A Sister of the Community of Holy Cross Rempstone finds a relevant lesson in Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s attitude to the Church of England in time of crisis
The cynics say ‘What’s the point?’ All life peters out with a whimper. No achievements are lasting, for another generation comes along and changes everything. Even a Christian might be excused for thinking along these lines. Many of the greatest saints have ended their lives in apparent failure, not unlike their Lord and Master here of course. Only afterwards, sometimes very much later, does vindication come.
One of our great exemplars in the CofE, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, was not entirely exempt from such an ordeal, though it was something borne more in the secret places of the heart than blazoned abroad. It was not so much that the scheme of the Sixties and early Seventies for Anglican-Methodist reunion fell through, a project close to Ramsey’s heart; much more, it was the effect that such a failure had on Anglicanism itself.
It lost something of its heart and soul, as Ramsey saw it, and the loss was deeply painful, not least because, as Archbishop of Canterbury, his vocation was somehow to hold together and pass on to the future the frail but real unity of the comprehensiveness which characterized his church.
A painful dilemma
Owen Chadwick puts it graphically in his life of Ramsey: ‘Inside himself the question was painful. He had loved the Church of England, did he now? He valued the Church of England above all for its intellectual integrity and its marriage of that integrity to a Scriptural and Catholic faith. But had it behaved with intellectual integrity over the Methodists? On reflection he did not think that it had.’
Whatever our personal stance about the question, since it is still only partially resolved, Ramsey’s anguish remains valid. His faith in his church was shaken and, as Chadwick says, he was compelled to go back to fundamentals, ‘to confess again a faith in God the Holy Trinity, and a faith in the Holy Catholic Church as God’s Creation, and in the necessity that it should have a form as an institution in history’
The major question now was whether Anglicanism was actually part of this historic form. Despite everything, Ramsey remained sure it was, but all the same, something was different. Quoting Chadwick again: ‘what he could no longer answer with a yes was whether he had an enthusiasm for his Church, whether he could still plead with conviction, or feet, that, it was the best of all Churches. It had undermined its claim to be that.’
No running away
That was the rub, and that is what many of us are feeling even more acutely in the present time. In the last thirty to forty years, we have let ourselves down a lot. Ramsey would have grieved on several scores. Did he in fact, one wonders, have any inkling of the effect that some of the church issues of his day (the setting up of General Synod, tentative exploration into the priesting of women, for instance) would have on the unity and integrity of the church he loved? At least he recognized the value of bringing that church down to size in her own, sometimes rather arrogant eyes.
How, ultimately, did he respond though? There was no question of giving up or running away. We quote Ramsey’s 1972 letter to Fr Geoffrey Curtis cr: ‘What then does one do? It is very painful. But I think the call is to stay, and not to despair; because the faith in the Triune God and in the Holy Catholic Church stands as the essential rock, because the Church of England has not put itself outside the Catholic Church. So we stay, and serve the Lord painfully and joyfully. What has vanished is the idea that being an Anglican is something to be commended to others as a specially excellent way’
Being an Anglican
Alas! This last point is now only too painfully, rather than cynically, true. Too much inappropriate trumpet blowing would see us booed off the concert platform out of hand. All the same, we stay if only to witness to the fact that the CofE has not, at least yet, put itself definitively outside the Catholic Church.