[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.
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.