Theology, providence and Anglican-Methodist reunion: the case of Michael Ramsey and Eric Mascall

[An extract from a chapter in the forthcoming book Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism: The Search for Church Unity, 1920-2020, edited by Jane Platt and Martin Wellings, to be published by Routledge in 2021.]

It was while Michael Ramsey was archbishop of Canterbury that the Church of England tried twice, and failed twice, to agree to reunion with the Methodist church. In July 1969 the Methodist Conference agreed to a union that involved the most radical recasting of church order: the incorporation of episcopacy into a system that had never known it. Ramsey thought it ‘an event in history of an almost incredible kind’ that one of the Free Churches should have agreed to enter in union on such a basis. However, the Church Assembly of the Church of England narrowly rejected the Scheme. Ramsey thought it right to try again, since the Anglican ‘no’ had to be set against the Methodist ‘yes’. But the General Synod, successor body to the Church Assembly, was to say ‘no’ again in 1972. The failure of the scheme was perhaps the greatest disappointment of Ramsey’s time as archbishop.

The central issue (at least on the Anglican side) is well-known: the nature of the ordained ministry. Anglo-Catholics held tenaciously to episcopal ordination as essential to a valid sacramental ministry. They were thus deeply concerned about accepting Methodist ministers into a united church who had not been so ordained. Conversely, conservative evangelicals in the Church of England were concerned about any implication that the particular form of ordination they themselves had in fact undergone was in any way fundamental to their ministry.

In order to circumvent this obstacle, a Service of Reconciliation was devised, through which all ministers in the united church would pass at the inception. It involved the laying on of hands, but did not address the precise question of how the status, before God, of both the Anglican and the Methodist ministers changed during the Service. Was it an ordination, or not? The Service was certainly similar in structure to the ordinations that Anglicans were used to seeing, and so it rather looked like one. For some, it mattered a great deal what one believed the answer to be; for others it mattered little. For some, it also mattered that men might undergo the Service while being allowed to understand its significance in quite different ways.

The advocates of the Service had been explicit that the important thing about the Service was neither the starting point, nor the journey, but the destination. This agnosticism was too much, however, for a significant minority of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, who together were to oppose and ultimately defeat the Scheme. For Ramsey it was a ‘double tragedy of two sections of our Church being ready to throw away the things which they most care about through fear of losing their theological tidiness.’

My own 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, available via Amazon or your local bookshop.

The disputes within the Church of England over the Scheme generated a great deal of heat and only limited light. Here I want to look at the basis of just this theological tidiness on the Anglo-Catholic side of the argument, through the relationship between Ramsey and the theologian and philosopher E.L. (Eric) Mascall, one of the most prominent opponents of the Scheme. Ramsey and Mascall both saw, more clearly than most, through the passions stirred by the debate to the fundamental issues behind them. Though the dispute seemed to be about understandings of episcopacy and ecclesiology, lying beneath were the relations between tradition and providence, and between philosophy, theology and history. The two agreed that the long-term shape of any united church had to be episcopal, but their disagreement over the means to create it was fundamentally about the nature of God’s sovereign action in the world.

For most of 1968 the two churches had before them the final Scheme and the Service of Reconciliation. Mascall concluded that the Service would produce a validly ordained ministry – it really was in fact an ordination, whether Methodists or Anglican evangelicals liked it or not – but by a ‘series of tortuous evasions’ it had been left ‘open to anyone to hold any view of the services that appeals to him.’ It was possible, he thought, to believe – and at least some people did believe – that both Anglicans and Methodists were being ordained, or that only the Methodists were, or that no-one was. This gave rise to ‘the gravest reservations on the ground of plain morality. Can it be morally right […] for a bishop deliberately to ordain to the priesthood a man who has no desire to be so ordained and who would repudiate the intention of the bishop if the latter openly expressed it?’

If there was one thing guaranteed to provoke Ramsey, it was the suggestion that he was sacrificing theological principle for pragmatic reasons. Mascall had joined a group of four opponents – two evangelicals, two Anglo-Catholic – which had submitted a statement to the Convocations in May 1969, and a second in July on the eve of the vote. (The group later published Growing into Union, an alternative scheme for union.) Shortly after that first defeat of the Scheme, the four wrote to Ramsey. ‘There has been a deep lack of understanding’ he replied, ‘between those who believe the Service of Reconciliation procedure to be theologically sound both in general and in this instance and those who believe it to be a rather disreputable “dodge” for getting round a theological and practical difficulty.’ However, it would not do, he argued, to ‘dismiss those who have the “other” view on this issue, including myself, as being a set of pragmatists who can be ignored’.

Challenged about the ‘ambiguity’ of the Service, Ramsey preferred the term ‘agnostic’, since the proceedings ‘are clear in what they affirm and clear in what they shrink from affirming.’ Conscious ambiguity was not to be equated with dishonesty. Those who charged the service with ambiguity would need to face squarely the real ambiguity in parts of the Book of Common Prayer or the 39 Articles: ‘I think it is unfair if we tax this scheme with ambiguity as if it was something we never practised as Anglicans.’ The status of the Methodist ministers who would take part was different in some degree to his own, he thought, but they were clearly ‘ministers of the word and sacraments of a sort and I cannot regard them as laymen.’ Whatever he or they believed about their current status, the Service was to ask God to give both Anglicans and Methodists ‘whatever he knows them to need in authority and the gifts of the Spirit to make our ministries equal and identical as presbyters in the Church of God.’ Their current status relative to each other was not defined, and it did not need to be defined.

In the same letter to the Growing into Union group, Ramsey noted that the tone of debate had shown ‘that a mutual lack of theological comprehension exists. […] Here is a task of theological analysis, not the analysis of the content of belief so much as of the ways of looking at theological truth.’ What were these differences? They revolved around the degree to which Anglicans were prepared to live in exceptional circumstances with that which they found hard to fully articulate in theological terms.

Mascall and Ramsey were at one in their belief in the necessity of episcopacy, which the united church would, in time, have. Ramsey argued that ‘the scheme provides something unprecedented to deal with the unprecedented situation of the two churches coming together.’ In such circumstances, with regular orders assured for the future, Ramsey was not shocked by a temporary anomaly, ‘and I believe that God could and would overrule such anomalies.’ Episodes such as the discontinuity in the succession of bishops in third century Egypt, or the gradual success of Catholic faith and practice in the united Church of South India convinced Ramsey that God could bless and had blessed churches where such anomalies had existed as a matter of historical fact.

Eric Mascall

Ramsey’s view of the Church and of God’s providence, then, allowed him to deal with the Service in a way that Mascall could not. Writing in 1955, before the Second Vatican Council, Mascall argued that to discount the prospect of any thaw in relations with Rome was to show a ‘lack of trust in the power of God to bring about changes that are beyond our own power; [it assumed] that we can at this moment envisage all the possibilities that lie hidden in the womb of the future.’ However, Mascall’s reactions to the Scheme showed the limits of what he could imagine the providence of God ever intervening to do, in fact. The insistence on theological ‘tidiness’ which characterises his reactions to the ecumenical movement was not merely a scruple, or a failure to grasp the wider issues, but fundamental, a matter of metaphysical necessity. ‘Have we really any right to expect’ he asked of the Scheme ‘that God will reconcile logical contradictions?’ Though Providence was necessarily capable of all possible things, there were some things that it could not do without violating its own nature. The Scheme put the understandable emotional impetus towards union ahead of theological soundness. It was not merely undesirable to try to create a catholic united church on such a basis; it was impossible, a metaphysical contradiction of the true nature of the Church – the mystical Body of Christ – as Mascall understood it.

To the end of his life Mascall believed that, despite the infection (as he saw it) of the churches with the kind of institutional pragmatism of which the Scheme was an example, the Catholic tradition still contained a coherent framework for the whole of human existence. His solution to that crisis was a firmer restatement of that core doctrine. It had not, and could not, change in its fundamentals; it needed only to be recovered and restated. Ramsey held equally fast to the reality and sufficiency of the revelation available to the Church. But he felt more keenly than Mascall the real difficulty of articulating that framework in its fulness in a way that did not leave much unsaid, unsayable and indeed incomprehensible.

Ramsey also had a greater confidence that the unsettlement of those years was not merely a symptom of decline and loss of nerve; in that shaking of the churches, the action of God was to be discerned. Though he came later to downplay his debt as a young man to Karl Barth, Ramsey retained a vivid sense that God was sovereign over history; things that had been thought immoveable could change in ways beyond comprehension, if it was God’s will that they so changed. As he told the Convocation in January 1969, ‘our present understanding of the episcopate and of the Eucharist may be but a shadow of the understanding that may be ours in the future plenitude of the Church. It is in these ways that I think a voice is saying “Speak to the children of Israel that they may go forward.”

And to many in the late 1960s, and not only Ramsey, it seemed clear what that way forward was. ‘Nothing in the world matters more’, Ramsey wrote in 1946, ‘than the fulfilment of the prayer of our Lord “that they may all be one”’, and the height of his career coincided with the single most concrete attempt at that fulfilment. Though the years that have since elapsed have served to throw the ecumenical euphoria of the period into a colder and clearer light, it was at the time possible for Ramsey to see in the Scheme – or rather, the movement of which it was the product – a profound move of God. It was this that Ramsey felt, and Mascall did not; Mascall’s hopes were placed elsewhere, in the outworking of the effects of Vatican II. For Mascall, the reunion scheme was not so much a high-water mark, but the tide flowing in the wrong direction.