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A man in tune with his times

23 January 2015

Ian Ramsey was an 'improbable' Bishop of Durham. On the centenary of his birth, John Saxbee recalls a philosopher of religion who was also a man of the people


Many parts: addressing the Durham Miners' Gala, 1971

Many parts: addressing the Durham Miners' Gala, 1971

VERY, very late into an autumnal night in 1969, Bishop Ian Ramsey visited a makeshift office in Durham City. The university mission was well under way, and distinguished speakers were attracting eager audiences to evening rallies.

Once delivered, the addresses were typed up and reproduced for distribution the next day. As diocesan Bishop, Ramsey took the trouble to visit this nocturnal publishing enterprise in the early hours of the morning.

My wife was the typist, and she testifies to the encouragement his visit gave to an otherwise thankless task. Such determination to go beyond the call of duty endeared him to many, while others repeatedly warned him about the dangers of overworking, but to no avail. He died from a heart attack in October 1972, aged just 57 years.

Just when the Church was facing a crisis of confidence and credibility in a world less class-ridden and deferential than before the war, a relatively working-class lad from Bolton was appointed Bishop of Durham, the fourth most senior office in the Church of England. A small, rotund figure, he was at ease in all sorts of company, and quickly turned an acquaintance into a friend.

He seemed to be equally at home addressing the House of Lords or the Durham Miners' Gala. Altogether, a man in tune with the times, and described by the historian and priest Adrian Hastings as "most suited to the '60s". Crucially, he won the affection and respect of those who were increasingly ill at ease with organised religion.

Ian Thomas Ramsey, born 100 years ago this month, was hailed as "the people's bishop", and justly so. But, of course, he had many more strings to his bow than this populist profile might suggest. After graduating from Cambridge with Firsts in Mathematics, Moral Sciences, and Theology, he was ordained to a title parish near Oxford before embarking on an academic career that culminated in his appointment as Nolloth Professor of the Christian Religion at Oxford, and Fellow of Oriel College.

SOON after Ramsey's death, the author and theologian David Edwards observed that "no problems confronting the Christian religion in England were greater than the alienation of scientifically minded intellectuals and the loss of the working classes."

Ramsey was unusually well placed to address both these challenges, and his appointment to Durham in 1966 was widely welcomed, not least by those who saw him as the natural successor to Michael Ramsey as Archbishop of Canterbury.

His appointment to the bench of bishops did not come out of the blue. He had already earned respect as an accessible and caring pastor to students and staff alike, and he had become Director of the Lambeth Diploma in Theology. More locally, he chaired the Warneford Hospitals Management Committee.

This latter position presaged his later participation in a plethora of groups that were exploring the Churches' social responsibility, in-cluding beginning- and end-of-life issues, religion and science, religious education, medical research, religious broadcasting, and the family in contemporary society. This marked him out as a theologian concerned with philosophy more as a tool for addressing current moral and social dilemmas than as a handmaid to systematic theology.

Given his generally liberal stance on social, moral, and political issues (he was a vice-president of the Modern Churchmen's Union), it comes as something of a surprise that, in his preaching and teaching, he did not deviate far from prevailing orthodoxies.

He was certainly at pains to insist on credal affirmations' being set within the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to them - hence his significant contribution to the reform of the Declaration of Assent. Furthermore, he set his face against fundamentalism of all kinds. "We can be sure of God," he wrote, "yet tentative about our theology. Let us frankly acknowledge theological uncertainties."

AT A time when the likes of A. J. Ayer and Anthony Flew were challenging the coherence of God-talk on logical and empirical grounds, Ramsey rode to the rescue with talk of models, and qualifiers, and references to disclosures and pennies dropping.

His key insight was to establish an analogy between the essentially mysterious nature of the self - the I-ness of I - and the mystery surrounding talk of God. If I can be confident of my own existence notwithstanding the logical and empirical elusiveness of what it means to be "I", he maintained, then talk of God's existence can equally well withstand charges of non-sense.

Just as I know myself to be rooted in day-to-day experience, but ultimately transcend the sum of those experiences when it comes to my essential selfhood, so God-talk can be rooted in empirical realities without prejudice to God's mysterious and over-arching transcendence.

Ramsey's main aim was to counter the atheistic thrust of the logical positivists. He did this to remarkable effect by registering a protest against two popular misconceptions: "That those with an intense affection for ordinary language must necessarily deny metaphysics; or that those who defend metaphysics must necessarily trade in occult realms and shadowy worlds."

He thereby offered a viable corrective to the attenuated epistemology of Ayer et al., but he faced challenges from those who still questioned whether what Kierkegaard described as "the infinite qualitative difference" between God and humanity served to negate Ramsey's postulation of an analogical relationship between myself and Godself, physics and metaphysics.

Had he lived longer, he would surely have met these challenges, but, sadly, his linguistic philosophy remained a work in progress, and his planned magnum opus fell victim to his episcopal preoccupations.

Meanwhile, more than 40 years after his death, it can be said that the taxonomy of language, as well as the status of conscious selves, continues to preoccupy philosophers, and Ramsey's seminal work was, in many respects, ahead of its time.

FURTHERMORE, the influence of the Ian Ramsey Centre for the Study of Religion and Science at Oxford University testifies to his positive contribution to an abiding bone of contention. Current debates about the relationship between science and religion would be less rebarbative if more account were taken of Ramsey's work. His view that science is more like religion, and religion more like science than is generally acknowledged heads off at the pass the recent Dawkins-led resurgence in atheism predicated on scientific positivism.

By no means least, Ramsey's breadth of academic expertise equipped him, like few others, to promote and participate in interdisciplinary approaches to contemporary moral, social, and educational dilemmas. The fact that the Churches continue to make a significant contribution to such national debates today owes a great deal to Ramsey's initiative and reputation.

The number and variety of his involvements nationally and locally as Bishop of Durham was truly staggering. But did his early death exert any lasting influence on attitudes to clergy workloads in general, and bishops' in particular?

While some people wondered why he was allowed to take on such an increasingly arduous schedule of commitments, the general view is that overwork was a consequence of his pathological inability to say no to invitations. Some even saw this as a sin, while others attributed it to his limitless compassion, and his need to fill every unforgiving minute with distance run.

Either way, his death may have done something to advance progress towards working agreements and development reviews that still lay many years in the future. Certainly, the realisation that the clergy have a duty of care to themselves as well as to others, and that overwork is not a Christian virtue, has gained ground, and Ramsey's loss bears lasting testimony to its importance.

Certainly, his experience highlighted the need for new bishops to be appropriately mentored, and inducted into their ministries, especially those appointed as diocesan bishops directly from academic and administrative posts.

HE WAS a devoted family man. He married Margaret in 1943, and they had two sons, Paul and Vivian (now Sir Vivian), who were born in 1945 and 1950. He was ever an ardent Anglican, and, a man of profound prayerfulness and practical wisdom, Ramsey tried to be all things to all people. That requires someone to be superhuman or a saint, however, and he would describe himself as neither.

He was not a great preacher, talked too much on occasions, and habitually allowed the relatively trivial to get in the way of what was really important. While most clergy appreciated his pastoral commitment and personal care, others found him too intellectual.

On the other hand, while most academics thought him at least their equal, some thought his pastoral and spiritual commitments compromised his intellectual rigour. But, as Len Tyler, Principal of the William Temple College, whose governing body he chaired, has said: "Here was a man for whom truth and love and justice mattered. . . His speeches and writing reveal both integrity of mind and compassion of heart."

All in all, as one of Ramsey's biographers, John Peart-Binns, said, he was an "improbable bishop", and it is difficult to see how this untypical and enigmatic man of God could have satisfied criteria for admission to the Green report's "talent pool" - something that could be said of several of our best post-war archbishops and bishops - and how much poorer we would have been without them.

Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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