Iris Murdoch and the clergy of the Church of England

This is a recording of a paper to be given to the winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society on January 14th 2023. The theme of the conference is ‘the Church and hypocrisy’, and the title of the paper is ‘Vocation, integrity and hypocrisy in a secularising society: Iris Murdoch and the clergy of the Church of England’.

I place Murdoch’s portrayal of the clergy in the context of her own understanding of the necessary role of the established church, and her extensive reading of the radical theology of the sixties, seventies and eighties. I consider some of the Anglican clergy in Murdoch’s fiction, in terms of their integrity or otherwise, to both their vocation and their conscience. I focus in particular on those clergy who can no longer assent to the doctrine of their own church, and the subtleties and evasions into which they are forced as a result. The novels in question are The time of the angels (1966), The philosopher’s pupil (1983), and The book and the brotherhood (1987).

Listen to it here; it is about 23 minutes long.

 

I shall submit a considerably longer version of the paper for consideration for the EHS’s annual publication, Studies in Church History. If it is accepted for SCH, it would appear in volume 60, in the summer of 2024. Before then, I should be happy to share the draft if folk would care to send me an email.

Visualising English theology in edited collections

Regular readers will remember that in recent years I have become interested in the history of religious publishing. It is the point at which religious history most closely meets a slightly separate interest in the history of technology. It is also an area in which digital tools and methods come into their own. Today I want to talk a little about a particular project, on the history of the edited collection of essays as a publishing format.

In other posts I’ve tried to show how edited collections present a unique angle from which to view the networks of scholars and their editors that come together, at a moment in time, around a certain subject, aided by a particular publisher. Some of them represent a group of scholars in one institution or organisation; others capture moments in ongoing debates and controversies about particular subjects. At other times, they are used as a way of kicking the tyres of a particular community, and policing its boundaries; others are an attempt to reach outside particular constituencies and to resolve points of dispute.

This work is based on what is now a large dataset of edited collections, their editors and their contributors, in the fields of theology, religious studies and Biblical studies for the period from the First World War until the millennium. Although it continues to grow, the data now records nearly 4,000 individual essays and chapters, from over 2,300 unique authors. I plan, in time, to write about the big picture that this data represents, of the changing shape of the discipline of theology over time: the subjects that are most salient at particular times; the institutions in which authors are based, their gender profile, and their international spread. But there is considerable interest in smaller corners of the graph, and it is one of these that is the subject of this post: the publishing career of Leslie Houlden, Anglican priest and Biblical scholar, who passed away on December 3rd.

Among these thousands of authors, Houlden is in fact the fourth most prolific contributor of all. Only a couple of dozen authors hit double figures; Houlden’s work appeared in some 16 volumes (that I have so far found). When I extract from the full dataset the contents of just those sixteen volumes, along with the volume published in honour of Houlden on his retirement, it produces a list of just short of 250 essays from 192 different authors.

The career of Leslie Houlden (1929-2022) took him through the whole range of situations in which an Anglican priest might find himself. Ordained as priest in 1956, he ministered in a parish before becoming chaplain, first to Chichester Theological College and then to Trinity College Oxford. He was then principal of Cuddesdon Theological College from 1970, and the first principal of the new college formed by the amalgamation of Cuddesdon with Ripon Hall. In 1977 he moved to King’s College London as a lecturer in New Testament studies, in time becoming professor, and retired in 1994. Viewed chronologically, the volumes show Houlden in the various stages of his career. In the Sixties his work was to be found in several volumes that were attempts to understand the identity of the Church of England, both its mixed traditions (such as Catholic Anglicans Today, 1968), and in ecumenical relation to the other churches. In the mid-1970s he was a contributor to the highly controversial symposium The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), and was a member of the Church of England’s doctrine commission. In the 1980s he continued to write on the theology of the New Testament, as part of a continued rethinking of liberal catholicism within the Anglican church.


Even this much data is rather difficult for the naked eye to interpret. Thanks, however, to Gephi, it is possible to visualise the network of authors and volumes, as in the chart above. Houlden himself appears at the centre of the network, as we would expect; I have also labelled those theologians whose work most often appears in the same volumes. Together they help locate Houlden in both the fields and the institutions in which he worked.

There are names associated with King’s College, most notably the New Testament scholar Graham Stanton. Other Biblical scholars represented include John Fenton (University of Cambridge), and Colin Hickling, also formerly of Chichester Theological College, and (later) another colleague at King’s. There is also a cluster of names associated broadly with the University of Birmingham and The Myth of God Incarnate – John Hick, Michael Goulder and Frances Young – along with Don Cupitt, another contributor to The Myth. But the graph also shows how closely Houlden was connected with those scholars who occupied the commanding heights of the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. Dennis Nineham was at one time regius professor of divinity at Cambridge; Stephen Sykes was one of the later occupants of the same chair at Cambridge, as well as the Van Mildert professorship at Durham; Maurice Wiles was regius professor in Oxford for twenty-one years from 1970. Wiles, Nineham and Houlden were all members of the Doctrine Commission in the 1970s, as was the last of those named on the chart, John Austin Baker.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about these particular networks, and about the precise character of networks in edited collections in general, which I hope to write about before long. But I hope I have shown a little of the kind of analysis that tools for handling and visualising data can enable.

Eric Mascall and the ordination of women

I am now happily in a position to share the full text of an article due for publication in the summer of 2023, in Studies in Church History.

It is entitled ‘E. L. Mascall and the Anglican opposition to the ordination of women as priests, 1954–78’.

The article examines the grounds on which the Anglican philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall opposed the ordination of women, in a series of influential publications from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It examines their basis in Mascall’s understanding of the church, the Incarnation and the ontological status of the sexes. In view of the counter-cultural emphasis that Christ had put on the equality of men and women otherwise, Mascall argued, it was not accidental that Christ was incarnated male, and that all the apostles were men. Within the Church, the very manifestation of Christ’s body on earth, the clergy did not act merely as representatives, or even as agents, but as ‘the very organs through whom [Christ] himself acts’; there was an ‘essential identity’ between Christ’s personal ministry on earth and that which he now exercised in the church. As such, it was ‘highly congruous that the manhood through which he acts is male as he is male’. Even more starkly, Mascall argued that this was not a matter of symbolic congruity alone. Beneath all the racial, temperamental and cultural differentiations of human beings, there was not, for Mascall, a single human nature, common to male and female but sexless in nature. At the most fundamental ontological level, there was no essential human being, only men and women. ‘Christ exercises his priesthood in the Church through human beings who possess human nature in the same sexual mode in which he possesses it.’ A women priest was not undesirable, or merely symbolically incongruous; she was impossible.

The article also sets these theological objections in the context of the particular atmosphere of the Anglo-Catholicism of the period, convulsed by ecumenical advance at the Second Vatican Council and (as Anglo-Catholics understood it) the danger of moves towards the Protestant denominations in England. Just as the Anglican Communion approached a point of decision about the ordination of women, Mascall was fighting to fend off what he saw as a misconceived scheme to unite Anglicans and Methodists in England. At the same time, ecumenical prospects both with Roman Catholics and Orthodox seemed brighter than ever before, which the ordination of women threatened to derail. Whilst Mascall allowed that women priests might one day be embraced by the worldwide church, together, the peculiar atmosphere of the period seemed to make it the least auspicious time to make what would be a unilateral and far-reaching decision.

The article also situates Mascall’s interventions in a wider realignment of conservatives within the Church of England, away from older party divisions between evangelical and catholic towards a new divide between conservative and liberal. In Mascall’s words, the most salient division within the church was becoming one between “those who believe in the fundamentally revealed and given character of the Christian religion and those who find their norms in the outlooks and assumptions of contemporary secularised culture and are concerned to assimilate the beliefs and institutions of Christianity to it”.

Download the full article (PDF, 6000 words).

(For the avoidance of doubt, for my own part I don’t agree with Mascall on this issue; for all their sophistication, and the clarity with which they are expressed, I just don’t feel the force of his arguments. But (as I explain) the opponents of the ordination of women have so far either been overlooked or (to a degree) caricatured in the historical literature so far, and I hope this article goes some way to putting that right.)

For more on my ongoing project on the life and work of Eric Mascall, see the project page.

New podcast: Eric Mascall and the purpose of the theologian

A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest on the Holy C. of E. podcast, talking about the work of Eric Mascall. It is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts, or below.

There’s nothing like an unscripted conversation to expose all of one’s verbal tics. But, in between all the ‘kind of’s and ‘in a sense’s, there’s Mascall, metaphysics, anthropology, ecclesiology, demythologization, the universities, and the theological colleges. Alternatively (if that all sounds a bit much), it’s about what theology should be about, who it is supposed to serve, and why Mascall thought his contemporaries had got it wrong.

It is based on this recent article of mine on Mascall.

For more information on my ongoing project on Mascall, see here.

Michael Ramsey and the law on abortion

I usually avoid commenting on the history and politics of the USA, since it is not my specialism. But the news is full of the fallout from the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 judgement Roe v. Wade, triggering the immediate and drastic curtailment of the availability of abortion across Republican America. So I offer, by way of oblique comment on the situation, an extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, on the Church of England’s involvement in the 1967 Act that liberalised abortion law in the UK.

It shows a different kind of Christian engagement with the messy business of legislating for morality in a nation where the Christian claim about life is not commonly accepted. Ramsey recognised neither of the absolutisms that are pitched against each other in the US context, of ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’, recognising both the limits of theological certainty and the irreducible complexity of real situations. Although he did not put it in these terms, it is an advocacy for safe, universal and compassionate abortion provision, while at the same time working for the kind of Christian society in which it was not often required.

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Part of the moral law that saw decisive change on Ramsey’s watch was the law on the termination of pregnancy. As with the law on divorce, those churches that engaged sympathetically with the process of reform have later been indicted by conservative commentators with colluding with ostensibly limited reform which in fact opened the door to a more wholesale permission. From the first, the effects of the change in the law were monitored, discussed and disputed; the numbers of legal abortions rose, although the statistics were disputed, since the law was designed to legitimise and thus control those abortions that already occurred illegally and went unrecorded. There were difficult and indeed horrific cases, and sensational reporting in the press. Abortion became a plot line in larger stories that were told of the nation’s moral decay. Some thought there ought to be a national day of prayer on the matter, for ‘true guidance to our leaders and for the awakening of Christian conscience.’ In 1973 Ramsey was petitioned by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, that the Church of England should do more to stem the inexorable rise in the numbers, and to support doctors who conscientiously objected. There was also criticism of the bishops’ supposed collusion in the passing of the 1967 Act, and their quiescence since. And so, it is necessary to peel away the contested later history of abortion in the UK to examine the reactions of Ramsey and the Church to the tightly constrained terms of debate on the issue in the mid-1960s.

In the early stages of that debate, there had been a consciousness that the present law was both ambiguous in part, and socially harmful where it was clear. The prevailing boundaries of legitimate abortion rested on statute law, significantly modified by a single case, never tested on appeal: the ‘Bourne judgment’ of 1938. The case of Aleck Bourne had left open the possibility that abortion might be permissible where there was significant risk to the health of the mother, and not to her life alone as the statute law required; a provision that was interpreted increasingly liberally as time went on. But access to abortion under this provision was in practical terms limited to those who could pay, and the numbers of terminations obtained illegally each year suggested that there was considerable demand for that which the law could not supply. When abortion was obtained illegally, the consequences for the mother were often dire.

The Church of England had in progress a group examining the issue, composed of experts: physicians, social workers, moral philosophers, and clergy specialising in issues of ethics. It concluded that abortion was ethically acceptable under certain limited circumstances, being when there was a threat to the life or health of the mother, which included both physical and mental health. Crucially, the authors thought that this calculation should include aspects of the situation of the family, if the arrival of a new child into that situation would threaten the mother’s well-being. The decision ought to rest with medical professionals, after due consultation with other experts in social welfare. The report therefore allowed room for the abortion of foetuses with physical deformity, or which had been conceived as a result of rape or incest. However, these were not in themselves to be the ground; they were significant only insofar as they affected the mental health of the mother. The authors acknowledged the fear of the traditional moralist ‘of a steady increase […] so that abortion came to be demanded, and allowed, for minor inconveniences which fell far short of the seriousness which alone would make termination licit.’ However, they were confident that ‘such safeguards as are necessary can be devised.’

It is worth noting that which the report did not propose. While it attributed a moral status to the foetus, as having the potential for life, it asserted that if the interests of foetus and mother were irreconcilable, then those of the mother should win out. In this, it was close to the present law as it was customarily read off from the Bourne case. It was also some distance from the more absolutist position that characterised Roman Catholic thought on the subject, which if pursued to its logical conclusion would, the authors thought, lead in some cases to the death of both mother and foetus, and which avoided such untenable conclusions only by casuistry. The authors were however confident that the solution proposed upheld the general right to life of the foetus, and thus recognised the sanctity of human life, whilst sufficiently recognising the realities.

As it happened, the report was in its final draft in late 1965 when the Labour peer Lewis Silkin brought forward a Bill to amend the law. The events of the following year until David Steel’s Bill became law demonstrated the ambiguities of the positions of both the Church and the Archbishop. As word of Silkin’s Bill spread around Westminster, Ramsey arranged for draft copies of the report to be sent to Silkin, the Lord Chancellor and various others, but stressed that he himself had not yet reached a firm conclusion on the matter. He also stressed that the report did not commit the Church to any particular view; Silkin in reply acknowledged the state of play, and undertook not to use the report in debate. Ramsey shortly afterwards left the country for a visit to Africa, but left the matter in the hands of his most senior member of staff Robert Beloe.

Beloe continued to meet privately with Silkin, the government Chief Whip, the Roman Catholic peer Lord Longford and others, gauging the tenor of opinion, exploring where the Bill might be brought into line with the Church’s report, and imparting useful information. Implicit throughout, but not stated, was Beloe’s role (on Ramsey’s behalf) as critical friend of the proposals: supportive of reform of the law, but not on any terms. Some of the bishops were equally closely involved, both in the Lords but privately: Robert Mortimer, Bishop of Exeter, was in direct correspondence with Silkin in 1965 over detailed revisions to the proposed Bill. However, there were dangers in this approach since, as with the case of divorce reform, press and parliamentarians alike appeared to struggle to distinguish between co-operation with the process and outright support for each and every proposal. Before long it appeared that Silkin had let it be known amongst Labour peers that the Bill had the support of the Church of England as it stood, in an undefined but important way. A year later, Ramsey’s office was alerted that Steel was suggesting the same, and that a public statement was needed.

By this time, a year after the publication of the Church’s report and the production of two Bills, Ramsey’s own view had solidified. Cardinal Heenan had reinforced the Roman Catholic view from the outset, coming out in opposition to the Abortion report at its publication. Ramsey had always thought this absolutist position unworkable, and that Heenan’s position was an evasion: an attempt to opt out of facing difficult issues. It necessitated deciding when life began: was it at conception, at the implantation of the embryo, at the ‘quickening’ (an older understanding), or at birth? Ramsey knew that this could not be known. And even if it could be known with any security, an absolute insistence on the life of the foetus led to the moral absurdity of making no intervention when the lives of both mother and child were at risk.

In a statement to Convocation in early 1967, Ramsey laid out his position, coming out against those who would wish to see abortion available ‘virtually at will.’ In a clear rebuke to the absolutist camp, he drew a distinction between abortion and infanticide, arguing that it was ‘wrong to stir emotion by identifying them’. Nonetheless, the foetus had a unique status in the eyes of God. It was to ‘to be reverenced as the embryo of a life capable of coming to reflect the glory of God’. And once life on earth was over, it mattered that there was an ‘eternal destiny with God in heaven, possible to every child conceived in the mother’s womb’. Ramsey had no sense that anything of the moral status of the foetus was being lost; but there was a messiness at the margins of decision-making that could not be avoided.

It was in the light of this that Ramsey thought that Steel’s Bill went too far in two respects. It allowed for eugenic termination of a foetus with physical deformities on the basis of the interest of the foetus, rather than because it threatened the well-being of the mother. Opposition to this within the Church had been constant, since it involved a determination that it was better not to be born. ‘While we must strive to remove suffering’ Ramsey argued, ‘we do not foreclose the ways in which in the midst of frustrations and handicaps some of the glories of human lives may be seen.’

Steel’s Bill also contained what became known as the ‘social clause’, that widened the relevant factors to include the interests of other children, and the strain on the capacity of the woman as a mother (as distinct from her health). Such situations ‘draw out the sympathy of our hearts.’ However, Ramsey at base felt that despite this, no-one (and certainly not medical professionals) was in a position to judge the matter with any safety, since it was ‘amidst the utmost difficulties that some of the most splendid things in human nature have been seen’. ‘Ought we to legislate’ he asked, ‘as though the grace and power of God in human lives did not exist?’

It was on these points that Ramsey, in concert with other peers, tried to have Steel’s Bill amended, and also signed a letter to The Times opposing the widening of the Bill’s scope. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was eventually passed by Parliament in the autumn of 1967, amid talk of constitutional crisis as the Lords sought at the death to block the social clause that had been re-inserted by the Commons, after having already been removed once by the Lords. Ramsey acknowledged Baroness Summerskill’s evocation of the ‘terrible conditions in certain homes, which has certainly evoked the compassion and concern of all of us’ but this was a case not for abortion on social grounds, but for ‘education in, and the practice of, methods of birth control and family planning.’ Ramsey again voted against the amendment, along with several of the bishops but it was to pass into law.

And thus the contested history of the effects of the reform began. To what extent can the Church of England be said to be responsible for a change that was to have consequences that were quite unforeseen, even by its proponents? To put the question differently, could Ramsey and the bishops have chosen to stand apart from the process, keeping themselves and the Church unsullied by what was messy and ambiguous business? Even the most implacable Roman Catholic opponents had recognised the need to reform the law in some limited ways, and the bishops had little option than to engage with the process and to make the best of embodying solutions to complex and disputed moral conundra in workable law.

As well as this positive engagement, Ramsey and the bishops had also attempted to amend the Bill in the places where it needed to be amended. Whilst doing so, he had written to Prime Minister Wilson explaining that whilst there were elements of the Bill which he would oppose, he should not like to see it fail. An imperfect Bill was better than no Bill at all. Reform of the law was necessary, and so Ramsey did all that was possible to influence its formation; it could not be in either the interests of the Church or the nation that he should attempt to bring the whole Bill down. It was for the nation to legislate for itself. To this degree at least, Ramsey and his colleagues made the best of a difficult job; and later events should not be allowed to cloud necessary judgements about earlier ones.

Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, and also available on Amazon.