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.

Journal of Ecclesiastical History reviews Archbishop Ramsey

A few weeks late, I notice a review of my book on Michael Ramsey in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, by Jeremy Bonner. I’m very pleased to have another positive review to add to those in the TLS, Church Times and Reviews in History.

Jeremy writes:

‘With recent new biographies of Rowan Williams, Cosmo Lang and Geoffrey Fisher, archiepiscopal biography has become something of a cottage industry, but Peter Webster’s treatment of the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury does not disappoint.Ramsey - cover

‘[…] Rather than a strict biography, Archbishop Ramsey offers an assessment of both the man and the office against the backdrop of an era marked by growing disaffection both from the idea of religious establishment and from organized religion more generally. It is in Ramsey’s pronouncements that we see an early Anglican attempt formally to define a post-Christendom model for the atrophied Anglican establishment that he inherited. Such a model, while fully comprehensible to most other churches of the Anglican Communion, came as a shock to those who still thought of the Church of England as a bastion of moral – if not social – order. It earned Ramsey considerable opprobrium from a wide variety of persons both within and outside the Church, even as it proclaimed a fundamentally catholic vision of the Church as the Body of Christ. [… ] Webster opens a window on an eventful primacy.

New resources in Lambeth Palace Library

In what has become a traditional annual post, here are some highlights from the Lambeth Palace Library annual review, just published.

For those interested in modern ecumenical history, recently catalogued are the files from the Church of England’s Council for Foreign Relations relating to Roman Catholic national churches in several European countries, including Austria, Belgium and France. A recent accession (but not yet catalogued) are the records of the Nikaean Club, set up by Archbishop Davidson in 1925 to promote ecumenical relations.

Two other things also caught my eye in particular. Papers relating to Terry Waite, Robert Runcie’s special envoy to the Middle East who spent five years in captivity after being kidnapped in Beirut in 1987, are now available. Most intriguing are the papers of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, which issued in the controversial Faith in the City report in 1985, also now catalogued and available.

Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Oxford, June 9th

Details of a lecture I shall give next week:

Title: Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008

Date: Thursday, 9th June, 1pm
Venue: Weston Library Lecture Theatre, University of Oxford
Booking details: booking is advisable but not essential. It’s free.

Abstract: The decade following the turn of the millennium may have seen an epochal shift in the nature of the discussion of religion in public life in the UK. The 9/11 attacks in the USA, and the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 prompted an outpouring of anxiety concerning the place of Islam in British society. The period also saw the coming to prominence of the ‘New Atheism’ associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The uniquely privileged position of Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, was also under greater scrutiny than had been the case for decades.

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

This paper examines a crucial episode of public controversy closely connected to each of these trends: a lecture given in 2008 by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the accommodation of Islamic sharia law into British law. Using archived web content from the UK Web Archive, held by the British Library, it examines the controversy as it played out on the UK web. It argues that the episode prompted a step-change in both the levels of attention paid to the archbishop’s web domain, and a broadening of the types of organisation which took notice of him. At the same time, it also suggests that the historic media habit of privileging the public statements of the archbishop over those of any other British faith leader was extended onto the web.

The paper uses techniques of both close and distant reading: on the one hand, aggregate link analysis of the whole .uk web domain, and on the other hand, micro analysis of individual domains and pages. In doing so, it demonstrates some of the various ways in which contemporary historians will very soon need to use the archived web to address older questions in a new way, in a new context of super-abundant data.

On the relationship between Christian biographer and subject

Bernard Crick, in his biography of George Orwell, thought that the task of the biographer required ‘a prolonged and strange mixture of love and critical distance, of commitment and restraint.’ (George Orwell. A life, p.xxx ) In the last couple of years I’ve published one book about a leading catholic member (and indeed archbishop) of the Church of England in the post-war period, and am deep into the writing of another one. Michael Ramsey retired as archbishop of Canterbury in 1974; Walter Hussey retired as dean of Chichester in 1977. And I recently fell to reflecting on the differences between the two projects, and what one might call my relationship with my two subjects.

The quality of the biographer’s relationship with his subject is different to that of the author writing on a theme or an event. The engagement is somehow more personal, and I think that applies even if the book is more concerned with a career than with a whole life, as mine are. At base one is concerned to assess the doings of a single human being, and so it is difficult (if not indeed impossible) to avoid making judgements on the subject’s success or failure. And even once one allows for their imperfect information, their being a creature of their environment,, there is still a space for judgement of their inherent capabilities, strengths, faults and weaknesses. And it is here that a degree of personal affinity (or lack of it) begins to enter the equation.

After having lived with Ramsey for a period of years, and having tried to assess his work in its totality, I came to admire the man. Why ? It is in part because there is a consistency of motive and aim that can be discerned across his actions, and (quite importantly) that motive appeals to me as a Christian. Ramsey was to his core a worshipper of Christ, and a witness for the Gospel, and that informed everything from his patronage of the Royal School of Church Music to his interventions about immigration or capital punishment.

Things are different with Walter Hussey, however. Hussey was a key figure in Anglican patronage of the arts, with a remarkable series of commissions to his name and who emboldened many others to do the same. By and large I am much in sympathy with that aim. However, I don’t think it a central concern of the churches at all times and all places; or at least, I cannot give the religious arts the kind of central place that Hussey evidently did. And, as I shall argue in the book, there is considerable evidence that, as a result, Hussey neglected other and arguably more important parts of his role as dean of Chichester. To be frank, there is also a queasiness induced in me by the rather fawning attention Hussey seems to paid to all “top people”, not just artists and musicians. There have been times where I been frustrated, irritated or bored by him, in a way that I never found with Michael Ramsey.

Most readers will be familiar with more than one example of life writing where the love and commitment to one’s subject to which Crick referred spills over into something more closely approaching hagiography. Less common is the spectacular falling out of love that is evident in one biography of the novelist Anthony Burgess: a project that began as an exercise in literary fandom but became (for one reviewer) a “poison-pen letter” marked by a “kind of petulant, triumphal vindictiveness.” What would it mean if biographers were to think of their task in terms of a sense of relationship with their subject: a relationship that involved a commitment, that incurred responsibilities? As historian of religion John Fea noted recently on Twitter, “people in the past are defenceless. They are at the mercy of the historian. We must be careful about how we use such power.”

At this point there are some resources in the Christian tradition. Rowan Williams, in his splendid little book Why study the past? makes the point that both the Christian historian and those Christians whom (s)he studies are caught in a ‘network of relations, organised around the pivotal relation with Jesus and his relation with God, into which Christians are inducted’ (p.29): in other words, we are both members of the Body of Christ. As such, the Christian historian has just the same relationship with a Christian in sixteenth century Germany as with one in present-day Africa or London. This would suggest that the historian has the same responsibility to Christians of previous ages as we would more easily recognise as existing with Christians living. And, if I am frustrated or irritated by my subject, then I must work at that relationship, as it were, just as much as with a living person.

If this seems abstruse (and it may), there are further resources with which to think about the issue, that more readily help with historical writing by and about those who are not Christians. We might fruitfully think of the historian’s duty in terms of what is often referred to as the Golden Rule: do as you would be done to. Were the roles to be reversed, and I found myself the subject of a biography, I should be prepared to accept the prospect of my own faults and failings being laid bare, but not that I should be treated unfairly overall. I would want to think that, once I laid aside any defensiveness about my own life and any concern about protecting a reputation, I would be able to accept how my life had been written as a just assessment. This would suggest that we should write history as if our subject was able to read what we write.

Who is religious history for, anyway?

It’s now just over a year since my book on Michael Ramsey was published, and there has been a series of reviews, all of them more or less favourable. Between them, though, they have pointed up quite sharply a question that faces the historian of the contemporary church: for whom, exactly, are we writing? Consider this passage, from Sam Brewitt-Taylor in Reviews in History:

‘It seems worth stating at the outset that, from a historian’s point of view, The Shape of the Church’s evaluative focus does not seem very fruitful. As Webster fully recognises, evaluation is closely dependent on whichever partisan criteria the historian might happen to be using (p. 133), and readers will accept or dismiss such evaluations depending on whether they like the criteria or not.(2) Webster takes the only sensible way out of this problem, which is to organise his book’s concluding historiographical summary by political and theological outlook, distinguishing between radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary views of Ramsey (pp. 135–6). Yet since these distinctions are primarily about morality, and only secondarily about Ramsey, it would have been preferable to have transcended such debates by using a more historically-grounded framing question. As it was, the evaluative focus took up space which might otherwise have allowed Webster’s unique expertise to engage at length with the strictly historical questions surrounding Ramsey’s tenure.’
Ramsey - cover
I would accept entirely that this is a legitimate criticism to make from the point of view of the academic study of history. But the irony is that, amongst another section of the readership of the book, it is precisely this evaluation that is required. The questions are asked: was Ramsey right or wrong to have done something, or not to have done something? Is the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican church, and indeed Britain as a whole, in a better or worse position now as a result of his actions and omissions? What might the contemporary churches learn from his experience? These are different questions, to be sure, but they are certainly questions that are asked, by those in the churches to whom the current state of British and world Christianity is a matter of real importance.

For evidence of this, see two other reviews: one in the TLS and in particular that in the Church Times, both by senior Anglican clergy. ‘As you read Webster’, wrote Peter Sedgwick in the TLS, “the debates and challenges become contemporary, and you wonder how the Archbishop’s staff will swerve around the next pothole in the road. [The book] has brought [its] in some ways unworldly subject alive in a vivid and well-documented way. It is good to hear Ramsey’s voice again. His vision of a Reformed Catholicism lives on, despite everything [my italics].” Graham James in the Church Times was less sanguine about Ramsey’s legacy, but was in no doubt that it was still felt. Ramsey’s moves to win for the Church of England greater self-governance led to it becoming “increasingly captive to its own internal political factions. Ramsey seems to have been innocent to this possibility…… His grasp of ecclesiastical politics was immeasurably weaker, and his interest even less. We suffer from the consequences still [my italics].” It is also this kind of evaluation that is required by the media, such as this piece of mine commissioned by the religion section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Religion and Ethics). (see the discussion thread, and a similar one on the same article here.)

At base, the book was trying to show that Ramsey had a coherent theological vision of the nature of the church, to which all of his actions can be related. I am also convinced that the model of church-in-relation-to-culture that he offered is a more sustainable one in the conditions of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century west, and that he was ahead of many of his contemporaries in seeing the need for a transition in that direction. Perhaps to make such a statement is to step out of the legitimate territory of the historian, but to write the history of the contemporary church is always to walk that particular line. Such evaluation is what a significant proportion of the readership seems to require. There is a certain irony in that for academic writing to reach those outside the academy in this way might (in some other disciplines) be described as “impact”, an altogether Good Thing.

(For a particularly acute statement of the dilemma, see my review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History, and his response, and also my review of Alister Chapman on John Stott.)

Evangelicalism and the Church of England: a review

It’s very good to see on the Fulcrum site an extended review article of Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, and featuring an article of mine on Michael Ramsey. The reviewer, Andrew Goddard, has some very kind things to say about that piece, which I reproduce below. (There’s an extended summary of the article here.)
Maiden Atherstone - cover
“Evangelicals in the Church of England are often remarkably confused and ignorant about their recent past. The wider church knows even less about who we are and where we come from as evangelicals despite our growing significance at every level of the church. Often as evangelicals we tell each other a story which fits our particular form of evangelicalism and fails to recognize the complexity and diversity. This volume, the fruit of a conference at Wycliffe Hall, is a wonderful (if sadly expensive) resource which ably rectifies such failings. After a fascinating introductory essay by the editors it presents ten papers from scholarly experts who both distil their previous work and offer new insights and material.
“Peter Webster focusses on the varied evangelical responses to Michael Ramsey, on whose archepiscopate he has recently published a significant study. One of his most interesting arguments is to challenge “a common conservative evangelical self-image, of a remnant in a hostile church which sought systematically to exclude them, with little alternative than to contend vigorously for truth” (182). In reading this chapter it was impossible not to think of what had changed and what was similar roughly forty years later in evangelical responses to an Archbishop very similar to Ramsey – Rowan Williams – and what lessons we still need to learn as evangelicals in relation to non-evangelical bishops and Archbishops.
“A constant theme [of the whole volume] is the diversity and sometimes consequent divisions and tensions among self-identified evangelicals revealing a history where “the ability of evangelicals to co-exist should not be overstated, but neither should it be overlooked” (38). Its various accounts raise the question as to whether we need to escape the myth of a golden age where we were all in broad agreement with one another (with the supposedly crucial role of John Stott in securing this consensus) and instead learn the importance of recognizing that last century there were a number of leading evangelical figures (most of them now forgotten to us) and various places of meeting across different groupings that now need to be re-created in order to share in fellowship, discussion and discernment.

“We will undoubtedly face the future better as evangelicals in the Church of England if we know our past – including our recent past – better and so overcome ignorance and misleading, sometimes polemical and self-justifying, narratives. This collection of papers is an indispensable guide which enables us to do just that.