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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.