Michael Ramsey and national days of prayer

The idea of national prayer has been at a discount for decades in the UK. As the leaders of the churches call for a National Day of Prayer and Action on March 22nd in response to the coronavirus crisis, I take a look back.
This extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey looks at his handling of the crisis of the early 1970s and the idea of the national day of prayer.  Who exactly was being called to prayer, and what was it intended to achieve? What was the archbishop for in a time of crisis?


The late sixties saw a spate of national and international events which were experienced by many as a more general crisis for the UK at large. Internationally there was continuing war in Vietnam. At home, between August 1971 and March 1972 Ulster saw the introduction of internment, the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. The period also saw inflation, deteriorating balance of payments figures, increasing budget deficits and strike action by the National Union of Mineworkers from January 1972; December 1973 brought another strike, the imposition of the three day week and soon afterwards the collapse of the government of Edward Heath.

What could the churches do ? In a time of crisis, these were things which significant sections of the public still expected the archbishop to address, even if the means by which to Do Something were obscure both to him and to those doing the asking.

The early decades of the twentieth century had seen the emergence of a new form of national worship in the United Kingdom: the ‘national day of prayer’, which had reached a peak during the Second World War. By Ramsey’s time, however, there was a lack of appetite within government or the wider establishment for occasions of national worship, and a similar reluctance amongst the bishops to call such occasions on their own initiative.

Nonetheless, just as Randall Davidson had been inundated with requests for days of prayer on ‘the Japanese War, or Macedonia, or Armenia, or Chinese Labour, or Welsh Education, or the Revival Movement’, the requests to Lambeth Palace to call such days continued to arrive in a steady trickle. As John Wolffe has noted, the felt need for national intercession was most acute in times of war and national emergency; and the trickle became a steady stream in Ramsey’s last years.

Ramsey’s personal view had long been that calls for prayers for specific ends ‘lend themselves to a rather mechanical view of what prayer means.’ It was better instead to call for constant personal prayer as a profitable habit among the body of lay Christians. There was greater benefit to be gained through ‘constantly teaching Christian people about the meaning of prayer so that we are all the time building up in the world a community of praying people.’

Quite apart from the problematic theology of prayer that national days implied, there were practical difficulties as well. There was a reluctance to arrange days of prayer on everything from the 1966 earthquake in Turkey to British entry into the Common Market, since by doing so serious in-roads would be made into the liturgical year. In addition, Ramsey’s staff found it by no means straightforward to secure the media coverage necessary to effect the call.

Even more pertinently, the issues around which public pressure for days of prayer crystallised in the early 1970s, such as the Troubles in Ulster or the miners’ strike, were not ones that commanded any sort of national unanimity. The standard reply template being used by Ramsey’s staff in December 1973 argued that the judgement to be made by Ramsey was a fine one since ‘it might be that a call to the nation of this kind would not have the same result in the country as in the days of the War, when we were all pretty solidly united.’

So there were several reasons why Ramsey and his episcopal colleagues were reluctant to call days of prayer, and there were as a result only four such occasions during Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The first was in relation to Northern Ireland in September 1971, and a second on St Patrick’s Day in the following March. The call on St Patrick’s Day was repeated the following year, and the fourth was the final Sunday of 1973, called in relation to the economic situation. In December 1973 the call was released to a ‘day of prayer for the nation and its leaders that God may guide us in facing the present crisis with wisdom, justice and self-sacrifice’. Even then, special care was taken that it was not described as a ‘National Day of Prayer’, since to do so would be ‘totally misjudged and could be severely criticised in the present climate of divisiveness and agnosticism.’

In this Ramsey was responding to a clear and growing sense of crisis both within the church and in the nation at large, and to the expectations of at least some of the public that he ought to do so. Ramsey and his colleagues were however neither silent nor inactive in face of the perception of national crisis. At various times Ramsey used speeches to the Church Assembly and the Convocation of Canterbury to address issues of concern. Ramsey spoke about Ireland in a BBC radio broadcast of ‘Lift up Your Hearts’ in September 1971, and on two separate occasions in the House of Lords. Despite all this, the day of prayer was, for some, a weapon in the armoury which it was perverse not to employ. An examination of the reasons advanced sheds valuable light on the role of the archbishop and the providential history of the nation that were current among at least some sections of the British laity at this time.

One reason commonly advanced for such days of prayer was the symbolic effect of joint action between the denominations. Cyril Black, prominent Baptist layman and Conservative MP, advocated a joint call from Canterbury, Westminster and the Free Churches for prayer for Ulster, to demonstrate ‘the united determination of Christians to seek increasingly a way to restore peace and goodwill, and to pray to Almighty God to direct, guide and bless all such efforts.’

For others, these were side-effects, since the primary purpose of such petitionary prayer was its direct and identifiable effect on events. In such times of crisis, it was for the nation as a whole to turn to prayer, and not simply those in the church: ‘it is the people of the Land as a whole who must seek God together for deliverance in a time of extreme National Crisis (2 Chron: 7.14.)’

For many, the time was one with marked parallels with recent British history. Occasional parallels were drawn with events during the First World War, not least the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917. However, for the majority the only benchmark against which the times could be measured was the most prominent historic crisis still in living memory; that of the Second World War.

Of particular symbolic power for some was the great national delivery at Dunkirk in response to just such a day of prayer. One elderly woman with decades of missionary service remembered the day of prayer and ‘and the marvellous answer’ at Dunkirk; another recalled it as ‘a modern miracle performed because the whole country was praying together’ and that in 1973 another was needed ‘to save us from ourselves.’

These calls reveal a good deal about the role Ramsey was thought to play in the religious life of the nation. His correspondents included members of several other denominations, all quite sure that he held a position of peculiar importance amongst religious leaders. One member of the United Reformed Church wrote in February 1974 to assure him that her own congregation had that morning prayed for him, and called on him to take a lead, as the ‘national religious leader.’

However, at the same time petitions for days of prayer could function negatively; as implicit or explicit criticism of the direction of travel in the nation’s moral and religious life, and of perceived neglect on the part of the Archbishop. One Lincolnshire rector attacked the recent deputation of bishops to the Prime Minister to petition against the supply of arms to South Africa. ‘Would it not have been far better,’ he continued, if the bishops had paid more attention to the situation at home, and instead asked the Prime Minister ‘to call the people of our own country to a national day of prayer?’ ‘This country has been sliding from crisis to crisis’ thought one group of correspondents ‘and […] the moral trends have been ever more permissive and ever less Christian.’ Why had Ramsey had ‘not felt the desire, and indeed the necessity, to call the Church of England and all devout Christians to a special day or week of prayer.’ For this correspondent at least, there was indeed a general crisis, in morality as in economics and politics; and it was clear what the nation expected of its archbishop.

By the early 1970s it had long been the case that the calling of such occasions of concerted prayer was co-ordinated between the various denominations. The octave of prayer for Ulster of September 1971 was arranged jointly with Cardinal Heenan and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, and care was taken to circulate the announcement in advance to all the churches in Ulster, and to the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. However, the archbishop was becoming more and more one leader amongst many churches, and less and less the religious leader of the nation that many of his correspondents supposed him to be. The role of the British Council of Churches was expanding to include the calling of joint days of prayer, as was the case for St Patrick’s Day 1973.

There was increasingly an international context in which such occasions had to be framed. In June 1973 there was a joint appeal for worldwide prayer for Northern Ireland from the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s department for ecumenical endeavour. The Pope additionally instituted an annual Sunday in January dedicated to prayer for peace for Catholics, beginning in 1968, with the explicit hope that it might be taken up more widely. Ramsey to begin with chose not to endorse it publicly. However, by 1973 he was being pressed by some of the bishops to support Peace Sunday (as it had become known) more publicly; a suggestion to which he was more open by that time, having already commended it privately to the bishops.

It may well be the case that the cluster of days of prayer called by Ramsey in 1971-3 were the last such significant group. These occasions, and the public correspondence concerning them, reveal much about perceptions, both within his own church and without, of the Archbishop’s own peculiar role at the interface of the British church, state and nation. In times of national crisis, many felt they knew what an archbishop was for.

[Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, and also available via Amazon and all good bookshops. ]

Digital archaeology in the web of links: reconstructing a late Nineties web sphere

At the moment I have a chapter contribution to a book of essays working its way through the publication process. It isn’t yet formally accepted for publication, but I thought I would share details of it now. The abstract is below; I’d be very happy to share the paper privately, if people would care to contact me.

One unit of analysis within the archived Web is the ‘web sphere’, a body of material from different hosts that is related in some meaningful sense (following, broadly, the definition coined by Niels Brügger). This chapter outlines a method of reconstructing such a web sphere from the late 1990s, that of conservative British Christians as they interacted with each other and with others in the United States in relation to issues of morality, domestic and international politics, law and the prophetic interpretation of world events.

Using an iterative method of interrogation of the graph of links for the archived UK web, it shows the potential for the reconstruction of a web sphere from what is in effect an archive that has a finding aid, but one with only classmarks and without descriptions. It also demonstrates the kind of multi-source investigation necessary to uncover the archaeology of the early Web. Big data and small, printed sources, the traces of previous Web archiving efforts (even when unsuccessful), and echoes in the scholarly record itself: all these come into play.

I also propose a conceptual division of Brügger’s web spheres into two kinds, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, as distinguished by the ease with which its boundaries can be identified, and the speed with which they change.

This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49

[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values ]

John Carter Wood
This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49
Manchester: Manchester University Press
978 1 52613253 6 (hardback)

The period immediately before and during the Second World War was a moment in which the whole political and social life of Europe seemed to be in flux, and indeed in mortal danger. In the ‘low, dishonest decade’ of the 1930s, the liberal capitalist settlement in the UK, inherited from the Victorian age, was widely thought to have failed, even before the outbreak of war. The search for new directions was given additional impetus by the war and subsequently by the need to reconstruct. Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike broke in every direction: for the kind of strength and stability that authoritarian nationalism seemed to offer; for a communist alternative; and for all manner of paths between. One of the most concentrated attempts to find such a middle way was by the group gathered around J. H. Oldham, which manifested itself in the informal ‘Moot’ discussion group, the Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life, the later Christian Frontier Council, and the weekly (and later bi-weekly) Christian News-Letter.

The ‘Oldham group’ was active only for a short time, from the 1937 conference in Oxford on community, church and state until 1949, by which time the coming of peace and the creation of the institutions of the welfare state seemed to have removed the earlier urgency, though the questions the group had been asking remained. It has attracted significant historiographical attention before, not least for the eminence of some of those associated with it: Alec Vidler, prominent Anglican theologian and cleric and editor of the journal Theology; the sociologist Karl Mannheim; the literary critic John Middleton Murry; academic theologians and philosophers such as John Baillie and H.A. Hodges, and (most strikingly) T. S. Eliot. Although the group tended to set itself apart from, or at least in a critical relationship to, established organisations including the Church of England, its members were very well connected, not least to William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury. But this attention from historians has been paid only to parts of the group’s activity (notably the Moot) and to individuals. John Carter Wood’s fine new book is the first study of the group as a whole, and in its fullest context, and seems set to be definitive.

Unsurprisingly, given the intellectual ferment both within and outside it, the group produced no manifesto, and Wood is assiduous in tracing these tensions, and the group’s achievement of a kind of unstable consensus that evolved over time. The approach is thematic, with early chapters on the relationship of religion, society and the secular in general, and on the particular effect of the war and the ‘crisis of civilisation’ that it appeared to signify. The book then deals with the group’s envisioning of a Christianised political economy that was neither Marxist nor a value-free pursuit of Mammon, and to of a patriotism that was nonetheless committed to the international order and the acknowledgment of national failings. Wood then moves on to the group’s attempt to frame a relationship between the person and the state that preserved an appropriate freedom without an atomised individualism free of obligation to God or neighbour. The final chapter deals with the balance between an egalitarian impulse to economic redistribution and the idea of a reformed intellectual elite, formed not by birth but by expertise, that might help shape and then direct the new society thus created.

The picture that emerges is of a group that, though it teemed with ideas and dissent, had nonetheless a sense of common purpose, and a unity in its way of thinking. Ecumenical, though largely Protestant, British and from a particular social class, the group was nonetheless ever in between poles of thought, committed both to finding a middle way, and to the idea of the ‘middle axiom’, a Christianised principle of politics, economics or social life that was concrete yet stopped short of detailed policy.

All this Wood documents with deftness and precision. All students of British intellectual history of the period will want to read this book, and no serious historical library should be without it. Clearly written and generously produced, it merits a paperback edition to reach the wide audience that it deserves.

Walter Hussey, Henry Moore and the Northampton ‘Madonna and Child’

It was a great pleasure to give a lecture at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester on 9th January on the subject of Walter Hussey, Henry Moore, and the Madonna and Child made for St Matthew’s church in Northampton in 1943-4. It is available on Soundcloud and the slides in Slideshare.

The lecture was largely drawn from my recent book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester and patron of the arts. My thanks are due to Pallant House for permission to use certain images of Henry Moore’s works in their keeping.

Liberty and community, risk and trust: a plea for the edited collection

Edited collections of essays are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible once published. It is also often assumed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding think the same. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format before even a word is read.

In my forthcoming short book on the edited collection, I examine each component part of this critique, showing that each objection either is largely unfounded or could be met. While edited collection chapters have been less visible than journal articles, the problem is one of information systems rather than anything fundamental to the format; the situation has improved and is likely to continue to improve. In spite of scholars’ perceptions, it is not clear that there has been a generalised loss of confidence in the format amongst publishers. Without much more further research, it is also hard to say that there is any universal citation deficit when chapters are compared to journal articles. And though the systems of quality control commonly used for collections may be different to those for journals, it is not clear that they are any less robust. Much depends on the editor(s).

Despite the lack of empirical evidence, however, this suspicion of the format remains strong, both in the perceptions of scholars and in the way those perceptions are tacitly or openly embedded in systems of research assessment. There is a persistent misalignment between (on the one hand) what scholars believe is in the best interest of their discipline and (on the other) their sense of the professional incentives under which they must work. And such perceptions tend to be self-fulfilling, since a maligned publishing format will attract lesser work from scholars less committed to the task, and thus suffer in terms of quality, significance and impact.

The story of the edited collection in the last three decades is a story of the interplay of technological change, economics, public policy and the changing nature of the scholarly enterprise, where none is wholly cause or wholly effect. But unease with the format predates the disruptions of the last few years; fundamental factors of motivation and personality are in play, as is the relation of individual and collective in academic life. I want to explore these here.

The idea of academic freedom generally comes into view only when it is threatened in a direct way: by the compulsion, whether by governments or indeed universities, to publish certain things and not others, in certain venues and not in others, and at a certain rate. To transpose Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between two kinds of liberty out of its original context, the freedom from direction or constraint in this way is a form of negative liberty.

The second of Berlin’s two ideas, is that of positive liberty: the freedom not so much from direct constraint as ‘to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.’ One critic of the edited collection used a highly revealing phrase. To publish one’s work in a edited collection, he argued, is to allow oneself to be distracted by the thematic priorities of others: to divert time and effort into publishing work that, left to one’s own devices, one might not have pursued. Instead, scholars should pursue their own ‘sovereignly set research agenda’. Positive academic liberty, in this sense, is the freedom to take sole control of one’s work, to pursue one’s fundamental intellectual purpose solely in accordance with its own logic.

In an earlier essay Berlin made another distinction, between two kinds of intellectual personality, the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing whereas the fox knows something about many things; the hedgehog’s instinct is to relate all things to a single, coherent vision; the fox’s thought is centrifugal, operating on many levels, ‘scattered or diffused.’ The scholarly hedgehog, then, is likely to value his or her academic sovereignty – or, his positive liberty – to a greater extent than does the fox; better to pursue one’s singular vision than to be waylaid by contributing to a project conceived by others.

Berlin published both essays long before many of the contemporary pressures of publishing culture and academic assessment came to bear. However, it may be that, for some scholars, the edited collection will always remain uncongenial for the constraints it must involve and for the distraction it may prove to be from their sovereign research agenda: an infringement of their positive academic liberty.

But the state of the edited collection is an indication of the health of a certain idea of scholarly community, which persists still, though in inhospitable conditions. It may be that the internalisation (in universities) of an imperative of competitiveness that Kathleen Fitzpatrick has outlined – connected to a wider stress on the ‘creative’ marketing of the self – has dulled the inclination to co-operate. Be that as it may, I suspect (although I could not prove) that most scholars, though both ambitious and rightly proud of their work, would aspire to a more generous mode of academic relationship, if the conditions allowed it. The edited collection at its best offers a model of that community.

One’s life in any community involves the acceptance of some mutual obligation, and a realisation that the interests of the whole are sometimes best served by the constraint of one’s own. As a contributor, I may have to accept some shaping of my work as I collaborate with an editor to turn my contribution into something that is in dialogue with the other chapters, and helps the whole collection amount to more than the sum of its parts. This may sometimes be an agreeable intrusion, and one that in fact improves my work in ways in which I did not expect; at other times it may be less welcome, but still necessary. Though perhaps not all would accept it, I would argue that as a contributor I have also an obligation to the other contributors to the book to commit the time and energy required to produce work of the required standard at the times laid down, or to withdraw in good time if I cannot so commit.

At the same time, these obligations are mutual, or ought to be, but without some level of trust between those involved, such a system is bound to fail. As I recognise my obligation to the other contributors, I am required to take a risk: to trust the other contributors similarly to commit themselves. Just as the editor takes a risk to his or her reputation in trusting me to contribute, so I must trust the editor to complete their work in a similar fashion. I trust them also to intervene to create the most coherent and impactful work that there can be, even if it involves rejecting the work of others (or even mine).

And it is here that the misalignment of academic and institutional interests is most obvious. For a university with one eye on its finances and the other on the capriciousness of government policy, to seek to minimise any perceived risk when dealing with centrally-administered research assessment is a rational response. Scholars, competing to secure an academic job, or promotion, or tenure, may also be forgiven for trimming their sails to the wind: for aligning their published work with what are thought to be the criteria on which it will be judged. Again, the attempt to mitigate risk is entirely rational. The suspicion of the edited collection is surely due in part to this risk-averseness. Even if individual works are ostensibly assessed on their own merits, and scholars continue to regard these works as among their best, an ill-defined perception of risk attachs to the format as a whole. The irony is that to dispel that perception, scholars and editors will need to embrace that risk and commit, together, to making the unsuccessful edited collection a thing of the past.