Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

On structuring a book

Another review of my book on Michael Ramsey appears this week, this time from Keith Robbins in the English Historical Review. It is of course a pleasure to have a review from a senior scholar such as Professor Robbins, and in a leading generalist journal such as the EHR. Robbins concludes that it is a ‘well-balanced survey’, but otherwise has few substantive criticisms to make, positive or negative.

There is one, however, which merits some further discussion here. Robbins writes:

The drawback [of the book’s thematic structure] is that it is difficult to form a sense of how, year on year, each of these topics related to each other in terms of Ramsey’s ordering of their importance and his attention. It is convenient for historians to write about ‘the state’ and ‘the nation’ in different chapters, but so many questions flow across boundaries that their separate treatment seems a little artificial.

Most historians writing a book, I suspect, will have faced the choice between adopting either a chronological structure or a thematic one. My forthcoming book on Walter Hussey adopts a hybrid method: a broadly chronological structure, with some extended analyses of contextual themes interspersed. The adoption of either approach entails gains and losses, as Robbins states. With Hussey, the chronological structure works (I think) because the story has one track: a succession of commissions of works of art for his churches.

In Ramsey’s case, there is no single narrative thread, but several that progress side by side during his time as archbishop. There are points of contact between them, to be sure, which both introduction and conclusion were intended to draw out, perhaps unsuccessfully. But year by year there is not the kind of clustering of attention that Robbins suggests there might be. Instead, there are multiple threads of political, ecumenical and legal development, each of which moves according to its own internal dynamics: fast and slow; some recently arisen and others of very long standing; bursts of activity and long pauses. If one were to order Ramsey’s career as a sequence of events, one would see legislative moves in Parliament, political events overseas, sessions of the Church Assembly, interactions with the media, meetings with the other churches, sometimes in the same week or indeed the same day. Ramsey seems to have been adept at putting disparate matters in their separate boxes in order that they might be dealt with on their own terms. But the day to day experience of the archbishop was one of a rapid succession of highly disparate matters.

Sometimes Ramsey acted on his own initiative in response to events, such as the crises in Southern Rhodesia or Vietnam. In Parliament, sometimes he was able to initiate, and at other terms react, and to try to influence. The process of internal change in the Church is one of commissions, working groups, reports, and the to-and-fro between archbishop, bishops and the periodic deliberations of the Church Assembly or General Synod. Ecumenical change was necessarily a process of both initiative and reaction in relation to other churches at home and abroad. Part of the experience of being archbishop that I wanted to show was the imbalance between the power that he was supposed by many to wield, and the reality of the constraints under which he in fact operated. His power to initiate was considerable, but at the same time more limited than many thought.

The structure of the book was an attempt to isolate some key themes in order that they might be analysed. It may well be possible to achieve the same analytic end in a more chronological way; but it would have required a better writer than me. More pragmatically, the structure of the book more closely serves the needs of most of the readers it may attract. As an author, one might fondly imagine that every reader will want to savour every page of the book, but the majority will come to it in search of material on a particular issue, as Robbins acknowledges. I had no wish to force those readers to work with the index to hew that material out.

The Church, law, and politics, 1958–1974

I’m delighted to be able to say that an article of mine is to be part of a volume now under contract with Boydell and Brewer. Edited by Thomas Rodger and Philip Williamson, it has the title Church and State. The Church of England and British politics in the twentieth century, and should be published in 2019.


The ‘Long Sixties’ (1958-74) saw a series of changes in the relationship between the Church of England and the law: some spectacular, others rather less so. Most prominent was the series of reforms in the ‘moral law’, such as in relation to divorce, abortion, capital punishment and male homosexuality. Valuable work has been done on these episodes as they implicated the Church of England, such as that by Matthew Grimley on the Sexual Offences Act 1967. However, the focus of this scholarship on particular issues and episodes has tended to obscure a longer-term and more fundamental shift in the relationship between the established Church and the law at large, of which these spectacular moments were but component parts.

This paper surveys these changes in the moral law, but also the longer-range renegotiation of the relationship between the Church, Parliament and the law that was instigated shortly after the Second World War by archbishop Fisher in pursuit of a reformed code of canon law. This process culminated in the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974, under which the Church gained the power to settle its own doctrine and practice of worship without recourse to Parliament, thus removing one of the key causes of tension in earlier periods. This raft of reforms, small and large, touched upon almost every aspect of the Church’s life, internal and external – the relationship with Parliament, the representation of the voice of the laity, the ordering of worship, the settlement of doctrine, the discipline of clergy, the organisation of parishes and the finances of the Church as a whole.

Examining all these changes in aggregate, and the various debates within and outside the Church that they provoked, the chapter will argue that when taken together they constitute a significant widening of the gap between established church and state. The process also coincided (and interacted) with a profound reconsideration among some within the Church of its right relation with the other Christian churches and with the nation as a whole. Some, notably Michael Ramsey, saw an opportunity for the Church to take a more detached and prophetic role as the distance between Church and State widened. That the opportunity was not taken in later years is the subject for a different study.

Michael Ramsey for the contemporary church: a bishop’s view

I blogged recently about the limits of the responsibility of the historian to work out the theological and ethical implications of recent history for the contemporary church. It was inspired by a disagreement between reviewers of my book on archbishop Michael Ramsey over what contemporary history should be for, and whose purposes it should serve.Ramsey - cover

Now there appears a review of the book from a bishop of the Anglican church (although not the first) which does some of just that work – of applying the book’s conclusions to the contemporary church in the USA and worldwide. It is from R. William Franklin, bishop of Western New York, published in the fall 2016 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I have little to quibble with over Bishop Franklin’s gloss on the book, and so I quote some of it here. It is also pleasing that he thinks the book a ‘welcome contribution to scholarship …. a valued alternative interpretation’ and the account of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme ‘masterful’.

For Franklin, Ramsey achieved a synthesis of the sacramentalism of Pusey, the scripturalism of Barth and the socialism of F.D. Maurice in order to ‘define the fundamental shape of the Church as an institution that exists solely to proclaim Christ, and in doing so, to bring about human reconciliation.’ Only a few reviewers so far have focussed on this insight, which (in my mind, at least) was the burden of the whole book. Franklin then goes on to draw out a practical programme:

(i) ‘in mission, to focus on a re-evangelization of the nation;

(ii) ‘in preaching, to give people hope by focussing on the great shape of things to come;

(iii) ‘in ecumenism, to focus on local achievement’

(iv) ‘in liturgical reform, to focus on accessible communication’.

Bishop Franklin connects this programme very directly with the Jesus Movement, outlined by the present presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, which is an intriguing thought. For Franklin, the Anglican church in the USA is in the same process as Ramsey’s Church of England: as I put it, ‘redefining itself, and being redefined, as an increasingly gathered body, learning to act prophetically, to sing the Lord’s song in an increasingly strange land (p.139)

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?

Review of Michael Ramsey book in Theology

Another review of my Michael Ramsey book hit the streets this month, in the journal Theology. For historians who don’t know the theological literature, Theology is one of the foremost general theology periodicals, analogous perhaps to the Journal of Ecclesiastical History for church historians (see the JEH review by Jeremy Bonner).

The review is by Robin Gill, formerly Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, now professor emeritus in the same, and co-editor of the first significant set of essays assessing Ramsey’s theology, published in 1995. He is also editor of Theology.
Ramsey - cover
Readers without access to the journal will need to pay an astonishing $36 to download a copy – more than the book itself costs in paperback. So, I record some of the highlights. One of the book’s strengths is that it:

adds considerable nuance to the ‘liberal’ positions that Ramsey took on issues such as capital punishment, homosexuality, abortion, divorce and apartheid. What emerges is that Michael Ramsey, despite his other worldly holiness (and, Webster suggests fleetingly, being somewhere on the autistic spectrum), showed clearly through his personal correspondence that he was well aware of competing positions and passions. He was truly a ‘leader’ – one prepared to take a position on contentious moral issues – in a manner that few other Archbishops since William Temple have matched. Despite his critics he was arguably no pawn of the ‘liberal establishment’ of the 1960s.

My sense that Michael Ramsey may well have been autistic has been noted by more than one reviewer. There was not space to expand the thought in the book, but it is explored here.

The reviewer identifies a couple of gaps. First is the influence of the moral theologian Gordon Dunstan, whom the book does not mention. I take this point but add that the book does engage at some length with the report on divorce law reform that Dunstan helped created, Putting Asunder, and much of the thinking on moral theology more generally within the Church of England at the time.

Professor Gill also takes me to task for following too closely the argument of Callum Brown and Hugh McLeod in:

seeing the 1960s as the time of a radical shift of power/influence away from the Church of England and the decisive moment in its numerical decline. But in the process he (and especially Brown) underplays the changes and decline a century earlier that Chadwick analysed so expertly. It is all too easy to dramatize the 1960s and to ignore the traumas of the mid-nineteenth-century Church of England.

To this one would only reply that the book is about the 1960s, and so is hardly the place for an assessment of the whole secularisation story. In any case, I would stand by the argument that the 1960s were indeed a crucial tipping point, but would say that to argue so need not in itself deny the proper significance of the nineteenth century.

All in all, however, Professor Gill concludes:

Yet, despite the gaps, this is a book to relish. For all Michael Ramsey fans this is a must-buy.

This I can accept without cavil or demur. Get your copies now for Christmas.

Michael Ramsey, immigration and obligation in the Sixties

As Britain’s place in the world and its relations with its neighbours are in question after the EU referendum, I publish this extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Although it was largely written in 2014, I leave readers to decide whether there are any parallels to be drawn.]

Michael Ramsey was certain that the obligations of the UK to its former subject peoples had not ended with their independence. This legacy of affinities, familial ties, obligation and guilt touched daily life in Britain directly in the form of immigration from the Commonwealth. That immigration began, symbolically at least, with the arrival of the SS Windrush at Tilbury in 1948, but the temperature of debate about its effects and its limits reached a new height in Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The Sixties saw two related series of legislation, one of which dismayed liberal opinion, and a second that pleased it. Beginning with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, Parliament limited for the first time the total number of immigrants to Britain, and subsequently introduced what amounted to a racial qualification for that entry. In parallel, mounting tension in local areas, from west London to the west Midlands, prompted legislation to protect the immigrant population from discrimination once they had reached and settled in the UK.
Ramsey - cover
In the midst of this, Prime Minister Wilson asked Ramsey to chair the new National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, set up by the government to monitor the situation of immigrants in the UK. It was highly politicised work, which saw police protection officers shadowing Ramsey in 1968 after threats were made to his life, and National Front hecklers at a public meeting. The NCCI was for some an unwarranted interference in the rights of Englishmen to discriminate against the outsider as they pleased; while for others including Ramsey it was not half as powerful as it needed to be.

Ramsey spoke out frequently on immigration and community relations, from the beginning of his time at Canterbury until the end. Two principles guided his speaking. As with Rhodesia, Britain had obligations to the peoples of the Commonwealth: promises it had made about the British citizenship they could expect to enjoy. Ramsey had been in India as news of the 1962 Bill had spread, and it had ‘been a great shock and in future years, very likely, history will note it as one of the shocks in the story of our country and Commonwealth.’ Ramsey spoke of ‘this lamentable Bill, this Bill introduced with repugnance, this Bill which is indeed deplorable’: strong words in the context of his dealings with the House of Lords.

The nation also had obligations to those who needed to flee their own country. March 1968 saw the rapid introduction of legislation to restrict the flow of Kenyans of Asian extraction, many of whom had retained British passports, who had been forced out of Kenya by the government of Jomo Kenyatta. Ramsey stayed up late into the night to speak and vote against the Kenyan Asians Bill. The Act left Kenyan Asians with a paper citizenship, without substance when it really mattered, and thus ‘virtually involves this country in breaking its word.’ The nation had during its colonial history ‘by its total action, involved itself in a certain obligation, and … this Bill abrogates that obligation.’

Enoch Powell made what was an almost certainly conscious reference to Ramsey in what has become known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech of 1968. Powell attacked ‘Archbishops who live in palaces, faring delicately, with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads’: they had the matter ‘exactly and diametrically wrong.’ Even if Powell thought restricting the flow of migrants was a humane policy, in the best interests of the immigrant himself, Ramsey was sure it failed on pragmatic grounds. To pull up the drawbridge and to leave a rump of isolated people who felt unwelcome was to create a ‘dangerous ghetto situation’. There was already real tension in local communities, and discrimination in housing, employment and other matters, both overt and covert. Ramsey knew that the new Community Relations Commission, set up in 1968, needed more staff and more money than the NCCI had had, and that the Race Relations Board needed more teeth in enforcement of the law.

There was a second and stronger ground on which to resist the direction of Powell’s thinking, and work towards better relations between communities. There was a small but durable strand of thought amongst some Christians that connected national identity with racial purity, however defined. Ramsey would have none of this; the questions turned on ‘basic Christian beliefs in the equality of man’.  Although it did not contain a racial qualification, Ramsey knew that the 1962 Bill would nonetheless be viewed that way: ‘The news, put very crudely, has travelled about in the form, “Great Britain will admit Irish people without restriction but will restrict immigrants from the West Indies.” The Kenyan Asians Bill contained what had become known as the ‘grandfather clause’, which although technically about geography, was for Ramsey bound to act as a racial distinction, such as white Kenyans would by and large not be restricted but Kenyan Asians would. The clause ‘virtually distinguishes United Kingdom citizens on the score of race’.

Despite the threats made on his own life, Ramsey was still able to take a characteristically long view in the House of Lords: ‘Centuries hence our successors may be astonished at this phase in human history, that there was so much trouble and discussion about the colour of human skin.’ Ramsey was not naïve about the part which questions of race played. As well as the ‘frank colour prejudice which certainly exists’, trouble arose ‘when colour becomes a symbol for things more complex than itself. That, I believe, is part of our contemporary tragedy in this country.’  But there was work to be done, and delicate balances to be struck between competing interests.

There was a further aspect to race relations at home, which Ramsey as traveller and confidant of Anglicans worldwide, saw more clearly than politicians in the UK. There was a worldwide crisis in race relations; it hung in the balance ‘whether in the world as a whole there is to be racial conflict or racial harmony.’ Not least in the Commonwealth, and in southern Africa, populations of different origins thrown together by force of colonial circumstance were faced with the task of working out new ways of living. The Race Relations Bill, through ‘the help which this Bill gives to the building up of good community relations in this country will be a contribution which our country can make to racial harmony in the world at large.’ Ramsey had not lost faith in the role that the British could play on a world stage.