Paul Avis reviews Archbishop Ramsey

I’m very pleased to be able to point out another favourable review of my book on Michael Ramsey, this time from the Anglican priest and ecclesiologist Paul Avis, visiting professor in the University of Exeter. Editor of the journal Ecclesiology, Avis devotes his whole editorial for volume 12, issue 3 to the book, and Ramsey at large.

Avis’s piece is more than simply a review, and is worth reading in its own right for his remarks on Ramsey, Luther and the Cross. He also notes Ramsey’s much noted personal eccentricity, which I have suggested that this could be explained by a retrospective diagnosis of autism. However, his observations on my book are uniformly positive.

Webster’s study is marked by well-paced narrative, perceptive analysis [and] a few correctives to [Owen] Chadwick’s picture…  Altogether Ramsey emerges as an impressively capable and indeed prophetic Archbishop of Canterbury. Like the other excellent recent reappraisals of Archbishops of Canterbury […] this new study shows an Archbishop of Canterbury of greater stature, especially in this case politically, than many have previously thought. Ramsey was perhaps overall the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of the twentieth century’

It is published by Routledge at £25 in paperback; read other reviews of it here.

The archbishop, crime and sin: the Sexual Offences Act at 50

In July it will be fifty years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partly decriminalised sex between consenting adult men in private, in England and Wales. Various articles have started to appear, reflecting on the Act and the time since: some celebratory, some rather less so such as Gregory Woods in the TLS on the partial nature of the Act, a ‘discriminatory insult’.

Woods mentions Michael Ramsey in particular, and there is a place for assessing the legacy of the Act and how far it did (and did not) go. But reflecting on the limitations of the Act risks obscuring how significant a move it was in its context, and how difficult to achieve. This extract from my 2015 book on Ramsey takes up the story. In contrast to the more recent history of the Church of England and sexuality, it shows that the Church was not always behind public opinion, and was indeed sometimes ahead of it.

Hugh McLeod has made the salutary point that, despite their chronological closeness, the several amendments of the moral law in the 1960s ought not to be seen as the result of a concerted campaign, but rather as a series of related but distinct movements. At large, if the public were broadly in favour of liberalisation in the cases of divorce and abortion law, this was less the case when it came to homosexuality. The law criminalised sexual activity between men of any age in public or private, and a significant section of public opinion wished it to remain that way. As with capital punishment, the support of the institution of the Church of England for reform put it at odds with considerable sections of the public, both affiliated with the Church and not.

It was during Geoffrey Fisher’s time at Lambeth that the issue had pressed itself into public consciousness with the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957. If Fisher was mostly supportive of reform, but with some ambivalence, Ramsey had made his support for a change in the law clear; change that was to come in 1967, with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. The Homosexual Law Reform Society numbered several of the bishops amongst its members, including Ramsey, who had joined before coming to Lambeth.

The law on homosexuality is a paradigm case of the proper relation between crime and sin in a post-Christian society. The Christian churches were united in regarding homosexual practice as sinful, and this had been in alignment for centuries with the general moral sense of the public. But there were many things which the Church thought were sins but which were not crimes, including adultery; and there were other matters which were both sins and crimes but which the public regarded as neither. Ramsey knew that the connection between crime and sin that many of the public felt very keenly, and which they expected the Church to preserve, was not sustainable.

It is worth pausing over what it was that Anglican campaigners for reform in the law were arguing, and its limits. Almost all the churches were united in regarding the condition of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, a state at odds with nature, and homosexual intercourse as the sinful outworking of that state. Some thought that as a condition it might be cured; others were less sure. But most knew that there was no possibility of help for unfortunate and unhappy men while their condition was the object of the criminal law. There were also the first signs of a reassessment of homosexual relationships as having a positive, indeed even equivalent moral status as heterosexual ones, particularly among the Quakers, but it was in no way the mainstream of Christian thought.

In this, Ramsey’s own thought was in line with the more advanced in his and the other churches in relation to the law; but not with regard to the moral status of the act. As he told the House of Lords, ‘homosexual acts are always wrong in the sense that they use in a wrong way human organs for which the right use is intercourse between men and women within marriage.’ As such, despite talk of the ‘new morality’ there could be no wavering in the Church’s own discipline: as he told the wife of the peer Lord Brocket, ‘As to the wrongness of the sins in question and all other serious sins, we have to be perfectly plain in our teaching.’

Some wondered, though, whether that moral teaching could remain plain if a change in the law opened the door to openly homosexual clergy. The Conservative Lord Chancellor Viscount Dilhorne, famously abrasive and one of Ramsey’s chief antagonists in the Lords, considered tabling an amendment to the Bill excluding clergy (of the established Church) from its provisions. ‘I can imagine nothing more damaging to the prestige of our Church’, Dilhorne argued, ‘than for it to be thought that parsons and other clergy of the Church of England will be free to engage in homosexual activities.’ Did the public support from the bishops for the Bill not foster such an impression? In this case, Ramsey was able to reassure his noble colleague, since the recent Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure (1963) contained powers with statutory force to discipline clergy for moral offences that were not criminal.

Insofar as it is possible to recover Ramsey’s own feelings, they would seem to have been mixed. In private he was able to describe homosexual sex as ‘disgusting’, but this, when coupled to his concern with the law, issued in a desire to help; to provide for the rescue of the homosexual from his wretched state, and to set him on the right path. As to the causes of the homosexual state, he was agnostic. He wondered in the Lords whether it was possible in some cases ‘to change the direction of the sexual impulses from the homosexual to the normal’. In other cases, there was the need, as there was for all Christians in one regard or another, for ‘greater conscience or self-control’; this was important for ‘those who believe seriously in the means of Divine Grace’.

What was certain was that neither this help, nor the open and unhindered medical and psychological investigation that Ramsey thought necessary, were possible under the law as it stood. Those laws ‘do not help morality, and give a good deal of hindrance to the promotion of what is right.’, and fostered nothing more than a ‘sense of injustice and bitterness.’ The case for change was on grounds of ‘reason and justice, and on considerations of the good of the community.’ Ramsey spoke and voted in 1965 in favour of the Bill introduced by Lord Arran, and again in 1966 for the later Bill that was later to issue in the Act of 1967.

The letters that Ramsey received were often expressive of strong feelings, whether it be on abortion, or on relations with Rome, or about race relations in England, but those which he received about homosexuality were in no few cases indicative of visceral feeling: of homophobia in its literal sense. One thought it a ‘filthy business’ and Ramsey ‘a damned disgrace’; another asked ‘Is there no longer such a thing as sin?’

For many, the fact of the changes in the law was less shocking than the apparent abdication of responsibility by the established Church in failing to oppose them. As Hera Cook has argued, that a previously uniform standard of sexual behaviour was openly debated amongst the elite was itself instrumental in promoting change. In the eyes of some observers the Church, however carefully it tried to distinguish between the law and its own discipline, was culpable. Lady Brocket, the daughter of a clergyman, declared herself and her husband ‘truly and genuinely shattered by your support of the Bill, as are our many friends in every walk of life.’ For her and for ‘many good Church people’ it simply passed understanding that Ramsey should collaborate in the passing of laws that both contradicted Christian morality, and threatened to undermine some of the basic building blocks of a stable society.

But there was an opening up of a gap between crime and sin, which Ramsey knew was both inevitable and right, even if many his correspondents could not begin to tolerate or even understand it. For Ramsey, Wolfenden had been right to argue that ‘not all sins are properly given the status of crimes … to say this is not to condone the wrongness of the acts, but to put them in the realm of private moral responsibility.’ To address that was the task of the Church on its own account, and not of the law. Ramsey knew that the relationship between the established Church and the British people was changing. There were great tasks of re-evangelising the nation; of pastoral ministry to all, including men forced to work out their sexuality in fear. These were no longer aided, and indeed were hindered, by the law as it stood.

Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, priced at £25.

Theology and crisis in the 60s: Michael Ramsey and E.L. Mascall

[Listen to the lecture in full, via the Pusey House website:


Title: Responses to theological crisis in the 1960s: Michael Ramsey and E.L. Mascall
Venue: Pusey House, St Giles, Oxford
Date and Time: Wednesday 17 May, 4pm (tea from 3.30)

Abstract: Rightly or wrongly, the long 1960s are often viewed in terms of religious crises. Responses to these pressures were many, and varied radically within churches, and indeed within constituencies within individual churches. This lecture outlines some of the contours of Anglican Catholic reactions by means of a comparison of two theologians and teachers; Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and Eric Mascall. It focusses in particular on two themes: the impact of the theology of the ‘death of God’ most personified by John A.T. Robinson; and the ecumenical movement, particularly the unsuccessful Anglican-Methodist unity scheme. Although alike in background, Ramsey and Mascall dealt with these issues in radically different ways. The issues were of faith and certainty, ambiguity and precision, optimism and pessimism, and the relationship between theology, pastoral care and the workings of an institution.

The lecture draws on my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey.

On structuring a book

Another review of my book on Michael Ramsey appears this week, this time from Keith Robbins in the English Historical Review. It is of course a pleasure to have a review from a senior scholar such as Professor Robbins, and in a leading generalist journal such as the EHR. Robbins concludes that it is a ‘well-balanced survey’, but otherwise has few substantive criticisms to make, positive or negative.

There is one, however, which merits some further discussion here. Robbins writes:

The drawback [of the book’s thematic structure] is that it is difficult to form a sense of how, year on year, each of these topics related to each other in terms of Ramsey’s ordering of their importance and his attention. It is convenient for historians to write about ‘the state’ and ‘the nation’ in different chapters, but so many questions flow across boundaries that their separate treatment seems a little artificial.

Most historians writing a book, I suspect, will have faced the choice between adopting either a chronological structure or a thematic one. My forthcoming book on Walter Hussey adopts a hybrid method: a broadly chronological structure, with some extended analyses of contextual themes interspersed. The adoption of either approach entails gains and losses, as Robbins states. With Hussey, the chronological structure works (I think) because the story has one track: a succession of commissions of works of art for his churches.

In Ramsey’s case, there is no single narrative thread, but several that progress side by side during his time as archbishop. There are points of contact between them, to be sure, which both introduction and conclusion were intended to draw out, perhaps unsuccessfully. But year by year there is not the kind of clustering of attention that Robbins suggests there might be. Instead, there are multiple threads of political, ecumenical and legal development, each of which moves according to its own internal dynamics: fast and slow; some recently arisen and others of very long standing; bursts of activity and long pauses. If one were to order Ramsey’s career as a sequence of events, one would see legislative moves in Parliament, political events overseas, sessions of the Church Assembly, interactions with the media, meetings with the other churches, sometimes in the same week or indeed the same day. Ramsey seems to have been adept at putting disparate matters in their separate boxes in order that they might be dealt with on their own terms. But the day to day experience of the archbishop was one of a rapid succession of highly disparate matters.

Sometimes Ramsey acted on his own initiative in response to events, such as the crises in Southern Rhodesia or Vietnam. In Parliament, sometimes he was able to initiate, and at other terms react, and to try to influence. The process of internal change in the Church is one of commissions, working groups, reports, and the to-and-fro between archbishop, bishops and the periodic deliberations of the Church Assembly or General Synod. Ecumenical change was necessarily a process of both initiative and reaction in relation to other churches at home and abroad. Part of the experience of being archbishop that I wanted to show was the imbalance between the power that he was supposed by many to wield, and the reality of the constraints under which he in fact operated. His power to initiate was considerable, but at the same time more limited than many thought.

The structure of the book was an attempt to isolate some key themes in order that they might be analysed. It may well be possible to achieve the same analytic end in a more chronological way; but it would have required a better writer than me. More pragmatically, the structure of the book more closely serves the needs of most of the readers it may attract. As an author, one might fondly imagine that every reader will want to savour every page of the book, but the majority will come to it in search of material on a particular issue, as Robbins acknowledges. I had no wish to force those readers to work with the index to hew that material out.

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.