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.

*******

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.

Book review: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill

[An extended version of a book review to appear in the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.]

The career of Stephen Neill (1900-84) was among the most truly global of all Christian lives. Born and educated in England, he went to India in 1924 as a missionary, became a theological educator, was ordained priest in the Anglican church, and in time was made bishop of the diocese of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli). Leaving India in 1945 for Geneva, he was among those who formed the World Council of Churches, a remarkably prolific author, an editor of the work of others, and assistant bishop to the archbishop of Canterbury. He was professor of ecumenics and theology at the University of Hamburg (1962-68) until, at the age of 68, he took on the task of forming a new department at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Retirement was as a residential guest at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, during which he completed his autobiography, God’s Apprentice, which was published in 1991, after his death.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this variety and geographical reach, Neill’s career has not been fully taken into account by historians of twentieth century Christianity. As such, Dyron Daughrity, professor of religion at Pepperdine University in California, has placed historians greatly in his debt in producing this biography, the fruit of two decades’ engagement with Neill. The source material is copious: more than sixty books, and innumerable articles and reviews, which Daughrity (quite reasonably) does not attempt to list in full. Crucially, a chance conversation with N. T. Wright, bishop of Durham, revealed the existence of an extended unpublished version of Neill’s autobiography, in Wright’s possession. Building on Daughrity’s earlier work on Neill, most notably a 2008 study of Neill’s early career, this new book fills what was a significant gap in the literature, and is unlikely to be superseded.

That such a gap in the literature has persisted might have been explained by the scattered and multilingual nature of the relevant archives. A great many of the biographers of Neill’s generation have been friends or close colleagues of their subject; of these, Neill had relatively few that lived long enough to take the job on. But the gap is perhaps more readily explained by the revelation, made in 1991 by Richard Holloway (soon to be bishop of Edinburgh) while reviewing God’s Apprentice, of the circumstances in which Neill left India, which Neill had omitted from his account. Neill had been accused of inflicting corporal punishment on adult men in his pastoral care, for which purpose he carried a whip, causing scandal in the diocese. Holloway did not know, but Daughrity lays out, that the pattern continued when, remarkably, Neill returned to England to take up a Cambridge chaplaincy; it was known to colleagues in Germany; accounts survive of the same in Kenya. Donald Coggan, of the same wing of the Church of England, disclosed that he had known of it for many years, as had Lesslie Newbigin, a colleague from the WCC days in Geneva. Troubled all his life by insomnia and depression, Neill was (in Holloway’s words) ‘banished’ to spend the rest of his life ‘wandering the earth as a theological mercenary’ (202), leaving behind him a trail of damaged people who ought to have been able to place their trust in him.

Much historical work remains to reckon with the ways in which all the churches dealt, and failed to deal, with abuse of all kinds. Precisely what it was, in the kind of evangelicalism in which Neill was raised, that gave rise to the kind of understanding of sin, repentance and punishment in which Neill placed the kind of discipline he meted out, remains to be explored fully. (Readers may no doubt hear the resonances with the recent scandal in England associated with Emmanuel Church Wimbledon). Daughrity’s study will be a significant resource in those enquiries, as it will in assessing Neill’s scholarly output, on which his reputation is likely to depend. But his achievement as a biographer – and it is no mean achievement – is to steer a course between hagiography and censure, laying out Neill’s undoubted (indeed prodigious) achievements, alongside such grim failures, giving each its due weight while allowing the reader to draw their conclusions.

For this reviewer, Neill’s strengths, through a kind of inability to assess them rightly and temper their exercise, became his weaknesses also. His appetite for work, and tolerance of physical hardship when in India, was great; his commitment to prayer and preaching was genuine and strenuous. Neill’s intellect was formidable, and his facility with other languages remarkable; Daughrity rates him ‘without question, one of the greatest minds in the twentieth century’ (288). As a statement concerning Neill’s facility, this is clearly true, but questions remain over the enduring worth or otherwise of some, though not all of his books. One cannot avoid a suspicion of a certain superficiality in a career that produced a book each year in the midst of extremely heavy commitments and persistent ill health, and much of the time without access to the requisite library facilities. This readiness to write on everything – from St John Chrysostom to the gospels, the medieval Church of England to Kierkegaard, from the history of mission in India to psychology – is the confidence of one who delayed taking up a Cambridge fellowship to go to India, was offered a bishopric at 32 (which he refused) and continued to hear often from others of how brilliant was the mind he possessed.

It was also the confidence of one without a doubt in his mind that western mission to Asia and Africa was at base a dispensation of wisdom and civilisation for which the recipient populations ought to be grateful, and could not expect to manage without. Though he was by all accounts loved in India in the 1940s, a colleague in Nairobi three decades later regarded him as at base a racist, who knew little of Africa and was disinclined to learn. It is this unreconstructed understanding of mission which arguably vitiates much of his work. But it was this self-confidence, added to a quick and explosive temper, that made him autocratic and dismissive of the views of others; the same Kenyan colleague found him surprised that African colleagues might refuse to agree with him; in every situation he alienated those who might have become allies. It is at least possible that the his mysterious breach with the missionary Amy Carmichael in the 1920s was in part due to some similar clash of wills. And this unshakeable sense of his own correctness was part of the abuse: dealing the final blow to Neill’s career in India, Neill’s superior Foss Westcott (metropolitan of India, Burma and Ceylon) noted with some surprise the lack of any kind of acknowledgment from Neill of the harm that had been caused. Remarkably, Neill thought it appropriate to put himself forward to succeed Westcott later that year, so complete was his self-belief.

Though overall the book succeeds, there are some imperfections in its execution. Nearly half the narrative is devoted to the two decades in India, and the remaining forty years occupy a similar length. This perhaps matches the importance of those years to Neill; in a sense he never recovered from his departure. But while the account of the Indian period is richly contextualised from archival and other sources, the chapters on Hamburg and Nairobi are notably more reliant on Neill’s own account, which (as, by this point, Daughrity has already shown) was not always full or frank, and on interviews; one wonders whether the university and college archives in Hamburg, Nairobi and Oxford might have yielded information of importance. In the later chapters in particular the narrative energy of the prose flags, such as in the place-by-place relation of Neill’s study tour of Africa in 1950 (228-37), or in the potted summaries of the various books and articles. From time to time, names appear in the narrative for the first time without being introduced. The list of archives consulted is incomplete, Lambeth Palace Library having been omitted. However, these are relatively minor criticisms of what is a major piece of work. Well produced by the Lutterworth Press, which was itself associated with Neill, and reasonably priced, it will be essential reading for historians of world Christianity in the twentieth century.

A Wordly Christian: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill. By Dyron B. Daughrity. (Cambridge, England: Lutterworth, 2021, pp. x, 401. £75 (hardback), £25 (paperback), £16 (epub).

For further reflections on the business of Christian biography, see posts on John Stott, and Michael Ramsey and Walter Hussey.

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.

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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 special issue of Anglican and Episcopal History. That article, ‘Archbishop Michael Ramsey and the Lambeth Conference’ is available in full to read in PDF, but 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.