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.

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.

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).
Ramsey - cover
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.’

Review: Society and the Internet

Earlier this month I wrote again for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence.

Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives.
Mark Graham and William H. Dutton (eds.)
Oxford University Press, 2014.

The word ‘revolution’ is at a discount when it comes to discussing the impact of the internet, but current reactions to what is undoubtedly far-reaching and permanent change fit a longer pattern. Societies in the midst of rapid technological change often perceive the change as both radical and unprecedented. Previous technological shifts in communication have before been greeted in the same way as the internet, being understood in terms of utopia and dystopia. For some, the internet is a new technology in the vanguard of the inexorable progress of such abstract nouns as Freedom and Democracy. It dissolves the power of old elites, putting the power to communicate, publish, mobilize and do business in the hands of any who should want it. For others, it provides dark corners in which criminality may flourish out of reach of traditional law enforcement. It undermines the business models of cherished institutions, saps our powers of concentration, and indeed threatens the alteration of our very brains in none-too-positive ways.

These two mutually contradictory narratives have one trait in common: a naïve technological determinism. Both stories radically overestimate the degree to which new technologies have inherent dynamics in single and obvious directions, and similarly underestimate the force of the social, economic and political contexts in which real human beings design, implement and use new applications to serve existing needs and desires. It is the great strength of this stimulating collection of essays that at every turn it brings such high-flown imaginings back to the bench of empirical research on the observable behaviours of people and the information systems they use. Given the rapidity of the changes under discussion – the commercialised internet is only now reaching the age of an undergraduate student, as it were, with social media still in junior school – this kind of very contemporary history meets sociology, geography, computer science and many other disciplines in a still fluid interdisciplinary space.

The volume is very much the product of the Oxford Internet Institute, with all but six of the thirty-one contributors being associated with the institute in some way. The twenty-three essays are arranged into five thematic sections: everyday life; information and culture, politics and governments; business, industry and economics; and internet regulation and governance. Whilst the grouping is convenient as an orientation to the reader, the effect of the book is best experienced as a whole, as several themes emerge again and again. In this review I examine just three of many such themes.

One such is the complex geographies of the web. Gillian Bolsover and colleagues examine the shifting geographic centre of gravity of internet use. The proportion of total users who were located in the United States fell from two thirds to one third in a decade, and the proportion in Asia grew from a tiny 5% to nearly half over the same period. Bolsover and colleagues find that this shift in numbers is accompanied by distinctive geographic variations in the uses that users make of their internet, and attitudes to its regulation. Reading this chapter in conjunction with that by Mark Graham would suggest that these patterns of use map only loosely onto patterns of knowledge production (the “digital division of labour” between nations). These patterns of production in turn relate only inexactly with patterns of representation of places online; the “data shadows” fall unevenly. That said, the Global South both produces a small proportion of the content online, and is itself underrepresented as the subject of that content.

Many businesses, and media businesses in particular, have found the last ten years a time of particular uncertainty about the impact of the internet on long-established ways of doing business. Economists will be interested in two chapters which seek to address some of these issues. Sung Wook Ji and David Waterman examine the recent history of media companies in the United States, and point out a steady fall in revenues, and a shift from a reliance on revenue from advertising, to direct payment by consumers. Greg Taylor’s valuable essay examines the ending of the traditional economic difficulty of scarcity of goods by the advent of an almost limitless abundance of content online. This has created a different theoretical problem to be understood: the scarcity of attention that consumers can pay to that content.

Perhaps the most coherent section in the book is that on government and politics. Several governments (mostly amongst those western nations that were the early adopters of the internet) have placed considerable hope on online delivery of government services, and on social media as new means of engagement with voters. At the same time, both the chapters by Margetts, Hale and Yasseri, and by Dubois and Dutton examine the uses made by individuals of electronic means to organise and to influence government independently of, and indeed in opposition to, the agenda of that government. Governments have often expected greater benefits and lower costs from e-government; and political activists have tended to lionise the role of the self-organising ‘Fifth Estate’ of networked individuals to which Dubois and Dutton point. These five chapters situate all these hopes firmly in empirical examination of the interaction of politics, culture and technology in specific contexts.

Individually, the essays in this volume are uniformly strong: lucid, cogent and concise, and accompanied with useful lists of further reading. As a whole, the volume prompts fertile reflections on the method and purpose of the new discipline of Internet Studies. The volume will be of great interest to readers in many disciplines and at all levels from undergraduate upwards.

Rescripting religion in the city

Jane Garnett and Alana Harris (eds)
Rescripting Religion in the City. Migration and Religious Identity in the Modern Metropolis
Farnham, Ashgate, 9781409437741, 2013

I have just submitted a review of this very useful volume of essays, for the Journal of Belief and Values. It begins:

‘The city, and in particular the metropolis, has always been key to local, national and international networks: of trade, of communication, of governance. And the briefest acquaintance with the history of London, for instance, shows that the same applies to networks of religious exchange. ….. London has acted as a node in the networks around which money, information, material objects and people have flowed. As this new collection of essays shows, these interactions have only become faster and more complex as empires were dismantled and the former colonial powers gave room to significant immigrant populations who might or might not share the inherited faith of their hosts.’9781409437741 Rescripting Religion in the City

The volume includes contributions from ‘historians, theologians and sociologists, and from scholars of music, social and cultural geography and anthropology… organised in thematic sections, on languages, place and space, gender and generation, and public policy, with editorial introductions to each… In this diversity lies the volume’s strength. There are rich connections to be made between essays that deal with native and migrant Christian experience across several denominations, and those on Jewish, Hindu and Muslim cases. London figures heavily, alongside studies of Paris, Warsaw, and of Australian and North American cases…’

The essays that stand out are those that engage most with historical context: in particular, those by Matthew Grimley, Gil Toffell, Nazneen Ahmed, Michael Keith and Abigail Wood. Thomas Hodgson wins my prize for best article title of the year with ‘”Do what the Qu’ran says and stay away from crack”: Mirpuri Muslims, rap music and the city.’

Other were less successful, not so much for the content as for the style, being:

‘poorly structured and lacking a clear analytical thrust. … Others are heavily larded with some rather rebarbative jargon, and plain bad writing; the sentence that must be read three times to be understood is a bad sentence.’

It is a shame that in a policy environment focussed on ‘impact’ outside the academy, some authors make their readers, even the initiated ones, work so hard.

See the list of contents.