One well-known episcopal raconteur allegedly said that the Church of England began to lose its way when it stopped using the Book of Common Prayer and telling stories about Michael Ramsey.
Last Sunday was the 60th anniversary of the day in 1961 when Ramsey processed purposefully into a packed cathedral to be enthroned as the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury.
Harold Macmillan, greatly interested in church appointments, had his heart set on Michael Ramsey to succeed Geoffrey Fisher and summed up the mood well when he said that we had had enough Martha and now needed some Mary.
With a great dome of a head, expressive eyebrows and a singsong hesitant voice some thought that Ramsey was odd or eccentric. He was very much a publicfigure. During his visit to Pope Paul VI in Rome Private Eye had a picture of them both on the cover page. “Do you come here often?” was the caption. A man of great silences, he was certainly not austere. Once, on giving counsel at the end of confession, Ramsey directed the penitent to “go home and have a gin and tonic with the Lord”.
Ramsey was marked by his life’s experiences. The loss of his brilliant brother Frank and later his mother being killed in a car crash made him very sensitive to the suffering of others.
With a tremendous appetite for prayer, an incisive theological mind, an acute social conscience and the ability to link the lecture room to the pew, Ramsey spoke of God and his saints as if they were his friends, he was learned and encouraged others to be learned and was engaged in the world. The church was for him a “colony of heaven”.
The opening words of his book The Gospel and the Catholic Church, published in 1936 when he was just 32 and which firmly established him as a rising star, sum up his life’s work. With a timeless quality and soaked in the thought and theological reflection of centuries, he wrote: “What is this strange thing, the Christian Church? Whatever can it mean? What relation have its services, its hierarchy, its dogmas, its archaic and beautiful language, to the daily troubles of mankind? This bewilderment leads many to pass the church by, since it seems to do and say so little about the things which matter supremely — world peace, social reform, the economic tangle.”
Ramsey became Archbishop of Canterbury at a time of great turbulence and had the hinterland to speak into it. The plates were moving in the Church of England with the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God. In the Roman Catholic church there was the fresh air of the Second Vatican Council. There was the new morality and the dawn of the permissive society. Despite Macmillan’s blandishments that “you’ve never had it so good” this was not everybody’s experience.
Although it will always be his visits to Rome that are remembered, the failure of the unity scheme of the Church of England with the Methodists in 1972 depressed him. When the vote against in General Synod was greeted with applause he remonstrated with members, telling them not to applaud but rather ask God for forgiveness.
Ramsey allowed nothing to escape the light of the Cross and Resurrection. He was courageous in his interventions on such disparate issues as abortion and Vietnam and robust in his criticism of apartheid in South Africa. So much so that Harold Wilson had the foresight to make Ramsey the chairman of the precursor to the Race Relations Board. George Pottinger, the first black Methodist minister ordained for service here rather than back in the Caribbean, felt that the people of Brixton had an ally.
The Church of England is in a far different place now than it was then. It is inconceivable that a Ramsey today would become a bishop at all, never mind an archbishop. Yet his voice still speaks at a time when people are desperate for some kind of compass in their understanding of God and what it is to be human. “If the Easter faith is to prevail in the world it will not be through a ‘triumphalist’ Church, but a church which has the marks of sacrifice”.
The Venerable Peter Townley is Archdeacon of Pontefract