What is religious history?

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Michael Ramsey for the contemporary church: a bishop’s view

I blogged recently about the limits of the responsibility of the historian to work out the theological and ethical implications of recent history for the contemporary church. It was inspired by a disagreement between reviewers of my book on archbishop Michael Ramsey over what contemporary history should be for, and whose purposes it should serve.Ramsey - cover

Now there appears a review of the book from a bishop of the Anglican church (although not the first) which does some of just that work – of applying the book’s conclusions to the contemporary church in the USA and worldwide. It is from R. William Franklin, bishop of Western New York, published in the fall 2016 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I have little to quibble with over Bishop Franklin’s gloss on the book, and so I quote some of it here. It is also pleasing that he thinks the book a ‘welcome contribution to scholarship …. a valued alternative interpretation’ and the account of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme ‘masterful’.

For Franklin, Ramsey achieved a synthesis of the sacramentalism of Pusey, the scripturalism of Barth and the socialism of F.D. Maurice in order to ‘define the fundamental shape of the Church as an institution that exists solely to proclaim Christ, and in doing so, to bring about human reconciliation.’ Only a few reviewers so far have focussed on this insight, which (in my mind, at least) was the burden of the whole book. Franklin then goes on to draw out a practical programme:

(i) ‘in mission, to focus on a re-evangelization of the nation;

(ii) ‘in preaching, to give people hope by focussing on the great shape of things to come;

(iii) ‘in ecumenism, to focus on local achievement’

(iv) ‘in liturgical reform, to focus on accessible communication’.

Bishop Franklin connects this programme very directly with the Jesus Movement, outlined by the present presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, which is an intriguing thought. For Franklin, the Anglican church in the USA is in the same process as Ramsey’s Church of England: as I put it, ‘redefining itself, and being redefined, as an increasingly gathered body, learning to act prophetically, to sing the Lord’s song in an increasingly strange land (p.139)

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?

On the relationship between Christian biographer and subject

The majority of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters. To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. Get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for only £2 a month, and you can cancel any time you like. Thanks!
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Who is religious history for, anyway?

It’s now just over a year since my book on Michael Ramsey was published, and there has been a series of reviews, all of them more or less favourable. Between them, though, they have pointed up quite sharply a question that faces the historian of the contemporary church: for whom, exactly, are we writing? Consider this passage, from Sam Brewitt-Taylor in Reviews in History:

‘It seems worth stating at the outset that, from a historian’s point of view, The Shape of the Church’s evaluative focus does not seem very fruitful. As Webster fully recognises, evaluation is closely dependent on whichever partisan criteria the historian might happen to be using (p. 133), and readers will accept or dismiss such evaluations depending on whether they like the criteria or not.(2) Webster takes the only sensible way out of this problem, which is to organise his book’s concluding historiographical summary by political and theological outlook, distinguishing between radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary views of Ramsey (pp. 135–6). Yet since these distinctions are primarily about morality, and only secondarily about Ramsey, it would have been preferable to have transcended such debates by using a more historically-grounded framing question. As it was, the evaluative focus took up space which might otherwise have allowed Webster’s unique expertise to engage at length with the strictly historical questions surrounding Ramsey’s tenure.’
Ramsey - cover
I would accept entirely that this is a legitimate criticism to make from the point of view of the academic study of history. But the irony is that, amongst another section of the readership of the book, it is precisely this evaluation that is required. The questions are asked: was Ramsey right or wrong to have done something, or not to have done something? Is the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican church, and indeed Britain as a whole, in a better or worse position now as a result of his actions and omissions? What might the contemporary churches learn from his experience? These are different questions, to be sure, but they are certainly questions that are asked, by those in the churches to whom the current state of British and world Christianity is a matter of real importance.

For evidence of this, see two other reviews: one in the TLS and in particular that in the Church Times, both by senior Anglican clergy. ‘As you read Webster’, wrote Peter Sedgwick in the TLS, “the debates and challenges become contemporary, and you wonder how the Archbishop’s staff will swerve around the next pothole in the road. [The book] has brought [its] in some ways unworldly subject alive in a vivid and well-documented way. It is good to hear Ramsey’s voice again. His vision of a Reformed Catholicism lives on, despite everything [my italics].” Graham James in the Church Times was less sanguine about Ramsey’s legacy, but was in no doubt that it was still felt. Ramsey’s moves to win for the Church of England greater self-governance led to it becoming “increasingly captive to its own internal political factions. Ramsey seems to have been innocent to this possibility…… His grasp of ecclesiastical politics was immeasurably weaker, and his interest even less. We suffer from the consequences still [my italics].” It is also this kind of evaluation that is required by the media, such as this piece of mine commissioned by the religion section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Religion and Ethics). (see the discussion thread, and a similar one on the same article here.)

At base, the book was trying to show that Ramsey had a coherent theological vision of the nature of the church, to which all of his actions can be related. I am also convinced that the model of church-in-relation-to-culture that he offered is a more sustainable one in the conditions of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century west, and that he was ahead of many of his contemporaries in seeing the need for a transition in that direction. Perhaps to make such a statement is to step out of the legitimate territory of the historian, but to write the history of the contemporary church is always to walk that particular line. Such evaluation is what a significant proportion of the readership seems to require. There is a certain irony in that for academic writing to reach those outside the academy in this way might (in some other disciplines) be described as “impact”, an altogether Good Thing.

(For a particularly acute statement of the dilemma, see my review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History, and his response, and also my review of Alister Chapman on John Stott.)