrum are difficulties with speech. Another mark of Ramsey was his repetitive use of certain words, which would now be classed as ‘echolalia’, or echo speech. Some took to counting the number of ‘yeses’ that might be heard in one of his sentences; it even formed the basis of a cartoon. Ramsey would often fasten onto particular words of which he liked the sound. One car journey through Hertfordshire found him repeating at length the name Baldock, spotted on a road sign.

Autism is also associated with an inability to respond to the social approaches of others, or to their likely emotional state. Uta Frith has written of the ‘absent Theory of Mind’; an inability to imagine the existence of minds other than one’s own. This commonly manifests itself in difficulties in initiating or sustaining conversations; and these silences are one of the most common themes in the various ‘Ramsey stories’. One job interview lasted 45 minutes, and included some 15 minutes of total silence. Ramsey had ‘no idea what to say’, the candidate recalled; the whole thing was ‘farcical.’

But if Ramsey was interested in a topic, and it was one about which he knew something, then he could hold his audience spellbound. As a student, Ramsey was made president of the Cambridge Union, the university’s principal debating society; and his performance from a political platform as a student made Herbert Asquith think him a potential leader of the Liberal party. The apparent paradox is however not a genuine one, since Ramsey’s impairment was not to do with eloquence, but about the social element of unstructured conversation. Given a cue from someone else, often his wife Joan, Ramsey could then speak at length, and then stop as he ran out of information to impart. This was always cogent, often eloquent; but it was not conversation.

The absent Theory of Mind also manifested itself in a more general insensitivity to others. Some of it looked like rudeness, as with Ramsey’s tendency to walk off in the middle of a conversation. De-la-Noy thought him insensitive to the financial needs of others, and unable to express more than the most perfunctory condolence if someone had been bereaved. He was also bad at remembering to thank his staff; a gap often filled by Joan. ‘I could be swinging from the bannister one morning’ his chaplain said ‘and the Archbishop would never notice.’

Such anecdotal evidence, taken together, suggests very strongly that Ramsey did indeed have autistic spectrum disorder. How did Ramsey, despite these difficulties, reach the very pinnacle of his profession, in an age that could not name the condition ? Here the historian treads on uncertain counterfactual ground. The support of his wife must be counted as crucial, in that Joan had particular strengths in the areas of social interaction in which Ramsey had weaknesses.

It is also likely that, as is the case in most professional situations, the more senior someone becomes, the more their colleagues must work around their particular eccentricities. But his rise must at least be equally due to exceptional talent, without which the Church of England knew from early on that it could not do. His potential was spotted as a student, long before any seniority could shield him, and more than a decade before he met his wife.

There was also a subtle but crucially important connection between the expectations of others about the likely characteristics of a particular type of Christian. His Be still and know was a penetrating investigation of Christian prayer and of the depths to which the contemplative and meditative practices of the Christian mystics could reach. This and other works speak of his strong personal grasp of the reality of spiritual communion with God through prayer, and the importance at times to the Christian life of withdrawal into God.

Other bishops were of course concerned with prayer. But Ramsey was particularly known as a man of prayer, indeed even as a mystic; the word ‘other-worldly’ is used a great deal about him. Expectations of how a mystic should behave with other people served to distract attention from a neurological disorder. I would not wish to posit any connection between autism and a particular type of spirituality; but to Ramsey’s contemporaries they seemed to look the same. To be ‘other-worldly’ was for many to be expected.

Editing Michael Ramsey’s writings

The second half of this book on Archbishop Michael Ramsey consists of a selection of edited sources. As I now have a full first draft of these, I thought I’d publish the list here.

There may yet be some changes to this, with some of the sources listed making way for others. Comments on the selection are very welcome.

Apart from the speeches to the House of Lords, all of these are edited afresh from unpublished items in the Ramsey Papers at Lambeth Palace Library. I would be happy to supply readers with the full reference(s) on request.

Date Subject Type
1961 To the World Council of Churches, New Delhi Address
1961 To Bishops’ Meeting on liturgical revision Memo
1961 Speech to a Congress on Public Morality Address
1962 Letter to parliamentarians on liturgical reform Letter
1962 On the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill Parliament
1963 At Lambeth Palace requiem for Pope John Address
1963 To Mervyn Stockwood on Honest to God Letter
1963 To the bishops on Honest to God Letter
1963 To Mervyn Stockwood on Honest to God Letter
1963 To a parish priest, on Honest to God Letter
1963 To Convocation on the Anglican Congress in Toronto Address
1964 Rapprochement of Orthodox & Anglican churches Sermon
1965 To the Prime Minister on the Church and State Commission Letter
1965 On abolition of the death penalty Parliament
1965 On the Sexual Offences Bill Parliament
1965 Magna Carta Service Sermon
1965 On Southern Rhodesia Parliament
1966 On the canonisation of the English RC martyrs Memo
1966 To Oliver Tomkins on Anglican-Roman Catholic relations Letter
1966 To E.L. Mascall on Rome Letter
1966 To Chad Varah on sex Letter
1967 On the meeting with Cardinal Suenens at Lambeth Memo
1967 On the commencement of Human Rights Year Sermon
1968 To Margaret Deanesly on Anglican-Methodist unity Letter
1968 On reform of the House of Lords Parliament
1968 On the admission of Kenyan Asians Parliament
1968 On the Race Relations Bill Parliament
1968 At the opening of the Lambeth Conference Sermon
1969 To David L. Edwards on Anglican-Methodist unity Letter
1969 To Eric Kemp on Anglican-Methodist unity Letter
1969 Foreword to pamphlet introducing the new General Synod Publication
1969 At a quincentenary commemoration of Guru Nanak Address
1971 On Northern Ireland Parliament
1972 Prayer for Ireland: Westminster Cathedral Sermon
1974 On the Worship and Doctrine Measure Parliament
1974 On Northern Ireland Parliament
1974 Farewell Sermon Sermon
1982 British Council of Churches: 40th Anniversary Service Sermon

On being haunted by Owen Chadwick

Most contemporary historians, I suppose, have had the experience of meeting the dramatis personae about whom one is writing. In a recent conference paper, I discussed a 1965 encounter between Michael Ramsey and a leading Anglican evangelical, now retired to Oxford, and in the audience. With perfect courtesy he disagreed with my analysis, but did unwittingly point me in the direction of an additional source, now worked into the paper, which is much the better for it.

What, however, do you do when the author of the main secondary work in your field was also a participant in the events which he describes? Even worse: what if that author is the (now retired) Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history, and then regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, and president of the British Academy? Such is my vexed relationship with Owen Chadwick, holder of all these offices, and author of the standard Life of Michael Ramsey.

One would need to read the book carefully to notice (such is his self-effacement), but Chadwick was involved at the very centre of the events he describes. Chadwick was a member of the Church of England’s commission on synodical government, and chairman of the influential commission on church and state which reported in 1970. While Ramsey was archbishop of York, the two men were part of the same delegation to Moscow to meet leaders of the Russian Orthodox church in 1956.

Even less well known was their contact over scholarly matters. Ramsey read and appreciated Chadwick’s The Victorian Church. He also sought Chadwick’s counsel on the draft pamphlet Image Old and New, Ramsey’s reply to John Robinson’s Honest to God, which Chadwick gave in in a state of ‘doubt and difficulty’.

It would help, of course, if one could say that Chadwick’s book was a bad one; or even that it was now unsatisfactory by dint of age and the changing state of the field. Of course (as I am bound to say) there is more to say on Ramsey. Chadwick doesn’t deal directly with the debates about secularisation and the Sixties that have been prompted by Callum Brown in recent years. He also tends to underplay the force and significance of conservative opinion, and particularly conservative evangelicalism. More prosaically, having been completed before the Ramsey Papers at Lambeth Palace Library were catalogued, the book has no references to the papers which a scholar could follow.

Despite all this, it isn’t a bad book or even an inadequate one. More than one person suggested to me that I would have my work cut out to supersede it, since it is a fine piece of work; and that is my problem. If, as A. N. Whitehead put it, all western philosophy has been but footnotes to Plato, then at times writing about Ramsey has felt like so many minor adjustments and refinements to Chadwick’s overall picture. Many times have I seized with glee upon a chink of new light, only for a check to reveal that Chadwick had it covered, even if obscured by an inadequate thematic index.

Even the style is a problem. There is a mandarin quality to Chadwick’s writing; of the wise doings of a great and sensible man among other sensible men of a similar age and class. Matters are just so; courses of action are obvious once the right minds had been brought to bear on an issue. This style tends to flatten out some of the turmoil of the period, the very present sense of crisis in British religion. This much can be refined, finessed, disrupted. But the prose style is seductive too, somehow making matters so plain that it disarms criticism. In fact, I found myself having to examine my own prose for traces of Chadwick; more than once have I unwittingly reproduced one of his sentences, so aptly had it summed up the matter in hand.

Perhaps all this is merely a symptom that I have lived with the book for too long; nothing that a change of focus or a stiff dose of more bracing reading wouldn’t sort out. It helped that I eventually realised that I didn’t need to replace Chadwick’s book at all; better simply to receive it gratefully as a foundation on which to build. But I would be intrigued to hear of other historians’ relations with similar monumental works in their fields, if they were prepared to share their thoughts.

Michael Ramsey and JFK

Today sees the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas. Others can comment more informatively than me on its impact in the United States. There is however among Michael Ramsey’s writings a little window into the impact it had in the UK: a sermon that Ramsey preached at a memorial service for Kennedy at St Paul’s cathedral on 1st December 1963. It was published in a now scarce volume of collected sermons and papers, his Canterbury Essays and Addresses (1964).

As one might expect, there is much in it that would have been appropriate in a funeral sermon for any murder victim. ‘In a moment of madness the man was done to death’; what reason could there be for such waste, Ramsey asked ? ‘Men of faith, of every faith and none, find that question piercing them like a knife.’ The answer even to such evil lay for Ramsey in the cross and resurrection of Christ, where ‘God can turn suffering into a triumph of love and sacrifice’.

But this wasn’t just any funeral or any murder victim; and Ramsey’s tribute to Kennedy’s particular life reveals something of his own political and ethical priorities. Kennedy had ‘touched something universal in the human heart’. A war hero, tenacious in the pursuit of a cause yet patient with those who disagreed, youthful beyond his age and surrounded by an apparently happy and settled family life: there was much in Ramsey’s idea of Kennedy that he found appealing. But it was the causes that JFK espoused that were close to Ramsey’s own: ‘peace, freedom, the service of prosperous nations to nations where there is poverty and hunger, the partnership of every race in civil rights.’

Later historians have critically examined Kennedy’s real record in all these areas. For Ramsey in December 1963, speaking from within the same sorrow he intuited in the hearts of his hearers, JFK modelled a liberal Christian politics that matched his own.

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.

New sources at Lambeth Palace Library

A recent arrival on the doormat was the annual review of Lambeth Palace Library. It includes as always a digest of recent accessions and completed cataloguing, and here are some of the highlights for historians of the period since 1945.

The rolling cataloguing of the papers of the archbishops continues, under the usual thirty-year rule, with those for Robert Runcie now available for 1982. These include papers relating to the famous sermon of July 1982 at the Falkland Island Service, and for the visit of Pope John Paul II. Also available are the collected speeches and sermons of George Carey, some thousand or more of them.

Particularly interesting in connection with Michael Ramsey are the papers of the Church of England’s diplomatic arm, the Council on Foreign Relations, as they relate to the Roman Catholic church. There is material here on Ramsey’s visit to Rome in 1966, the vexed issue of ‘mixed marriages’ and the canonisation by the Pope of forty English and Welsh martyrs of the Reformation period, which Ramsey thought an ecumenical disaster, and against which he pressed in public and in private.

Also available are the papers of the prominent member of the Church Assembly George Goyder, as well as those of Garth Moore, canonist, cleric and academic lawyer, who was prominent in many of the complex legal changes in relation to church and state and the ecumenical movement in Ramsey’s time at Lambeth.

Other highlights are the paper of Hugh Montefiore, bishop of Birmingham; and the records of Robert Runcie’s Commission on Urban Affairs, which produced the controversial and still significant report Faith in the City, which endeared the church to Mrs Thatcher about as much as the Falklands sermon did.

The archives and manuscripts catalogue is available here.

The meaning of Christian monarchy

This week sees the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of the Queen, in Westminster
Abbey on June 2nd 1953. No-one who watched the archival footage this week can
have missed the craggy figure of Michael Ramsey at her right hand side throughout the
ceremony. My forthcoming book on Ramsey examines his view that there should be a
greater distance between the state and the Church of England; a distance he helped to
open up. However, this desire for greater independence for the Church could and did co-exist in Ramsey’s mind with a very positive view of
the Christian nature of the monarchy.

banlon1964 Flickr CC by-nc-nd 2 0

Ramsey at the Queen’s right hand. CC image from Flickr, by banlon1964

According to ancient privilege, Ramsey was entitled to attend the new Queen at her coronation as Bishop of Durham, along with the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Ramsey preached two days before, an address reproduced in his Durham Essays and Addresses, now rather rare. He spoke of a ‘happy nation’, united despite differences of class and wealth, with the ‘happiness of a people who know we have a great treasure; and the treasure is the Monarch whose subjects we are.’ On the occasion of the birth of Prince Edward in 1964 Ramsey spoke in similar and wholly conventional terms of the exemplary royal family which was ‘around the throne a Christian family united, happy and setting to all an example of what the words “home and family” most truly meant.’

But the authority of monarchy had its own obligations. In Christ’s washing of
the disciples’ feet, he had shown the meaning of a ‘royalty of selfless service’; a Christian
monarchy should derive its tone from ‘Christ’s own union of the ruler of all and the servant of
all.’ The monarch not only had a duty to her people, but also to God. The coronation service
was to feature the newly crowned queen, in all the regalia of sovereignty, kneeling to
receive communion ‘just where any Christian man or woman or child might kneel […] She
knows that to the Crucified King Jesus all monarchies are subject, and by him they all are
judged.’ Anglican loyalty to the Church of England’s Supreme Governor was based on
mutual obligation between monarch, nation and subject.

What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ?

What did modern theology look like ? An odd question perhaps; but I’d like to look at some of the cover designs of books of theology aimed at a popular readership between 1963 and 1970. This is no exhaustive study (being based mostly on the books on my own shelves), but it would seem that at least some of those responsible for publicising the ‘Death of God’ theology thought there was a connection between it and modern art.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Undoubtedly the most famous such book of the period was John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, published by the SCM Press in 1963, in its series of cheap pocket paperbacks. Its cover is a minor masterpiece of cover design, showing a young man deep in thought, wrestling perhaps with precisely the kind of radical rethinking of his religion that Robinson was proposing. Image and message seem to be in perfect interplay. Interestingly, the image is of a rather older work, and from a different context. ‘Seated Youth’ (1918) is by the German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Lehmbruck’s experience of working in a wartime field hospital is translated between nations and over time to become a symbol of a more spiritual crisis.Lloyd-Ferment in the Church - cover 1964 - blog

After Honest to God, ‘Seated Youth’ seems to have become iconic of Robinson’s book, such that it appears again on a follow-up book from Roger Lloyd, The Ferment in the Church, published in 1964, also by SCM. This time the sculpture is overlaid on a background of Winchester Cathedral, signifying the clash of old and new.

Ramsey - Resurrection of Christ - fourth imp 1966 - blog

I must stress again that this post captures an impression, and is not based on a systematic study. As such, there isn’t much in the way of a control group – of works of more mainstream theology published for a mass market, for which the economics of a cover design with an image added up. But there were some, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ, first published in 1945 but reissued by Collins in the Fontana imprint. The impression here is the fourth, from 1966, and whilst it too uses a work of art, Collins’ designer opted for an unidentified work in a much older style. This perhaps matched Ramsey’s work, which was by no means conservative in the broader scheme of things, but looked to be so when set against Robinson.

Newbigin - Honest Religion for Secular Man 1966 - cover - blog

There was one artist who seemed to appear often, and that was Jacob Epstein. Lesslie Newbigin’s Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM, 1966) featured ‘Risen Christ’, a work made between 1917-19 and, like ‘Seated Youth’, an imaginative product of the First World War. A sepulchral Christ shows the viewer his wounds, against the backdrop of the type of multi-storey office building in vogue at the time, although the particular building is not identified. Modern Man needed to work out the appropriate response to the call of God in a secular, “technological” environment.

Laymans Church - 1963 - cover - blog

All three SCM titles I’ve discussed so far were in the same series; but other publishers were not slow to see the connection, and at about the same time. In the same year as Honest to God, the Lutterworth Press published Layman’s Church, a collection of essays introduced by Timothy (later Lord) Beaumont, and including essays from several of the figures associated with ‘South Bank religion’, including Robinson. Its cover features Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’, made for Llandaff cathedral in 1954-5. The new Coventry cathedral has on the exterior of its porch Epstein’s ‘St Michael and the Devil’ (1956-8), featured on Stephen Verney’s Fire in Coventry (Hodder, 1963).
Verney - Fire at Coventry - 1963 - blog
So it would seem that publishers of popular theology in the early Sixties thought there was a connection between the kind of modern theology that seemed to be leading the market and the kind of modern sculpture (and it is mostly sculpture) that was finding its way into churches. Or, at the very least, those publishers thought that their likely readers would find the designs meaningful. I doubt I will have the time to pursue this idea any more systematically; but there’s a great Ph.D. subject in here for someone.

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.

Is it time to disestablish the Church of England ?

For much of the last century, every adjustment in the relationship between the state and the established Church of England has been resisted on the basis that it ‘raises the question of disestablishment’. There have of course been tinkerings and modifications: on the process of Crown appointments; attempts at removing the bishops from the House of Lords; and the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 which gave the Church the power to settle most of the most important things about its own life and worship.

Image CC: BY-NC, from Lawrence OP (Flickr)

Bishop John Fisher in Parliament [Image CC: BY-NC, from Lawrence OP (Flickr)]

Perhaps the establishment of the CofE is one of its intrinsic mysteries; the genius of Anglicanism which remains opaque even to its initiates, and which (like that other fabled beast the British Constitution), seems to work well even if no-one quite knows how. But recent events show more clearly than ever before just how precarious establishment is, and how contingent on other things which seem less solid.

There was always an implicit bargain involved in the survival of establishment. On the Church’s side, it offered some advantages. In the parishes, hatching, matching and despatching kept open occasions for pastoral contact with parishioners who never otherwise entered the building, even if opinions differ on how real or important much of this was. The royal set-piece occasions remained symbolic demonstrations of the historic reality of the place of Christianity in national life. And the place of the bishops in the Lords was taken very seriously by those bishops, even if their consciousness of their role shifted, first towards being representatives of the other Christian churches, and then of all faiths.

After the mid-sixties, and particularly after 1974, the burdens of establishment in practical terms were light, once Parliament had denied itself the right in practice to interfere in the internal running of the Church, even if sometimes it still had to wave necessary legislation through. And so an equilibrium has held since then: the Church didn’t much bother the state in practical terms; the Church bore some mild inconvenience in return for some advantages; and the sheer effort and parliamentary time involved in disestablishment deterred any serious consideration of it.

More recent events have upset this delicate balance. Rural clergy of my acquaintance still place considerable value on the Church’s role as registrar-delegate on behalf of the state in the matter of the rites of passage; but that advantage in urban areas is surely now almost null. As for the role of the bishops in the House of Lords, some still set some store by it, but as a burden rather than a privilege. If any government were actually to set to the task of removing them, I doubt it would be resisted too hard. And so, although hard data for analysis is in short supply, the cost-benefit calculus of establishment for the Church looks less and less favourable, and is increasingly seen to be so.

Both of these changes would be a loss, but a minor one, and easily accommodated. Two recent developments take things closer to home.

Firstly there is the issue of gay marriage. Several faith groups hold that marriage is necessarily, indeed ontologically only possible between man and woman. However, for all but one of these groups (those that are not established) the redefining of civil marriage by the state need not cause any internal difficulty, other than the loss of the right for their own religious solemnisation of marriage to contain the civil component. For the Church of England, I see no possible way that its own religious definition of marriage as exclusively heterosexual could survive an enforcement by the state of such a redefinition of marriage in civil terms. The role of registrar-delegate would have to be relinquished, leaving marriage in the Church of England the same (in law) as by the rites of the Methodists or in synagogue or mosque. This may (or may not) be possible without upsetting some other part of the delicate ecology of establishment. I don’t see the exemption of the Church of England from the current legislation as durable for any length of time.

Similarly, if the General Synod votes again against the consecration of women as bishops, then the sort of attempt (suggested by some) by Parliament to force the issue in relation to the bishops in the Lords would provoke a similar crisis. This is not to mention any attempt to apply the existing employment equality legislation to the issue, if the Church (as discharger of some functions on behalf of the state) discriminates on the grounds of gender.

Had either issue come to the surface twenty years ago, things would have been quite different. But in the last few years, I think that the climate of opinion has changed, on both sides. There has been a considerable upsurge in secularist sentiment, whether as applied to the House of Lords, or faith schools, or the law on blasphemy, or the visit of the Pope to the UK in 2010. And so the public mood would seem to the most supportive it has been for decades for an attempt at a renegotiation.

And at the same time, there may be more appetite within the Church for such an attempt as well. The point is often made that the Church of England is a church, not a sect. But a church can only be church in this comprehensive national sense if the nation on whose behalf it is supposed to exist recognises it. Not everyone, or even the majority, need ever make direct use of it, but it needs to be regarded as something other than a private religious society (that is, a sect), and that has some set of obligations to the whole nation. Becoming a sect need not jeopardise the Church’s mission; but it would need to recognise that that mission is no longer shaped as it was when establishment made sense. And more and more Anglicans are I think coming to recognise that it no longer does. There have for decades been voices who have thought that establishment meant being part of The Establishment, of being too close to secular power and all its moral difficulties; and that the prophetic edge of the Church’s mission, to speak truth to power, was thereby compromised. I think these voices are now coming to represent a more and more mainstream view.

(Let me be clear about one thing, however. Some within the churches have seen the gay marriage issue as the thin end of a wedge, by which the freedom of churches (as voluntary religious societies) to order their worship and doctrine would be eroded by militant secularists – that conservative churches would eventually be forced to accept gay clergy, or women bishops, or whichever norm of wider society conflicted with their own belief. This rhetoric is surely overblown, and hinders hard thinking on the real issues about the dual nature of the Church of England.)

It would be brave to predict the actual disestablishment of the Church of England, and I’m not about to. However, I do think that the state of opinion, both within and outside the Church, are more favourable than they have been for decades. If a government had the appetite for the job of disestablishment, now would be the time to attempt it.