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.
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.
With a sigh of relief, I’m now putting the finishing touches to my paper for this week’s conference on Protestant-Catholic conflict, at Stranmillis College in Belfast. (More details in a previous post.)
Here’s my conclusion:
“The complexities of the archbishop of Canterbury’s position in relation to Ulster are a microcosm of his wider predicament. Amongst moderate elements, he was seen as an honest broker at the centre of power, able to create a neutral space in which political schemes to end the Troubles might be able to grow. His own public interventions in relation of issues of human rights abroad caused others to see him as a friend of victims of perceived injustice. However, the bulk of the calls upon him to intervene to end the violence were based on either naivety, a lack of information about what was already being done, or a misunderstanding of the powers of Canterbury over the independent Church of Ireland.
“In Protestant eyes, however, there was an inescapable contradiction between Ramsey’s constitutional role as head of a Protestant state church born at the Reformation, and his own fervent commitment to the ecumenical movement and to closer relations with Rome in particular. In this Ramsey was caught between genuine ecumenical enthusiasm within his own church and within the Irish churches on the one hand, and residual anti-Catholic sentiment in the nation at large on the other. The 1960s were a period in which the relationship between the Church of England and the nation was being renegotiated, in relation to the moral law and to conceptions of national identity. Those negotiations, never easy, were intractable to the point of impossibility in an Irish context.
I’ve been looking at some of the coverage of and reaction to the jubilee weekend, in order to suggest that the British Library archives them for safe keeping in the UK Web Archive. (See Part One.) My earlier post looked at some of the preparatory statements from official church sources, and some very early oppositional voices. Here are some examples of reportage and comment after the event.
Rowan Williams’ sermon at St Paul’s
Perhaps predictably, the archbishop did not allow the pieties of the situation to restrict his thinking on the subject, making some robust comments about aspects of current economic life. See the full text, and the reactions of the Daily Mail (negative) and the Guardian and Nelson Jones in the New Statesman (rather more positive).
The Church Times gave a useful digest of local events, including a street party in the nave of Ripon Cathedral and various sermons, including that of the Dean of Belfast. Events in local communities includes an inter-faith Family Fun Day in Tooting, south London.
The ‘real meaning’ of Jubilee
A good few campaigning sites sought to draw a distinction between the biblical concept of jubilee and the pattern of the celebrations, often making a more or less explicit connection with the current climate of austerity. See Christianity Uncut, Ekklesia and Symon Hill. The work of the Jubilee Debt Campaign predates this year’s events, although their site did draw attention to the connection.
Dipping one’s toe tentatively into the new world of Open Peer Review, a draft paper of mine on archbishop Michael Ramsey is now available for comment and criticism at the History Working Papers Project. The idea is that HWPP can re-create the interchange of a seminar online, with readers commenting on the paper as a whole and on individual paragraphs, with an opportunity for the author to respond, and post revised versions for subsequent rounds of review. More on the HWPP project is available here.
The paper examines the petitions that were made to Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, to call a national day of prayer. It considers the grounds upon which the petitions was made, and the Church’s official reactions to them. In doing so, it sheds light from an unaccustomed angle onto attitudes towards petitionary prayer among some of the British public, on understandings of the role of the archbishop as leader of the nation’s religious life, and of the recent providential history of the nation, particularly during the 1939-45 war.
While reading Alana Harris’s exploration of changes in language, and the arguments about maintaining tradition (in Redefining Christian Britain), I was reminded of part of Rowan Williams’s recent Why study the past ?. I reviewed it a while back (for the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin), an extract of which reads:
“Williams sees the task of engaging with the past as one not purely of historical empathy for its own sake, but as a form of understanding and engaging with one’s fellow Christians in a way as necessary and as profound as cross-cultural and ecumenical conversation in the present. [....] Ever mindful of a constant and profound tension between the strangeness of the past and its urgency as our ‘family history’, it is the case that ‘our immersion in the ways in which they responded becomes part of the way we actually hear the call ourselves …’ (p.31) This leads Williams to a brief, yet to this reviewer, profoundly important, consideration of the degree to which the worship and conversation of the churches should embody languages and visible practices that both act as symbols of contemporary unity and enable a continuing ‘conversation’ with Christians of previous generations.”
I’m sure there’s a lot here that might help us understand conservative reactions to liturgical change in the 1960s and 1970s. Although it is rarely expressed in quite these terms, perhaps part of the opposition to the sidelining of the Book of Common Prayer is to do with a sense that some means of cross-generational communication is being lost. It puts the arguments about the Book of Common Prayer being part of a ‘linguistic heritage’ into a new light – it is quite easy to read these appeals to ‘save the language of Shakespeare’ purely as aesthetic arguments, or as more secular appeals to a national cultural inheritance.