The last gasp of political Protestantism, 1963-4

I’m delighted to be able to say that my article on this, jointly written with John Maiden of the Open University, has now been published. The full reference is:

Parliament, the Church of England and the Last Gasp of Political Protestantism, 1963–4
Parliamentary History 32; 2 (2013), 361-77
DOI: 10.1111/1750-0206.12020

If your library subscribes to the journal, it is available online here.

If not, there is a preprint version in SAS-Space, which was only slightly amended during peer review and on its way through the press.

Here’s the abstract:
“Political protestantism has been an enduring theme in parliamentary and ecclesiastical politics and has had considerable influence on modern Church and state relations. Since the mid 19th century, evangelicals have sought to apply external and internal pressure on parliament to maintain the ‘protestant identity’ of the national Church, and as late as 1928, the house of commons rejected anglican proposals for the revision of the prayer book. This article examines the attempts by evangelicals to prevent the passage through parliament of controversial measures relating to canon law revision in 1963–4. It assesses the interaction between Church and legislature, the influence of both evangelical lobbyists and MPs, and the terms in which issues relating to religion and national identity were debated in parliament. It shows that while evangelicals were able to stir up a surprising level of controversy over canon law revision – enough for the Conservative Party chief whip, Selwyn Lloyd, to attempt to persuade Archbishop Ramsey to delay introducing the vesture of ministers measure to parliament until after the 1964 general election – the influence of political protestantism, and thus a significant long-term theme in British politics, had finally run its course.”

Michael Ramsey, ‘Honest to God’ and the edge of the Church of England

[Honest to God, by John A.T. Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, is fifty this year. It has been described by Rowan Williams as “the last religious book in the UK to have… a mass readership.. a most unlikely best-seller”, and has assumed iconic status in the history of the Church of England and of secularisation. In this extract from my forthcoming book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, I argue that despite his regrets in later years, Ramsey had no choice as archbishop but to publicly censure one of his own bishops.]

The public furore over John Robinson’s Honest to God is perhaps the single most well-known public theological event of the 1960s, and perhaps even of the twentieth century. The book appeared in 1963, in the now iconic series of slim pocket paperbacks from the SCM Press, with on its cover a modern sculpture of a earnest young man in thought: Modern Man grappling with the challenges of ‘religionless’ Christianity in a time of crisis.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Already well known for his intervention in the Lady Chatterley trial, the bishop of Woolwich had published his exploratory work in recasting the traditional language of faith in the hope of reaching those alienated by the habits and language of the traditional church. Its arrival was announced in an article in the Observer entitled (against Robinson’s better judgment) ‘Our image of God must go.’

To focus too closely on whether Robinson was right or wrong, a prophet of a credible young church or a destroyer from within, is to miss some important wider questions. The central issue for Michael Ramsey was the limits of doctrine in the Church of England, and the means of setting them. Recent commentators have divided over the subject. For Edward Norman, the church was, and is, bound to repeat such incidents, since it is without any central means of defining doctrine and accommodating its development. For others, George Carey amongst them, such episodes rather show the elasticity of the Anglican polity, in which the very absence of a rigid central curia holds open a safe space for such theological adventure.

Feelings were running high; and Ramsey learned of an intention to have the book and its orthodoxy debated in the Convocation of Canterbury. Mervyn Stockwood, bishop of Southwark, feared a petition from within the diocese for proceedings against Robinson in Stockwood’s own court. There appeared to be a real threat of what would be widely viewed in the media as a heresy hunt, and in two forums neither of which were well constituted to do the job. This was to be avoided at all costs.

Yet Ramsey needed to do something. Try as he might, he could not see how Robinson, despite his protestations, had stayed within the field of historic orthodoxy, even allowing for the apparent cloudiness of some of Robinson’s writing. He told the bishops that the book ‘removes the conception of God known to us in the Bible and the Creed, and while some sort of doctrine about God and the Deity of Christ emerges, it is impossible to identify this doctrine with the doctrine of our Church which as Bishops we have promised to uphold.’ Conservatives were always ready to remind him of this consecration vow to ‘drive away strange and erroneous doctrine’, and so Ramsey needed to act, and quickly, using the only tool available to him: his own personal authority.

Ramsey gave a television interview, stating that Robinson had been ‘utterly wrong and misleading to denounce the imagery of God held by Christian men, women and children […] and to say that we can’t have any new thought until it is swept away.’ The statement was short, and blunt, and provoked Robinson to protest; but Ramsey was at the time also writing the pamphlet that was to be published three weeks later as Image Old and New; an attempt not at debunking so much as to show that the Church was prepared to engage with the issues whilst at the same time emphasising the necessary limits. Finally there was still the matter of an heresy hunt in the Convocation, and ‘with great reluctance’ but some success Ramsey used part of his presidential address to meet the point.HonestToGodDebate-cover-blog

To what extent could Ramsey have handled the affair differently ? He later acknowledged that there had been ‘in the background a widespread crisis of faith which cried out for another kind of spirit in meeting it.’ Perhaps Ramsey was not quite engaged with some of the theological currents with which Robinson’s mind was flowing; they were certainly not those he found most congenial. That said, Image Old and New shows a quite sufficient grasp of the main issues for the needs of an archbishop, if not indeed of a professional theologian, and neither had Ramsey come to them anew in 1963.

Ramsey certainly regretted the pastoral damage done to his relationships with both Robinson and Stockwood. The correspondence with Robinson is amongst the most painful in the Ramsey Papers, and his chaplain thought he had never seen Ramsey so upset. And it was perhaps in the church’s pastoral role that Ramsey was caught behind the pace. Ramsey was well aware of the estrangement of much of the public from a church guilty of ‘assuming too easily that the faith may be taken for granted and needs only to be stated and commended.’ But such commendation was only possible if ‘we go out and put ourselves with loving sympathy inside the doubts of the doubting, the questions of the questioners, and the loneliness of those who have lost their way.’ In the case of Honest to God, however, he was slow to grasp the depth of that estrangement. The testimonies brought together in the later The Honest to God Debate clearly show that Robinson had touched a great many people, and to the quick, and it was this that Ramsey was slow to appreciate.

Ultimately, however, Ramsey had no choice. For all the comfort and relief that the book had brought to some, it had also caused acute distress to others. A priest in Ramsey’s former diocese of Durham felt that the ground had been cut from beneath the ordinary parish clergy, facing questions from their flock which they could not answer: ‘what are we poor priests to do ?’ If there was a pastoral need to meet the doubts of the doubting, it was to be balanced with a responsibility to the existing faithful.

More fundamentally, Ramsey’s hands were tied by his responsibility to the integrity of the Church of England as a whole. There had to be something, however small, that distinguished a church from a voluntary society for the discussion of religious opinions; and that something was fixity in doctrine at its core. Just months before the storm broke, Ramsey spoke of ‘the hard adventure of blending depth of conviction with the utmost reverence for the mind and conscience of other people’. The church had a difficult double role, of ‘encouraging freedom of enquiry and adhering to a definite faith revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the historic creeds.’ In a phrase of Mandell Creighton, there was a need to balance ‘“the right of the individual to be free and the duty of the institution to be something.”’ Once Ramsey had been convinced that Robinson, however unwittingly and however well intentioned, had subtracted from that essential something, then there was no option than to act.

Is it time to disestablish the Church of England ?

For much of the last century, every adjustment in the relationship between the state and the established Church of England has been resisted on the basis that it ‘raises the question of disestablishment’. There have of course been tinkerings and modifications: on the process of Crown appointments; attempts at removing the bishops from the House of Lords; and the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 which gave the Church the power to settle most of the most important things about its own life and worship.

Image CC: BY-NC, from Lawrence OP (Flickr)
Bishop John Fisher in Parliament [Image CC: BY-NC, from Lawrence OP (Flickr)]
Perhaps the establishment of the CofE is one of its intrinsic mysteries; the genius of Anglicanism which remains opaque even to its initiates, and which (like that other fabled beast the British Constitution), seems to work well even if no-one quite knows how. But recent events show more clearly than ever before just how precarious establishment is, and how contingent on other things which seem less solid.

There was always an implicit bargain involved in the survival of establishment. On the Church’s side, it offered some advantages. In the parishes, hatching, matching and despatching kept open occasions for pastoral contact with parishioners who never otherwise entered the building, even if opinions differ on how real or important much of this was. The royal set-piece occasions remained symbolic demonstrations of the historic reality of the place of Christianity in national life. And the place of the bishops in the Lords was taken very seriously by those bishops, even if their consciousness of their role shifted, first towards being representatives of the other Christian churches, and then of all faiths.

After the mid-sixties, and particularly after 1974, the burdens of establishment in practical terms were light, once Parliament had denied itself the right in practice to interfere in the internal running of the Church, even if sometimes it still had to wave necessary legislation through. And so an equilibrium has held since then: the Church didn’t much bother the state in practical terms; the Church bore some mild inconvenience in return for some advantages; and the sheer effort and parliamentary time involved in disestablishment deterred any serious consideration of it.

More recent events have upset this delicate balance. Rural clergy of my acquaintance still place considerable value on the Church’s role as registrar-delegate on behalf of the state in the matter of the rites of passage; but that advantage in urban areas is surely now almost null. As for the role of the bishops in the House of Lords, some still set some store by it, but as a burden rather than a privilege. If any government were actually to set to the task of removing them, I doubt it would be resisted too hard. And so, although hard data for analysis is in short supply, the cost-benefit calculus of establishment for the Church looks less and less favourable, and is increasingly seen to be so.

Both of these changes would be a loss, but a minor one, and easily accommodated. Two recent developments take things closer to home.

Firstly there is the issue of gay marriage. Several faith groups hold that marriage is necessarily, indeed ontologically only possible between man and woman. However, for all but one of these groups (those that are not established) the redefining of civil marriage by the state need not cause any internal difficulty, other than the loss of the right for their own religious solemnisation of marriage to contain the civil component. For the Church of England, I see no possible way that its own religious definition of marriage as exclusively heterosexual could survive an enforcement by the state of such a redefinition of marriage in civil terms. The role of registrar-delegate would have to be relinquished, leaving marriage in the Church of England the same (in law) as by the rites of the Methodists or in synagogue or mosque. This may (or may not) be possible without upsetting some other part of the delicate ecology of establishment. I don’t see the exemption of the Church of England from the current legislation as durable for any length of time.

Similarly, if the General Synod votes again against the consecration of women as bishops, then the sort of attempt (suggested by some) by Parliament to force the issue in relation to the bishops in the Lords would provoke a similar crisis. This is not to mention any attempt to apply the existing employment equality legislation to the issue, if the Church (as discharger of some functions on behalf of the state) discriminates on the grounds of gender.

Had either issue come to the surface twenty years ago, things would have been quite different. But in the last few years, I think that the climate of opinion has changed, on both sides. There has been a considerable upsurge in secularist sentiment, whether as applied to the House of Lords, or faith schools, or the law on blasphemy, or the visit of the Pope to the UK in 2010. And so the public mood would seem to the most supportive it has been for decades for an attempt at a renegotiation.

And at the same time, there may be more appetite within the Church for such an attempt as well. The point is often made that the Church of England is a church, not a sect. But a church can only be church in this comprehensive national sense if the nation on whose behalf it is supposed to exist recognises it. Not everyone, or even the majority, need ever make direct use of it, but it needs to be regarded as something other than a private religious society (that is, a sect), and that has some set of obligations to the whole nation. Becoming a sect need not jeopardise the Church’s mission; but it would need to recognise that that mission is no longer shaped as it was when establishment made sense. And more and more Anglicans are I think coming to recognise that it no longer does. There have for decades been voices who have thought that establishment meant being part of The Establishment, of being too close to secular power and all its moral difficulties; and that the prophetic edge of the Church’s mission, to speak truth to power, was thereby compromised. I think these voices are now coming to represent a more and more mainstream view.

(Let me be clear about one thing, however. Some within the churches have seen the gay marriage issue as the thin end of a wedge, by which the freedom of churches (as voluntary religious societies) to order their worship and doctrine would be eroded by militant secularists – that conservative churches would eventually be forced to accept gay clergy, or women bishops, or whichever norm of wider society conflicted with their own belief. This rhetoric is surely overblown, and hinders hard thinking on the real issues about the dual nature of the Church of England.)

It would be brave to predict the actual disestablishment of the Church of England, and I’m not about to. However, I do think that the state of opinion, both within and outside the Church, are more favourable than they have been for decades. If a government had the appetite for the job of disestablishment, now would be the time to attempt it.