Michael Ramsey and the Lambeth Conference

Last year I reviewed a very useful collection of essays on the Lambeth Conference, the ten-yearly gathering of the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion. (The next meeting is to take place this summer in London and Canterbury). In that review, I wrote:

There is much more room left for detailed historical work on past conferences – their specific historical contexts, the means by which their agendas were set, and the conduct of business – as relatively few of the essays here penetrate very deeply into the archival record, focussing instead on the printed sources which represent the end of a process and which tend to hide the means of reaching it. The editors express an aspiration that the volume be a spur to further research, and so it may be, at least for historians

Having set out a stall like this, I could hardly refuse the opportunity that subsequently presented itself, to contribute an article to a forthcoming special issue of Anglican and Episcopal History. That article, ‘Archbishop Michael Ramsey and the Lambeth Conference’ should appear in a few weeks time. In the meantime, I summarise it here. It develops some observations I made in my 2015 book on Ramsey, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974.

The article explores two main themes, looking in particular at the Lambeth Conference of 1968, over which Ramsey presided. One is institutional – the role and form of the Conference as one of the so-called Instruments of Communion that hold the Anglican Communion together; the other is about Ramsey himself.

It may be that, amid the political and social turbulence of 2022, we are better placed than usual to understand the peculiarly febrile atmosphere that surrounded the Conference in the summer of 1968. The bishops congregated in London in the midst of an ongoing war in Vietnam; it was only weeks since Martin Luther King had been assassinated. On the eve of the Conference the Vatican issued Humanae vitae, the declaration on contraception that shocked the Roman Catholic world; in mid-conference, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. In the midst of all this, a kind of frenzy might have ensued, but more than one bishop recalled Ramsey’s achievement in preserving sufficient space for reflection and worship, and an atmosphere of prayerfulness.

Michael Ramsey in 1974
Michael Ramsey in 1974.
(Wikipedia, public domain, Dutch National Archives)

As well as setting an atmosphere, Ramsey also helped shape the progress of the conference, as chairman and as host. But I also argue that he was the right man at the right time to guide the bishops as they addressed a set of pressing, if not indeed existential questions for the Anglican Communion. Talk of crisis can sometimes be overdone, but the theological questioning under the rubrics of ‘religionless Christianity’ and ‘the death of God’- occasioned by the writings of figures such as John A.T. Robinson (in the UK), and (in the USA) Paul van Buren and others – was of an unsettling depth and intensity. Schemes for the reunion of long-separated churches were reaching crucial moments of decision around the Communion, not least in England between Anglican and Methodist; there was even talk of the 1968 Conference being the last, as the Anglican churches joined together with others. Meanwhile, as the process of giving the provinces of the Communion independence from Canterbury neared its completion, Anglicans were having to reckon with a coming of age for churches formed under conditions of empire, and a shift of gravity from north to south. Already in 1954 Ramsey could see the change: ‘neither the Churches nor the countries will suffer western domination: they are rising to adult stature, they are the teachers and we are the learners.’

In all of this, Ramsey’s own reputation was vital in holding the threads together. He was known as an Anglican Catholic yet engaged with evangelicals; committed to ecumenical advance but on sound theological foundations; open to the radical theological questions – and deeply respected as a scholar – but rooted in and respectful of Christian tradition. John Howe, executive officer of the Communion, met bishops, isolated from the stream of theological development in the United Kingdom and North America, who found Ramsey, both in person and in writing, a fortifying figure. His achievement was not in the dispensing of “routine phrases of encouragement.” While not pretending that all was well, he showed “amongst things new and old, what is sand and what is rock.” The theologian John Macquarrie, a Presbyterian who had become an Anglican, and with wide knowledge of both British and American scenes, thought it providential that someone of Ramsey’s theological competence should have been at the head of the Communion at such a time.

The 1968 Conference was also an important moment in the evolution of the Conference itself. The Anglican Communion is perhaps unique in world Christianity in that its sources of authority are both centralized and (at the same time) diffused. In recent years, four institutions, known as the Instruments of Communion, have come to be regarded the means by which the communion is held together: one is the Lambeth Conference; another is the office of the archbishop of Canterbury. The relationships between the Instruments, and the extent of their influence in individual provinces, are varied, fluid, and at times uncertain. And the language of the Instruments was not common in 1968; its currency in Anglican thought dates from the 1980s, part of a general cultural trend towards the transactional and away from what Stephen Pickard called “more organic and relational forms of ecclesial life.” From the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 onwards, just such a organic, personal pattern of relationships was set. The bishops that attended did so at the invitation of the archbishop and met under his presidency in the building that was both his place of work and his home. Unsurprisingly, then, some found the conference hard to separate from the office of the archbishop, even though its resolutions were formally its own.

Under Ramsey’s guidance, the 1968 Conference took a significantly different shape to previous years. Firstly, it was a great deal larger, after the decision was taken to invite not only diocesan bishops but suffragans too (this added an extra 48 bishops from England alone). Importantly, it was a great deal more open. Observers from other churches had been invited to previous Conferences, but not to attend the main business sessions, and not to speak; this time they were to do both. Completely new were the consultants – theologians with a brief to support the deliberations of the bishops, quite like the periti that had attended the Second Vatican Council a few years earlier. There was also a remarkable openness to the media: “this privacy of ecclesiastical gatherings has rather become a thing of the past,” Ramsey told a television interviewer as the Conference began.

All this meant that something of the character of the Lambeth Conference as an intimate private gathering of friends, at the invitation and in the home of the archbishop, was lost and was not to return. Geoffrey Fisher, Ramsey’s predecessor, reportedly felt just this, and even that it imperilled the Anglican Communion. The increased scale of the conference unavoidably militated against a sense of intimacy; the openness to observers surely added to the effect, as did the decision to admit the media. The moving of the main sessions from the quasi-domestic surroundings of Lambeth Palace to the more functional setting of Church House, across the river in Westminster, may have served as a symbol of a distancing of the Lambeth Conference from the person of the archbishop. And though the Conference resolved nothing new as regarded its precise relationship with the archbishop, its resolution to create the Anglican Consultative Council – the fourth of the Instruments – of which Cantuar would be president but which would be under the chairmanship of another, seemed to be a straw in the same wind. At the 1968 Conference Ramsey played his part as few others could have played it, but it was a role that was itself changing, as both the Conference and the whole Communion also changed.

Want to read more?  Try Ramsey’s opening sermon at the 1968 Lambeth Conference.

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