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Giant among many grasshoppers

31 March 2023

David Wilbourne remembers an archbishop who argued fiercely for what he believed


Archbishop Michael Ramsey outside the House of Lords, in February 1968, before the second reading of the Commonwealth Immigration Bill

Archbishop Michael Ramsey outside the House of Lords, in February 1968, before the second reading of the Commonwealth Immigration Bill

IT WAS late in his day, in February 1981, that I first encountered Michael Ramsey in the flesh, in dialogue with Billy Graham in Great St Mary’s, Cambridge. Graham was articulate and smooth; Ramsey was neither: he was affable but hesitant.

But, towards the end, Ramsey interrupted one of Graham’s set pieces. “B-b-b-billy G, Billy G, I pray for you every day,” he said. “So do I, Archbishop,” Graham oozed. Ramsey continued, unfazed: “I pray that God may b-b-b-bless all the things you do so well.” Graham beamed. “And that he may stop, that he may stop all the things you do so badly.” End of.

I was sitting in the packed south aisle, surreally squeezed in beside Professor Owen Chadwick, who was to be Ramsey’s iconic biographer. But that incident caught Ramsey, who died 35 years ago next month, better than any biography. This lovable teddy bear of a man, eccentric and seemingly bumbling, was nevertheless capable of delivering a killer blow that was positively nuclear in its intensity. After all, Ramsey had moved the Bill in the House of Lords for the abolition of the death penalty, piloting it to its successful conclusion against strong opposition.

Earlier in the dialogue, Graham had championed the Festival of Light, which had set its face against the permissive society and had defended traditional Christian sexual morality. Ramsey, not enthusiastic about the Festival, was asked whether his support for the 1967 Sexual Offences Act had contributed to an increase in promiscuity. He did not think so. Fifteen years on, he had no doubt that he was right: that the Churches of England, with him as their mouthpiece, and despite the snide attacks against him, had helped to make the law more humane, more Christian, and more just.

THE Wolfenden report of 1957 had concluded that the criminalisation of (male) homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty, and that the law should not intrude into matters of personal morality. Homosexual acts between consenting males in private should no longer constitute an offence.

The Cabinet opposed any proposal to implement Wolfenden’s recommendations, but Ramsey — at the time, Archbishop of York — recognised the moral force of Wolfenden’s proposals, and steered their acceptance by the Church Assembly by a majority of 155 to 138. Although a close vote, it was a remarkable one for quite a puritanical decade, considering that it was not until the following year that the Lambeth Conference endorsed the use of artificial contraception.

Supporting Wolfenden’s proposals was seen as political suicide, until, in 1965, Lord Arran introduced a motion into the House of Lords which favoured the recommendations. Ramsey strongly supported him, and the motion’s three readings in the House were followed by the 1966 Sexual Offences Bill, proposed by the Labour backbencher Leo Abse. The Act was finally promulged in 1967.

Ramsey did his homework, being a tad too explicit about the precise homosexual practices that would be decriminalised, and was accused by one peer “of contributing to pornography by means of Hansard”. The Lord High Chancellor, Quentin Hogg, deemed it beneath the dignity of an archbishop to tangle in such a subject. So did Field Marshal Montgomery: “One might just as well condone the devil and all his works.”

Two former Lord Chancellors, Lords Dilhorne and Kilmuir, honey-tongued cross-examiners, led the charge against Ramsey, spurred on by a female correspondent who thanked them for resisting “the sanction given to sodomy by the Archbishop of Canterbury”. But the House of Lords approved the Third (and final) Reading of Lord Arran’s motion by 78 to 60, although Ramsey was only supported by three other bishops: Norwich, Southwark, and Wakefield. Lord Dilhorne mourned that Lord Arran owed his success to the tremendous support of Ramsey, whose trademark was killer blows.

NO ONE, however great, was immune from Ramsey’s fierce censure, which frequently caused him to have to have police protection from death threats, both here and abroad.

The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, appointed Ramsey to chair the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants. But Ramsey proved a turbulent priest, and boldly opposed the Labour Government’s Bill to limit the immigration of Asians expelled from Kenya in 1967. He congratulated the Government on its Race Relations Bill, however, which earned this accolade from Enoch Powell: “Archbishops who live in their palaces faring delicately, with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads, have got it exactly and diametrically wrong.” Members of the National Front heckled Ramsey’s sermons.

Ramsey encouraged using armed force against Rhodesia after its Prime Minister, Ian Smith, made his Unilateral Declaration of Independence, but toured the United States, condemning their bombing of Hanoi. He had the sternest conversations with the Prime Minister of South Africa, John Vorster, resolutely opposing apartheid, and eliciting Vorster’s fourfold stony response: “I do not agree.”

Ramsey similarly stood up to Pinochet in Chile, although was not helped by the indigenous Anglicans’ support for their right-wing President. Often, it was not what Ramsey said, but how he was photographed, sporting the most hostile of glares through the infamous bushy eyebrows against his latest foe. “Vorster looked unpleasant because he couldn’t help it. I looked unpleasant because I had to.”

Would brave Ramsey have emboldened the present-day House of Bishops in its deliberations on Living in Love and Faith? I am not so sure. In a 1971 interview, Ramsey set his face against same-sex marriage. “I don’t see the Church ever giving its blessing to that. Because the Christian Church gives its blessing to the best and perfect use of sex, which is the union of a man and woman in marriage. We confine our blessing to that.”

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese. His book, Just John: The authorised biography of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, 1983-1995, is published by SPCK (Books, 1 May 2020; Podcast, 15 May 2020).

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