On Popes, archbishops and their predecessors

Those who follow such obscure things will be conscious that we have at the moment simultaneous periods of transition in the highest offices of both the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England (and thus the Anglican Communion.) As Pope Emeritus Benedict disappeared from view into the palace at Castel Gandolfo, speculation began as to what sort of neighbour he would be to his successor, since Popes have not often needed to reckon with the presence of a living predecessor. Would Benedict be a critic, or at the least a silent focus for the discontent of others ? Or a source of counsel and encouragement? I am not enough of a Vatican-watcher to speculate; but there are some interesting parallels in the relationships of some modern archbishops of Canterbury with their predecessors; and not always happy ones.

Outgoing archbishops have often been asked for their mind as to their successor. In 1961 Geoffrey Fisher advised Harold Macmillan against appointing Michael Ramsey to Canterbury. In 1974 Ramsey himself thought that Donald Coggan was not the best man to succeed him; not for any particular fault of Coggan’s, but because Ramsey thought that a figure from the worldwide Anglican Communion would be better.

So far, so predictable; indeed, one might hope that any such process would seek the views of the outgoing man, even if they were not decisive, as neither Fisher nor Ramsey were. But there have been two recent instances where an outgoing archbishop has not retired to monastic seclusion, never to be seen in public affairs again; and neither of them reflect well on the men concerned.

The most recent was the intervention of George Carey in 2008 in the media firestorm following Rowan Williams’ comments on the possibility of finding some limited spaces for sharia law within (and subject to) UK family law. Carey, in his regular column in the News of the World, argued that such change would be ‘disastrous for the nation [and] a direct challenge to the values of the Christian/Jewish ethic on which our laws have been constructed.’ Although much of the rest of the column was more supportive, the episode was one of the most difficult in Williams’ time, and it is hard to imagine that Carey’s intervention was experienced as anything other than unhelpful.

The other case, sustained over a longer period and probably more damaging, was Geoffrey Fisher’s campaign from retirement in rural Dorset against the Scheme to reunite the Anglican and Methodist churches; a scheme in which Ramsey had invested much. That the two men were poles apart temperamentally was noted at the time; Harold Macmillan’s quip about his appointment of Ramsey, that there had been ‘enough of Martha and it was time for some Mary’ caught something of the contrast. Fisher’s reputation has suffered unduly, but the picture of the brisk, efficient headmaster figure has persisted, and indeed Fisher had been head of Repton School when Ramsey was a pupil. Ramsey told Macmillan that ‘Fisher was my headmaster and he has known all my deficiencies for a long time.’ Macmillan replied ‘Well, he is not going to be my headmaster.’

Fisher yielded to no-one in his commitment to reunion between the two churches, being widely credited with the inception of the whole process in his so-called ‘Cambridge sermon’ of 1946. However, he came to reject the Scheme, thinking it a basic error to suppose that the ministries of the two churches could be reconciled before full communion was achieved. For Fisher the ambiguity necessary in the special Service of Reconciliation, created to circumvent the issue, was intolerable: ‘a pious subterfuge, pious and sincere but still a subterfuge and a tortuous one.’

Ramsey’s predecessor was loudly and consistently against the Scheme, in print, in letters to the Press, and in a constant private correspondence with Ramsey and other bishops. Ramsey came to dread the arrival of Fisher’s letters which eventually went unanswered, causing Fisher to lodge a formal complaint with the Church Assembly about his treatment at the hands of his successor. Ramsey certainly thought Fisher had been crucial in sinking the Scheme, many having been persuaded ‘that as Lord Fisher dislikes the proposals there must be something fishy about them.’

There was no hint of the episode in the address that Ramsey gave at Fisher’s funeral; but Fisher’s brooding presence had been nothing but a hindrance. None of the more recent (and sympathetic) students of Fisher have quite been able to excuse him on this count. I would doubt that either of the outgoing Pope or archbishop would wish to follow his example.