Michael Ramsey and the law on abortion

I usually avoid commenting on the history and politics of the USA, since it is not my specialism. But the news is full of the fallout from the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 judgement Roe v. Wade, triggering the immediate and drastic curtailment of the availability of abortion across Republican America. So I offer, by way of oblique comment on the situation, an extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, on the Church of England’s involvement in the 1967 Act that liberalised abortion law in the UK.

It shows a different kind of Christian engagement with the messy business of legislating for morality in a nation where the Christian claim about life is not commonly accepted. Ramsey recognised neither of the absolutisms that are pitched against each other in the US context, of ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’, recognising both the limits of theological certainty and the irreducible complexity of real situations. Although he did not put it in these terms, it is an advocacy for safe, universal and compassionate abortion provision, while at the same time working for the kind of Christian society in which it was not often required.

*******

Part of the moral law that saw decisive change on Ramsey’s watch was the law on the termination of pregnancy. As with the law on divorce, those churches that engaged sympathetically with the process of reform have later been indicted by conservative commentators with colluding with ostensibly limited reform which in fact opened the door to a more wholesale permission. From the first, the effects of the change in the law were monitored, discussed and disputed; the numbers of legal abortions rose, although the statistics were disputed, since the law was designed to legitimise and thus control those abortions that already occurred illegally and went unrecorded. There were difficult and indeed horrific cases, and sensational reporting in the press. Abortion became a plot line in larger stories that were told of the nation’s moral decay. Some thought there ought to be a national day of prayer on the matter, for ‘true guidance to our leaders and for the awakening of Christian conscience.’ In 1973 Ramsey was petitioned by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, that the Church of England should do more to stem the inexorable rise in the numbers, and to support doctors who conscientiously objected. There was also criticism of the bishops’ supposed collusion in the passing of the 1967 Act, and their quiescence since. And so, it is necessary to peel away the contested later history of abortion in the UK to examine the reactions of Ramsey and the Church to the tightly constrained terms of debate on the issue in the mid-1960s.

In the early stages of that debate, there had been a consciousness that the present law was both ambiguous in part, and socially harmful where it was clear. The prevailing boundaries of legitimate abortion rested on statute law, significantly modified by a single case, never tested on appeal: the ‘Bourne judgment’ of 1938. The case of Aleck Bourne had left open the possibility that abortion might be permissible where there was significant risk to the health of the mother, and not to her life alone as the statute law required; a provision that was interpreted increasingly liberally as time went on. But access to abortion under this provision was in practical terms limited to those who could pay, and the numbers of terminations obtained illegally each year suggested that there was considerable demand for that which the law could not supply. When abortion was obtained illegally, the consequences for the mother were often dire.

The Church of England had in progress a group examining the issue, composed of experts: physicians, social workers, moral philosophers, and clergy specialising in issues of ethics. It concluded that abortion was ethically acceptable under certain limited circumstances, being when there was a threat to the life or health of the mother, which included both physical and mental health. Crucially, the authors thought that this calculation should include aspects of the situation of the family, if the arrival of a new child into that situation would threaten the mother’s well-being. The decision ought to rest with medical professionals, after due consultation with other experts in social welfare. The report therefore allowed room for the abortion of foetuses with physical deformity, or which had been conceived as a result of rape or incest. However, these were not in themselves to be the ground; they were significant only insofar as they affected the mental health of the mother. The authors acknowledged the fear of the traditional moralist ‘of a steady increase […] so that abortion came to be demanded, and allowed, for minor inconveniences which fell far short of the seriousness which alone would make termination licit.’ However, they were confident that ‘such safeguards as are necessary can be devised.’

It is worth noting that which the report did not propose. While it attributed a moral status to the foetus, as having the potential for life, it asserted that if the interests of foetus and mother were irreconcilable, then those of the mother should win out. In this, it was close to the present law as it was customarily read off from the Bourne case. It was also some distance from the more absolutist position that characterised Roman Catholic thought on the subject, which if pursued to its logical conclusion would, the authors thought, lead in some cases to the death of both mother and foetus, and which avoided such untenable conclusions only by casuistry. The authors were however confident that the solution proposed upheld the general right to life of the foetus, and thus recognised the sanctity of human life, whilst sufficiently recognising the realities.

As it happened, the report was in its final draft in late 1965 when the Labour peer Lewis Silkin brought forward a Bill to amend the law. The events of the following year until David Steel’s Bill became law demonstrated the ambiguities of the positions of both the Church and the Archbishop. As word of Silkin’s Bill spread around Westminster, Ramsey arranged for draft copies of the report to be sent to Silkin, the Lord Chancellor and various others, but stressed that he himself had not yet reached a firm conclusion on the matter. He also stressed that the report did not commit the Church to any particular view; Silkin in reply acknowledged the state of play, and undertook not to use the report in debate. Ramsey shortly afterwards left the country for a visit to Africa, but left the matter in the hands of his most senior member of staff Robert Beloe.

Beloe continued to meet privately with Silkin, the government Chief Whip, the Roman Catholic peer Lord Longford and others, gauging the tenor of opinion, exploring where the Bill might be brought into line with the Church’s report, and imparting useful information. Implicit throughout, but not stated, was Beloe’s role (on Ramsey’s behalf) as critical friend of the proposals: supportive of reform of the law, but not on any terms. Some of the bishops were equally closely involved, both in the Lords but privately: Robert Mortimer, Bishop of Exeter, was in direct correspondence with Silkin in 1965 over detailed revisions to the proposed Bill. However, there were dangers in this approach since, as with the case of divorce reform, press and parliamentarians alike appeared to struggle to distinguish between co-operation with the process and outright support for each and every proposal. Before long it appeared that Silkin had let it be known amongst Labour peers that the Bill had the support of the Church of England as it stood, in an undefined but important way. A year later, Ramsey’s office was alerted that Steel was suggesting the same, and that a public statement was needed.

By this time, a year after the publication of the Church’s report and the production of two Bills, Ramsey’s own view had solidified. Cardinal Heenan had reinforced the Roman Catholic view from the outset, coming out in opposition to the Abortion report at its publication. Ramsey had always thought this absolutist position unworkable, and that Heenan’s position was an evasion: an attempt to opt out of facing difficult issues. It necessitated deciding when life began: was it at conception, at the implantation of the embryo, at the ‘quickening’ (an older understanding), or at birth? Ramsey knew that this could not be known. And even if it could be known with any security, an absolute insistence on the life of the foetus led to the moral absurdity of making no intervention when the lives of both mother and child were at risk.

In a statement to Convocation in early 1967, Ramsey laid out his position, coming out against those who would wish to see abortion available ‘virtually at will.’ In a clear rebuke to the absolutist camp, he drew a distinction between abortion and infanticide, arguing that it was ‘wrong to stir emotion by identifying them’. Nonetheless, the foetus had a unique status in the eyes of God. It was to ‘to be reverenced as the embryo of a life capable of coming to reflect the glory of God’. And once life on earth was over, it mattered that there was an ‘eternal destiny with God in heaven, possible to every child conceived in the mother’s womb’. Ramsey had no sense that anything of the moral status of the foetus was being lost; but there was a messiness at the margins of decision-making that could not be avoided.

It was in the light of this that Ramsey thought that Steel’s Bill went too far in two respects. It allowed for eugenic termination of a foetus with physical deformities on the basis of the interest of the foetus, rather than because it threatened the well-being of the mother. Opposition to this within the Church had been constant, since it involved a determination that it was 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.’

Steel’s Bill also contained what became known as the ‘social clause’, that widened the relevant factors to include the interests of other children, and the strain on the capacity of the woman as a mother (as distinct from her health). Such situations ‘draw out the sympathy of our hearts.’ However, Ramsey at base felt that despite this, no-one (and certainly not medical professionals) was in a position to judge the matter with any safety, since it was ‘amidst the utmost difficulties that some of the most splendid things in human nature have been seen’. ‘Ought we to legislate’ he asked, ‘as though the grace and power of God in human lives did not exist?’

It was on these points that Ramsey, in concert with other peers, tried to have Steel’s Bill amended, and also signed a letter to The Times opposing the widening of the Bill’s scope. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was eventually passed by Parliament in the autumn of 1967, amid talk of constitutional crisis as the Lords sought at the death to block the social clause that had been re-inserted by the Commons, after having already been removed once by the Lords. Ramsey acknowledged Baroness Summerskill’s evocation of the ‘terrible conditions in certain homes, which has certainly evoked the compassion and concern of all of us’ but this was a case not for abortion on social grounds, but for ‘education in, and the practice of, methods of birth control and family planning.’ Ramsey again voted against the amendment, along with several of the bishops but it was to pass into law.

And thus the contested history of the effects of the reform began. To what extent can the Church of England be said to be responsible for a change that was to have consequences that were quite unforeseen, even by its proponents? To put the question differently, could Ramsey and the bishops have chosen to stand apart from the process, keeping themselves and the Church unsullied by what was messy and ambiguous business? Even the most implacable Roman Catholic opponents had recognised the need to reform the law in some limited ways, and the bishops had little option than to engage with the process and to make the best of embodying solutions to complex and disputed moral conundra in workable law.

As well as this positive engagement, Ramsey and the bishops had also attempted to amend the Bill in the places where it needed to be amended. Whilst doing so, he had written to Prime Minister Wilson explaining that whilst there were elements of the Bill which he would oppose, he should not like to see it fail. An imperfect Bill was better than no Bill at all. Reform of the law was necessary, and so Ramsey did all that was possible to influence its formation; it could not be in either the interests of the Church or the nation that he should attempt to bring the whole Bill down. It was for the nation to legislate for itself. To this degree at least, Ramsey and his colleagues made the best of a difficult job; and later events should not be allowed to cloud necessary judgements about earlier ones.

Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, and also available on Amazon.

Poet of church and state: rereading C. H. Sisson

[Reading time: c.15 minutes]

I give away no secrets of the historian’s trade when I say that history is not often written purely for its own sake. However remote in time and spirit their period of study is, most historians write because of some sort of felt connection with present concerns, even if it is oblique. The past does not repeat itself, but past and present often rhyme. At other times, however, the very remoteness of the past serves to set our own time in a new light. Such is the case with the English poet and critic C.H. Sisson (1914-2003). What follows is taken from a new book chapter on Sisson, due out later this year.

You may ask how any aspect of a life that ended less than twenty years ago can be thought of as remote. Though most of what I describe is comfortably within living memory, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be, and of the ideal relationship of faith, worship and language, has now become almost entirely obscure, though parts of it survive in a more dilute form. Although Sisson’s sense of these things is some way removed from my own, to look at him afresh shows just how far English religious life has changed in a very short time.

Sisson worked in comparative obscurity until after his retirement in 1974, largely unknown to the world, Roger Scruton thought, by dint of ‘the unfashionable nature of his opinions and the frequently sour manner of their expression.’ Since then, the republication of much of his verse and prose in collected volumes by the Carcanet Press has secured a modest but enduring literary reputation. In his many prose writings on the Church of England, however, Sisson’s was a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical conservatism that sat in the gaps in between the main streams of change and resistance in English religion of the 1960s and 1970s. And since much of the writing of the history of the period has been organised along these same lines, Sisson has so far figured very little.

C.H. Sisson, by Patrick Swift (1960), via Wikimedia

The dominant theme in that historical writing has been the slippery idea of secularisation, the long process by which the mass of the English ceased both to participate in the life of the churches, and to think of the story of their lives in a Christian frame. But the body of opinion that Sisson most clearly represents is not of those who were leaving the churches, who have been most studied. Sisson’s kind of people were staying, and their opposition was born not of rejection of the Church, but of disappointment with the way in which it was changing. It comes from a religious need still felt, yet increasingly unmet, a sense of having been deserted. On the so-called permissive society, or the relaxation of the law on divorce, abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s, Sisson had relatively little to say. As such, he is also largely absent from the substantial historical literature that has now been produced on those topics. Sisson was liturgically conservative but on grounds other than doctrine; he was virulently anti-Catholic but for reasons of politics and national identity rather than theology; on issues such as the ordination of women or theological bestsellers like Honest to God or The Myth of God Incarnate he had little to say. The kind of conservatism to which Sisson gave voice has tended to be treated as a residual category, as if it were a kind of unthinking reaction amongst those without sufficient commitment to choose to be catholic, liberal or evangelical.

Sisson’s reading and writing on the Church of England seems to have begun in earnest in the early 1950s, a point at which many of the reforms to which he took exception were being discussed. It gathers momentum and volume during the 1970s, as many of the changes were at the point of implementation, and continues in the 1980s, when they were a fait accompli, a matter for regret rather than resistance. These later pieces read, to use Roger Scruton’s phrase concerning the verse, as ‘more like regrets than prophecies… a distillation of a common loneliness.’ Those changes fell into two broad categories: legal-constitutional, and liturgical.

In 1965 the church secured the permission of Parliament to produce experimental forms of service, three series of which appeared between 1966 and 1973 as alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer. The culmination of the process was the Alternative Service Book of 1980, against which a petition was presented to the General Synod in 1979, signed by some three hundred luminaries including cabinet ministers, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, actors, journalists and poets. Sisson played a part in bringing the petition together, and continued to write frequently throughout the 1980s on what he saw as a calamitous loss, even though the BCP was (and remains) still authorised for use. Objections to the ASB clustered around three poles: that its language was unfamiliar, and so disruptive to worship; that the language lacked the beauty of the 1662 book (and that beauty was important in its own right), and thirdly, that it was banal, flat, lacking a certain allusiveness (or perhaps openness to interpretation), that pointed beyond itself to the mysterious things to which it referred.

Had the Church brought forward the ASB forward before 1974, it is likely that the opposition to it would have centred on Parliament rather than the General Synod. But that year had seen Parliament pass the Worship and Doctrine Measure, the culmination of a thirty year process in which Parliament had relinquished more and more practical control over the Church. The 1974 measure allowed the Church itself, through the Synod, to authorise permanently new liturgy where previously it had required parliamentary assent, and to settle its own doctrine. The measure marked a decisive redefinition of what membership of the Church of England meant. The notion that Parliament acted as a ‘lay synod’, guiding and if necessary restraining the Church on behalf of the nation was to be superseded by a Church more directly controlled by its active members, through the newly instituted Synod.

But there was yet a significant attachment to the existing constitutional settlement, as is evident from the deliberations of a commission on church and state, which reported in 1970. ‘Some people belong to the Church of England more because they are English than because they are Anglicans’, and this idea of membership, though ‘vague and inarticulate’ is better represented by Parliament on behalf of the whole nation, the authors thought, than by the narrower group of clergy and church-minded laity which made up the Synod.

So it is in these two related contexts – one linguistic and aesthetic, the other constitutional – that we ought to read Sisson’s writing on the Church of England.

*****

The nature of Sisson’s own belief is somewhat hard to pin down. But belief is necessarily articulated in language, and Sisson’s view – a profoundly serious one – of the nature of language is the foundation of the whole social, aesthetic and political superstructure which can be reconstructed from his essays. There were ‘spaces between the ultimate silence and exposition, which are filled only by great literature, and by poetry in particular.’ The language of worship occupied this space, and as such was a matter of the utmost seriousness. And its nature was fundamentally social; the Church was what later critics might have called a linguistic community. ‘Our speaking is that of a race, a tribe, a time. There is no speech which is not of a here and now and it is nothing in terms of other times and elsewhere. That is why the historical church is so apt to our needs and meaning. It is a congregation of meaning and there is no meaning without congregation.’ Given this, liturgical revision was a very serious matter, and (as Sisson became convinced) too difficult to attempt with any safety. He saw nothing in the theological milieu of the Church of England in the 1970s that suggested that a restatement of Christian faith in a way intelligible to a secularising society was likely. And so the idea of revision, already difficult, seemed more and more frivolous. ‘Pending a new clarification of things,’ he wrote in 1981 after the battle for the Prayer Book was lost, ‘better try to understand what our ancestors were saying.’ Better to work with – even despite – an authentic older text, however unwieldy, than to say nothing meaningful in contemporary prose.

Of which community was the Book, and indeed the Church, a product? ‘I am of a religion’, he wrote in an essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘in which … Christianity is an accident; the religion of our fathers, or the mère patrie, of the spirits buried in the ground, of the religion of England. I cannot help it.’ In metaphysical terms, the religion of England was an accident, the substance of which was a nation, formed in a place. And Sisson’s thought pointed both to a certain kind of localism, and a very particular idea of the national community. The fundamental message of the parish system, an outward order that comprehended every inch of the country, was: ‘You will find the faith taught, and the sacraments ministered, where you live. Go to your parish church.’ To travel to a different church for a particular preacher, or to another for the manner in which the Eucharist was celebrated, was to call into the question the Church of England’s claim of catholicity. ‘There is no meaning except in terms of a time and a place’ he wrote: ‘If one could understand it would be at one altar, in a stone building, in such a place’.

The historical fact of the Church of England also had, for Sisson, ineluctable implications for politics and nation as well as the parish. Despite its dwindling strength, the Church of England was driven by its very nature to make universal, indeed implacable claims about the whole of human existence. It could never become simply a private society for the provision of ‘innocent Sunday entertainments’, no different in kind to any other voluntary association. Some form of relationship between the Church and the state would have always to be defined that recognised its unique scope and the range of its claims. And atop this whole structure sat the sovereign, who in the last instance was ‘the final safeguard of our unity… a point of unity in a single Person present on the throne by hereditary right and form of law.’ The established Church and the sovereign were bound together in a relationship, in which the disappearance of one entailed the extinction of the other. Sisson’s sense of the nation had at times almost a mystical tone; Donald Davie noted Sisson’s remarkable metaphor of the monarch who ‘broods over this body of laws and institutions’, as if in some kind of maternal, creative relationship, the nation’s originator.

Such an attachment to a locality and to the ideal of the parish is, of course, far from extinct, and neither is attachment to the monarchy. But Sisson’s religious politics drove him to certain conclusions which would now find little assent. Raised a Methodist, he became dismissive of the Free Churches which were ‘ancillary and in the main derivative’, bodies whose political battles were fought for them by the established Church; Sisson was no ecumenist. The fact that, for the first time, England was now home to many from the Commonwealth who adhered to other faiths – a spanner in the works of Sisson’s idea of faith and nation – seems hardly to have registered. Roman Catholics, however, were almost an enemy within. Despite the day-to-day quiescence of English Catholics, Sisson thought, the Papacy had never renounced its claims as a temporal sovereign, and so in England those Catholics were a minority simply biding their time. ‘They have their politics, however subduedly for the present, and they are not in their obedience bound to England.’ A greater misunderstanding of the English Catholicism of the time, and of the Papacy, would be hard to find.

*****

Sisson emerges from his essays as a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical Toryism which, though elements of it survive, is surely hard to accept as a whole system. No-one now seriously asserts the need to restore greater parliamentary oversight of the established Church. Although the Book of Common Prayer is still used and valued by many – not least in the cathedrals – it is as one option among several to be chosen; no longer has it the same sense of givenness or universality. Overtones of Sisson are perhaps audible in the sense of loss felt by those people, perhaps not all regular worshippers, who were unable to visit the churches at times due to the pandemic, just to sit and think and perhaps pray. The idea of a faithful laity deserted by trendy clergy is still certainly live and well in certain section of the conservative media, for whom the troubles of the Church of England still make good copy from time to time. But except for a very few, the late Roger Scruton notable among them, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be – indeed, must inevitably be – and of the necessary relationship of faith, language and nation, has now become almost entirely obscure as a viable intellectual option. But it deserves to be understood, as a missing piece in our understanding of recent religious history.

Book review: In the long shadow of the Third Reich

[A review published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church]

Gerhard Ringshausen and Andrew Chandler (eds)
The George Bell-Gerhard Leibholz Correspondence: In the long shadow of the Third Reich, 1938-1958
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
978-1-4742-5766-4 (hardback)
xxvii + 475

The papers of George Bell, twentieth century bishop of Chichester, are among the most significant and most extensive collections for modern church history. This important volume, generously edited and well produced (and now, since 2021, available in paperback at a reasonable price) inaugurates a series of editions that promises to open up Bell’s papers to those unable to consult them in the library of Lambeth Palace. Bell was a prolific correspondent in general, but his exchange with the German legal scholar Gerhard Leibholz must be among the most extensive of all such correspondences to have survived, now distributed between Bell’s papers and those of Leibholz in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. Though a selection of the letters was published in German in 1974, it is hard to find in libraries outside Germany, and this complete edition – a joint production of British and German scholars – promises to open up the correspondence in new ways. The letters are marked throughout by both great personal warmth and great immediacy and urgency; absent is the sort of self-consciousness sometimes found in letters written with one eye on an unknown later reader.

Readers of this journal may be slightly surprised at how little there is in the letters about the church as such. This is no complaint, but it is instructive nonetheless. Bell and Leibholz were first in contact in early 1939, after Leibholz, a Volljude (in Nazi terms) but baptised a Lutheran, had arrived in the UK from Germany seeking refuge. Once Leibholz had been released from internment, in part due to Bell’s intercession, the correspondence is dominated by the progress of the war, the fate of the German churches, and then (in time) the likely shape of the post-war order. That the conflict was at root a religious one, between a godless Nazism and a true European civilisation that was fundamentally Christian, was a working assumption that lay beneath their remarkable interaction. That the post-war order – that would have to include a reconstructed Germany, the ‘other Germany’ once stripped of the alien accretion of Nazism – should have a Christian basis was something of which politicians had to be reminded, repeatedly and sometimes forcefully; it was not, yet, a matter that required justification, as would be the case before very long. What the reader finds, as the pair discuss the situation, exchange resources, and read and comment on each other’s writing, is a kind of applied political theology that does not yet need fully to justify its assumptions.

This reader, at least, is also struck by the slight improbability of such a meeting of unequals, which the editors suggest may be unique, and I suspect they are right. On the one hand was Bell, a senior bishop of the established Church, member of the House of Lords and the Athenaeum club; on the other Leibholz, a citizen of an enemy power, almost a generation younger, uprooted with a young family, first interned and then forced to scratch around for grants and for whatever might be earned by writing. In time the war ended, and there was the matter of re-establishing contact with friends and family in the chaotic conditions of a ruined Germany, and eventually a return home. The exchanges give a remarkable insight into the precariousness of the refugee experience, even for one as (relatively) well connected as Leibholz. We see Bell intervening to help in practical ways throughout, as he did for many others, both Jews and German Christians: there are countless letters of recommendation and reference; schemes of support are patiently constructed only to be upended by events. But Bell was also a learner. Although in regular contact with the German churches, he himself knew little German, and did not know the country well. Though, as the editors note (p.xv), Leibholz did much to confirm ideas that were already Bell’s, his influence was in giving Bell’s positions a new weight and substance, and in helping lift them out of the more confined milieu of English middle-class and ecclesiastical life. As such, the letters provide a rich and invaluable contextualisation of Bell’s very well-known political interventions, in Parliament and in print. Bell’s learning shows a kind of humility that was not always found on the episcopal bench.

There is also a further connection to a rather more well-known German Christian of the same generation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whose twin sister (Sabine) Leibholz was married. It was through Bonhoeffer, whom Bell knew very well, that Leibholz and Bell were put together. One of the editors, Andrew Chandler, has written on the later legacy of Bonhoeffer’s thought, and his martyrdom at Nazi hands in the last days of the war. If not quite the subject of a cult, Bonhoeffer has taken on a venerable status in later years, and it is an affecting experience to overhear Bell and Leibholz exchange news of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, with an increasing desperation, still clinging in April 1945 to seemingly hopeful but erroneous scraps of information, by which time (as the reader knows) Bonhoeffer was already dead. As the urgency waned in the early 1950s, Bonhoeffer provided a thread of shared memory between the Leibholzes and Bell, whom after his death was described as ‘the most faithful and best friend we have had in the English-speaking world.’ (453) Though neither Bell nor Leibholz bore the ultimate cost of discipleship as Bonhoeffer did, the whole volume intertwines the personal and the political in an unforgettable way. It should be required reading for scholars of the religious and political history of Europe, but deserves a much wider readership than that.

St Mugg, the bishop and the Pythons, an encounter reborn: a forty-year episode in Christian media history

Occasionally a particular event comes to stand for a shift in cultural history, a embodiment of the movement of impersonal forces at a key moment, or a sudden evidence that a shift has already taken place. One of these was a televised debate on 9 November 1979 about the newly released film by the Monty Python team, The Life of Brian. The programme, Friday Night, Saturday Morning was a late-night weekend chat show in front of a live audience in the mood for amusement. It pitted two of the Pythons – John Cleese and Michael Palin – against Mervyn Stockwood, the bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge, writer and former satirist, but in his latter years a very public convert to Christianity and one of the Church’s most trenchant apologists.

The show must be one of the most discussed television programmes of recent years, and in the last two decades it is the Pythons’ interpretation of it that has become dominant, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. Stockwood and Muggeridge are both long dead, and (as far as I know) never commented publicly on the programme after it was broadcast, and so their interpretation of it is hard to recover. It is clear that they had only seen the film earlier that day, and were likely still in a degree of shock, for reasons I shall come on to. Palin also gathered from Stockwood before the show that that he had missed the first few minutes due to confusion over times; Cleese later recalled that Muggeridge too had missed the beginning. These two facts together go a long way to explain the sheer misunderstanding of the film the pair showed, and the startlingly vitriolic way in which they showed it.

Watching it again, it is hard to disagree with Palin’s impression that Stockwood spoke ‘with all the smug and patronising paraphernalia of the gallery-player, who believes that the audience will see he is right, because he is a bishop and we’re not.’ Stockwood ‘posed and preened and pontificated’; Palin’s arguments were dismissed as ‘unworthy of an educated man’; the two were being ‘utterly dishonest’. How far the two misjudged the public mood is indicated both by the audience, and by the speed with which the programme – and Stockwood himself – were themselves lampooned on the satirical show Not the Nine O’Clock News. Within days clergy of the church of England were writing to the press regretting the pair’s performance.

In retrospect, it is hard to see the event as anything but a public relations disaster for the Church of England. (Even Raymond Johnston, who with the Nationwide Festival of Light was trying to have the film banned, had seemed to Palin to be embarrassed by Stockwood and Muggeridge.) Stockwood’s parting shot – ‘I’m sure you’ll get your thirty pieces of silver’ – was in retrospect terribly misjudged, a lack of communicative wisdom compounded by failures of charity and of respect. ‘We won the argument’ thought Cleese, ‘by behaving much better than the Christians’.

At one level the clash was visibly one of generations, of the residual authority of one generation over the next. Cleese had just turned 40; Palin was only 36. Stockwood, in contrast, was 66, and would within days announce a very welcome retirement after a long private struggle with depression. Muggeridge was a decade older still, at 76, having reached a similar stage of disillusion, but with life itself. ‘Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited,’ he wrote around this time, ‘disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums, and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.’ Old and tired, neither man was likely to engage with the film and the questions it seemed to be asking. (After the event, the BBC’s head of religious broadcasting regretted having presented two ‘serious and brilliant’ performers with ‘geriatric’ opposition).

Stockwood emphasised the gap in generation by referring to his time as vicar of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, the university church, in the late 1950s, and missioner to Blundells School before that: he was ‘familiar with undergraduate humour’. The impression was cemented by Cleese’s account of the religious education he had received at Clifton College in Bristol, during which time (it emerged) he had in fact heard Stockwood as a visiting preacher. But at another level, the four had as much in common as that which divided them: three Cambridge graduates (Cleese, Muggeridge, Stockwood) and one from Oxford (Palin, who was also an alumnus of Shrewsbury School).

And it is this closeness of the four men in social terms that should make us wary of reading the dispute in terms of class, of popular and elite. ‘Have we not become as established as the Establishment we seek to kick?’ Palin wondered, a few days later. Were the Pythons not ‘licensed satirists… Keepers of the Queen’s Silly Things’, and likely to be afforded the full protection of Oxbridge men ‘in an English Establishment that is still Oxbridge-controlled?’ Here was a conversation within the elite about other things.

So what was the dispute really about? Although much of the discussion was about the representation of Christ in the film, the law on blasphemy in particular was never really invoked. But it might have been. In July 1977 the Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a successful private prosecution against the publishers and editor of Gay News for the offence of blasphemous libel. Whitehouse and the Nationwide Festival of Light certainly had their eye on the Python team. Just as the filming had finished in the autumn of 1978, the NFOL was warning its supporters ‘that there seems little doubt the the film is blasphemous.’ However, the advice from J.A. Fisher, canon of Windsor (after reading the script) was that while the film was likely to be found ‘extremely offensive’, it was clearly not blasphemous, and soon the NFOL admitted the same.

Even if not blasphemous, The Life of Brian did cause offence, and the NFOL pressed for it to be banned by local authorities if it could not be stopped nationally. Robert Hewison documented the campaigns against the film in towns across the UK, in the USA and in Canada, a subject ripe for a detailed historical investigation now. But the television debate in particular showed two older Christians grappling with rapidly shifting understandings of the proper purposes of the arts (broadly conceived) and the kind of treatment established Christianity could expect from them.

The decade and a half or so before 1979 saw all kinds of new interactions between faith and the arts, both ‘high’ and ‘low’. In 1968 the Theatres Act lifted the last vestiges of theatre censorship, allowing for the first time the personation of Christ himself on stage, not least in Jesus Christ, Superstar (1970). In 1978 A.N. Wilson’s novel Unguarded Hours depicted all manner of vanity and vice in an Anglican theological college. In Chichester, Walter Hussey welcomed the dramatic music of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms into the cathedral, and the cast of the London production of Hair sang songs at St Paul’s. Meanwhile, missionally-minded Christians experimented with film and drama, and ‘pop’ church music gradually moved from the margins to the centre of Sunday worship in an increasing number of churches.

Viewed in the round, the whole period is one of negotiation, the forging of new terms of trade. If traditional ways of communicating the gospel by means of words were failing, perhaps the arts were another way. But in return for such co-operation, the churches could no longer expect the kind of reverential treatment that had been the case only twenty years before. However, by no means all British Christians were comfortable with all this. Indeed, by the late 1970s a kind of siege mentality had in places set in, a sense that all that had been stable was under threat: the King James Bible (endangered, it was thought, by modern translations), and the Book of Common Prayer, about to be pushed out by the Alternative Service Book 1980, after 15 years of experimentation with new services; traditional hymns replaced with ‘trivial’ choruses.

It is in this light, and not as mere abuse, that we should read Muggeridge and Stockwood’s scorn for the film on grounds of its quality: ‘cheap and tenth-rate’, something the Footlights company in Cambridge would have done ‘on a damp Tuesday afternoon’; it was ‘not worthy of you’. The Pythons had taken a subject previously the preserve of the ‘greatest art’ and made out of it the ‘lowest art’; posterity would make up its own mind about this ‘squalid little number’. It is striking that Muggeridge, himself editor of Punch in the 1950s and a satirist whose work Cleese and Palin knew and respected, should make such a category error as to try to equate the purposes of Brian with the art of the Renaissance or Chartres Cathedral (‘not a funny building’, as Cleese put it). But the assertion that higher art forms, executed to the highest standard, were the only acceptable means of reflecting on religious truth was a common one, and with a long history.

At base, the two sides were at cross-purposes, and so there could be no real meeting of minds. The Pythons sincerely believed that their purpose was not to ridicule Christ himself but to examine certain elements of human credulity. (Had Muggeridge and Stockwood seen the whole film, they would surely have accepted Palin and Cleese’s insistence on this.) Interviewed by Dick Cavett on American television not long afterwards, Cleese described the film as ‘profoundly religious’; although the Pythons had toyed with the idea of a film about Christ himself, they had found him to be ‘wise, flexible, intelligent’, and lacking in precisely the characteristics on which comedy thrives: envy, greed, malice, stupidity. It was these perversions of the religious impulse that the Pythons had in their sights. Only if religion was defined as something unexamined, controlled by institutions exempt from critique, was Brian an irreligious film.

Both at the time, and in more recent years Christians have embraced the critique in the film and used it for evangelistic ends. Canon Fisher of Windsor (the father of a friend of Graham Chapman) thought there were things in the film that (in Chapman’s words) ‘he’d been wanting to say the whole of his life’. And with those aspects of the film Muggeridge and Stockwood would have no doubt largely agreed if discussed in the abstract, with an appropriate seriousness. Christians of their generation were more than accustomed to intellectual challenge, but not when framed in this way. Even if one disagreed strongly with Christianity, matters of faith could not be dealt with lightly; they were much too important for that. The Pythons’ offence was to touch theology with unwashed hands.

For all the sound and fury, the episode might have disappeared from public consciousness, had it not been for technological change and the retrospective assembling of a ‘history of Python’ on the Pythons’ own terms, in which the episode assumed a prominent place. The episode was first documented in 1981 by the cultural historian (and friend of long standing with Palin) Robert Hewison. But books go out of print, and television shows disappear into the air. (Home video recording was available to some in 1979 – the writer Douglas Adams, a friend of Palin’s, had recorded the show and watched it repeatedly – but such recordings were hard to circulate.) Stockwood had nothing to say of it in his 1982 memoir, and it is not noted by his biographer, or in either of the two biographies of Muggeridge that appeared together in 1995.

In the last twenty years, however, as the Python team approached retirement, a record of their careers has been assembled, both by the group themselves and by the media. Biographies and autobiographies began to appear, both of individuals (Cleese in 1999, Chapman in 2005), and of the group as a whole; the team recalled the broadcast in the 2003 group ‘autobiography’. Palin himself gave an account in his diaries, published in 2006. Channel 4 screened a documentary on the episode in 2007 (The Secret Life of Brian) which was followed by a 2011 film, Holy Flying Circus. One morning in 2013 the BBC’s flagship morning radio news programme Today gave the guest editorship to Palin, during which show he and Cleese reflected on the dispute.

At the same time, footage of the Friday Night, Saturday Morning encounter was beginning to be reborn online, and on YouTube in particular. The earliest clip I have so far found was carried on the channel of the campaigning Atheist Media Blog in 2009, which boasted several thousand subscribers. (The clip is now deleted, but archived by the Internet Archive). And before long the footage was itself being re-edited, captioned and republished on YouTube to frame Muggeridge and Stockwood as both idiots and persecutors.

That the footage has now floated entirely free of its historical moorings was evident in the reaction in early 2020 to a Facebook post by the BBC Archive. The posted clip showed six minutes of the programme, from towards the end when the tensions between the four men became most apparent. (The post was ostensibly to mark the death of Terry Jones, even though he did not take part in the programme). Posted on January 23rd, at the time of writing it had attracted some 1,800 comments. Many took the same dim view of Muggeridge and Stockwood as has become the orthodoxy; at the same time many Christians commented on their own appreciation of the film. A good few seemed not to grasp that the footage was historic. Some reacted to Stockwood in particular with comments concerning historic sexual abuse within the churches (there is no suggestion that Stockwood had any involvement in the several cases that have recently come to light). The subsequent revelations concerning Muggeridge’s own reputation as a serial sexual harasser of women are also noted, having been given new prominence by Jean Seaton’s 2015 book on the BBC. 

In 1979 Muggeridge and Stockwood doubtless thought that they were dealing with an ephemeral film, in the similarly airy medium of a television chatshow. Instead, their performances are reborn again and again in new media contexts, as the established narrative of the Christian churches as both ridiculous and hypocritical continues to evolve.

The Church and the law (Studies in Church History 56)

As seems to have become something of a tradition on this blog, I note the recent appearance of this year’s issue of Studies in Church History, the product of the 2018 conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Cambridge, and the 2019 meeting in London. As the required length of articles in SCH is gradually becoming longer, so the number of papers included has fallen, and my ready reckoning suggests that the volume includes perhaps a third of the papers presented. Since the transition of the journal to Cambridge University Press, my usual listing of the papers is no longer necessary, since titles and abstracts are all available online. I don’t propose to review the volume as such, since the 27 papers range from late antiquity to the present, and across several nations, although not (as is common with SCH) from north America. But there is one particular point of note.

As Rosamond McKitterick notes in her introduction, part of the stimulus for her choice of theme for the volume (in her capacity as EHS president) was the disjuncture (in the UK) between the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and the canon law of the Church of England. And it is striking how much of the attention of historians of the UK since 1945 (and perhaps elsewhere too), when paying attention to religion at all, has been taken up with what we might call the ‘moral law’, and the degree to which ‘secularisation’ (whatever we mean by the term) has entailed the emptying of the law of specifically Christian moral content. And there is now a substantial literature on the churches and the law, in relation to abortion, capital punishment, divorce, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in the Sexual Offences Act 1967).

What strikes me about this new SCH volume, however, is how little attention there is paid to issues of morality, in fact. Only one article – on illegitimate births in 19th and 20th century Austria – addresses the topic directly, and in the twentieth century (for the UK) there is only a brief discussion by Peter W. Edge of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 that comes close to the topic.  Instead, issues of the narrow relation of church and state (both nationally and locally) and the toleration of religious minorities tend to dominate.

This is no reflection whatever on the Society or the editors of the volume, since they can only publish what they are offered, and the balance of the papers at the 2018 conference, at least, was not significantly different. I can’t speak for the early modern or medieval periods, but I suspect that for the twentieth century at least, this points to a certain gap between the concerns of scholars within the orbit of the Society – which tend to be specifically ecclesiastical – and the writing on broader social and political history in which religious questions are not always well enough integrated. This is not a new insight, but this volume is another illustration of it.