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.

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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.

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.

The Lambeth Conference: theology, history, polity and purpose

[A review forthcoming in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church.]

Paul Avis and Benjamin M. Guyer (eds)
The Lambeth Conference. Theology, history, polity and purpose
London: Bloomsbury/ T & T Clark, 2017
978-0-5676-6231-6
xxi + 437

This year sees the latest instance of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the bishops of the Anglican Communion. The singular designation is important, as the editors of this timely volume note: to speak of the Lambeth Conference as a continually existing thing, rather than a sequence of conferences, is to say something particular about its status as one of the four Instruments of Communion which hold the Communion together. First convened in 1867, the Conference has a status without any exact parallel in world Christianity. In common with the other three Instruments, it possesses none of the kind of coercive force that can be exercised from the Vatican; if push comes to shove, any of the provinces of the Anglican Communion may disregard resolutions of the Conference, and the consequences of doing so are not clearly defined. In this sense, each province retains a kind of sovereignty, and it remains an act of the will to continue to recognise the rest of the Communion and to subject one’s own decision-making to it. Yet the Conference, together with the three other Instruments, makes – or has had made on its behalf – more far-reaching ecclesiological claims that is common in relation to the Lutheran World Federation or the World Methodist Council. It is with the nature of these claims, and their gradual emergence since 1867 that many, if not all, of the essays presented here are concerned, to different degrees.

The volume is a timely one for a number of reasons. Published to mark 150 years since the first conference, it also appears four decades since the last substantial study of the Lambeth Conference, during which time scholarship has moved far. But the division within the Communion over matters of sexuality, and its impact on the tumultuous 2008 Conference in particular, has made plain the limitations of the Instruments as means of resolving conflict. As Gregory K. Cameron shows, the attempt to address this sense of ecclesial deficit by means of the Anglican Covenant ran into the sand, and few seem to be rushing to help haul it back onto the road. Yet several contributors argue, more or less strongly, that some more effective means of first brokering agreement and then ensuring that such agreement is acted upon – or that the refusal to do so is somehow consequential – will need to be found if the Anglican Communion is to hold together. This volume does not provide the answers, but its treatment of the nature of the questions that need to be asked will be essential reading for those charged with finding those answers.

As is to be expected with all volumes such as this, the contributors take a wide variety of approaches. Some range rather further than others from the Lambeth Conference in particular, and are more directed to the specific issues that are the source of the current division. There are valuable contributions from historians, notably Benjamin M. Guyer on the inaugural Conference of 1867, and Mark D. Chapman on William Reed Huntington. Jeremy Morris shows that the Conference emerged in the context of, and has continued to be shaped by, changing perceptions of the nature of the office of a bishop. Both Mary Tanner and Donald Bolen (Roman Catholic bishop and ecumenist) highlight the ecumenical significance of the Conference. Others concentrate on process: Charlotte Methuen examines the making of the 1920 ‘Appeal to All Christian People’; Andrew Goddard looks at successive Conference resolutions on issues of sex and marriage as a means by which to understand the patterns into which these deliberations have fallen; Alyson Barnett-Cowan explores in detail the contrasting approaches to structuring the work of the Conference in 1998 and in 2008. 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.

Others address the constitutional, legal and ecclesiological issues more directly. Norman Doe and Richard Deadman examine the impact of Conference resolutions on the law of individual provinces: effects that bear familial resemblances when examined as a whole, but all of them ultimately on the basis of consent. Paul Avis traces the historic relationship between the Conference and the archbishop of Canterbury – the office of whom is recognised as another of the Instruments – as both the instigator of the first Conference, and the host and president of each meeting since. And it is the chapter from Stephen Pickard that addresses the specific issue of ecclesiology most directly. Is it possible to cultivate an attitude of ‘sympathetic imagination’ towards the Instruments, a shared commitment to them as gifts and as signs of grace? While based on an elevated understanding of the episcopate, such an understanding can, Pickard suggests, accommodate the contingent and thus mutable nature of the Instruments whilst still being able to avoid mere pragmatism and resist the manoeuvring of particular interests at a point in time. The question, then, is whether the Anglican Communion can find a set of Instruments in which all can invest and continue to steward as both it and they change. This valuable volume, well produced and reasonably priced, provides a starting point for that thinking.

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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