Michael Ramsey and Cantuar’s predicament

Though my book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury is hard to regard now as recent, I note a late-appearing review of it, which I had missed until now. It comes from Benjamin Thomas, Episcopalian priest and New Testament scholar, and appeared in Anglican and Episcopal History, 87:2 (2018).

Dr Thomas in general has little to say about the execution of the book as such, although he does describe it as ‘thoughtful’. (This is no doubt intended as a compliment, though I’m inclined to think that thoughtfulness was the most basic requirement of any book worth the paper on which it was printed.) But he does make the following observation, which is both to the point, and indicates once again the dual nature of religious history, a subject to which I have returned several times.

Covering Ramsey’s role as the leader of the English state church and as the leader of a worldwide Anglican Communion, the book is as
much about the limits of the office of archbishop as it is Ramsey.
In a dozen or more ways, Webster reveals an intelligent, capable
leader whose best efforts were stymied by factions — inside and
outside the church — who had only enough power to prevent
positive change. Webster perhaps says this best when he notes:
“at heart Ramsey knew which were the things that were not
shaken, [but] much of the experience of being Archbishop was
one of pressure: of irreconcilable conflict, impossible expectation and of powerlessness in the face of circumstance and the
weight of history” (98).

I certainly stand by this last quotation, and Thomas has identified very precisely one half of what I thought I was doing in writing the book. (Other reviewers – notably a bishop in the Episcopal church – fastened on to the other half: the degree to which Ramsey was able to see more clearly than most what a post-Constantinian idea of church and state looked like, and what use might now be made of that idea.) But certainly the experience of studying Ramsey’s career was to bump up continually against the constraints within which the archbishop of Canterbury must operate, and the gap between what others expect him to be able to do and the extent of his real power. Looking back, I recall that the bulk of the archival work was carried out in 2008 and 2009, during which time Rowan Williams had to contend both with the threat of breakdown in the worldwide Anglican Communion and the controversy over sharia law at home. To what degree the circumstances coloured the book, I’m not well placed to judge. But ten years on, in the context of the present pandemic crisis, I can’t imagine that Archbishop Welby feels very much different.

But I am also brought back again to the question of whom religious history is for. Thomas stresses the strictly historical thrust of the book, the degree to which I showed Ramsey as a human actor in a particular time and place, regardless of the enduring significance of his life and thought. But other reviewers, usually historians rather than those professionally involved in the present-day church, thought the book was too evaluative of Ramsey’s contemporary significance, and reviewers who were also clergy agreed, yet welcomed the book for precisely that reason. The same tension – which the best historians sometimes manage to resolve, but is never avoided entirely – between the dictates of the discipline and the present needs of the Church was visible in some of the reviews of my later book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. As I wrote in relation to Ramsey, ‘to write the history of the contemporary church is always to walk that particular line’.

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