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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The pandemic and the idea of a national church

Has the Church of England had a good crisis? Well, it rather depends on what you think the CofE is for.

Image: Flickr (vinylspider), CC BY-SA 2.0

Just as was the case in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, the salience of parish churches in local communities has made them a focus for many without a habit of churchgoing, or who would not even profess any very particular faith themselves. I don’t doubt that the feeling is real. But it has led to criticism of the decision not to open the churches for private prayer (although the vast majority of urban and suburban churches would not have been open in normal circumstances, and have not been for many years). And this particular focus on the building has led columnists and pundits to lament ‘the absence of the Church of England’ in the pandemic response (the phrase is that of Will Self).

The pandemic has, perhaps not surprisingly, brought out some of the cliches that make discussion of the role of the established church rather difficult. One is the sense (rather fanciful, I would suggest) that the nation, still Anglican at its heart, cries out as one from Bradford to Basingstoke, from Camden to Combe Magna, for the archbishop of Canterbury to take the lead. The bishops may also reflect with a rueful smile that they are accused of being a mere mouthpiece of government public health propaganda, yet are too ‘political’ when it comes to the Prime Minister’s chief adviser and his conduct during the lockdown. And the rhetorical setting of a stout, honest laity against a perfidious clergy is a trope that runs through many disputes of the last century, to the Prayer Book crisis of 1927-8 and beyond.

Not a few have responded with details of all the things that those fixated on the building have missed: a revolution in online activity, as well as volunteering at food banks, debt counselling centres and all manner of other vital social relief work. To close the churches and help stem the spread of the virus to persons unknown may be as pure an expression of loving one’s neighbour as is to be found. Few of the critics have been able to explain why the church should have put its volunteer members – many of them elderly – at risk in order to staff churches for private prayer, police the wearing of masks or the washing of hands, and carry out all the additional cleaning.

There will in time be some reflection into the Church’s reaction to the crisis, and there will no doubt be lessons to learn. But in play here are quite fundamentally opposed ideas of what it means to be a national church. That the crisis has caused many people to ask the kinds of questions which had hitherto not forced themselves upon the mind is certainly true, as the remarkable levels of engagement with online worship suggest. And many, if not most, within the Church of England would still recognise a vocation to serve everyone living in the parish, to at least some extent. (One might want to question the idea that the non-Anglican churches are indifferent to the needs of their communities, but I set that aside for now.)

But the language of vocation is important, and precise. I return to Will Self, in a column in the New European (June 11th-17th), because as a novelist and as one brought up as an Anglican, his choice of words cannot be accidental. In criticising the Church, and Archbishop Welby in particular, he writes: ‘the fact remains that we have an established church in this country, one whose remit is to minister to the spiritual requirements of every single citizen, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them.’ Everything in this sentence is compatible with a sense of vocation, save for the word ‘remit’. The NHS has a remit for the provision of healthcare; local authorities have a remit to run schools and empty the bins. Whatever the people of England may expect from the established church, to speak of it in these terms is to make a category error.

Were the Church of England funded directly from the public purse, with statutory duties set and maintained by government under Parliament, then this might be a meaningful way to speak. The current entanglement of the Church with the law in no way amounts to the same. Critics often refer to the ‘privilege’ the Church enjoys, of having some of the bishops sit in the House of Lords. That’s a debate I shall not go into here, but I’m not sure that the presence of the bishops in the Lords constitutes one side of a quasi-contractual relationship, in return for which the Church writes a blank cheque to every pundit who occasionally enjoys a spot of archbishop-bashing. Whatever the Church offers is (or should be) a gift freely given; to frame it as an entitlement of citizenship, or (worse) a service purchased by the nation from the Church, is to misunderstand it fundamentally. Whatever it means to have a national church, I’m not sure this is it.

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Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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The churches and the future of theological research

Much discussion on Church of England Twitter recently about the theological qualifications of the current bench of bishops in the Church of England, following on from this post by Peter Anthony.

Others (in the comments to that post) have dealt with the specific question of whether the current bench really is less qualified than in previous years, and indeed whether the possession of higher degrees is either a stable or a reliable measure by which to judge. For my part, I have no insight into whether being ‘academic’ is a help or a hindrance in a ministerial career, and the deliberations of those who decide are not open to scrutiny.

Thinking that this might be the wrong question to ask, I responded to the discussion on Twitter, and I reproduce my thread here, slightly amended and expanded.

I’m less concerned about the demand for academically-trained theologians among people who appoint bishops, but more with the supply. The question is: who (that is, which organisations) should support the training of people to do theological research?

Two names are often mentioned as examples of the kind of academic bishop required: Rowan Williams & N. T. Wright. But both were the product of the largely unique Oxbridge world of interlocking chaplaincy and teaching, of endowed chairs and close links with bodies such as Christ Church (in the Oxford case) and of the late 1970s. [The third name that Peter Anthony mentioned, Geoffrey Rowell, emerged from the same milieu a few years earlier.] What about now?

Broadly, there are two kinds of theology. One is that which directly nourishes the life of the churches, that speaks of truth claims about the Christian God: doctrine, liturgy, pastoral practice, biblical exegesis. The other is the broader study of religion: of the way in which religious people think and behave, the business of being religious in a wider society. (This maps to an extent onto the division between Theology & Religious Studies in some academic departments). The two are not perfectly distinct, but the distinction is meaningful. Both are necessary.

We might still expect a secular state in what remains a religious world (if it understands its own needs correctly) to want to support – that is, to fund – research and doctoral training in the study of religion.

However, the question that needs to be faced is: why should the state fund the former kind of work that only Christians would recognise as being of any value? How is it any different to research into the inner workings of any organisation, of a limited and private usefulness, which should be funded by that organisation?

It seems to me that the answer to this particular question is likely to become more and more firmly negative as time goes on. One straw in the wind is the recent British Academy report on the discipline, which showed a calamitous decline in undergraduate numbers in the last decade.

So: if any of the bishops appointed in 2040 or 2050 are to be trained theologians (that is, with a record of original research), who will support their training if the funding councils, or the universities (from their own funds) will not?

It seems likely that the churches will need to do some or all of three things. The first is to begin providing bursaries for full-time graduate study in universities, both fees and maintenance; a significant undertaking, of tens of thousands of pounds for each student.

Alternatively, they could do more to support able scholars – lay and ordained – later in life, with time and money, to study part-time. A good many clergy already take this route, but much depends on the understanding, goodwill and capacity of their churches, and their own ability to meet the cost of tuition fees. We know little about who currently follows this route, but without centralised provision, the current situation must necessarily favour those in more affluent churches.

The third option is to massively increase research support for academic staff in theological colleges. In time, it may also require the appointment of a greater proportion of research-active staff to teaching posts as they become vacant, or even the creation of new posts.

But before all this, the churches (by which I mean all Christian people together, rather than just administrative bodies) need to decide how much value they place on the theological enterprise, and whether they will support it.

Perhaps the churches can get along well enough with the work of those who carve out time in evenings and weekends, or have access to private means. (Surely no theologian since perhaps John Stott could survive on book royalties alone.) Perhaps not. But it is a question that will need to be faced.

To discuss the present bench of bishops is to hear the echoes, as if from deep space, of the educational situation of thirty years ago. The need is to look forward.

[My thanks to Andrew Connell, Stuart Jones and Gareth Atkins for their responses to the original thread, the influence of which they will be able to detect.]

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Two new books on John Stott

Thanks to the Lexham Press, I have on my shelves two new books, both relating to the late John Stott. In 2005 Stott was named as one of only three religious leaders in Time magazine’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. And since his death in 2011, the reputation that Stott has enjoyed among evangelicals has, if anything, increased. His worldwide fame, which dates from the 1970s and in particular the 1980s, was but an early example of a kind of religious celebrity within worldwide evangelicalism that calls out to be understood better. (Alister Chapman’s essential biography tells us a great deal about this aspect of Stott’s career.)

This kind of religious celebrity often seems to be followed by a posthumous search to recover more of their voice, that it might continue to sound after their death, and perhaps even more clearly. (See, on the case of C.S. Lewis, the recent book by Stephanie L. Derrick). And the two books I want to discuss here are both attempts to recover and present afresh aspects of Stott’s work that are either unpublished or hard now to get hold of.

Christ the Cornerstone: Collected essays of John Stott (2019) forms part of a Lexham Press series based on the archive of Christianity Today, set up by Billy Graham in 1956. Stott was an early contributor to Christianity Today – the first essay here dates from 1959, an impeccably conservative exposition of the authority of the Bible. However, the bulk of the essays here appeared as Stott’s ‘Cornerstone’ column, published monthly between 1977 and 1981. Taken as a whole, they show us what an English evangelical leader thought worth saying to a predominantly American readership, but also the worldwide concerns that Stott now had, having left stipendiary parish ministry in London. There are essays on church and state in England, and the key National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham in 1977; on James Barr’s 1977 book Fundamentalism; on the churches in Norway, Australia and Burma; on race relations in the UK, nuclear arms, abortion. Although presented without any critical apparatus and only a short introduction, it is a volume which scholars of evangelical history will want to have to hand.

Published just this month is Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook. The title is slightly misleading, in that the source is in fact a body of thousands of index cards, compiled over a period of sixty or more years, on which Stott recorded facts, quotations and other things of interest, arranged by subject. It was on this modern commonplace book that Stott drew extensively for his writing and his preaching. It is the fruit of a volunteer transcription project at Stott’s church of All Souls’ Langham Place in London, and is edited by Mark Meynell, himself a former member of the All Souls’ staff and co-worker with Stott in his later years. (A larger selection is available as an ebook).

Historians have not paid a great deal of attention to preaching in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rare was the preacher who found a publisher for his collected sermons, as had been the case with figures such as Hensley Henson in earlier years. Rarer still is the preacher for whom such a source as this survives, which gives it an absorbing interest. I would suspect (although could not prove) that Stott was unusual among the clergy in having adopted a method such as this and in having sustained it over such a long period. (It was more common among academics, such as the historians Keith Thomas and Christopher Hill, both of a similar age to Stott.) From whom, perhaps at Rugby school or Cambridge, Stott learned the method is tantalisingly unclear.

But as a resource for historians, this particular selection will remain of limited use, a pointer towards the full body of notes (if and when they are made available for research) rather than a reference source itself. To begin with, there is no attempt to infer the date at which a note was made, leaving the reader to guess from the subject matter; as such, we are missing a crucial piece of context for understanding not only what Stott was reading but under which circumstances. For example: the notes in which Stott engaged with the English Reformation are based largely on the books of Marcus Loane, archbishop of Sydney from 1958 and former principal of the evangelical Moore College. This would be common enough for an evangelical reader in (say) 1960, but one would want to ask questions if this was all Stott was reading in the 1990s, by which time Reformation scholarship had changed beyond all recognition.

Although the editor discloses a certain amount about which cards were selected and which omitted, it is not enough to form a view on how representative the sample is, and of what. The church in which Stott worked was convulsed in the Sixties and Seventies by theological controversy that seemed to touch the very essence of Christian orthodoxy. And the editor tells us that Stott made notes on John Robinson’s famous book Honest to God (1963) and the later The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick. (Three of the Stott columns in Christianity Today are on the latter and its repercussions). Yet the selection here includes almost nothing on this ferment, from American and European theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Bultmann or Tillich, or Englishmen such as Robinson, Hick, Maurice Wiles, Geoffrey Lampe, David Jenkins (Don Cupitt cuts a lonely figure on page 259, and at second-hand). It may be that these disputes are now purely of historic interest, and it is certainly true that Stott is still read while Robinson and Tillich are not. But a selection based on an idea of enduring value will not satisfy the historian reader.

So if this selection is not aimed at historians – as we are forced to conclude – for whom is it intended? The back cover suggests a ‘preacher or writer looking for a good idea, or an admirer of Stott’. The editor is surely right to say that Stott’s notes illuminate his practice of “double listening’, of attending both to the Bible and to contemporary culture; the signal contribution of this little book is to show what such double listening meant in practice. But one might hope that modern-day preachers would adopt the method itself, rather than mining this selection for nuggets of wisdom to drop into a sermon. Surely the task is to listen to culture today, rather than to listen to Stott listening to his.

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