Michael Ramsey and his encounter with other faiths

[This paper was given at this year’s Ecclesiastical History Society conference. [Updated 28/11/13] It has now been accepted for publication in Studies in Church History volume 51 (due in 2015), but here’s a summary version of it, on which I’d be delighted to have any comments or reflections.]

Ramsey’s theological formation had required little in the way of theological engagement with the other world religions, either abroad or at home. His view was summed up in a short address at a commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi. In the final analysis, ‘[w]e who are Christians proclaim that Christ is the perfect and final revelation of God.’ However, Christians ‘reverence the divine image in every man’ and that divine light had shone ‘in good men of other religions’. Gandhi had ‘made non-violence his ideal, put simplicity of life before wealth and comfort, put the things of the spirit before material things, made the cause of the poor and outcast his own…’ Ramsey prayed that ‘to us the same light will shine and we shall follow it.’

There were however other forces in play in Ramsey’s make-up. He had as an undergraduate been active in Liberal politics, and interpreting his actions involves separating out political motivation from religious, whilst recognising that often the two ran together. Ramsey was not a son of the established Church, but had grown up within Congregationalism; a background which gave him an acute sensitivity to the position of the religious minority in a hostile environment. And finally, Ramsey’s interventions were part motivated by a simple Christian compassion; the same compassion that he felt for homosexual men vulnerable to blackmail by dint of their criminality, or for couples in irretrievable and damaging marriages that could not be dissolved without subterfuge.

There was an older strain of inter-faith endeavour, which lacked the rigour and realism of Cragg or Chadwick, and which Ramsey knew was a dead-end. There had been several attempts at world congresses or fellowships of religions, some of them eccentric, some of them well-supported, all of them well-meaning but unrealistic. Among the more respectable was the World Congress of Faiths, but Ramsey had a basic disagreement with the approach: ‘I do not believe that “religion” is a kind of banner under which we should all unite as if it contained the essence of what is good versus “irreligion” as its opposite.’ There was also an attempt to create a national Council of Faiths. It argued that the threat to any one faith was not conversion from one to another, but of unbelief, and so it was in the interest of all the faiths to support each other against a common enemy. Ramsey thought the idea of securing the official support of the churches nationally to be hopelessly unrealistic, and instead favoured local co-operation.

There were troubled parts of the world where Ramsey had a more direct interest as head of the Anglican Communion. In 1967 civil war in Nigeria led to its disintegration into a Muslim majority north, and a mostly Christian east. Ramsey spoke against the supply of arms, tried to promote fundraising for aid, and sent delegations to both sides to intercede. Another failed state in which Anglicans were at risk was Sudan, which collapsed into civil war between Muslim north and partly Christian south in 1965. Ramsey met with the Sudanese ambassador to London, and spoke out against the ‘terrible and relentless persecution of Christians’. The balance was however hard to strike between being a disinterested peacemaker, and at the same time the confidant of religious leaders on one side of a conflict.

In the UK, it was the Sikh community that was first to establish community representation nationally, in the form of Shromani Khalsa Dal UK, (The Supreme Body of Sikhs in Britain). The Supreme Body invited Ramsey, as head of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, to address its first national conference. Since 1942, the archbishops had been joint presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews, and Ramsey was in constant demand to address meetings and cut ribbons on new buildings. This type of religious summitry was a game with well established rules. There were however broader issues of identity at play, in which ideas of Englishness in all its racial, cultural and religious aspects interacted with brute economic and social fact in local neighbourhoods.

On the matter of immigration, Ramsey denounced the 1962 Act as both a reneging on historic responsibilities of Britain to its former colonies, and as an offence against basic Christian belief in the equality of all in the eyes of God. The rapid introduction in 1968 of legislation to deny entry to the UK to refugee Kenyans of Asian descent was a similar abrogation of national duty, but also threatened to upset the precarious balance of community relations by creating mistrust amongst the immigrant communities behind whom it was intended that the door be shut.

Ramsey knew of which he spoke. Prime Minister Wilson had asked Ramsey to chair the new National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, set up by the government to monitor the situation of immigrants in the UK. The NCCI was involved in an attempt to outlaw discrimination on religious grounds. The 1966 Racial and Religious Discrimination Bill sought to extend the general principle of the 1965 Race Relations Act to close a possible loophole for those who claimed to be ready to serve coloured people but not Hindus, Moslems or Sikhs. Amending the 1965 Act in this way was essential to protect the Jews as a religious, rather than as a racial group. The Bill failed at second reading, but it shows the Church of England using its position to act on behalf not only of other Christian groups, but of other faiths.

However, Ramsey had gained a reputation as a friend of the minority, which made him the subject of direct appeals for help in specific situations: over the levelling of Muslim graves in Greenford cemetery; over discrimination over the wearing by Sikhs of turbans and beards while working for Wolverhampton transport; over the siting of a new gurdwara in the borough of Hammersmith, over which there were injured feelings. Ramsey as archbishop was viewed as an honest broker in difficult matters, and as a friend of the minority, whether Christian or not.

To what extent could the Church of England, and Ramsey in particular, be held culpable as the nation engaged, in Enoch Powell’s phrase, in ‘heaping up its own funeral pyre’? It was not only Powell who thought that the Church should have accommodated less, and resisted more, the process of assimilation of aliens in culture, language and religion. Ramsey was under police protection for a time in June 1968, most likely for his role with the NCCI. In September supporters of the National Front marched to Lambeth, and others disrupted a meeting in Essex in December with cries of ‘Traitor !’ There was also limited but significant support amongst Anglican clergy and laity for a fascistic view of Britishness that centred on both race and Christian religion, in which Ramsey represented precisely the liberalising tide that had moved the established church away from its traditional role.

By and large Ramsey was not much exercised by apparent symbolic defeats for the established church in relation to other faiths. He intervened in the case of Savile Town St Mary, a chapel of ease in Dewsbury, as local Christian and Muslim communities wrestled with the prospect of allowing a redundant building to be taken over for Muslim use. ‘I should regret the making of a contrary decision’ he wrote ‘having regard to the whole missionary situation in this country and overseas.’

The phrase is a key one. Ramsey knew that the safety and peace of Anglicans elsewhere was partly dependent on how the established church in a Christian nation dealt with its own religious minorities. And the situation in the UK was a missionary one too, no longer one in which an easy congruence of church, nation and people could be assumed. Ramsey oversaw the freeing of the Church of England from parliamentary control of its worship and doctrine, and the decisive separation of the moral law from Christian discipline, with regard to divorce, abortion, and homosexuality amongst others. He did what he could to support the civil rights of religious minorities, and to aid constructive religious dialogue that was at the same time realistic about the real claims to uniqueness and finality of each faith. Without quite being a programme of work, all these developments had a coherence: the Church of England was, in its own eyes if not in law, becoming less established and more national; a church less bound to the state but retaining a national dimension in its sense of its own mission. The church’s work was increasingly in a more equal partnership with other Christian churches, but also in an embryonic but significant way, as a defender of faith.

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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.