[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 unrevised text of a paper delivered at the conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Exeter in 2017.
Although the effect is now jarring, I retain contemporary language in quotations (and paraphrases of quotations), including terms of reference to people with disabilities which we would not now use.
Alternatively, there is an audio recording of the paper.
In January 1981 Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury, stood up in the House of Lords to support the International Year of Disabled People, called by the United Nations. The needs of the disabled in the UK were great, he argued, and insufficiently provided for, but before the churches started ‘preaching to others’ it was necessary that ‘we will have a look at our own attitudes, facilities, use of buildings and resources’. To this end he had already issued a challenge to the Church of England, circulated among the bishops and distributed to the parishes. The disabled, he told the Lords, are ‘a special care of the churches, because Christians cannot regard them as on the edge of society or objects of pity but as those who are at the centre of the discovery of depth in trust, love and sharing. …. The care of the handicapped always draws out unsuspected qualities from those engaged in it, and when you minister to others they minister to you.’
But, Runcie stressed, there was more to be done by the state on its own account. In these early years of the Thatcher administration the economy was in a severe recession and deep cuts had been imposed in public spending as part of a dramatic restriction in the scope of the action of the state. It should, Runcie believed, ‘be a principle of government that available resources should go first to the weakest and the most vulnerable. … even in a time of stringency we must try to ensure that those who begin life with mental or physical handicaps do not suffer further because of what we fail to do.’ Those in government needed to remember ‘that while they struggle to solve our economic problems, there is also a moral imperative without which we shall never achieve the re-creation of a real community life for our people.’
Here, then, was the leader of the Church of England using his privileged position to call both his own church to action and the state to attend to its conscience. To some extent, this was a continuation of a role that successive archbishops had exercised to a greater or lesser degree according to both circumstance and inclination. In 1913 Randall Davidson had lent significant support in private to ensure the safe passing of the Mental Deficiency Act, the most important piece of law of the early century, which was apparently at risk of being shelved by a government with one eye on an impending general election.
However, this apparent continuity masks a rather more circuitous history. This paper is (I believe) a first attempt at setting out a broad chronological and analytic framework into which to place research on the official relationship between the Church of England and issues relating to learning disability since 1945.
It is the first attempt, since the independent growth of several separate bodies of scholarship have left an unexplored space in between them. This conference shows the depth and variety of recent work on religious education in general; the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Eiesland and others in the last three decades has pointed towards a specific theology of disability for the contemporary churches to use; social historians, historians of medicine and historians of disability have in their different ways recovered the experience of disabled people and the changing ways in which disability was understood by medical professionals, and the frameworks of social policy in and through which the state and voluntary sectors addressed them.
As yet unexplored, however, are the specific issues that disability raised for religious education both in schools and in churches, the experience of disabled people in local congregations, and the ways in which Christians theologised about disability before the advent of ‘disability theology’ proper.
I focus particularly on learning disability, since the issues in relation to physical disability, whilst in many ways similar, were quite distinct. If membership of the Body of Christ was in part contingent on the ability to declare assent to certain key propositions, what was to be done with those who were unable to make any such declaration? If membership was instead conceived in terms of participation in the sacraments and (more broadly) in participation in the social existence of the local church, what was the place of a person with autism, for whom difficulties with social interaction were cardinal?
I focus particularly on the Church of England, for reasons of time, although I would suggest that all the denominations faced the same issues to a greater or lesser extent and are similarly underinvestigated. The unique position of the Church of England gives the investigation an additional angle, since it was often the conduit of contact between secular professionals, government and the other churches, both in Parliament and more generally. This paper focusses in particular on those official relationships, between successive archbishops of Canterbury, the central policy development bodies of the church and those parts of the state and voluntary sector concerned with the issues.
This paper begins with the immediate post-war period, but only as a convenient break point in what are in fact multiple parallel chronologies: related but distinct threads that develop according to their own logic, in the histories of education, health, psychiatry, social policy, and ecclesiastical history proper. Three shifts did however occur in these years that together make the post-war period a useful beginning in a tripartite chronology that I shall propose. The 1944 Education Act and the 1945 regulations that put it into effect in relation to ‘handicapped pupils’ provided for compulsory state education for all children who were able to benefit. This transferred responsibility for all but those thought to be entirely ineducable from the mental deficiency hospitals to a new kind of segregated special school, in which the churches had no part to play.
The 1948 National Assistance Act further cemented the taking by the state of responsibility for the maintenance of the disabled from the voluntary sector. This annexation of responsibility by the state was a loss of influence for the churches in one sense, but a gain in others, since the Church of England had both the means to influence the formation of law and public policy, and was by many expected to do so. In addition, the 1944 Act had the effect of making a clearer distinction between mental illness (which remained the responsibility of what was shortly to become the National Health Service) and learning disability. That said, the common confusion in the public mind between the two was to remain, and not only amongst the public but also amongst the governing class (and throughout the period.)
In addition, there had been a distinct intellectual change since the 1930s, which had seen energetic Christian advocacy of voluntary sterilisation for the ‘feeble minded’, based on the assumption that learning disability was inherited. As such (the argument went) it was the Christian course of action to prevent future suffering if it could be prevented and could confidently be predicted. The immediate postwar period, and specifically the revelations from within Germany of the Nazi programme of eugenic murder of the disabled, also (I suspect) had a chilling effect on some of the Christian engagement with eugenics. Although Bishop E.W. Barnes of Birmingham continued his enthusiastic advocacy of sterilisation of those who were unfit to breed and the euthanasia of those born disabled, he cut a more isolated figure after 1945.
Quite apart from the associations with Nazism, the assumption of hereditability had become increasingly discredited amongst scientists, and so as the Christian case for sterilisation was weakened, perhaps fatally, space opened up further for an acceptance of disability on its own terms rather than as a problem to be eradicated. Such a position was later put forward by Michael Ramsey, for instance, in the context of the debate over abortion law reform in the late 60s, in opposing the eugenic termination of a foetus with a physical deformity on the basis that it were 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.’
Phase One: 1945 – c.1959
The first of my three phases was from the end of the War until the late 1950s, during which we find the Church in a responsive mode with few signs of proactive engagement with any of the issues. The bishops in Parliament were closely engaged with the progress of the Education Act in 1944 and the regulations that followed, but not with the specific provisions in relation to special schools, since they did not concern the church schools directly. A Royal Commission was appointed to examine the law in relation to mental illness and disability in adults, reporting in 1957, the findings of which were taken into the Mental Health Act 1959. Once again, the bishops in the Lords seem not to have intervened in the debates on either the report or the Act. There was however some activity amongst the staff of the new Board of Social Responsibility, set up in 1958. The history of the BSR remains to be written, but it appears to have taken a wider view of its role than did its predecessor bodies: to advise the bishops and others in the church, provide evidence to government, and in general to be the eyes and ears of the institution in relation to everything from nuclear arms, to unemployment to medical ethics.
Prompted by the Royal Commission, the British Council of Churches held a conference in 1957 on ‘mental health and the churches’,. This was followed by a similar one on the new Act in 1959 organised by the Central Churches Group of the otherwise secular National Council for Social Service; it was chaired by a bishop, Dudley Narborough of Colchester. Both events dealt with mental health and mental disability whilst being more careful than was common to distinguish between the two. Both were exploratory but marked with a sense of impending change. Lady Norman, vice-chair of the National Association for Mental Health (that was later to become MIND) told the 1957 conference that ‘the Churches had a responsibility to promote right thinking and an enlightened attitude in this field’, but after 25 years’ experience she was heartened by the increased interest among Christians she was seeing. BSR staff attended both events, circulated resulting papers, and collected press cuttings on the general issues, but nonetheless remained in a reactive mode until the early 1960s.
Phase Two: the Sixties (roughly)
In the early 1960s two distinct currents seem to coincide: the gradual identification of learning disability as a subject distinct from that of mental health; and movements within the Church of England to develop and communicate its own view. In 1964 there was a conference on the subject of ‘the church and the backward child’, about which I have been able to discover almost nothing, but there was some contact between its delegates and the authors of Number Unknown. A guide to the needs and problems of the mentally subnormal child and his family (1965), produced by the Children’s Council of the Church of England’s Board of Education. It was followed two years later by All Children are Special, which focussed more specifically on schools, also produced by the Childrens Council.
As was common with the church’s central bodies, Number Unknown was the product of a working party composed of experts in various fields, usually chosen on the basis of being either Anglicans or at least sympathetic to the churches. It included a diocesan advisor on RE, the headmaster of a unit for children in one of the mental deficiency hospitals, two supervisors of training centres located in the community, the chaplain of a unit for mentally deficient children located in a mental hospital for adults, as well as a statistician. Aimed primarily at clergy whose training would not have prepared them for a pastoral response to disability, it was a remarkably advanced document when considered in its context. The pastoral care of parents after the first diagnosis of their child is discussed sensitively, but without pity or condescension, as is the key importance of baptism in the process of accepting a disabled child. Local congregations, it argued, would find their capacity for intercessory prayer enlarged by welcoming a family with a disabled child, and church members could find new ways to serve, not least in pastoral counselling.
What of the disabled child? How might he (or she) be involved in worship and learning? The approach would need to be different, the report argued, not least in the matter of communion since the Book of Common Prayer laid down certain stipulations as to what a person must be able to say and do before being admitted. However, these could be fulfilled in other ways, it argued, since disabled children very often showed ‘a wonderful intuitive power of realising God’s presence and a quality of devotion which exceeds that of many ordinary young people.’ To be sure, there was a widespread idealisation of the disabled child in the churches of which this is an example, but the effort to elaborate an early theology of the matter was notable.
Could the ‘severely subnormal’ person meaningfully take part in the communion, it asked? The answer was strongly affirmative: ‘It operates on many levels and expresses a relationship between God and man … in ways deeper and broader than those of a strictly intellectual operation. Each worshipper responds according to his capacity. As the severely subnormal person offers himself to God with his own simplicity and sincerity… there is available to him that growth in holiness which comes by grace in the Christian life, and the means of grace are for him as well as for others.’ The report was debated in the Church Assembly, after the bishop of Portsmouth, himself the uncle of a disabled child, had persisted for over a year in keeping it on the agenda. After a short debate, the Assembly welcomed the report, agreeing that there was a problem to be addressed and that not enough was known about it, but not what ought to be done.
Number Unknown was no work of theology proper, and as such it is not straightforward to uncover the roots of its thinking, other than in the general resources of the Anglican approach to the sacraments. Theologians have (more recently) attended to older writers as precursory and foundational to the more recent theology of disability, notably Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but although these writers enjoyed something of a vogue in the post-war years, it was not for this purpose that they were used. The period from the late 60s until the early 1980s saw a rather pragmatic Anglican approach gradually become hedged about by more substantive theological work on disability done elsewhere. In France, Jean Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in 1964, and his writings on theology and learning disability began to be published in the early 1970s, although not immediately in the UK. In the USA, Stanley Hauerwas’ two most significant works on disability – Responsibility for Devalued Persons and Suffering Presence – did not appear until 1982 and 1986 respectively.
More important in catalysing Anglican engagement with disabled people was their increased visibility. Due in part to the Mental Health Act 1959 there was a gradual move (though still not complete by the 1980s) in public policy away from institutional living towards what became known later as ‘care in the community’. The churches were gradually confronted, therefore, with greater numbers of the disabled living in their parishes, and so a practical response became more and more necessary. But the Church still also had a role to play in the formation of the law. In 1970 a private member’s bill became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, which imposed additional duties on local authorities to ascertain and meet the needs in their area. Briefed by the Board of Social Responsibility, the bishop of Bath and Wells, Edward Henderson, intervened in the House of Lords to ask for independent representation of the interests of those with learning disabilities who were unable to press their own case.
Period Three: the 1970s
My third period is the 1970s, during which there was a general quickening of activity within the Church of England: piecemeal, in places exploratory, and without yet significant additional theological work – but substantial nonetheless. The more public and ceremonial work that archbishops often have to do continued: Donald Coggan took over from Ramsey as president of MENCAP, and Runcie followed suit. There was experimentation with new forms of worship, notably amongst the group of chaplains in the remaining hospitals; more concretely the diocese of London was in the early 1980s beginning to discuss deploying an ordained man specifically to minister to the disabled, the first venture of its kind of which I am aware.
There was also a growing international and ecumenical context: Partners in Life, a 1979 report from the World Council of Churches had English representation in the shape of Leslie Newbigin, by then retired from the Church of South India to the UK. The International Year for Disabled People in 1981 (with which I began) had an ecumenical committee overseeing matters to do with the religious life, chaired by a Roman Catholic. By the time Robert Runcie chose to publicly support the Year, the Church of England had moved from being a watcher, a relatively passive recipient of knowledge from the secular professions, to an institution that realised the moral imperative of responding to the challenge learning disability posed, both in its own life and in calling the state to its duty. Even if much of the heavy theological lifting remained to be done, the Church was in its characteristically pragmatic way doing what it could.
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.
From time to time a quotation appears online, attributed to C.S. Lewis though in fact a bad paraphrase of him, that sums up the central tension between the churches and the arts in the last century: “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature”. This is a shortened version of an essay on one such case, which appeared a little while ago in Barber, Taylor and Sewell (eds), From the Reformation to the Permissive Society (Church of England Record Society). Read the full text here (PDF).
In the summer of 1943, William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the novelist and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers, with an offer of the honorary Lambeth doctorate of divinity. Sayers was to turn down the offer, but the exchange is revealing of the tensions in the relationship between the arts (and artists) and the Church of England.
1937 saw the production of Sayers’ first attempt at religious drama, The Zeal of Thy House. The play was successful, and marked a new phase. Despite her later protestation that she had never intended to become embroiled in apologetics, or to ‘bear witness for Christ’, Sayers’ correspondence gradually became swollen with invitations from clergy and laity to write or speak on religious matters.
Temple’s offer of the Lambeth D.D. was in recognition of two works in particular: the series of radio plays The Man Born to be King, and the earlier book The Mind of the Maker. Published in 1941, The Mind of the Maker is Sayers’ most enduring work of theology proper. Temple described it as ‘a really original approach to the doctrine of the Trinity, of great theological and apologetic value.’ It contains an extended analogy between the work of the Trinity and human creativity, and the highest possible doctrine of the status of work. Sayers also made some very trenchant claims for the independence of the artist and the importance of works of art in and of themselves; views which were in part behind her decision to refuse the Lambeth degree.
If The Mind of the Maker was quietly successful, The Man Born to be King was a sensation, as the plays were broadcast by the BBC at monthly intervals in 1941 and 1942. As James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting, put it ‘these plays have done more for the preaching of the Gospel to the unconverted than any other single effort of the churches or religious broadcasting since the last war’.
Sayers’s first reaction to Temple’s offer was non-committal. Whilst honoured, and recognizing that the degree was not a ‘certificate of sanctity’, she doubted whether she was enough of a ‘convincing Christian’, and not simply ‘in love with an intellectual pattern.’ As she told Temple’s own ‘Malvern Conference’ in 1941, her feelings on treating any question relating to the church were of embarrassment, since ‘I am never quite sure how to identify it or whether, in anything but a technical sense, I feel myself to belong to it.’ As she put it to Temple, part of her was perhaps trying to preserve a ‘bolt-hole’; an insurance against an irrevocable public step of personal commitment.
Sayers also made the point that as a mere ‘common novelist and playwright’, she could not guarantee in the future to abstain from writing ‘secular, frivolous or unbecoming’ work, full of the language of the ‘rude soldiery’ or descriptive of the less respectable passions; ‘I shouldn’t like your first woman D.D. to create scandal, or give reviewers cause to blaspheme.’ It seems probable, however, that behind the apparent levity was a fear, of which Temple could not have known, of the possible disclosure of details of Sayers’ private life. Sayers’ biographer James Brabazon has suggested that the one doctrine of the church with which Sayers was in emotional engagement was that of sin, and in her case, the consciousness of her marriage to a divorced man. Even more delicate was the matter, known only to her and a handful of others, of her illegitimate son, John Anthony, born in 1924 and being raised by Sayers’ cousin.
Temple was not however deterred, and after a request for more time, Sayers refused, making two main points which shed much light on the position of both the Christian apologist and the Christian artist in relation to the institution of the church in this period.
The first concerns the dangers of too close an association between the apologist and the Church. Almost from the beginning of Sayers involvement as an apologist, her letters show a persistent sense that both the amount and the profile of such involvement ought carefully to be controlled, lest its effectiveness be blunted. By December 1942, however, it had become clear to her that, despite her best efforts, she had already come to be viewed as ‘one of the old gang, whose voice can be heard from every missionary platform’; it was therefore time to withdraw somewhat. The status of outsider was necessary in the ‘present peculiar state of public opinion’, in order to avoid becoming, in the phrase of the Daily Herald, ‘“the pet of the bishops”’.
Sayers’s second point in this final letter – her fear of ‘a sort of interior inhibition in the handling of secular work’, here phrased very gently, was part of a much more robust view of the independence of the artist, and of the record of the church’s patronage of the arts up to that point. The Mind of the Maker contained a gentle insistence on the artist’s duty to protect, as it were, the interests of their creature. Writing about editorial intervention in The Man born to be King, she wrote:
… the writer’s duty to God is his duty to the work, and… he may not submit to any dictate of authority which he does not sincerely believe to be for the good of the work. He may not do it for money, or for reputation, or for edification… or for any consideration whatever. … The writer is about his Father’s business, and it does not matter who is inconvenienced or how much he has to hate his father and mother. To be false to his work is to be false to the truth: “All the truth of the craftsman is in his craft.”
Such a high view of the duty of the artist to God and to his or her work makes particular sense when considered alongside Sayers’ view of the current relationship between the church and the arts. The church was widely associated, in her view, with ‘artistic frivolity and intellectual dishonesty.’ It had seemed unable to grasp that ‘the divine Beauty is sovereign within His own dominion; and that if a statue is ill-carved or a play ill-written, the artist’s corruption is deeper than if the statue were obscene and the play blasphemous.’ What was necessary was ‘a decent humility before the artist’, and an absolute insistence that a work of art must be good in itself, before it could possibly be good religious art. Sayers, in common with several of her contemporaries in the arts, suspected the church of an inadequate understanding of the absolute necessity of beauty.
But what, exactly, did Temple think he was trying to honour? Welch’s initial suggestion was clearly that it was as the author of The Man Born to be King, a ‘work of Christian evangelism’ that Sayers might be offered the degree. Temple agreed that the plays were ‘one of the most powerful instruments in evangelism which the Church has had put into its hands for a long time past’; the ‘most effective piece of evangelistic work, in my judgment, done in our generation,’ Oliver Quick, regius professor of divinity at Oxford, had though that C.S. Lewis might also be offered a degree: ‘They are the two people who seem really able to put across to ordinary people a reasonably orthodox form of Christianity.’ Conspicuously absent was any broader sense of the plays being honoured as plays.
It was, however, precisely this (apparently) instrumental view of the arts that so exercised Sayers. The commissioning practice of ‘asking writers to produce stories and plays to illustrate certain doctrine or church activities’ showed how little such ‘pious officials’ understood of the mind of the artist. In these productions doctrine was not allowed to emerge spontaneously from the inherent dynamic of a story; instead, action and characters were inevitably distorted for the sake of the doctrine that was to be expounded, with disastrous consequences. As Sayers told the Malvern conference, the Church was thus guilty of fostering corruption ‘by condoning and approving a thing artistically vicious provided that it conforms to moral sentiment.’
Sayers’ view of the church was probably too negative. Both Temple and Quick held much more developed views on the relationship between theology, the church and the arts than the tone of their letters would suggest; George Bell, bishop of Chichester (who Sayers knew) was more than ready to defend the autonomy of the artist against others within the church when required. However, even if Sayers were aware of this, the accumulated record of the wider church in its actual patronage (as opposed to theological writing) meant that the balance was still negative. Temple’s desire was sincere, and his approach the only way in which, under the pressures of war-time, he could conceive to use the limited institutional tools at his disposal. The whole exchange remains an highly revealing episode in the relationship between the Church and the arts.
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.