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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Michael Ramsey and national days of prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Michael Ramsey at Lambeth 1968

This is the full text of Michael Ramsey’s sermon at the opening of the 1968 Lambeth Conference, preached in Canterbury Cathedral on July 25th 1968. It is edited from the script in Lambeth Palace Library, and was first published in my own 2015 book on Ramsey.

[Ramsey Papers vol.317, ff.177-85]

Hebrews xii, 27-29. “This phrase ‘yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken….. in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Today we have all come to Canterbury with hearts full of thankfulness for a place, a man and a history. This place means very much to us as we think of St. Augustine and his monks coming here from Thanet with the Cross borne before them, preaching the Gospel to king and people, and inaugurating a history which includes not only the English Church in its continuity through the centuries but a family of Churches of many countries and races which still see in Canterbury a symbol and a bond. Today we thank God for all this, and for the witness within Christendom of a tradition of ordered liberty and scriptural Christianity which the name Anglican has been used to describe. Thanks be to God for his great goodness.

No part of the early history is more interesting than the questions which St. Augustine sent to Pope Gregory about some of his perplexities and the answers which the Pope gave to him. One of the matters which bothered St. Augustine was the variety of customs in different churches, and Pope Gregory told him that if he found anything in the Gallican or the Roman or in any other Church acceptable to Almighty God he should adopt it in England, because – and here comes the great principle – “things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things”. “Non pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca amanda sunt”.

How suggestive, how far reaching, is this principle, how applicable to other issues and to other times. “Non pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca”. The local, the limited, the particular is to be cherished by Christian people not for any nostalgic attachment to it for its own sake, but always for the real thing which it represents and conveys, the thing which is catholic, essential, lasting. So our love for Canterbury melts into our love for Christ whose shrine Canterbury is; our love for what is Anglican is a little piece of our love for one Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church; the love of any of us for our own heritage in country, culture, religious experience or theological insight, all subserves the supreme thing – the reality of God who draws men and women and children into union with himself in the fellowship of his Son. Not things for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things: let that be a guiding principle, and the good things which concern us are what the apostolic writer calls the things which are not shaken.

Today the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews come home to us, in cadences which seem to roll like thunder. Follow the thought of this tremendous passage. The voice of God shook the earth when the divine law was given on Mount Sinai, a divine law which, reinterpreted by our Lord, still stands and must be proclaimed. Then, in the new covenant, the voice of God shakes heaven as well as earth, since the Incarnation at Bethlehem and the resurrection from the tomb belong to both earth and heaven. Today the earth is being shaken, many things are cracking, melting, disappearing; and it is for us who are Christians to distinguish the things which are shaken and to receive gratefully a kingdom which is not shaken, the kingdom of our crucified Lord. Within this kingdom, the writer goes on, we offer to God the worship he can accept – but as we do so we are never in cosy security, we have awe in our hearts, for we are near to our God, and our God is blazing fire.

Today the earth is being shaken, and there can be few or none who do not feel the shaking: the rapid onrush of the age of technology with the new secularity which comes with it, the terrible contrast between the world of affluence and the world of hunger, the explosions of racial conflict, the amassing of destructive weapons, the persistence of war and killing. And Man, they say, has come of age. Indeed he has, in the height of the powers the Creator gave him, in the fulfilment of the Psalmist’s words “thou has put all things under his feet” but without, alas, Man learning to say with the Psalmist “O Lord, our Governor, how excellent is thy name”. That is the nature of Man’s triumph, and Man’s utter frustration.

Amidst a shaken earth we who are Christians receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and are called so to enjoy it that others are led to find it and receive it with us. How is God today calling us to do this? God calls us to faith, to ministry, to unity.

Faith. The faith to which we are called will always be folly and scandal to the world, it cannot be in the usual sense of the word popular; it is a supernatural faith and it cannot adapt itself to every passing fashion of human thought. But it will be a faith alert to distinguish what is shaken and is meant to go, and what is not shaken and is meant to remain. When men today tell us that they revere Jesus but find God or theism without meaning it sometimes is that the image of God that we as Christians in our practice present it is the image of a God of religious concerns but not of compassion for all human life, and it is just not recognisable as the God and Father of Jesus Christ. So too when men reject theism it sometimes means that they cannot accept in this shaken world any easy, facile assumption that the universe has a plan, a centre, a purpose.

It is for us Christians to be sure that our faith is no facile assumption but a costly conviction that in Christ crucified and risen, in suffering and victorious love and in no other way, there is a plan, a centre, a purpose. In dying to love, in losing life so as to find it – there is the place where divine sovereignty is found and theism has meaning and vindication. The Bishops who will lead our thinking about faith at this Lambeth Conference will help us to see that faith means standing near to the Cross in the heart of the contemporary world, and not only standing but acting. Our faith will be tested in our actions, not least in our actions concerning peace, concerning race, concerning poverty. Faith is a costly certainty, but no easy security as our God is blazing fire.

Ministry. The ministry to which we are called is described in our text. It is “to offer to God acceptable worship”. We know that the only worship which God accepts is the expression of lives which reflect God’s own righteousness and compassion. Yet amidst all the energies of serving humanity which so rightly concern Christian people let there be a deep revival of the priestly spirit, the spirit of loving God for God’s own sake who made us for himself. The Bishops who will lead our thinking about ministry will help us to recapture this priestly spirit while they show the way to new forms of practical service in every community where Christian people are. That service must not only inspire individuals, it must go on to affect states and nations in their policies, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped, one towards another.

Unity. Here Christendom is feeling the first tremors of a shaking which would have seemed incredible a few years back. What has been shaken? Much of the old complacency, much of the old contentment with our divided condition, much of the sheer ignorance of one another in theology and practice, and above all much of the self-consciousness which gave absurdity to the dealings of Christians with Christians. But the shaking has gone deeper still. Christendom has begun to learn that unity comes not by combining this Church with that Church much as they are now, but by the radical altering of Churches in reformation and renewal. It is here that the Vatican Council has had influence far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. We all are stirred to ask God to show us what are things rightly shaken and the things not shaken which must remain.

As Anglicans we ask ourselves: “Quo tendimus?” This Lambeth Conference faces big questions about our relations with one another as a world-wide Anglican family and about our role within a Christendom which is being called to unity in the truth. Can we do better than take to heart and apply to our tasks the counsel which Pope Gregory gave to St. Augustine “non pro locis res, sed loca pro bonis rebus”. We shall love our own Anglican family not as something ultimate but because in it and through it we and others have our place in the one Church of Christ. The former is a lovely special loyalty: the latter is the Church against which our Lord predicted that the gates of death would not prevail.

Now, as the work of unity advances there will come into existence United Churches not describably Anglican but in communion with us and sharing with us what we hold to be the unshaken essence of Catholicity. What then of the future boundaries of our Anglican Communion? We shall face that question without fear, without anxiety, because of our faith in the things which are not shaken. Perhaps the Anglican role in Christendom may come to be less like a separate encampment and more like a colour in the spectrum of a rainbow, a colour bright and unselfconscious.

“See that you do not refuse him who speaks.” The writer to the Hebrews has his urgent message for us, telling us of the removal of what is shaken in order that what is not shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful in receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken. It is the kingdom of Christ crucified, our king who was crowned with thorns. And his Cross is the secret of our faith, the heart of our ministry and the source of our unity as we live not to ourselves but to one another and to him. Each of us at this time will want to say from his heart: –

Thanks be to thee, O Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits thou hast won for me,
For all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
And follow thee more nearly.