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.

Alister Chapman on John Stott: a review

It was a great pleasure to see my review of Alister Chapman’s study of John Stott appear in Reviews in History (for which, incidentally, I am apparently the single most prolific reviewer; answers on a postcard as to whether this is a Good or Bad Thing.) I digest some of my main points below, but as some of them are criticisms, let me say to begin that overall I thought it  ‘a model of engaged, sympathetic yet critical scholarship which is sure to find a wide readership.’

I began by reflecting a little on the recent controversy concerning Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones’ splendid collection of essay on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, on which I blogged here, and which tells us important things about Christian biography as a scholarly exercise:

‘Historians who would assess the careers of contemporary religious leaders are on a hiding to nothing. [Atherstone and Ceri Jones’ book] has been excoriated both for slighting the memory of a revered figure and for asking the wrong questions. In the first case, some reviewers have shown, [in the words of Carl Trueman], an ‘apparent absolute commitment to maintaining a fundamentally uncritical, defensive and hagiographical approach [to Lloyd-Jones and his reputation that] does the church no favours’.  For Iain Murray, one of Lloyd-Jones’ biographers, there is little point [to historical reflection on The Doctor] without attempting to assess whether Lloyd-Jones was right in his theology. [History] that avoids the truth claims of its subject fails the basic test of utility for the Christian reader.
‘That religious biography has been made to carry greater weight than other such writing is of course not new. […] For many, Christian lives are to be exemplary, and as such the biographer is faced with a peculiar set of expectations among potential readers.[…] it may be that Chapman has navigated through the obstacles as well as could possibly be hoped. Chapman’s title is Godly Ambition, and the leitmotiv throughout is the tension between Stott’s natural assumption of his capacity for leadership, and the self-effacement customary in the exemplary Christian life. [..] Stott was ambitious that God’s kingdom on earth be fostered, but within that framework, ambition for one’s own personal success was legitimate, and indeed desirable, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. At the same time, Stott’s very human struggle with his pride in his own achievements is sympathetically and expertly handled, and Chapman is clear-sighted and frank about the tactical mistakes and intellectual diversions inevitable in a long career in the public eye.

My main criticisms concerned the place given to the rest of the Church of England, the non-evangelical majority:

‘Consider the phrase on p. 90: Chapman argues that, despite Stott’s definitive turn towards engagement with the Church of England, […] he nonetheless never became the kind of “theologically fuzzy ecclesiastical pole-climber” which (we are to understand) was common elsewhere in the Anglican church. It was, and is, a regular rhetorical device to set evangelical ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’ in theology against liberal vagueness and doubt; but an author more attuned to the breadth of discourse in the Church of England would have hesitated over such a phrase.

On the failure of the Church of England to make Stott a bishop, despite the growing numerical strength of evangelicals within the Church of England:

‘Chapman, like [Timothy] Dudley-Smith, puts Stott’s exclusion down to Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and his reputed antipathy towards evangelicals. But to regard the episcopate in these quasi-parliamentary terms – as a representative body chosen according to the weight of party numbers in the wider church – is to miss the point. (That role was, in theory, fulfilled by the Church Assembly and its successor the General Synod, for election to which bodies Stott refused to stand.) In a theologically mixed church, with territorial governance by parish and diocese, the test for a bishop was not his particular churchmanship, but his ability to gain the confidence of all the parties represented on his patch. And for all Stott’s success in shifting the centre ground within the evangelical constituency, when viewed from outside he still appeared to be a party man. […]

More generally:

‘It is a besetting sin of evangelical historiography to talk only to itself, an isolation that sometimes results in a lack of proportion. […] Largely absent are voices from outside the evangelical constituency, in connection with Stott in particular and evangelicals in general, and the book would have been enriched by a greater sense of them.’

All this said, when judged on its own terms the book could hardly be bettered. And it is also encouraging that OUP could be persuaded to publish it, and that we have in place another key plank in our growing understanding of a pivotal time in evangelical history.