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?

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.

Church Times review of Archbishop Ramsey

Ramsey - coverPerhaps not surprisingly, the first review of my book on Michael Ramsey comes from the Church Times, in the issue of 31 July. The reviewer is Graham James, bishop of Norwich, to whom my thanks are due. Read the full review (PDF).

As is the case with most reviews, James points out a factual error, where I have indeed misnamed a theological college (or rather, applied a later name change to an earlier period). I rather think that if this was my worst mistake, I should think I had done quite well. More interesting are some points of interpretation of subsequent Anglican history, which I mention here.

James quite rightly notes a mismatch between the memoirs of archbishops and those of the politicians with whom they interacted, where evidence of influence is as absent in the latter as it is present in the former. He asks whether this is self-delusion on the part of ecclesiastics, or an attempt to downplay influence on the part of politicians, in memoirs often written at a later point in time. I suspect the answer is something of both.

One of the central burdens of the book is that, as Ramsey sought and gained greater autonomy from the state while overseeing the emptying of the moral law of its Christian content, there opened up a space and an opportunity for the Church of England to discover a more prophetic role for itself, speaking the truth to power from a greater distance. James, I think correctly, notes that “it has never emerged, except, perhaps, in the Runcie years under an archbishop rather at home with the Establishment.” There remains a whole new research project into why the Church of England didn’t grasp the opportunity.

James also suggests that one of the results of the greater autonomy of the church to make its own decisions was that “the Church of England became 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.”  Certainly the General Synod can be partisan, as more recent transactions such as those over the ordination of women bishops show. But so could the Church Assembly be that preceded the Synod, and a great deal less efficient with it. One would hope that no-one would seriously now argue that the Church of England needs Parliament to help mediate when it can’t make up its own mind (which is what this view seems to me to imply.) If there is partisanship, it isn’t the fault of the Synod as an apparatus, but is about people and culture and an endemic lack of trust between members of the same church. I don’t think Ramsey could have done much to change that, at least.


Christianity and Religious Plurality: Studies in Church History 51

A recent arrival on the doormat was the latest volume of Studies in Church History, being papers mostly from the Ecclesiastical History Society’s conference in Chichester in 2013. Given the theme of religious plurality, there are rich pickings for scholars of the twentieth century, which isn’t always the case with Studies.

In no particular order, some of the papers of particular interest are:

  • John Wolffe’s presidential address to the conference on the Christian response to religious minorities in London since 1800;
  • Marion Bowman on plurality and vernacular religion in early twentieth century Glastonbury;
  • Martin Wellings on James Hope Moulton’s 1913 book Religions and Religion;
  • Stuart Mews on a Christian-Hindu encounter in the University of London (1909-17);
  • John Maiden on a fascinating contested church building redundancy in Bedford in 1977-8; and
  • my own paper on Michael Ramsey and his encounter with other faiths (of which there is an extended summary).

As well as these, there are papers on twentieth century Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon and Jerusalem, as well as on the Chaldean Catholic Church in modern Iraq.


Understanding the web of faith: forthcoming book chapter

I’m very pleased to say that an essay of mine has been accepted for a forthcoming volume: The Web as History: the first two decades. It is edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder, and will appear Open Access with UCL Press in 2016.

Here’s my abstract:

‘Much of the discourse that historians of contemporary religion until recently tracked in correspondence, periodical publication and print ephemera has migrated online. But the task of understanding religious discourse in the UK web space has hardly begun. The task is hard to undertake at the highest level since there are no second-level domains that serve as useful units of analysis — there is no faith.uk to match nhs.uk or ac.uk.

‘This chapter represents a first step towards understanding the evolution of the UK religious web space, by means of two interrelated case studies, which between them point to the agenda and content of a larger research project. Both studies utilise the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset for the period 1996-2008, as held by the British Library.

‘Firstly, it will examine the web archive footprint left by the public controversy in 2008 over the comments made by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the matter of sharia law. Using both the link graph and a direct qualitative analysis of archived content, it will explore both the shape and the content of the controversy and show the degree to which religious debate had not only migrated from print to the web, but in doing so had engaged different actors and lost others, and changed in its tone.

‘Secondly, it will consider the growing tension in religious discourse between faith groups and organisations with a secularist agenda. Again, using the link graph and some qualitative analysis, it will explore the patterns in which linkages grew and shifted between the web estates of key but opposed organisations in relation to issues including faith schools and creationism, the reform of the law on blasphemy, and the place of the bishops in the House of Lords.

Editing Michael Ramsey’s writings

The second half of this book on Archbishop Michael Ramsey consists of a selection of edited sources. As I now have a full first draft of these, I thought I’d publish the list here.

There may yet be some changes to this, with some of the sources listed making way for others. Comments on the selection are very welcome.

Apart from the speeches to the House of Lords, all of these are edited afresh from unpublished items in the Ramsey Papers at Lambeth Palace Library. I would be happy to supply readers with the full reference(s) on request.

Date Subject Type
1961 To Bishops’ Meeting on liturgical revision Memo
1961 Speech to a Congress on Public Morality Address
1962 Letter to parliamentarians on liturgical reform Letter
1962 On the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill Parliament
1963 At Lambeth Palace requiem for Pope John Address
1963 To Mervyn Stockwood on Honest to God Letter
1963 To the bishops on Honest to God Letter
1963 To Mervyn Stockwood on Honest to God Letter
1963 To a parish priest, on Honest to God Letter
1963 To Convocation on the Anglican Congress in Toronto Address
1964 Rapprochement of Orthodox & Anglican churches Sermon
1965 To the Prime Minister on the Church and State Commission Letter
1965 On abolition of the death penalty Parliament
1965 On the Sexual Offences Bill Parliament
1965 Magna Carta Service Sermon
1965 On Southern Rhodesia Parliament
1966 On the canonisation of the English RC martyrs Memo
1966 To Oliver Tomkins on Anglican-Roman Catholic relations Letter
1966 To E.L. Mascall on Rome Letter
1966 To Chad Varah on sex Letter
1967 On the meeting with Cardinal Suenens at Lambeth Memo
1967 On the commencement of Human Rights Year Sermon
1968 To Margaret Deanesly on Anglican-Methodist unity Letter
1968 On reform of the House of Lords Parliament
1968 On the admission of Kenyan Asians Parliament
1968 On the Race Relations Bill Parliament
1968 At the opening of the Lambeth Conference Sermon
1969 To David L. Edwards on Anglican-Methodist unity Letter
1969 To Eric Kemp on Anglican-Methodist unity Letter
1969 Foreword to pamphlet introducing the new General Synod Publication
1969 At a quincentenary commemoration of Guru Nanak Address
1971 On Northern Ireland Parliament
1972 Prayer for Ireland: Westminster Cathedral Sermon
1974 On the Worship and Doctrine Measure Parliament
1974 Farewell Sermon Sermon
1982 British Council of Churches: 40th Anniversary Service Sermon

Reading old news in the web archive, distantly

One of the defining moments of Rowan Williams’ time as archbishop of Canterbury was the public reaction to his lecture in February 2008 on the interaction between English family law and Islamic shari’a law. As well as focussing attention on real and persistent issues of the interaction of secular law and religious practice, it also prompted much comment on the place of the Church of England in public life, the role of the archbishop, and on Williams personally. I tried to record a sample of the discussion in an earlier post.

Of course, a great deal of the media firestorm happened online. I want to take the episode as an example of the types of analysis that the systematic archiving of the web now makes possible: a new kind of what Franco Moretti called ‘distant reading.’

The British Library holds a copy of the holdings of the Internet Archive for the .uk top level domain for the period 1996-2010. One of the secondary datasets that the Library has made available is the Host Link Graph. With this data, it’s possible to begin examining how different parts of the UK web space referred to others. Which hosts linked to others, and from when until when ?

This graph shows the total number of unique hosts that were found linking at least once to archbishopofcanterbury.org in each year.

Canterbury unique linking hosts - bar

My hypothesis was that there should be more unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site after February 2008, which is by and large borne out. The figure for 2008 is nearly 50% higher than for the previous year, and nearly 25% higher than the previous peak in 2004. This would suggest that a significant number of hosts that had not previously linked to the Canterbury site did so in 2008, quite possibly in reaction to the shari’a story.

What I had not expected to see was the total number fall back to trend in 2009 and 2010. I had rather expected to see the absolute numbers rise in 2008 and then stay at similar levels – that is, to see the links persist. The drop suggests that either large numbers of sites were revised to remove links that were thought to be ‘ephemeral’ (that is to say, actively removed), or that there is a more general effect in that certain types of “news” content are not (in web archivist terms) self-archiving. [Update 02/07/2014 – see comment below ]

The next step is for me to look in detail at those domains that linked only once to Canterbury, in 2008, and to examine these questions in a more qualitative way. Here then is distant reading leading to close reading.

You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space, as when unzipped the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop’s site. My poor old laptop spent a whole night running through the dataset and extracting all the instances of the string “archbishopofcanterbury.org”.

Then I looked at the total numbers of unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site in each year. In order to do so, I:

(i) stripped out those results which were outward links from a small number of captures of the archbishop’s site itself.

(ii) allowed for the occasions when the IA had captured the same host twice in a single year (which does not occur consistently from year to year.)

(iii) did not aggregate results for hosts that were part of a larger domain. This would have been easy to spot in the case of the larger media organisations such as the Guardian, which has multiple hosts (society,guardian.co.uk, education.guardian.co.uk, etc.) However, it is much harder to do reliably for all such cases without examining individual archived instances, which was not possible at this scale.


(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to the Canterbury site than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.