Poet of church and state: rereading C. H. Sisson

[Reading time: c.15 minutes]

I give away no secrets of the historian’s trade when I say that history is not often written purely for its own sake. However remote in time and spirit their period of study is, most historians write because of some sort of felt connection with present concerns, even if it is oblique. The past does not repeat itself, but past and present often rhyme. At other times, however, the very remoteness of the past serves to set our own time in a new light. Such is the case with the English poet and critic C.H. Sisson (1914-2003). What follows is taken from a new book chapter on Sisson, due out later this year.

You may ask how any aspect of a life that ended less than twenty years ago can be thought of as remote. Though most of what I describe is comfortably within living memory, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be, and of the ideal relationship of faith, worship and language, has now become almost entirely obscure, though parts of it survive in a more dilute form. Although Sisson’s sense of these things is some way removed from my own, to look at him afresh shows just how far English religious life has changed in a very short time.

Sisson worked in comparative obscurity until after his retirement in 1974, largely unknown to the world, Roger Scruton thought, by dint of ‘the unfashionable nature of his opinions and the frequently sour manner of their expression.’ Since then, the republication of much of his verse and prose in collected volumes by the Carcanet Press has secured a modest but enduring literary reputation. In his many prose writings on the Church of England, however, Sisson’s was a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical conservatism that sat in the gaps in between the main streams of change and resistance in English religion of the 1960s and 1970s. And since much of the writing of the history of the period has been organised along these same lines, Sisson has so far figured very little.

C.H. Sisson, by Patrick Swift (1960), via Wikimedia

The dominant theme in that historical writing has been the slippery idea of secularisation, the long process by which the mass of the English ceased both to participate in the life of the churches, and to think of the story of their lives in a Christian frame. But the body of opinion that Sisson most clearly represents is not of those who were leaving the churches, who have been most studied. Sisson’s kind of people were staying, and their opposition was born not of rejection of the Church, but of disappointment with the way in which it was changing. It comes from a religious need still felt, yet increasingly unmet, a sense of having been deserted. On the so-called permissive society, or the relaxation of the law on divorce, abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s, Sisson had relatively little to say. As such, he is also largely absent from the substantial historical literature that has now been produced on those topics. Sisson was liturgically conservative but on grounds other than doctrine; he was virulently anti-Catholic but for reasons of politics and national identity rather than theology; on issues such as the ordination of women or theological bestsellers like Honest to God or The Myth of God Incarnate he had little to say. The kind of conservatism to which Sisson gave voice has tended to be treated as a residual category, as if it were a kind of unthinking reaction amongst those without sufficient commitment to choose to be catholic, liberal or evangelical.

Sisson’s reading and writing on the Church of England seems to have begun in earnest in the early 1950s, a point at which many of the reforms to which he took exception were being discussed. It gathers momentum and volume during the 1970s, as many of the changes were at the point of implementation, and continues in the 1980s, when they were a fait accompli, a matter for regret rather than resistance. These later pieces read, to use Roger Scruton’s phrase concerning the verse, as ‘more like regrets than prophecies… a distillation of a common loneliness.’ Those changes fell into two broad categories: legal-constitutional, and liturgical.

In 1965 the church secured the permission of Parliament to produce experimental forms of service, three series of which appeared between 1966 and 1973 as alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer. The culmination of the process was the Alternative Service Book of 1980, against which a petition was presented to the General Synod in 1979, signed by some three hundred luminaries including cabinet ministers, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, actors, journalists and poets. Sisson played a part in bringing the petition together, and continued to write frequently throughout the 1980s on what he saw as a calamitous loss, even though the BCP was (and remains) still authorised for use. Objections to the ASB clustered around three poles: that its language was unfamiliar, and so disruptive to worship; that the language lacked the beauty of the 1662 book (and that beauty was important in its own right), and thirdly, that it was banal, flat, lacking a certain allusiveness (or perhaps openness to interpretation), that pointed beyond itself to the mysterious things to which it referred.

Had the Church brought forward the ASB forward before 1974, it is likely that the opposition to it would have centred on Parliament rather than the General Synod. But that year had seen Parliament pass the Worship and Doctrine Measure, the culmination of a thirty year process in which Parliament had relinquished more and more practical control over the Church. The 1974 measure allowed the Church itself, through the Synod, to authorise permanently new liturgy where previously it had required parliamentary assent, and to settle its own doctrine. The measure marked a decisive redefinition of what membership of the Church of England meant. The notion that Parliament acted as a ‘lay synod’, guiding and if necessary restraining the Church on behalf of the nation was to be superseded by a Church more directly controlled by its active members, through the newly instituted Synod.

But there was yet a significant attachment to the existing constitutional settlement, as is evident from the deliberations of a commission on church and state, which reported in 1970. ‘Some people belong to the Church of England more because they are English than because they are Anglicans’, and this idea of membership, though ‘vague and inarticulate’ is better represented by Parliament on behalf of the whole nation, the authors thought, than by the narrower group of clergy and church-minded laity which made up the Synod.

So it is in these two related contexts – one linguistic and aesthetic, the other constitutional – that we ought to read Sisson’s writing on the Church of England.

*****

The nature of Sisson’s own belief is somewhat hard to pin down. But belief is necessarily articulated in language, and Sisson’s view – a profoundly serious one – of the nature of language is the foundation of the whole social, aesthetic and political superstructure which can be reconstructed from his essays. There were ‘spaces between the ultimate silence and exposition, which are filled only by great literature, and by poetry in particular.’ The language of worship occupied this space, and as such was a matter of the utmost seriousness. And its nature was fundamentally social; the Church was what later critics might have called a linguistic community. ‘Our speaking is that of a race, a tribe, a time. There is no speech which is not of a here and now and it is nothing in terms of other times and elsewhere. That is why the historical church is so apt to our needs and meaning. It is a congregation of meaning and there is no meaning without congregation.’ Given this, liturgical revision was a very serious matter, and (as Sisson became convinced) too difficult to attempt with any safety. He saw nothing in the theological milieu of the Church of England in the 1970s that suggested that a restatement of Christian faith in a way intelligible to a secularising society was likely. And so the idea of revision, already difficult, seemed more and more frivolous. ‘Pending a new clarification of things,’ he wrote in 1981 after the battle for the Prayer Book was lost, ‘better try to understand what our ancestors were saying.’ Better to work with – even despite – an authentic older text, however unwieldy, than to say nothing meaningful in contemporary prose.

Of which community was the Book, and indeed the Church, a product? ‘I am of a religion’, he wrote in an essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘in which … Christianity is an accident; the religion of our fathers, or the mère patrie, of the spirits buried in the ground, of the religion of England. I cannot help it.’ In metaphysical terms, the religion of England was an accident, the substance of which was a nation, formed in a place. And Sisson’s thought pointed both to a certain kind of localism, and a very particular idea of the national community. The fundamental message of the parish system, an outward order that comprehended every inch of the country, was: ‘You will find the faith taught, and the sacraments ministered, where you live. Go to your parish church.’ To travel to a different church for a particular preacher, or to another for the manner in which the Eucharist was celebrated, was to call into the question the Church of England’s claim of catholicity. ‘There is no meaning except in terms of a time and a place’ he wrote: ‘If one could understand it would be at one altar, in a stone building, in such a place’.

The historical fact of the Church of England also had, for Sisson, ineluctable implications for politics and nation as well as the parish. Despite its dwindling strength, the Church of England was driven by its very nature to make universal, indeed implacable claims about the whole of human existence. It could never become simply a private society for the provision of ‘innocent Sunday entertainments’, no different in kind to any other voluntary association. Some form of relationship between the Church and the state would have always to be defined that recognised its unique scope and the range of its claims. And atop this whole structure sat the sovereign, who in the last instance was ‘the final safeguard of our unity… a point of unity in a single Person present on the throne by hereditary right and form of law.’ The established Church and the sovereign were bound together in a relationship, in which the disappearance of one entailed the extinction of the other. Sisson’s sense of the nation had at times almost a mystical tone; Donald Davie noted Sisson’s remarkable metaphor of the monarch who ‘broods over this body of laws and institutions’, as if in some kind of maternal, creative relationship, the nation’s originator.

Such an attachment to a locality and to the ideal of the parish is, of course, far from extinct, and neither is attachment to the monarchy. But Sisson’s religious politics drove him to certain conclusions which would now find little assent. Raised a Methodist, he became dismissive of the Free Churches which were ‘ancillary and in the main derivative’, bodies whose political battles were fought for them by the established Church; Sisson was no ecumenist. The fact that, for the first time, England was now home to many from the Commonwealth who adhered to other faiths – a spanner in the works of Sisson’s idea of faith and nation – seems hardly to have registered. Roman Catholics, however, were almost an enemy within. Despite the day-to-day quiescence of English Catholics, Sisson thought, the Papacy had never renounced its claims as a temporal sovereign, and so in England those Catholics were a minority simply biding their time. ‘They have their politics, however subduedly for the present, and they are not in their obedience bound to England.’ A greater misunderstanding of the English Catholicism of the time, and of the Papacy, would be hard to find.

*****

Sisson emerges from his essays as a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical Toryism which, though elements of it survive, is surely hard to accept as a whole system. No-one now seriously asserts the need to restore greater parliamentary oversight of the established Church. Although the Book of Common Prayer is still used and valued by many – not least in the cathedrals – it is as one option among several to be chosen; no longer has it the same sense of givenness or universality. Overtones of Sisson are perhaps audible in the sense of loss felt by those people, perhaps not all regular worshippers, who were unable to visit the churches at times due to the pandemic, just to sit and think and perhaps pray. The idea of a faithful laity deserted by trendy clergy is still certainly live and well in certain section of the conservative media, for whom the troubles of the Church of England still make good copy from time to time. But except for a very few, the late Roger Scruton notable among them, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be – indeed, must inevitably be – and of the necessary relationship of faith, language and nation, has now become almost entirely obscure as a viable intellectual option. But it deserves to be understood, as a missing piece in our understanding of recent religious history.

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.

Book review: In the long shadow of the Third Reich

[A review published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church]

Gerhard Ringshausen and Andrew Chandler (eds)
The George Bell-Gerhard Leibholz Correspondence: In the long shadow of the Third Reich, 1938-1958
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
978-1-4742-5766-4 (hardback)
xxvii + 475

The papers of George Bell, twentieth century bishop of Chichester, are among the most significant and most extensive collections for modern church history. This important volume, generously edited and well produced (and now, since 2021, available in paperback at a reasonable price) inaugurates a series of editions that promises to open up Bell’s papers to those unable to consult them in the library of Lambeth Palace. Bell was a prolific correspondent in general, but his exchange with the German legal scholar Gerhard Leibholz must be among the most extensive of all such correspondences to have survived, now distributed between Bell’s papers and those of Leibholz in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. Though a selection of the letters was published in German in 1974, it is hard to find in libraries outside Germany, and this complete edition – a joint production of British and German scholars – promises to open up the correspondence in new ways. The letters are marked throughout by both great personal warmth and great immediacy and urgency; absent is the sort of self-consciousness sometimes found in letters written with one eye on an unknown later reader.

Readers of this journal may be slightly surprised at how little there is in the letters about the church as such. This is no complaint, but it is instructive nonetheless. Bell and Leibholz were first in contact in early 1939, after Leibholz, a Volljude (in Nazi terms) but baptised a Lutheran, had arrived in the UK from Germany seeking refuge. Once Leibholz had been released from internment, in part due to Bell’s intercession, the correspondence is dominated by the progress of the war, the fate of the German churches, and then (in time) the likely shape of the post-war order. That the conflict was at root a religious one, between a godless Nazism and a true European civilisation that was fundamentally Christian, was a working assumption that lay beneath their remarkable interaction. That the post-war order – that would have to include a reconstructed Germany, the ‘other Germany’ once stripped of the alien accretion of Nazism – should have a Christian basis was something of which politicians had to be reminded, repeatedly and sometimes forcefully; it was not, yet, a matter that required justification, as would be the case before very long. What the reader finds, as the pair discuss the situation, exchange resources, and read and comment on each other’s writing, is a kind of applied political theology that does not yet need fully to justify its assumptions.

This reader, at least, is also struck by the slight improbability of such a meeting of unequals, which the editors suggest may be unique, and I suspect they are right. On the one hand was Bell, a senior bishop of the established Church, member of the House of Lords and the Athenaeum club; on the other Leibholz, a citizen of an enemy power, almost a generation younger, uprooted with a young family, first interned and then forced to scratch around for grants and for whatever might be earned by writing. In time the war ended, and there was the matter of re-establishing contact with friends and family in the chaotic conditions of a ruined Germany, and eventually a return home. The exchanges give a remarkable insight into the precariousness of the refugee experience, even for one as (relatively) well connected as Leibholz. We see Bell intervening to help in practical ways throughout, as he did for many others, both Jews and German Christians: there are countless letters of recommendation and reference; schemes of support are patiently constructed only to be upended by events. But Bell was also a learner. Although in regular contact with the German churches, he himself knew little German, and did not know the country well. Though, as the editors note (p.xv), Leibholz did much to confirm ideas that were already Bell’s, his influence was in giving Bell’s positions a new weight and substance, and in helping lift them out of the more confined milieu of English middle-class and ecclesiastical life. As such, the letters provide a rich and invaluable contextualisation of Bell’s very well-known political interventions, in Parliament and in print. Bell’s learning shows a kind of humility that was not always found on the episcopal bench.

There is also a further connection to a rather more well-known German Christian of the same generation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whose twin sister (Sabine) Leibholz was married. It was through Bonhoeffer, whom Bell knew very well, that Leibholz and Bell were put together. One of the editors, Andrew Chandler, has written on the later legacy of Bonhoeffer’s thought, and his martyrdom at Nazi hands in the last days of the war. If not quite the subject of a cult, Bonhoeffer has taken on a venerable status in later years, and it is an affecting experience to overhear Bell and Leibholz exchange news of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, with an increasing desperation, still clinging in April 1945 to seemingly hopeful but erroneous scraps of information, by which time (as the reader knows) Bonhoeffer was already dead. As the urgency waned in the early 1950s, Bonhoeffer provided a thread of shared memory between the Leibholzes and Bell, whom after his death was described as ‘the most faithful and best friend we have had in the English-speaking world.’ (453) Though neither Bell nor Leibholz bore the ultimate cost of discipleship as Bonhoeffer did, the whole volume intertwines the personal and the political in an unforgettable way. It should be required reading for scholars of the religious and political history of Europe, but deserves a much wider readership than that.

Iris and the Christians: what did the British churches make of Murdoch, 1954 – c1983

The audio recording of a public lecture given at the University of Chichester on 19th February 2022, as part of a study day at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre. My thanks are due to Miles Leeson for the invitation, and to the audience for a very engaged and stimulating discussion afterwards.

(52 minutes.)

I examine Christian reactions to Murdoch’s work in three areas: her strictly philosophical work on metaphysics and ethics, and her novels. I explore the remarkable closeness of Murdoch’s distinctive preoccupations to those of British theologians in the period. However, her position outside the usual circles of Christian discourse made it difficult for her to be heard and, when she was, her fundamentally atheistic position made her philosophical work hard to digest. The final third of the paper then looks at Christian readings of her novels, in which readers found much more congenial material with which to engage.

Authors discussed include: (among the theologians) Don Cupitt, Colin Gunton, Eric Mascall, Alasdair Macintyre, John A.T. Robinson, Keith Ward; among the critics: Bernard Bergonzi, Ruth Etchells, David Holbrook, Valerie Pitt. In relation to aesthetics, there is some discussion of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts.

New article: Eric Mascall and the responsibility of the theologian in England, 1962-1977

This article was published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church in 2022. This Open Access version (PDF) is as revised after peer review, but before copy-editing.

Eric Mascall was one of the most prominent and prolific theologians in the Church of England in the post-war period. This article examines a series of polemical works, in which Mascall attempted to assess, and largely reject, several trends in liberal theology in the 1960s and 1970s. Mascall detected a systemic crisis in the whole relationship of theology, theologians and the Church, that reached down to the foundations of human knowledge and radiated out to the parishes, via the universities and theological colleges in which their ministers were formed. The articles examines his view of the relationship of human nature, grace and the eucharistic Church, and its consequences for the theologian. Mascall’s polemics are read, as a group, for what they reveal of his understanding of the responsibility of the theologian, and how far his liberal interlocutors had, he believed, lost sight of the true shape of their vocation.

The version of record is available at https://doi.org/10.1080/1474225X.2022.2014243