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.


Interview on Open Access for theology and religious studies

[Last year I gave an interview to Omega Alpha, a splendid blog on Open Access for theology and religious studies. I republish it here with the kind permission of Gary F. Daught, with thanks. It is slightly edited for flow and style, but it still clearly shows its origins as an interview. The substance remains the same.]

Omega Alpha: Thank you, Peter, for this opportunity to talk with you. How did you first learn about open access? How did you become a “convert” to OA, if this is the right way of putting it?

Webster: My becoming a ‘convert’ to open access isn’t an inappropriate way of putting it, in some ways. My exposure to open access came mostly through being in charge of the institutional repository at the School of Advanced Study. I became drawn into open access over time through dealing with management policies, talking with faculty, etc. The IR served primarily the humanities with a bit of social sciences on the edge. It was very interesting to see how scholars responded to it, and hear what they thought about open access within that quite dedicated humanities space. Incidentally, I think it’s fair to say that the Humanities are a significant distance behind, certainly behind the natural sciences, regarding open access.

I don’t think very many people, if pushed, would dispute the general principle of open access—that academic research ought to be freely available for anyone who might conceivably want to read it, especially if it is publicly funded. I think I would probably stop short of saying there is a moral obligation for open access, though I do agree with the idea of supporting open access as a ‘public good.’ There are benefits to the scholar having their work available to even a lay readership in this way. The material that scholars write about in the humanities (including Religious Studies) is (in theory) more easily accessible to the average reader than, for instance, most of microbiology. One might expect humanities scholars to be more engaged in open access, precisely because of what there is to be gained from it in terms of getting ideas out for public discourse—knowing that their research has relevance. So I’m surprised by this reticence. Is it a lack of confidence that what we do is too specialised to be of interest to anybody?

I suppose I have it relatively easy, though, because no one pays me to do the research I do. I’m not dependent on it for tenure, or anything like that. But almost all my existing research (for which I can get permission) is in the repository I used to run. Having seen the usage statistics, I know that it gets the kind of traffic that one couldn’t possibly expect if it were only still available in print. You will have a sense, Gary, of the average use of a typical theological monograph. I’m pretty sure my stuff has at least been found and the PDFs opened by a much larger number of people. This usage has yet to present itself in citations, but that’s partly because my material is quite new. I would expect to see the ‘citation effect’ build up over time. There are studies suggesting there is this demonstrable ‘citation effect’ for open access.

The other thing I would add is the whole international dimension. The traffic to the material in the repository is coming from all sorts of places around the world, not just western anglophone countries as you might expect. So, if you want your work to be read as widely as possible this is an obvious way to go. If you can get past the ‘professional drivers’ there’s a lot to be gained.

Omega Alpha: How did you learn about Open Library of Humanities? Tell me specifically about your interest in this project, and why you decided to join one of the advisory committees.

Webster: I follow Martin Eve on Twitter, and back in January after the project idea first got going he put out a call for interested folk to get in touch. I tweeted back, saying that I’d be interested to be involved somehow. He wrote back inviting me to join the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee.

What is very interesting to me about the project is the way in which peer review may be dealt with. I’ve become more and more convinced that the current system of peer review is an accident — that it is actually the product of a particular historical confluence of a technology (print) and a particular way of rewarding or assessing where academics are in relation to each other. OLH is examining the approach used by the Public Library of Science, which very helpfully separates out two quite distinct functions of peer review. First is a basic level of gatekeeping to check for basic competence in method, and expression, and documentation, and for genuine engagement with the field of scholarship as it lies. That’s a useful filter to have. It’s relatively fast and light-weight to do. It can be reasonably objective. You can tell if someone’s footnoting is right, whether there’s engagement with most of the work in the field, and if there’s a coherent argument involved.

We’ve also allowed peer review to carry the weight of trying to establish how important something is. It seems to me, that were I a journal editor, I shouldn’t think my judgment, while informed, should necessarily be authoritative in determining whether or not something should be published, based on my assessment of how ‘important’ it is. It seems to me that it is the readers who are in a better position of determining whether or not a piece of research is important. I believe ‘the cream will rise to the top.’ There is now no issue of capacity (referring back to the technological ‘accident’ of print above with its inherent limitations of space.) We allowed the rationing of scarce space in a print journal to become a proxy for importance. I believe anything that is defensible in scholarly terms should be published, and the genuinely important stuff will be found — it will rise to the top. This second function, which includes various kinds of ‘altmetrics’, is called post-publication peer review. I don’t see any reason why this approach shouldn’t work in the humanities.

Omega Alpha: What do you think about the “mega-journal” and multi-disciplinary format of OLH compared to traditional subject- or association-focused journals in religion? How might this format compare to subject-focused gold open access journals in religion?

Webster: At the pragmatic level, I don’t see lots and lots of open access journals utilizing the PLOS model springing up in the various disciplines. The strength of OLH is in the platform itself, which can serve as a common technical backend for the various disciplines and sub-disciplines within the humanities. The platform gives us economies of scale. Having a multi-disciplinary platform doesn’t preclude the creation of discipline-specific journals within it. We may find, over time, that the users of the platform are in a position to curate their own subject subsets of material. Or over time, as we build up a large amount of content, we may find we can create special issue ‘journals’ retrospectively edited, bringing together ‘the cream’ of most significant and important research. A looser structure at the beginning will give us greater flexibility as things develop and mature. Being able to search across disciplines may enable us to to make research connections we might miss in a more siloed environment.

Omega Alpha: What would (or do) you say to fellow scholars in religion and theology who may be reluctant to embrace open access as a viable and legitimate scholarly communication venue?

Webster: I don’t now have that many opportunities for ‘evangelism’ in that way (going back to your question relating to my ‘conversion’ to open access). But I would simply come back to all the benefits that we were talking about before. I think the various objections to open access come down to getting the implementation right, rather than issues with the principle of freely available access to this work that we’re all doing. I would major on the opportunity to get material out fast to wide audiences, including lay audiences, and of course, the international dimension. You would hope that a healthy Church or faith community — if we’re looking at this from a religious point of view — would be an organization or community that engages with its own history, and with scholarly thinking about what it is that it believes and practices. You would think there would be a greater than average gain for theological scholars in being able to reach those audiences directly.

Omega Alpha: Do you have any final thoughts?

Webster: For scholars who are used to traditional print-form research outputs, engagement with open access will lead necessarily to greater engagement with the digital environment and the use of digital methods of research production and communication, such as blogs and other social media, enabling us to interact more directly with our audiences. Relatedly, this ought to make us think harder about how we write, how clearly we write, and the audiences for whom our research material is written. It’s a cliché to say that academic writing is often opaque, but there is enough of it that is just so to make it a truism. I do not think it should be impossible to write clear and accessible prose that also conveys difficult ideas. These two things need not be incompatible. It strikes me that communicating with all the groups that have a stake in what it is we do (that is, not just scholars but also interested lay persons) is a good place to test that hypothesis.

Omega Alpha: Peter, thank you so much for your time and your participation in this conversation. Perhaps you will allow me to check-in again with you as those developments touch on the impact of open access on Religious Studies research communication.

Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis: a double review

[This review will appear later this year in the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin. This extended version is published with the kind permission of the Editor.]

Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis. A Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)

Alister McGrath, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)

In the words of Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham, ‘many of us thought we knew most of what there was to know about C.S. Lewis’. A problem for any scholar looking to shed new light on Lewis – literary scholar, Christian apologist and creator of Narnia – is the easy accessibility of the sources. Walter Hooper’s three volume edition of Lewis’ letters contains very nearly all that are known to have survived. The vast bulk of the essays were recently edited by Lesley Walmsley for Harper Collins. As for the books, a check of my own shelves revealed copies of more than half of the list, accumulated second-hand in recent editions without any great intent or effort. Most of the fiction and much of the apologetic work remains in print. Apart from the Lewis Papers, eleven volumes of manuscript transcripts concerning Lewis’s background in Belfast, there are no significant manuscript collections associated with Lewis that remain unmined.

Yet the wheels of the Lewis Studies machine continue to turn, with study after study traversing the corpus, parsing Lewis’ work in every conceivable way. But for all the attention paid to the works as texts, Lewis seems less well integrated into the history of British Christianity in the 1940s and 1950s than he ought to be. With the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers, also a writer of fiction and apologetics from within the Church of England but on its edge, Lewis seems without easy parallel, and hard to locate.

Lewis is particularly hard to place since, as Walter Hooper observed, there is not one Lewis but several. Most readers will be familiar with Narnia, but perhaps less so with the science fiction of the Ransom trilogy (1938-45), or the fictionalised retelling of classical myth in Till we have faces (1956). Many readers, although perhaps not quite the same readers, have experienced Lewis as Christian apologist and popular theologian, most famously as a wartime broadcaster and in Mere Christianity (1952). Few modern readers will know Lewis’ academic writing on medieval and Renaissance literature, such as his work on Milton’s Paradise Lost, for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature long before Narnia. In common with Lewis’ colleagues at Oxford, those who know all three may well struggle to connect them.

McGrath - Intellectual World of Lewis - cover

Now we have two fine complementary studies of Lewis from historian and theologian Alister McGrath. The aim common to both is to integrate the many Lewises, and to show that the many sides of Lewis’ thought can, and must, be read as springing from the same set of fundamental preoccupations. In this McGrath is wholly successful, and both studies will surely establish themselves as essential reading.

From Wiley-Blackwell comes The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, a collection of eight essays: fine contributions to the history of ideas in its pure form, and of considerable interest to specialist historians. There are acute and stimulating observations on Surprised by Joy as autobiography cast in a Christian mould, and its reliability as a source for historians. There are two particularly fine chapters showing the long-range influence on Lewis of the tradition of classical, medieval and early modern literature. The first of these re-emphasises the importance of myth for Lewis, and of understanding Christianity as foremost a true myth; the apologetic task was not merely about the cerebral apprehension of certain propositions, but about engaging the imagination. This is an important counter-balance to the plain man Lewis and the plain prose of the wartime apologetic. Perhaps the most striking piece is on Lewis’ use of metaphor, and the privileging of ocular metaphors, of light, sun, sight. McGrath brilliantly contrasts this with the weight of Protestant metaphor which is aural – of hearing the Word – to which Lewis the Ulsterman might have been more disposed.

Lewis - Life - McGrath cover

Published by Hodder is C.S. Lewis. A Life. While it may not surprise specialists in matters of fact, as a Life written for a general readership this will be hard to better. McGrath adroitly steers through the ‘meteoric shower of facts’ that have accumulated around Lewis, giving a pacy account of Lewis’ career, integrated carefully with the genesis of the works. There are pithy expositions of the key works, which send the reader back to the writings themselves as good criticism should. Particularly fine are the accounts of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), and of A Grief Observed as a transposition of the abstract concerns of The Problem of Pain into a much higher and more painful key.

McGrath also avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse Lewis overmuch, particularly given the curiously unresolved traumas of Lewis’ experience: in the trenches in the First World War; the loss of his mother; the oddity of his relationship with Mrs Moore; and the marriage of convenience with Joy Davidman. Only occasionally is an odd note sounded. The detailed exposition of the Narnia series in chapter 12 is overlong in relation to McGrath’s treatments of the other works, and feels like a long interlude in the narrative. Occasionally some of the detail is incongruous: ‘the Minto’, Lewis’ nickname for Mrs Moore, may well be connected with the sweet of the same name (p.84); but it isn’t clear why the reader needs to know who invented it, when and where (the Doncaster confectioner William Nuttall, in 1912).

As McGrath points out, on one point he stands alone amongst Lewis scholars: his redating of Lewis’ initial conversion from atheism to theism, from 1929 to 1930, which to this reviewer seems wholly convincing. Historians of Christianity are provided with few enough detailed accounts of individual paths to conversion, and of those few as idiosyncratic as that of Lewis. As such, the redating is welcome and important. Several of the early reviews also identify this as the major piece of new biographical light to be seen here. At the same time, it is a redating of an event in a sequence of events rather than a reordering of that sequence; and the redating does not affect our understanding of the composition of any of the works, other than to show that Lewis’ own account in Surprised by Joy is itself wrong.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the separation into two volumes. The placing of much of the detailed exposition of Lewis’s intellectual context in The Intellectual World allows rich and nuanced writing that would be difficult to integrate successfully into a chronological narrative. However, the removal of that contextual material leaves the Life rather denuded of very much context that was not contained within Lewis’ head, the Bodleian Library, and a square mile of central Oxford. The impact of the Second World War is limited only to its effect on college life; the ‘low dishonest decade’ that was the Thirties hardly figures. There is also little sense of the wider currents of thought and feeling in post-war British life that together constitute the much-disputed idea of secularisation, apart from its manifestation within Oxford philosophy. Lewis may have self-consciously positioned himself as a dinosaur; but readers of the Life without access to The Intellectual World may need to know rather more about the elements of contemporary discourse with which Lewis was out of sympathy. In both volumes, McGrath correlates the apparent eclipse of Lewis’s thought with the rise of secularism, and then his recovery of influence with the sway of postmodernism. This is entirely plausible, but the suggestion is made without engagement to any great extent with the large and well developed historical literature on both.

Another odd note is sounded in the chapter in The Intellectual World on Lewis as theologian. McGrath is determined to show that Lewis counts as a theologian, and that any definition of the role that would exclude him is a faulty definition. To this reader, at least, this feels very much like pushing at a long-open door. Historically, McGrath tries to show that the theological establishment in Britain tried to exclude Lewis, but at the end of the chapter it remains unclear just who was doing the excluding, from what, and by what means. Undoubtedly there was opposition to, not to say distaste for Lewis in Oxford; but the most waspish character assassination I know of is in the letters of Hugh Trevor-Roper, hardly part of the theological establishment. The bewilderment amongst Lewis’ colleagues at the wartime apologetic was not that it did not pass muster as “theology”, but that he should want to write such stuff at all. By and large Lewis didn’t concern himself with the issues that were preoccupying Oxford divinity; the story is surely one of mutual ignorance, rather than deliberate exclusion.

The final chapter offers an analysis of Lewis’ afterlife, providing a highly suggestive outline of what a reception history of Lewis might look like. It is indeed striking that Lewis, no evangelical, should be thought theologically unsound by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the year of his death, yet go on to achieve something approach star status amongst evangelicals, particularly in the USA. As with the earlier chapters, however, there is a relative lack of engagement with recent historical scholarship on the period, leaving historians with many threads to pick up and examine more closely. It is to be hoped that they do, along with much else in these splendid volumes.

The Search for Authority in Reformation Europe

This new edited collection is now out, published by Ashgate (2014), in print with ebook and PDF options (all on the Ashgate site). It is edited with Elaine Fulton and Helen Parish, to whom my thanks are due for seeing it safely through the final stages with the press.Layout 1

Here’s the table of contents:

  • Introduction; the search for authority in the Protestant Reformation (free PDF), Elaine Fulton and Peter Webster;
  • ‘Arguing about religion’: Luther’s ongoing debate with Islam, Adam S. Francisco;
  • The authority of scripture and tradition in Calvin’s lectures on the prophets – Jon Balserak;
  • Spiritual authority and ecclesiastical practice: John a Lasco and the Forma ac ratio – Michael S. Springer;
  • ‘History as authority: Johann Sleidan and his De statu religionis et reipublicae, Carolo Quinto Caesare Commentarii – Alexandra Kess;
  • Touching theology with unwashed hands: the preservation of authority in post-Tridentine Catholicism – Elaine Fulton;
  • Authority and method in the Eucharistic debates of the early English Reformation – Korey D. Maas;
  • ‘To conseile with elde dyuynis’: history, scripture and interpretation in Reformation England – Helen Parish;
  • The ‘challenge controversy’ and the question of authority in the early Elizabethan Church – Mary Morrissey;
  • Augustine ‘falleth into dispute with himself’: the Fathers and church music in Elizabethan and early Stuart England – Peter Webster;
  • Conclusion – Helen Parish

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.

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.