Revisiting Anglican Classics 2: A.M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936)

            Is this the greatest book of Anglican theology published in the twentieth century?  I think there’s a good case for saying so.  It’s certainly one of the most influential, and a book which retains much of its freshness and vitality 85 years on from its publication. 

            It’s not without flaws.  So let’s get those out of the way first.  Its assumption of something like a single Patristic witness, while consistent with the Anglo-Catholicism Ramsey had embraced, won’t stand up to critical scrutiny now.  The book was written before great strides were made in liturgical and Patristic scholarship, and Ramsey himself came to recognize its deficiencies.  Likewise, the latent assumption of a largely self-consistent New Testament voice would sit uncomfortably with many Biblical scholars today, though some schools of thought (e.g. canonical criticism) would be happier with it.  Perhaps most seriously, there’s a somewhat undefinable, and philosophically unexplored, quality to the central claim made in the book that the order of the Church is itself an expression (‘utterance’ is the word he uses) of the Gospel.  With it, Ramsey pulls history and proclamation together in a way that echoes his interest at the time in neo-Orthodoxy, and the influence of Barth’s translator Hoskyns, though it probably also reflects a lingering influence from the philosophical Idealism of his mentor William Temple, and others. 

            Maybe I’m biased – well, I am! – but though some people would regard Ramsey’s appreciation of F.D. Maurice as mystifying, I wouldn’t be among them.  Ramsey plainly understood Maurice’s intellectual breadth and imaginativeness, and grasped that the whole with Maurice is always more than the sum of the parts – admittedly another way of saying it’s not always clear how Maurice ultimately justifies his position.  But Ramsey perceived the importance of Maurice’s attempt in The Kingdom of Christ (1838; completely revised 1842) to honour his own Anglican perspective while at the same time taking to heart the precious truths proclaimed in other, separated Christian traditions, and in a way his book echoes that same fundamental move.  I have to admit, though, that Ramsey is always much more readable than Maurice – in fact, that very readability is one of the great surprises of the book, and something that keeps it alive even today.  It’s one of the best-written books of modern Anglican theology, without question.

            So why ‘the greatest’?  Ramsey spotted the abiding problem of modern Anglican theology, and tried to think a way through it.  That is, quite simply, the cohabitation of two (or even three, though the third is less easily defined) completely different and apparently irreconcilable theological systems within the one Church tradition – the Evangelical appeal to the authority of Scripture and its consequent ‘leaping over’ the importance of the tradition of the Church, and the Catholic appeal to the authority of Church tradition and its apparent demotion of Scripture.  The one position mandates (I’m not saying this is what all Evangelicals think – it’s a kind of tendency or norm) a sort of Scriptural simplicity that has the unfortunate side-effect of rendering much of human history otiose, the other a sort of traditional identity that embraces the significance of history but risks losing the radical message of the Gospel.  If there is a third, it is of course the ‘Liberal’ appeal to reason, or rather to the adaptability of the Gospel and the Church to changing human situations, which implies in turn the susceptibility of both to critical interrogation.  Ramsey leans very heavily on Maurice in his reading of this ‘third’ position (not that he simply identifies Maurice with it), but since Maurice’s concept of ‘reason’ was the spiritual capacity entailed in Coleridge’s use of the term, and not a logical, ‘rationalist’ view, it doesn’t directly affect the main lines of Ramsey’s case.

            Ramsey’s solution is effectively to argue that each of these two positions is incomplete without the other.  They are really two sides of one reality, God’s speaking – God’s Word – in history.  And since Ramsey accepts in the fullest sense the Pauline theology of the Church as Christ’s body, the Gospel is articulated not only in the Church, i.e. functionally as the Word of God is read, proclaimed, and taught, but through the Church in sacramentum and in its own very ordering.  This is a classic Coleridgean-Mauricean move – the limitations of two positions are transcended in a fusion of both.  Stephen Sykes (in The Integrity of Anglicanism, 1978) hated the resultant confusion (as he saw it), but he did I think miss or at least underestimate the extent to which Ramsey was trying to take the Church as we have received it through history seriously as the endeavour of the followers of Christ to remain true to his word.  Ramsey’s argument is the authentic Christian riposte to Nietzsche’s ‘There was only ever one Christian and he died on the cross’.

            The need for these two positions to ‘speak’ to each other, to be seen as part of the one reality of the Church, is so evident from the recent history of division and disagreement within the Anglican Communion, and particularly my own church, the Church of England, that the abiding relevance of Ramsey’s effort surely doesn’t need pointing out.  Of course – and he was well aware of this – it doesn’t resolve the actual, messy task of trying to work out how to regard different issues and different historical changes as they impact upon the Church, but it does defend the basic Anglican endeavour to contain these apparently different ecclesiologies within the one body, and indeed to articulate an overarching ecclesiology that can do justice to both.  This was not only something of which Anglicans needed to be reminded in the 1930s.  It was also something essential to holding together their ecumenical ambitions, which ranged over both Protestant denominations, and the Old Catholics, Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  No one has set out a more compelling vision of what an Anglican ecumenical strategy should aim to do than, by implication, Ramsey did in this book.

            There are two further points.  One is that, although at first reading one might be struck by Ramsey’s attempt to fold the Evangelical appeal to the Gospel into arguments about Catholic order, an equally important move is the modification he makes to the traditional ‘Catholic’ position in Anglicanism.  Gone is the somewhat narrowly defined, ‘supercharged’ (the word I think is Peter Nockles’s) theory of tactile, manual succession as the constitutive element of apostolicity, as received from the Tractarians.  Ramsey moves things on, allowing an opening out of the understanding of apostolicity to include a fidelity to the Gospel and an identification with wider currents of Church history, and thus enabling the broader view of apostolicity that was later to emerge in, for example, the Porvoo agreement, but also in the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC from the 1970s on.  Ironically – though he again he would have been aware of this – from a Roman Catholic perspective, this was merely stretching the concept of apostolicity to its appropriate breadth.  A mark of that was Yves Congar’s appreciation of Ramsey.

            Finally, Ramsey achieves all of this not by a simplistic or crude idealization of the Church.  He had a thoroughly Augustinian notion of the Church as itself, in the specific conditions of history, often deeply flawed.  It needs constant reform, constant recall to its foundations – that is the importance of the Evangelical constitution of the Church.  I’m often struck today by how easily people seem to be disillusioned by the Church, and by Church leaders.  When did we learn to be so naïve?  The Church is called to be a peaceable, loving, safe and affirming community, but it will always fail, just as much as it succeeds.  It’s made up of sinners, after all.  Any alternative view would be a kind of Pelagianism, a trust that by our own efforts we can perfect ourselves.  We can’t.  ‘Catholicism always stands before the church door at Wittenberg’, wrote Ramsey, ‘to read the truth by which she is created and by which she is judged’ (p. 180). 

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