George Austin argues that the crisis now facing the Church of England had its origins more than fifty years ago. Tracing the development of this crisis, he begins this month in the early 1950s

The Church of England in the 1950s was smug and confident and had cause to be. Congregations were large and in many places growing. Many clergy would work at least a sixteen-hour day, saying the Offices and going to a daily Mass if that were the tradition, running youth clubs, teaching in the church school, and visiting, visiting, visiting.

There was little lay involvement and often no meeting, be it Mothers Union, Men’s Society or whatever, was valid without a clerical presence. It was in so many ways a different world. But were the seeds of today’s decline sown in those far-off times?

High and low

The Church then was divided into strict compartments, yet each group – at least on the surface – accepted that the Church of England was big enough to hold all together, albeit in a somewhat uneasy truce. The dismissive description was ‘high and crazy, low and lazy, broad and hazy’ but ne’er did they meet, and theological college had set the pattern. And there was more pattern than just churchmanship, for ‘lower class’ ordinands were advised not to apply to Westcott House or Cuddesdon for priestly training.

This ‘gentlemen v. players’ syndrome ruled in the 1950s, not just in cricket but in church and state, business and the professions, films and the theatre. It gradually lost its relevance to the rest of society, but in the Church, although it did not dominate appointments in the manner that was to develop three decades later, it disappeared only when revelations of archiepiscopal nepotism were exposed by Canon Gareth Bennett in 1986.

In the 1950s there were good bishops, a few giants like Bell of Chichester, scholarly bishops, eccentric bishops, pastoral bishops, inadequate bishops, some catholic, many ‘broad’, one or two – such as Bishop Barnes of Birmingham – of extreme liberal views, and a few evangelicals.

Fisher and Garbett

Archbishops Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury and Cyril Garbett of York were giants too, each in his own way – Fisher the headmasterly manager and Garbett, described by Fisher in a BBC memorial broadcast as ‘a glorious example at its very highest of the special grace and genius of the Church of England.’

He had died on Dec 31 1955, and Fisher added movingly that ‘all the riches of Christ, all the truths of the Catholic tradition, strong, simple and severe, he found in the doctrine and discipline and worship of the Church of England.’

So the see of York was vacant, and it was no easy task to find a successor when few stood out from the majority. There was no Crown Nominations Commission, and much depended on the attitude of the monarch and the prime minister. Then came the first cloud on the horizon, no bigger than the size of a man’s hand but with the hint of future problems.

Decades before, Queen Victoria had improved the system by insisting that the Archbishop of Canterbury must be consulted, and that if he objected an appointment could not be made. This worked well and it continued until Churchill, whose attitude to clergymen had, in Owen Chadwick’s words, ‘a touch of Henry II’s attitude to Thomas Becket.’

At this point there was a subtle but ultimately far-reaching change, and the discussions that took place on episcopal appointments were now to be between archbishop and Churchill’s patronage secretary, so that ‘for the first time a civil servant, perforce, began to affect what happened.’

The good thing was that he began to consult the local diocese, but, as Chadwick points out, this made a person who was only a civil servant no longer a faceless figure behind the scenes but a person who counted. His obvious use of power ‘made the system look more Erastian that it ever looked before.’

Ramsey the scholar

An early result was Michael Ramsey’s appointment to Durham in 1952. Fisher made it clear that he did not want Ramsey, and when Ramsey, who had no wish to leave his professorship at Cambridge, asked the archbishop how important he thought it was to have scholars on the bench, Fisher replied that ‘it did not matter much.’ It was the turning point, for, as Ramsey had told a friend, ‘If you walked from Humber to Severn and dodged Derby, you could not find a bishop who could read or write.’ (A.E.J. Rawlinson was the Bishop of Derby.)

So the saintly, scholarly, humble and quite eccentric Michael Ramsey felt he had to accept the post, which he occupied with increasing delight from September 1952. With the death of Garbett he was faced with a decision even harder than accepting Durham. With London and York vacant, it soon became clear that he would be offered one or the other, and Fisher wanted him for London.

It was not out of any disregard for Ramsey but rather that, seeing him as a future Canterbury, Fisher thought London a better preparation. George Bell had been the obvious choice for Canterbury after Lang’s death, but Churchill could not forgive his criticism of the bombing of Dresden. By now he was 73 years old and though Fisher would have liked him to go to York, wisely the dean and chapter, with the support of Garbett and leading layman Lord Halifax, wanted Ramsey.

Excessive secrecy

‘And in this new structure, where the prime minister’s secretary popped out of holes and asked them what they thought, they had a better chance than any previous dean and chapter.’ So prime minister Eden overruled Fisher and Ramsey went to York.

There were hints of unease at the developing system. Michael Ramsey himself commented that ‘the knowledge is filtered through the mind of one man, and no man is without his prejudices and blind spots.’

But five decades were to pass before Baroness Perry produced her devastating report on how the system had gradually concentrated power in the hands of the appointments secretaries and individual bishops, with its ‘excessive secrecy’, the ‘selective summaries of unattributed references’, and the lack of trust it had engendered of ‘those in authority.’ By then the damage had been done.