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.’
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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.)
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“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.

Reviews in History on Michael Ramsey

The latest review of my book on Michael Ramsey is now in, this time in the online Reviews in History, to which I myself have frequently contributed. It is by Sam Brewitt-Taylor of Lincoln College Oxford, to whom my thanks are due for an engaged, critical and constructive review.

I am of course very pleased that the reviewer thinks that the book:
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‘is the best introduction to Michael Ramsey’s archiepiscopacy at Canterbury currently available, and should be read by everyone interested in the state of the Church of England in the 1960s. …. As a report from the archives, The Shape of the Church is highly successful. It is eminently readable, it covers a very good range of issues, and it does so using an excellent level of detail. It makes a valuable contribution to a complicated subject, and it opens up some of the Ramsey archive to a wider readership. It should certainly be included in relevant undergraduate and graduate reading lists…. a fine addition to the literature.

Brewitt-Taylor makes a number of detailed criticisms, which are (as he states) suggestions for further work in situating Ramsey in his historical context. These are all welcome, and I may well return to them in print at a later date.

TLS review of Michael Ramsey book

This week I was delighted to notice a review of my book on Michael Ramsey, in the Times Literary Supplement
(October 30th, p.13; online, but not freely so – scanned PDF here). It is by Peter Sedgwick, retired principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff, the Anglican theological college. It is the second review from a scholar from within the institutions of the Anglican church, rather than from an historian in the universities (see the first, from Graham James, bishop of Norwich).
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It was particularly pleasing that Sedgwick thought it a ‘fine book’, and that he stresses the distinctiveness of it from Owen Chadwick’s magisterial 1990 biography of Ramsey. This is in part to do with the edited sources it includes, but also because it concentrates on the central issues facing Ramsey, which the biographical structure of Chadwick’s study tended to obscure; complex and contentious issues through which Ramsey had to chart a course and which I document ‘excellently’. ‘As you read Webster, the debates and challenges become contemporary, and you wonder how the Archbishop’s staff will swerve around the next pothole in the road.’ Sedgwick concludes that 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.’

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.


Michael Ramsey and Anglican evangelicals: new article

The pleasure of picking a new book up off the doormat never seems to diminish, and so it is with this new book on Anglican evangelicalism in the twentieth century, in which I have a chapter on Michael Ramsey and evangelicals in the Church of England. The chapter isn’t available Open Access anywhere, for various reasons, (although I’d be happy to share the PDF offline) and so here’s a summary of my argument, which runs as follows:Maiden Atherstone - cover

(i) that although Ramsey was no evangelical, his time as archbishop was also a crucial period of transition in evangelicals’ view of themselves and of how they should relate to the wider church;

(ii) that Ramsey has too often been assumed to have either indifferent or actively hostile to evangelical concerns, mainly because of a reputation fostered by one episode, the “fundamentalism controversy” of the mid-1950s;

(iii) that this understanding of Ramsey was a product of a wider relationship of tension between evangelicals and the wider church, a story which has since been told in terms of dogged evangelical persistence in the face of calculated marginalisation from the hierarchy;

(iv) that despite all this, Ramsey in fact enjoyed good working relationships and indeed friendships with many within the liberal or centrist parts of the evangelical constituency, including men such as Max Warren;

(v) that early contact with conservative evangelicals was tentative, but that there was a marked change in atmosphere after the safe passage through Parliament of the Vesture of Ministers Measure in 1964 (of which more here);

(vi) that despite evangelical wariness of Ramsey in relation to the more ‘political’ aspects of the church, he was nonetheless viewed as clearly orthodox in his theology; and that there were several points of sympathetic contact between Ramsey and evangelical theology, in relation to the Cross, his concern for evangelism, and his emphasis on personal holiness. Much of this was connected to Ramsey’s own Congregational background;

(vii) that there was a difference of emphasis in relation to method, in that what some evangelicals saw as doctrinal ‘clarity’ and a willingness to contend for the truth was to Ramsey evidence of intellectual rigidity and an unwilingness really to engage openly with anyone holding an opposing view;

(viii) that an examination of the Ramsey Papers shows clearly that, even if there was mutual distrust between wings of the church, there is no evidence of deliberate efforts by the central institutions of the Church to keep evangelicals from positions of influence. This was the case with the appointment of bishops (a favourite bone of contention) and membership of the Church Assembly, as well as with the memberships of the many commissions and working groups set up to consider difficult issues. It was also the case in relation to the failed scheme for Anglican-Methodist unity.

The article concludes that the persistent story in evangelical folklore of exclusion from the corridors of power in this period cannot be grounded in fact. The continued existence of this explanatory myth tells us as much about (some) evangelicals’ view of themselves as it does about the actual workings of the Church of England.