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.

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.