Man of God

C.H. Sisson

  • Michael Ramsey: A Life by Owen Chadwick
    Oxford, 422 pp, £17.50, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 826189 6
  • Michael Ramsey: A Portrait by Michael De-la-Noy
    Collins, 268 pp, £12.99, February 1990, ISBN 0 00 215332 7

It cannot be easy to be Archbishop of Canterbury. The holder is open to all the confusions of public life, yet has to follow threads which are invisible to many of those who do business with him or question him as to the meaning of his pronouncements. As the successor of St Augustine, he has to look back on two thousand years and more of history; as the butt of politicians and journalists, he has to justify himself to a world in which the language of Christianity has become merely vestigial. The complexities of the situation are endless.

Michael Ramsey set out on his journey to this perilous office in 1904, as the son of a Cambridge mathematics don. His mother had been educated at Oxford – early days for such a distinction though those were, for a woman – and was a suffragette and a socialist. There were four children – an elder brother and two younger sisters. The elder brother, Frank, was early and universally regarded as brilliant; he was a mathematician and everything that the son of a mathematics don should be. Beside him, Michael felt put in the shade. The two sisters seem not to have mattered so much to him, and they found him odd. ‘His younger sister remembered,’ Professor Chadwick tells us, ‘that suddenly he might leave the table with a wild mad look, and rush into the garden. In the night he might be heard running up and down his attic bedroom banging the wall at each end, and keeping other people awake.’ The younger sister was right – he was a bit odd. ‘He had a physical clumsiness in the management of his hands. He learnt to eat tidily later than most children.’ Much later, when he was a professor at Durham, he was seen – as observers thought – learning to ride a bicycle: ‘but the truth was that whenever he rode a bicyle he looked as though he was learning to ride.’

The religious orientation of the Ramsey family is significant. There were prayers every day after breakfast. Father, who of course presided, was a Congregationalist, and it was to a Congregational church that father, mother and children went each Sunday. Mother was the eighth of nine children of a vicar, and with her Michael became acquainted with her preferred form of Anglo-Catholic worship. He learned little at the dames’ schools to which he was sent, and for a year was taught at home by his mother, but that ‘made him squirm’ and he pulled horrible nervous faces. So he was sent to King’s College Choir School as a ‘mouldy day-bug’, and here the chaplain, Eric Milner-White, is said to have interested him in religion. Michael certainly took to Milner-White – the inventor of the service of carols and nine lessons – whose photograph was on his wall when he died. There was, at the Choir School, still no sign of an academic progress which even began to match up to Frank’s, and there followed an unhappy time at a boarding-school where one of his mother’s brothers was headmaster. Michael cannot have been doing so badly all this while for in 1918 he only just missed a scholarship to Winchester, and won one to Repton, where on the cricket field as perhaps elsewhere he had, on his own confession, ‘a curious strain of not attending to things which failed to grip my interest’. There the headmaster was none other than the man who was to become his immediate predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. Fisher presumably could take an interest in indifferent matters, for he was an administrator-archbishop as against Ramsey’s ‘Man of God’. Both, presumably, were also men of themselves, Fisher as slightly fussy and self-important, Ramsey in the more engaging way of following his own devices, appearing unconcerned about his many oddities and, to an extent unusual in high office, keeping silent when he felt like it.

After Repton Ramsey went to Magdalene College, Cambridge – his father’s college. There he took a second in Classics and a first in Theology, and became President of the Cambridge Union, which does not suggest that he suffered from any morbid tendency to silence when he had an audience to listen to him, and it is said that, had he not become a priest, he would have been a lawyer. There can be no doubt of the genuineness of his vocation, but his temperament inclined him to academic rather than parochial work. Not only was he uninterested in the minutiae of existence but, as reported by Michael De-la-Noy, ‘was not very approachable, not in the way a normal parish priest would be’. He was ordained deacon at the age of 23 and for two years served as an assistant curate in Liver-pool. As soon as he was priested, at the age of 25, he became a sub-warden of Lincoln Theological College, and he remained there for six years. There followed two years in charge of a church in Boston, Lincolnshire, and he then became vicar of the small, untypical parish of St Benedict’s, Cambridge, where he could be seen charging through the streets with his underpants showing through his trousers. He had already written a distinguished book, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936), while he was still at Lincoln, and after two years at St Benedict’s he became, at the age of 35, Van Mildert Professor of Divinity in the University of Durham, and a canon residentiary of the Cathedral. Two years later he married Joan Hamilton, though not before he had consulted his sister Bridget, happily ‘a doctor working in that sort of area’, about ‘the facts of life’: he was ‘very ignorant’, his sister reported. It is perhaps a donnish trait to consult an expert on any subject, though few, one imagines, need to carry the process so far. Joan seems to have been, through all the changes of Ramsey’s life, the perfect wife for this unusual character – intelligent, capable and sympathetic with all she met. Ramsey stayed in Durham for ten years, as a professor, and then, notorious Anglo-Catholic though he was, he was elected Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge on the proposal of two Nonconformists. This might well have provided eminently suitable occupation for the rest of his working life, but after two years, at the age of 47, he became Bishop of Durham and took his seat in the House of Lords. ‘They’ve made me Bishop of Durham,’ he is reported to have said to several people in the streets of Cambridge: ‘Oh, hell!’

The Ramseys loved Durham and Michael’s years there were a success, and not only with churchmen and academics. He would chat up the people at a parish bunfight ‘with a mixture of silence and belly-thumping laughter and beams all round and leg-pulling but with care and affection,’ Chadwick says:

but mostly he did not need to talk... people came up and talked to him, and he would nod and smile benevolently and say happily, Yes, Yes, Yes... He became a friend of Jack Lawson (Lord Lawson) who was a faithful Methodist, and of Sam Watson the Durham miners’ leader, whom he came to know intimately. He always attended the Durham miners’ gala.

After four years he was appointed, at the age of 51, Archbishop of York, where he stayed for five years until he became, in 1961, Archbishop of Canterbury.

While De-la-Noy gives an excellent account of Ramsey’s career and finds room for many enlivening details, Chadwick’s larger and much more scholarly book gives, at every stage, admirably lucid analyses of the issues he faced, his attitudes to them, and of the attitudes of the churchmen, academics and political personages who were involved in them. This is a work which students of the history of the English Church will long find indispensable. After an opening hundred pages on ‘The Making of a Christian Leader’, which takes the story up to Ramsey’s election to Canterbury, Chadwick packs into three parts, the arrangement of which could not be bettered, an immense amount of information about the great variety of matters with which the Archbishop had to deal, at home, in ‘The Worldwide Community’ and in his relations with the Orthodox, Roman and other Protestant Churches. He concludes with a fifth part on ‘The Man of God’ and this includes an account of Ramsey’s years in retirement, in turn at Cuddesdon, Durham, York and, finally, in Oxford, where, still accompanied by Joan, he was in St John’s Home, run by the All Saints Sisters in Cowley. Both he and his wife were by then in need of help, and it is evidence of his residual liveliness that, while they were still waiting for a vacancy in the Home, he wrote: ‘Two people who were expected to die have not succeeded in doing so but the Mother goes on using optimistic language.’

It would be frivolous, in the face of Chadwick’s magisterial summaries, to attempt to separate the many strands of Ramsey’s activity at Lambeth. Each of them carries a long tail of history and theology. The impression left by both books is of a man who did not change the course of history but played his part in it with outstanding integrity. Ramsey had no exceptional foresight, and more than once something which started from his liberalism and charity ended, either in his day or soon after, by going too far for orthodoxy. He approved of the recommendations of the Church’s report on divorce, ‘Putting asunder’, but found that it led to the Divorce Reform Bill of 1968-69, for which he refused to vote on the Second Reading. When the General Synod came into existence, in 1970, Ramsey commended the new institution: yet, though he did not go back on this, he came to have a lively appreciation of the drawbacks, certainly not less now than they were in his day. He was not administrator enough, nor indeed statesman enough, to see what would happen. He was suspicious of the Prime Minister’s and the Crown’s role in the appointment of bishops, though he managed well enough in those quarters, but no one could say that the advances which have since been made towards a more ecclesiastically-managed system have resulted in an improvement of the quality of the bench. There are other subjects of which the subsequent history might make some question Ramsey’s wisdom in some particulars, but his attitudes were those of a man set against rigidity and illiberality. Chadwick, who describes the attempt to unite with the Methodists as ‘the big failure of Ramsey’s life’, none the less adds that ‘the historian of these events finds it hard to see how Ramsey could have acted other than he did.’

Most of all to be regretted was Ramsey’s failure to see the dangers of the movement which has resulted in the virtual relegation of the Book of Common Prayer. Ramsey had been profoundly and adversely impressed by Parliament’s refusal to approve the revised Prayer Book presented in 1928. He came to think that the state should give the Church freedom in doctrine and worship, and this freedom was given only ‘during and after his last moments as Archbishop’. The results, with the adoption of the Alternative Service Book in 1980, have been disastrous, although our historian seems not to share this view and Ramsey himself was happy to use the new book at the end of his life. ‘He did not,’ as Chadwick says, in another context, ‘regard words as an essential means of communicating between human beings.’ This perception is at once profound and incomplete, and the incompleteness is perhaps to be explained by some deficiencies in his make-up. His lifelong reading habits do not suggest much awareness of those spaces between the ultimate silence and exposition, which are filled only by great literature, and by poetry in particular. Cranmer, admittedly in a different phase of the language, lived in all three areas, which for him were not separated. No one who has any inkling of these matters could suppose that liturgies which have grown historically out of profound necessities can be replaced at will with either malice or good will aforethought.

The account Chadwick gives of Ramsey’s travels as archbishop, and of his activities in Africa and at the Lambeth Conference, shows how far the duties and opportunities of his office had carried him from the days of the World Council of Churches at Evanston (1954), with its ‘insincerity of pretending that platitudes were pronouncements of world-shaking import.’ Ramsey ‘hated what he saw at Evanston’. He avoided insincerity, we may be sure, in his personal contacts on his many journeys, but he may have tolerated, or perhaps even not recognised, many of the misunderstandings and failures of communication which are inescapable in the conferences of people of widely different backgrounds attempting to discuss matters which go to the root of traditions, to the root of minds and beyond. The effects of the 20th-century facility of movement and speech between continents have to be reckoned with, and they include both a vast but still incomplete and largely indigestible supply of information and a thinning of meanings the transmission of which requires a certain likeness of minds. Ramsey was a man deeply rooted in English ways and – apart from his administrative weaknesses, which cannot be overlooked in an office which requires much ability of that kind – was extremely well qualified to lead the Church of England of his day. But one is left wondering whether, with his deep sense of the local and the historical, he would not have done it better had he not been distracted by the affairs of a worldwide communion billowing to and fro under the force of a diversity of cultural movements. The Church of England needed – now needs still more – someone who is allowed to keep his mind on the historic functions of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is enough for one man – even the most gifted – and the presidence of the Anglican Communion should be a function for someone else.