[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.
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.
This week the General Synod debates a report on Mission and Ministry in Covenant, on relations with the Methodist Church in England. Reading the report, and reactions to it from Anglican Catholic Future and from Richard Peers, I had a very strong sense of deja vu, since the parallels with the failure of the reunion scheme of 1969/1972 are striking. In both cases, there is a strong sense of the urgency of closer union between the two churches; in both cases, the Methodist church, although in a sense relatively indifferent about episcopacy in general, has expressed an historic willingness to take episcopacy into its system (at some cost); in both cases, the Church of England has to decide whether it can live with a short-term compromise in order to accept existing Methodist ministers; in both cases the CofE, if it were to reject the scheme, will be repudiating positions which it had already accepted, and told the Methodists that it had accepted – in the second case, the several statements in the 2003 report.
To provide some historical context, what follows is an adapted extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, in whose time as archbishop of Canterbury the events of 1969/72 occurred.
It may be that the most important ecumenical event in twentieth century Britain was the failure of the scheme for reunion between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in 1972. The achievement of unity had taken on immense national and international significance, and the authors of the Scheme were in no doubt as to why. Visible disunity among the churches placed constraints on co-operation at local level, leading to ‘frustration, impatience and the gradual cessation of effort.’ There was reason too to suppose that the decline in numbers in the churches and in new vocations to ordained ministry was also consequent on the same ‘pattern of incompetence which [the churches] present in which disunity is a main feature.’
The salient fact for Michael Ramsey was that, more than 30 years after the Church of England had invited the Methodist Church to enter into negotiations, it had been the Church of England that walked away from the table. Reflecting on the rejection of the scheme by the Church Assembly in July 1969, Ramsey thought it ‘an event in history of an almost incredible kind’ that one of the Free Churches should have agreed to enter into union on the basis of the historic episcopate. ‘That we Anglicans having already said that the principles of the union are sound, should now say “no” would seem to me to make our Church of England no longer credible.’ For the first time, leadership amongst the churches had, in a highly significant way, passed from the established church.
The sticking point was the nature of the ordained ministry, but to put this into context, our story begins a few years earlier, and with the broader issue of intercommunion.
Michael Ramsey’s The Church of England and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Why their unity is important (1946) tells us much about his vision of the whole ecumenical cause. Few in Britain really felt the tragedy of the schism between east and west in which ‘the seamless robe of Christ received its greatest rent’; the schism had been ‘the parent tragedy of many later tragedies of Christian division.’ All the churches of the West thus inherited a ‘maimed Christendom’ without true wholeness. What was to be done about it? The 1947 report Catholicity, of which Ramsey was the principal author, argued that all the churches would need to go beyond their own understandings of ecclesiology, bent out of shape as they were by the schisms that had brought the separate churches into being. Unity could not be achieved by a mere ‘fitting-together of broken pieces.’
One of the solid achievements of the ecumenical movement before about 1960 had been the recognition of unity of Christians by reason of their common baptism. There remained, however, a single massive obstacle: the sharing of the Eucharist. In every local or national ecumenical initiative, sooner or later there loomed the impossibility of shared communion. As the 1968 report of the commission set up by the archbishops to consider the issue put it, ‘the eucharist, given to unite us to God and to each other, has become the place at which we are most conscious of our divisions.’
The Anglican Church was already in full communion with several churches overseas, allowing members of each to communicate in the other as a matter of course, and for the interchange of ministers. It was at home, however, that the barrier was most keenly felt. No clearly defined relationship existed between the Church of England and the Free Churches for such fellowship; and certainly none with the Catholic Church. And opinion was sharply divided as to what, if anything, should be done about it. For many Anglo-Catholics, no such intercommunion could be contemplated with churches the ministers of which had not been ordained by a bishop of the historic episcopate. For them, intercommunion was consequent on unity: get the ordering of the ministry right, and unity in the sacrament would follow. For others, this put the cart before the horse. Surely (went the argument) greater sharing of the sacrament would foster the unity of spirit that would lead to the organic union of the institutions. Every opportunity for deliberate intercommunion ought to be seized as a means to unity.
The issue pulled Ramsey in two directions. He had experienced the power of shared fellowship as a solvent of the barriers of heart and mind that perpetuated division, and none could accuse him of a lack of commitment to the goal of union. At the same time, Ramsey felt the importance of order. Unity was fundamentally an objective matter of church order, and the emotional effect of inter-denominational fellowship could carry one only so far. In 1961, Ramsey, the new archbishop, thought that ‘general intercommunion must wait until real unity is being brought about on the true principles in which we believe.’ Until that time, it needed to be infrequent, and carefully ordered. This was important not only in principle. Ramsey well knew that the longer-term cause of reunion would be damaged amongst Anglo-Catholics if the pace of change was too fast. As we shall see, he was to be proved right.
For many evangelicals, however, there was no such confusion. An extension of regular Eucharistic hospitality to members of the other Protestant churches did nothing but regularise a right already claimed by many. The rubric in the Book of Common Prayer stated that ‘there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’; but this had been read as applying only to members of the Church of England, and not to occasional visitors. A good number in the other churches identified with the Church of England as the national church sufficiently strongly that any withdrawal of such a customary right was an important thing. It was important too to Anglican evangelicals, who thought that the profounder unity already existed between Christians by reason of common baptism, and that to erect such a barrier was a sectarian act.
A new commission was formed to consider intercommunion (alongside the group already considering Anglican-Methodist unity) which began work late in 1965. From this point on, despite the existence of two quite separate commissions, the issues were inextricably intertwined. By the time the intercommunion commission reported in 1968, within weeks of the report of the commission on unity, the two opposing approaches to the question were immovably entrenched. However, there was a third way, which appeared to offer a path through the no-man’s-land, in response to a unique moment in Christian history. The habit of regarding existing church structures as ends in themselves was (it was argued) to place the church ahead of the kingdom, which it was the church’s role to serve. The contemporary ecumenical movement was ‘a singular work of the Holy Spirit of God’, in a time of crisis in which all aspects of the churches’ lives were coming under divine judgment. As such, ‘certain concepts of valid ministry and sacraments which were once decisive can be transcended within a serious intention to unite.’
This was a position with which Ramsey had increasing sympathy. Attached to catholic order though he was, Ramsey’s attachment to it was always subject to the reality of divine action in the present age. In a situation of crisis in church relations, many things that had seemed certain to him before seemed mutable, dispensable. If the greater need of God’s church on earth demanded it, then there was little in the ordering of the church that could not and ought not to be overturned. What God had instituted, He could surely amend.
Anglo-Catholics held tenaciously to the importance of episcopal ordination as a sine qua non of a valid sacrament. They were thus deeply concerned about accepting Methodist ministers into a united church without having been so ordained. Many Methodists, whilst ready to accept episcopacy as a convenient model for church government, were chary about accepting any such ordination for those who were already ministers, for the aspersions it cast about the apparently inferiority of their ministry hitherto. Conservative evangelicals in the Church of England, whilst episcopally ordained themselves, nonetheless were concerned about any implication that that ordination 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 beginning. It involved the laying on of hands, but did not define how the status, before God, of both the Anglican and the Methodist ministers changed during the Service. Indeed, its advocates had been explicit about this ambiguity, arguing that the important thing was neither the starting point, nor the journey, but the destination. This ambiguity was too much, however, for a significant minority of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, which were to keep up a vigorous campaign against the Scheme to the last.
Far from being a ‘pious subterfuge’ (the words of Ramsey’s predecessor Geoffrey Fisher), for Ramsey, the fact that the service allowed for divergent understandings of its precise operation was not merely acceptable, but in some ways positive. Pragmatically, he was certain that the opposition from both conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics risked throwing away the only realistic method of achieving union in their own best interests. If Anglo-Catholics were to reject the Scheme, which ‘conserves in essence the very things which the Catholic movement has borne witness to’ (episcopacy, mainly), it would expose them to trends in the wider international movement for intercommunion that were much less connected to historic order. Conservative evangelicals, perversely in Ramsey’s view, seemed content to pass up the prospect of full communion with evangelical Methodists for the sake of a single service which could be read to imply a view of priesthood which they did not share. ‘Hence the 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.’
There was more behind Ramsey’s acceptance of the Service than mere pragmatism, however. He knew that he himself was already a priest and bishop in the catholic church, and lacked nothing; and also that Methodist ministers did not possess ‘the commission and authority described in our Catholic ordinal’. However, they were clearly ‘ministers of the word and sacraments of a sort and I cannot regard them as laymen.’ The rite was ultimately not concerned to resolve the divergence, being concerned to define ‘what all those who receive it are when it is over, and it does not define the relative standing of what people are already.’ The new rite 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.’ Ramsey as a theologian was acutely aware of the gaps and the silences in all speaking about God, and it seems to have caused him no great discomfort to accept this method of avoiding the questions that many raised by asking a different and more important one.
This approach, perceived by some simply as either muddle or as calculated evasion, was not forced on Ramsey by inconvenient circumstance. Ramsey had always known that unity could never be achieved by means of the uncomfortable forcing together of existing churches, aided by some compromise over inessentials whilst leaving each intact: ‘a fitting-together of broken pieces’. The ecumenical task was not ‘like the reconstruction of a toy once made in its completeness and subsequently broken.’ To attempt merely to harmonise existing churches was, from the prophet Ezekiel, to daub untempered mortar on a cracked wall.
If Ramsey and his staff made any strategic errors, they were these. Some argued that the report of the intercommunion commission should have been delayed, since it risked alarming those Anglo-Catholics whom (with Ramsey’s help) were coming close to accepting the unity scheme. Others though it a mistake to press on to (a similarly unsuccessful) vote in the new General Synod in May 1972; and it is indeed hard in retrospect to see why the new governing arrangements for the church should have been thought more likely to produce a positive result. However, the Methodists had said ‘yes’, and that decision was now to go forward to the next stage in their processes; they had shown courageous leadership for which Ramsey was thankful; to take a second bite at the cherry seemed the logical course of action. To those who argued that to ignore the verdict of the Anglican assemblies was to ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, Ramsey replied that to disregard the positive vote from the Methodist Conference might well amount to much the same: who was to know?
If there was a personal failure at all in the whole matter, it was perhaps Ramsey’s limitations in fully understanding the position of those opposing the Scheme. In the immediate aftermath of the first vote, he thought that the opposition had been due to ‘the psychology of fear of change deepening and becoming obsessive [..] once [that fear] became really obsessive it was, I think, beyond the power of argument to help the situation.’ This, for Ramsey, was akin to the ‘persecution and martyrdom complex’ he saw amongst some English Roman Catholics. This inchoate opposition to change may indeed account for some of the opposition to the Scheme. But it hardly accounts for the opposition of a figure such as Eric Mascall, Anglo-Catholic theologian and long-time friend of Ramsey’s, or James I. Packer, de facto theologian-in-chief amongst the conservative evangelicals. Much research remains to be done on the significance of the apparently unlikely ‘unholy alliance’ between the two extremes of the conventional spectrum of Anglican churchmanship, and the degree to which it began the formation of a conservative bloc of previously opposed groups: a reorientation of the church away from an evangelical-catholic alignment towards a liberal-conservative spectrum. The two poles were, however, close together in opposing a general trend towards greater indeterminacy in theology; for figures such as Packer or Mascall to be comfortable with the ambiguity in the Service of Reconciliation was simply asking too much. Central to the self-presentation of conservative theologians was ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’, over against supposed liberal ambiguity and doubt. Theological ‘tidiness’ was not merely a fussy, unnecessary scruple, as Ramsey supposed, but fundamental to the conservative mind.
Ecumenical success and failure
In the end, the proponents of organic unity among the churches in Ramsey’s time had to settle for a single success. The new United Reformed Church, the joining of Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England, was inaugurated in October 1972. Ramsey received a ‘tumultuous welcome’ at the ceremony. Ultimately, however, the high hopes that had been raised by Fisher’s Cambridge sermon and by the Vatican Council were unfulfilled. Was the Church of England really ready for the radical choices with which it was faced? Few seemed to have been able to look beyond local and national circumstance – to think in terms other than of the jagged edges of their own particular piece of the broken toy. Ramsey’s vision from the 1940s, of individual churches of West and East changing shape and converging as they drew nearer to Christ in holiness and truth, seemed not to have the imaginative power to energise more than a few.
Even supposing Anglicans had been ready to embrace the wider vision, could the machinery of their church have allowed it? Much was made of the glacial pace at which decisions could be made within the Church Assembly, and Ramsey had limited patience with its detailed and sometimes partisan and ill-informed deliberations. But the intertwining of parallel commissions on each and every issue gave the impression of muddle. And archbishops, whilst their words were attended to, could not control the Church Assembly, or the independent-minded groups to whom they entrusted those commissions, or even rely on all their bishops for support. Given this context, to charge Ramsey, or any other archbishop with a lack of ‘leadership’ would be quite to misunderstand the role. All he could do was to set a tone of seriousness of intent, and hope to intervene only as much as was really necessary.
In the final analysis, it may be that by 1969 when the Anglican-Methodist scheme first faltered, the opportunity for ecumenical progress on the basis of organic union had passed. In the half-century since, the Church of England has only in 2018 come anywhere near as close to achieving such a union as it did then, and at the time some were suggesting that progress could be made in other ways. Lionel du Toit, moderate evangelical and one of the members of the commission on Anglican-Methodist union, had felt compelled to vote against the Scheme he had helped create, and wrote to explain his reasons. Had the times now changed again, he wondered, leading away from such organisational schemes? Vatican II had focussed on the existing unity of Christians in baptism, and on the real ecclesial standing of separated brethren. Could this leaven now not be allowed to work, through local action with controlled intercommunion? Perhaps, thought du Toit, the humiliation of 1969 had been necessary for God to point the churches in a different direction.
Ramsey did not accept, and could not have accepted, that the entire thrust of the ecumenical movement had been misdirected, but there were broader currents within the churches that were beginning to sweep organic union further out of reach. Hugh McLeod has pointed out a marked downturn in the mood within the Western churches in the late 1960s, and a loss of nerve amongst reformers as the churches’ vital statistics fell. This prompted a general move to shore up the fragments within each of the churches in the interests of the remaining faithful. Expansive schemes of reunion, first conceived in times of greater confidence, became less and less the priority. In retrospect, it seems that Ramsey’s opportunity to see his vision of unity realised simply came too late.
Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, Martyn Percy (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies
Oxford, OUP, 2016
Hardback, xiv + 657 pp
As the editors of TheOxford Handbook of Anglican Studies point out, the Anglican churches can draw on none of the kinds of criteria by which other Christian churches define themselves. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the model is juridical, the product of the authority of an institution; for Lutherans, it is confessional, the adoption of certain key statements of doctrine; for Baptists, it is sacramental practice. As a result, many studies such as those by Wolf, Booty and Thomas (1982), or Sykes and Booty (1988) have circled around the issue of how else Anglicanism may be defined.
The discipline of Anglican Studies has only been named in the last two decades, however, and at a time when the tensions within the Anglican Communion have reached a particular pitch. Launching the new Journal of Anglican Studies in 2003, Bruce Kaye (also a contributor here) wrote of ‘the challenge of construing the connecting profile of Anglicanism in its global form’, as parts of the Communion looked for solutions in global organizations within the existing structure predicated on particular convictions about theology and practice. These divisions came to a head at (or perhaps alongside) the Lambeth Conference of 2008, when a body of bishops absented themselves to meet separately in Jerusalem; so significant were the tensions, in fact, that the editors questioned the very viability of the Handbook (15). It is a cause for celebration that they persisted. Taken together, the 44 essays presented here are a rich and suggestive meditation on the past, present and likely futures of Anglicanism, and will be read with profit by scholar and non-specialist reader alike.
One of the signal virtues of the volume is its global scope. In 1988, all but one of the contributors to Sykes and Booty’s The Study of Anglicanism were from the British Isles or North America (the last being based in Switzerland); here, while the balance is still tipped in that direction, there is weighty representation from Africa, Australasia and Asia. Almost every contribution is at some level concerned with the legacy of establishment in England or the complex renegotiation required elsewhere in a post-colonial context. There are some omissions, however, most strikingly of the Anglican experience in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, two of which were churches that were first established and then disestablished: a perspective which it would have been valuable to hear.
Editors of volumes such as this are often hard put to create a structure that neatly compartmentalises the issues at hand, and this is no exception. Whilst the seven sections (on historiographies, methods and styles, contextualisation, identities, controversies, practices, and futures) provide some orientation, readers seeking the Anglican view of (say) the interpretation of the Bible will find work of interest in each of the sections and not simply the chapters by Gerald O. West and A. Katharine Grieb, the titles of which address the issue directly. A small but significant group of authors have not helped the editors in the task of achieving coherence by writing chapters that are not so much synoptic surveys of a particular topic as new work on a particular aspect of it: fine work in some cases, but an uncomfortable fit with the purposes of the volume. Others allow their focus on Anglicanism to waver, and needed a firmer editorial hand. Few readers will wish to read the volume from beginning to end (as this reviewer did), an experience which induces a sense of a continual and at times slightly fretful circling around the same two issues: past and present identity, and the prospects for unity.
Might that unity be found by means to a recourse to a shared history? The editors rightly place a fine essay by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of the sixteenth century history of the Church of England are neatly dissected. The formation of ‘Anglicanism’, as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, dates from a hundred years after the foundation of the Church of England, in which process figures such as Richard Hooker – marginal in his day – were moved to the centre, and figures such as William Perkins or Thomas Cartwright were marginalised despite being highly influential at the time. (That some readers may need to look these two figures up is an indication of how occluded they have become; neither appears anywhere else in this volume, and Perkins is re-christened Thomas in the index). Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes the appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.
Take for instance the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie again shows that although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of the fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist (the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken)? It was this principle that derailed the single most significant ecumenical scheme of the twentieth century in England, to reunify Anglicans and Methodists. Or, was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organisation, symbolically useful even, but something without which under different circumstances the Church might live? Chapters from Mark Chapman on missionary bishops, Kevin Ward on mission and Robert Bruce Mullin on the church in colonial America all show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have at times managed quite well without a fully fledged episcopal system. But other chapters make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters. To paraphrase: ‘many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do this are therefore not fully Anglican.’
Anglicans, then, have needed to look elsewhere for means of defining themselves, which have tended to cluster around elements of practice and habits of mind. The editors list a few of them: ‘hymns, poetry, prose, theology and spirituality’ (9-10), a ‘distinctive ethos’ which matches the many older attempts to find the ‘spirit’ of Anglicanism. Three chapters address these directly: Ann Loades on spirituality, Phyllis Tickle on prayer and the late Kenneth Stevenson (former bishop of Portsmouth) on aesthetics. Loades is detailed where Stevenson is allusive, but this reader emerges with a sense that Anglicans at certain times and places have indeed produced distinctive spiritual theology, hymnody and liturgy, but that these are weak markers of identity and of little use as instruments of unity. It is hard to avoid the impression that the search for identity in these places risks merely reifying the tastes and habits of mind of educated western Anglophones.
Anglicans have of course for a long time focussed on the ‘holy trinity’ of scripture, reason and tradition: a kind of self-definition by method. Formed of urgent necessity during the Reformation as a way of carving out space between the overweening pretensions of Rome and the bracing scripturalism of Geneva, in times of lesser pressure it became a rather more comforting formulation. Socially and economically secure as the established church of an imperial nation, it was relatively easy to rest on the idea of the Anglican via media, the essential moderateness of the English religious temperament. But the existential challenges to the very existence of the Communion in the last decade have caused this focus on theological approach to take on a rather darker tone. The question might be put: whose reason? Whose tradition? Whose reading of Scripture? As these questions have become harder to answer in a global context, the distinctive Anglican way of doing church has taken on a less confident and rather more provisional aspect.
Two aspects of this move are visible in the essays by Marion Grau and Jenny Gaffin. For Grau, Anglicanism as it has been transferred from England into colonial contexts can be thought of as a modus operandi, a rather accidental kind of pragmatism that over time became elevated to a virtue (177-8). Inculturation, the process by which theology and practice are inflected by local context, is made possible by a reliance on ‘a prevenient grace [and] an anthropology and ecclesiology that trusts in the residing of Spirit and Divinity within human existence’ (181). God has given His people sufficient resources with which to chart their path, and the action of God and his Spirit will not in the last instance allow the church to founder. Balancing this optimism is a line of thought that connects Gaffin to some of the recent work of Rowan Williams and (further back) to the Michael Ramsey of The Gospel and the Catholic Church (quoted by the editors in their introduction). The witness of Anglicanism is in pointing away from itself towards the larger church of which it is but a fragment: in Ramsey’s words ‘its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail of its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic.’ Its very brokenness is its witness.(14) In an age which values competence and ‘message discipline’, and seizes on weakness and holds it up to ridicule, the state of the Anglican Communion is both an affront and a challenge. Perhaps in the final instance the Communion is held together by a sense of a shared past, and an act of the will – a choice that must constantly be made anew – to continue together. The editors and contributors of this stimulating and fascinating handbook have given us a resource to help in the task of studying Anglicanism as its adherents have made and continue to make that choice. Though the price may stretch the budgets of private readers, no serious library for theology or history should be without it.
I’m very pleased to be able to point out another favourable review of my book on Michael Ramsey, this time from the Anglican priest and ecclesiologist Paul Avis, visiting professor in the University of Exeter. Editor of the journal Ecclesiology, Avis devotes his whole editorial for volume 12, issue 3 to the book, and Ramsey at large.
Avis’s piece is more than simply a review, and is worth reading in its own right for his remarks on Ramsey, Luther and the Cross. He also notes Ramsey’s much noted personal eccentricity, which I have suggested that this could be explained by a retrospective diagnosis of autism. However, his observations on my book are uniformly positive.
Webster’s study is marked by well-paced narrative, perceptive analysis [and] a few correctives to [Owen] Chadwick’s picture… Altogether Ramsey emerges as an impressively capable and indeed prophetic Archbishop of Canterbury. Like the other excellent recent reappraisals of Archbishops of Canterbury […] this new study shows an Archbishop of Canterbury of greater stature, especially in this case politically, than many have previously thought. Ramsey was perhaps overall the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of the twentieth century’
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