Sister Mary Michael CHC has been re-reading Michael Ramsey and finds wise words for our contemporary circumstances
Classical Anglicanism is an endangered species. Revival will come not so much by our striving officiously to keep it alive, but by a returning to our roots. A new generation needs to know where our church has come from and what we are in danger of losing.
The Church of England is not any old church, but something distinctive. If it were ‘to die out’ it should not mean extinction, but rather transmutation and resurrection, the fulfilment of a destiny intended from the start. Archbishop Michael Ramsey, arguably the greatest exponent of the Anglican tradition and ethos in the mid-twentieth century CofE, merits re-visiting, and notably his seminal The Gospel and the Catholic Church (first published in the 1930s).
In ch.13 of this work, entitled Ecclesia Anglicana, Ramsey reminds us of the apparent political origins of the CofE at the time of the Reformation: ‘This Church of England cannot be explained in terms of politics alone. It bore a spiritual witness, if only by linking together what Christians elsewhere had torn asunder – the Gospel of God, which had made the Reformers what they were, and the old historical structure which the Reformers as a whole had rejected.’
Anglicanism, then, had a unique task, the holding together of Scripture and traditional church order. The question we need to face in our current situation is whether we are not allowing the political too much sway and simultaneously down-grading our conception of Church Order to the purely pragmatic. Imperfect communion, transferred episcopal oversight, breakdown in the collegiality of the House of Bishops, all this cuts through the nerve-centre of the living organism of our church.
The use of Scripture
Michael Ramsey moves on to speak of Scripture as the ruling element in faith and piety for Anglicans. ‘The Anglican Church appealed to the Bible along lines very different from those of the Lutherans and the Calvinists; for it appealed also to the primitive Church with its structure and tradition, and thus interpreted the Bible in its true context.’
How can we claim that our biblical exegesis is always in line with tradition and current worldwide Catholic consensus? Do we sometimes fool ourselves into believing that even some dubious aspects of popular cultural mores are actually consonant with Scripture? This too spells ultimate destruction.
Thirdly, Ramsey mentions the Episcopate itself. Many of the Reformers abandoned it; not so the CofE. In those confused times however we could only do our best. Anglicans had firstly to defend themselves, on the outside, against both Rome and the Puritans, and even within against those of more extreme reformist tendencies. Ramsey claims significantly, ‘The English Church did not always perceive the meaning of its own order in its deepest relation to the Gospel and the universal Church.’
Challenge of episcopacy
Not surprising then there are divergent understandings of the nature of episcopacy in our church today. Nevertheless Episcopacy has been maintained in the CofE and the Anglican Communion, in however distorted a form at times and in places. Of this Ramsey says, ‘Its existence declared the truth that the church in England was not a new foundation nor a local realization of the invisible Church, but the expression on English soil of the one historical and continuous visible Church of God, not merely an English institution, but the utterance in England of the universal Church.’
This is what we are forfeiting if we choose to tear ourselves asunder. If on the other hand there is to be a ‘new reformation,’ a new alignment of believers into a fresh expression of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in this land, then that will be supremely the work of the Holy Spirit. May Archbishop Michael and all our forefathers and mothers in the faith pray for us that we may discern the way and bear with one another in mutual love in the inevitable confusion that will ensue meanwhile.