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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At home in the King’s Cottage

In a spacious part of west London, tucked into one of the bends of the Thames, is the open space of Kew Green. Along the south side is a row of handsome eighteenth and early nineteenth century town houses. One of them, Cambridge Cottage – a residence of the Duke of Cambridge – is now a wedding venue, where guests can delight in the sight of the Royal Botanic Gardens, onto which it looks at the rear. (The name cottage is singularly misapplied). Further along, facing the parish church of St Anne, is the King’s Cottage, which in the 1940s was the last home of Cosmo Gordon Lang, retired archbishop of Canterbury.

Cosmo Lang, by Philip de Laszlo. (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia)

Lang arrived at the King’s Cottage in the spring of 1942. First acquired by King George III, it was placed at Lang’s disposal by George VI, a natural consequence of the closeness to the royal family that he had enjoyed. The house had a private entrance into the Gardens, in which Lang walked alone or with friends ‘almost in an ecstasy of delight’. Lang was largely content to be alone in such a place, having converted one of the many rooms into a private chapel, furnished with an altar and wall hangings. And he was not idle, busying himself at the parish church, and as a preacher elsewhere, and with the business of the House of Lords. There were moments of regret at no longer being at the centre of things, and shock at the sudden death of his successor William Temple. And busy to the last, it was while hurrying to the train and to Parliament that he collapsed, and died on his way to hospital. His body rested in his own chapel before it was moved to Canterbury for cremation and the interment of his ashes.

Such is the account of Lang’s first biographer, J. G. Lockhart, written shortly after Lang’s death in 1945, based on the recollections of several who knew and spent time with him at Kew. As historians, we generally know little of the lives of our subjects after they leave public life, at which point the trail of paper evidence tends to dwindle and disappear. And so it might have remained with Lang’s last years, were it not for a chance discovery.

The catalogue of the auction of Lang’s effects, February 1946. Visible at the top are my relative’s reckoning of her spending. Image: Peter Webster

Also living in Kew in the winter of 1945/6 were my great-grandparents, in a rather more modest but nonetheless comfortable house in Leybourne Park. Among their effects that my grandmother kept is a tatty copy of A catalogue of the contents of King’s Cottage, Kew Green, to be sold at auction on the 19th and 20th of February, on behalf of Lang’s executors. What motivated my great-grandmother (it was most likely her) to take the short walk to the King’s Cottage is now lost: curiosity, perhaps, at how one of the Lords Spiritual lived, or a more practical desire to see what might be bought. But make the journey she did, as in the margins of the catalogue are marked in pencil the prices achieved for the various lots. At a cost of £59 5s she seems to have acquired a Persian rug (8 feet by 4 feet 6 inches), five afternoon tea cloths, and a set of engraved tumblers, one of which my grandmother kept. (She also spent £6 on an unidentified fourth item, which remains obscure.)

Such inventories are a rich source of information for historians of the way people have lived, and I am not one of those historians. Some later biographer of Lang may wish to trace from where Lang acquired these things. Who it was that bought them may be a puzzle that could be pieced together from the archives of the auctioneer, Messrs Knight, Frank and Rutley, still trading today as Knight Frank. The catalogue is laid out by the rooms in which the items were found, allowing a reconstruction of the interior in remarkable detail. But two things stand out for me from the catalogue as a whole.

The first is the sheer scale of Lang’s possessions. There were some 658 lots, from five main rooms, eight bedrooms, and the staff quarters in the basement. There were more than a hundred towels; four complete tea services; seventeen brandy glasses and twenty champagne flutes; nearly fifty carpets and rugs: Persian, Turkish, Indian, Wilton, Axminster. There were thirty lots of silver and a further 35 of plate, enough for a dinner for dozens of guests. For a man of Lang’s background and generation, accustomed to the company of the aristocracy, none of this would have seemed extravagant. It is an indication of how far things have changed that his more recent successors as archbishop could hardly have imagined retiring in the same style.

Most interesting to me, however, is Lang’s library, which is itemised (at least in part), and contained more than a thousand volumes. Lang is not known as a scholar in the way Temple was, and that impression is reinforced here. His enthusiasm for the novels of Walter Scott is well-known, and the catalogue lists 43 volumes of the Waverley stories. There are also novels by Thackeray and Trollope, the ‘Forsyte Saga’ by John Galsworthy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad. There are a handful of the Greek and Roman classics, but Lang’s taste in verse is more recent: George Herbert, Tennyson, Wordsworth and (for Lang the Scotsman), Robert Burns. There is writing on travel and on the antiquities of the cathedral cities; lives of the cardinals Newman and Manning, of Wellington, Disraeli, Gladstone; the letters of Queen Victoria, the war memoirs of Lloyd George. Among the historians there is Gibbon (of course), histories of England by Gardiner and Froude, and an unidentified history of the English church (there were several of these).

What is striking, though, is the thinness of Lang’s reading on theology, or indeed on any of the matters of church life and thought that had occupied the presses for decades. For whatever reason, the cataloguers concealed several books behind entries such as ‘sundry books, 38 volumes’. So it may be that these lots contained the kind of odd single volumes that seemed obscure and hard to classify: the 56 volumes on ‘religious matters’ is particularly tantalising. But as it is, we see only eight ‘Bibles and prayer books’ and two unnamed volumes by his predecessor Frederick Temple. It may be that Lang had already disposed of some books that were most obviously of their time. But when this thinness is set against a hundred bound volumes of Country Life and the satirical magazine Punch, Lang’s preoccupations in retirement are clear. His reading in solitude at the King’s Cottage was much like that of most educated Christian men of his age and class.

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Michael Ramsey and national days of prayer

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Sobornost: the story of a journal

[A review for the journal British Catholic History.]

Aidan Nichols, OP, Alban and Sergius. The Story of a Journal. Leominster: Gracewing, 2019, pp.xii + 514, £25, ISBN: 978-0-85244-937-0

Rare in the scholarly literature are what one might call ‘biographies’ of periodicals, but Sobornost, the subject of this useful and important study, is no ordinary academic journal. Founded in 1928 as the Journal of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, it provided a channel through which Orthodox writers and (usually, but not only) Catholic thinkers in the Church of England could interpret themselves to each other. The author, the theologian Aidan Nichols, a Dominican of Blackfriars in Cambridge, has himself written extensively on two of the towering figures of Russian Orthodox theology – Vladimir Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov – and this book will surely establish itself as indispensable to those interested in the theological history of England in the twentieth century, and of the ecumenical movement in particular.

The narrative arc that Nichols traces is easily summarised, and is given briefly in the introduction, and then at slightly greater length in the first chapters of each of the book’s two parts. Those two parts cover two periods: the first from the beginnings until the end of the 1960s, and the second, the period from that point to the present. Between the wars, exiled Russians and Catholic Anglicans found things of benefit in each other. In the Anglicans, the Russians found sympathy and a willing audience. As well as that, given the apparent strength of Anglo-Catholicism in the 1930s, the idea of organic reunion between the churches was not entirely fanciful, and any hope of such reunion (from an Orthodox point of view) was contingent on the strength of that part of the Church of England. For their part, Anglicans were in need of ecumenical partners, caught as they were between an apparently aloof Rome on the one hand, and ecumenical advances to the Free Churches on the other. In the Orthodox they found an episcopally ordered church, organised nationally, with strong traditions in spirituality and liturgy. In its attempt to balance and place in dialogue voices from both traditions, Sobornost provided what Nicholls calls ‘a spiritual and intellectual feast.’ The majority of the dominant figures in Anglican Catholic theology were either involved with the Fellowship or at least wrote for the journal. Michael Ramsey, future archbishop of Canterbury, was among them; Gregory Dix, Gabriel Hebert, Lionel Thornton, Eric Mascall all make their appearances.

From the late 1960s, however, the character of the journal changed, to one that was much more univocal, broadcasting from east to west, and which also shifted from Russian to Greek. This shift Nicholls attributes to changes on the Anglican side. The change was gradual, and to an extent masked by the official, and highly visible, Anglican-Orthodox dialogues that began in the 1970s. But the Anglo-Catholicism of the late 1960s and onwards lacked the confidence of the earlier period, having been profoundly unsettled by the Second Vatican Council. The impact of the radical liberal theology of the Sixties, added to the apparent relaxation of Anglican sexual ethics and the impending ordination of women, all combined to make ecumenical conversation with Anglicans seem less promising. Anglicans had, it seemed, taken too many wrong turnings to be reliable as ecumenical partners. Though one might want to question the accuracy of all this as a depiction of the real state of the Church of England, as a periodisation of perceptions it is certainly convincing enough.

Following the two chronological chapters at the beginning of each part there follow a sequence of thematic chapters, in which Nicholls characterises the content of the journal, pausing for moments of direct theological dialogue with its contributors, and to draw out that which he considers to be of continuing value. It is of these chapters that criticism can be made, at least from the point of view of the historian reader. What certainly emerges is a rich and detailed picture of the contents of the journal, which is very valuable. However, the account is often rather too full, as Nicholls makes extensive use of extremely long paraphrases of certain articles, of three or four pages or more at a time. For this reader, these are both wearying and arguably unnecessary, since the articles themselves are widely available in print. As it is, these chapters could well have been drastically shortened without any loss of impact.

More widely, what is often obscure in Nicholls’ account is the wider historical context. The names of authors flash by, but are too often not fully placed in their context. How accurate is the picture of their churches that these authors paint? How representative are these authors, and of which strains of thought in their churches? How do these authors come to be published, and not others? What can be known of the networks of individuals that lie beneath the public output? To be sure, it would be too much to ask that this study answered these questions exhaustively, but more was required nonetheless.

These cavils aside, Aidan Nicholls has provided a valuable study which will form part of the infrastructure for future research on ecumenical relationships in England and beyond. The absence of an index is a grave defect in a work so full of individuals, but the book is generously produced and reasonably priced. It deserves a wide readership.