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Mix of courage and innocence

31 July 2015

Graham James on the latest assessment of Ramsey’s primacy


Lively times: Ramsey (right) escorts Cardinal Heenan out of a side exit at St Paul’s after a service for Christian unity in 1969 was left in uproar by Ian Paisley and his supporters. Behind: Robert Stopford, Bishop of London

Lively times: Ramsey (right) escorts Cardinal Heenan out of a side exit at St Paul’s after a service for Christian unity in 1969 was left in uproar by...

Archbishop Ramsey: The shape of the Church
Peter Webster
Ashgate £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


THE memoirs or biographies of 20th-century prime ministers and senior politicians often contain few references to the Archbishop of Canterbury, other bishops, or the Church of England more generally. By contrast, the memoirs and biographies of archbishops and senior churchmen recall close and frequent contact.

Were the church leaders of the last century deluding themselves? Or were our politicians careful to avoid any hint that the Church possessed influence over their decisions? Peter Webster’s book on Michael Ramsey prompts such questions, since political issues are so prominent.

Ramsey has long been regarded as a deeply spiritual theologian and about as unmanagerial an archbishop as you could find. This book contains many of Ramsey’s most significant speeches and sermons, introduced by a lengthy assessment of his ministry as Archbishop.

Webster does not seek to contradict the conventional characterisation, though he emphasises just how involved Ramsey was in the political controversies of his day. Ulster, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Commonwealth immigration were chief among them. Ramsey urged the intervention of British armed forces in Rhodesia as the prospect of a unilateral declaration of independence drew near. He also called for the cessation of British arm sales to South Africa while apartheid continued. He did not lack political courage.

Harold Wilson asked the Archbishop to chair the newly established National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in 1965. It was a shrewd, perhaps even cynical, move by a master tactician. The committee had limited powers, and yet it drew Ramsey into the Government’s tent. Webster casts Ramsey as a “political parson” in the mould of George Bell, pursuing a vision of justice at home and resolution of conflict abroad.

The greater autonomy for the Church of England from the State which Ramsey sought was intended, so Webster argues, to enable the Church to be capable of more prophetic utterance. It has never emerged, except, perhaps, in the Runcie years under an archbishop rather at home with the Establishment.

As greater autonomy from the State was secured (Ramsey introduced the Worship and Doctrine Measure in the House of Lords on his final day of office in 1974), the Church of England became increasingly captive to its own internal political factions. Ramsey seems to have been innocent to this possibility. His engagement with national and international politics was strong. His grasp of ecclesiastical politics was immeasurably weaker, and his interest even less. We suffer from the consequences still.

Webster illustrates Ramsey’s limitations in this area in his treatment of the failure of the Anglican Methodist Unity Scheme. I am sure that Webster is right in his judgement that, even in the late 1960s, and certainly by the 1970s, the Scheme was already past its sell-by date, stranded in the ecumenism of a previous age. Ramsey could misjudge theological moods too, perhaps most significantly in his initial reaction to John Robinson’s Honest to God. The Archbishop’s irritation with Robinson’s arrogance and his limited respect for Robinson as a theologian probably did not help.

There is much of value in this book, though sometimes one’s confidence is dented by errors that should have been corrected. To read that in 1927 Ramsey went to Ripon College, Cuddesdon, comes as a surprise. Perhaps most disturbing in a book about Ramsey is the author’s assertion that “the Church of England was born of a rejection of the authority of the Church of Rome.” The writer of The Gospel and the Catholic Church would have had none of that.


The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.

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