Theology, providence and Anglican-Methodist reunion: the case of Michael Ramsey and Eric Mascall

[An extract from a chapter in the forthcoming book Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism: The Search for Church Unity, 1920-2020, edited by Jane Platt and Martin Wellings, to be published by Routledge in 2021.]

It was while Michael Ramsey was archbishop of Canterbury that the Church of England tried twice, and failed twice, to agree to reunion with the Methodist church. In July 1969 the Methodist Conference agreed to a union that involved the most radical recasting of church order: the incorporation of episcopacy into a system that had never known it. Ramsey thought it ‘an event in history of an almost incredible kind’ that one of the Free Churches should have agreed to enter in union on such a basis. However, the Church Assembly of the Church of England narrowly rejected the Scheme. Ramsey thought it right to try again, since the Anglican ‘no’ had to be set against the Methodist ‘yes’. But the General Synod, successor body to the Church Assembly, was to say ‘no’ again in 1972. The failure of the scheme was perhaps the greatest disappointment of Ramsey’s time as archbishop.

The central issue (at least on the Anglican side) is well-known: the nature of the ordained ministry. Anglo-Catholics held tenaciously to episcopal ordination as essential to a valid sacramental ministry. They were thus deeply concerned about accepting Methodist ministers into a united church who had not been so ordained. Conversely, conservative evangelicals in the Church of England were concerned about any implication that the particular form of ordination they themselves had in fact undergone was in any way fundamental to their ministry.

In order to circumvent this obstacle, a Service of Reconciliation was devised, through which all ministers in the united church would pass at the inception. It involved the laying on of hands, but did not address the precise question of how the status, before God, of both the Anglican and the Methodist ministers changed during the Service. Was it an ordination, or not? The Service was certainly similar in structure to the ordinations that Anglicans were used to seeing, and so it rather looked like one. For some, it mattered a great deal what one believed the answer to be; for others it mattered little. For some, it also mattered that men might undergo the Service while being allowed to understand its significance in quite different ways.

The advocates of the Service had been explicit that the important thing about the Service was neither the starting point, nor the journey, but the destination. This agnosticism was too much, however, for a significant minority of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, who together were to oppose and ultimately defeat the Scheme. For Ramsey it was a ‘double tragedy of two sections of our Church being ready to throw away the things which they most care about through fear of losing their theological tidiness.’

My own 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, available via Amazon or your local bookshop.

The disputes within the Church of England over the Scheme generated a great deal of heat and only limited light. Here I want to look at the basis of just this theological tidiness on the Anglo-Catholic side of the argument, through the relationship between Ramsey and the theologian and philosopher E.L. (Eric) Mascall, one of the most prominent opponents of the Scheme. Ramsey and Mascall both saw, more clearly than most, through the passions stirred by the debate to the fundamental issues behind them. Though the dispute seemed to be about understandings of episcopacy and ecclesiology, lying beneath were the relations between tradition and providence, and between philosophy, theology and history. The two agreed that the long-term shape of any united church had to be episcopal, but their disagreement over the means to create it was fundamentally about the nature of God’s sovereign action in the world.

For most of 1968 the two churches had before them the final Scheme and the Service of Reconciliation. Mascall concluded that the Service would produce a validly ordained ministry – it really was in fact an ordination, whether Methodists or Anglican evangelicals liked it or not – but by a ‘series of tortuous evasions’ it had been left ‘open to anyone to hold any view of the services that appeals to him.’ It was possible, he thought, to believe – and at least some people did believe – that both Anglicans and Methodists were being ordained, or that only the Methodists were, or that no-one was. This gave rise to ‘the gravest reservations on the ground of plain morality. Can it be morally right […] for a bishop deliberately to ordain to the priesthood a man who has no desire to be so ordained and who would repudiate the intention of the bishop if the latter openly expressed it?’

If there was one thing guaranteed to provoke Ramsey, it was the suggestion that he was sacrificing theological principle for pragmatic reasons. Mascall had joined a group of four opponents – two evangelicals, two Anglo-Catholic – which had submitted a statement to the Convocations in May 1969, and a second in July on the eve of the vote. (The group later published Growing into Union, an alternative scheme for union.) Shortly after that first defeat of the Scheme, the four wrote to Ramsey. ‘There has been a deep lack of understanding’ he replied, ‘between those who believe the Service of Reconciliation procedure to be theologically sound both in general and in this instance and those who believe it to be a rather disreputable “dodge” for getting round a theological and practical difficulty.’ However, it would not do, he argued, to ‘dismiss those who have the “other” view on this issue, including myself, as being a set of pragmatists who can be ignored’.

Challenged about the ‘ambiguity’ of the Service, Ramsey preferred the term ‘agnostic’, since the proceedings ‘are clear in what they affirm and clear in what they shrink from affirming.’ Conscious ambiguity was not to be equated with dishonesty. Those who charged the service with ambiguity would need to face squarely the real ambiguity in parts of the Book of Common Prayer or the 39 Articles: ‘I think it is unfair if we tax this scheme with ambiguity as if it was something we never practised as Anglicans.’ The status of the Methodist ministers who would take part was different in some degree to his own, he thought, but they were clearly ‘ministers of the word and sacraments of a sort and I cannot regard them as laymen.’ Whatever he or they believed about their current status, the Service was to ask God to give both Anglicans and Methodists ‘whatever he knows them to need in authority and the gifts of the Spirit to make our ministries equal and identical as presbyters in the Church of God.’ Their current status relative to each other was not defined, and it did not need to be defined.

In the same letter to the Growing into Union group, Ramsey noted that the tone of debate had shown ‘that a mutual lack of theological comprehension exists. […] Here is a task of theological analysis, not the analysis of the content of belief so much as of the ways of looking at theological truth.’ What were these differences? They revolved around the degree to which Anglicans were prepared to live in exceptional circumstances with that which they found hard to fully articulate in theological terms.

Mascall and Ramsey were at one in their belief in the necessity of episcopacy, which the united church would, in time, have. Ramsey argued that ‘the scheme provides something unprecedented to deal with the unprecedented situation of the two churches coming together.’ In such circumstances, with regular orders assured for the future, Ramsey was not shocked by a temporary anomaly, ‘and I believe that God could and would overrule such anomalies.’ Episodes such as the discontinuity in the succession of bishops in third century Egypt, or the gradual success of Catholic faith and practice in the united Church of South India convinced Ramsey that God could bless and had blessed churches where such anomalies had existed as a matter of historical fact.

Eric Mascall

Ramsey’s view of the Church and of God’s providence, then, allowed him to deal with the Service in a way that Mascall could not. Writing in 1955, before the Second Vatican Council, Mascall argued that to discount the prospect of any thaw in relations with Rome was to show a ‘lack of trust in the power of God to bring about changes that are beyond our own power; [it assumed] that we can at this moment envisage all the possibilities that lie hidden in the womb of the future.’ However, Mascall’s reactions to the Scheme showed the limits of what he could imagine the providence of God ever intervening to do, in fact. The insistence on theological ‘tidiness’ which characterises his reactions to the ecumenical movement was not merely a scruple, or a failure to grasp the wider issues, but fundamental, a matter of metaphysical necessity. ‘Have we really any right to expect’ he asked of the Scheme ‘that God will reconcile logical contradictions?’ Though Providence was necessarily capable of all possible things, there were some things that it could not do without violating its own nature. The Scheme put the understandable emotional impetus towards union ahead of theological soundness. It was not merely undesirable to try to create a catholic united church on such a basis; it was impossible, a metaphysical contradiction of the true nature of the Church – the mystical Body of Christ – as Mascall understood it.

To the end of his life Mascall believed that, despite the infection (as he saw it) of the churches with the kind of institutional pragmatism of which the Scheme was an example, the Catholic tradition still contained a coherent framework for the whole of human existence. His solution to that crisis was a firmer restatement of that core doctrine. It had not, and could not, change in its fundamentals; it needed only to be recovered and restated. Ramsey held equally fast to the reality and sufficiency of the revelation available to the Church. But he felt more keenly than Mascall the real difficulty of articulating that framework in its fulness in a way that did not leave much unsaid, unsayable and indeed incomprehensible.

Ramsey also had a greater confidence that the unsettlement of those years was not merely a symptom of decline and loss of nerve; in that shaking of the churches, the action of God was to be discerned. Though he came later to downplay his debt as a young man to Karl Barth, Ramsey retained a vivid sense that God was sovereign over history; things that had been thought immoveable could change in ways beyond comprehension, if it was God’s will that they so changed. As he told the Convocation in January 1969, ‘our present understanding of the episcopate and of the Eucharist may be but a shadow of the understanding that may be ours in the future plenitude of the Church. It is in these ways that I think a voice is saying “Speak to the children of Israel that they may go forward.”

And to many in the late 1960s, and not only Ramsey, it seemed clear what that way forward was. ‘Nothing in the world matters more’, Ramsey wrote in 1946, ‘than the fulfilment of the prayer of our Lord “that they may all be one”’, and the height of his career coincided with the single most concrete attempt at that fulfilment. Though the years that have since elapsed have served to throw the ecumenical euphoria of the period into a colder and clearer light, it was at the time possible for Ramsey to see in the Scheme – or rather, the movement of which it was the product – a profound move of God. It was this that Ramsey felt, and Mascall did not; Mascall’s hopes were placed elsewhere, in the outworking of the effects of Vatican II. For Mascall, the reunion scheme was not so much a high-water mark, but the tide flowing in the wrong direction.

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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