Anglican Identities: Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey

Tony SigAfter his retirement, ++Ramsey spent much of his time at Nashotah House Seminary.  At the time there was a nearby home for the mentally handicapped.  One day a resident of that home ‘escaped’ and police were looking for him.  Also on that day, Michael Ramsey was taking a walk in his full purple cassock.  Seeing a very hairy man in a long purple ‘dress’ the police stopped him on his walk and asked who he was.  ++Ramsey replied, “Why I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury!”

I just wanted to throw that story in there.  It doesn’t really serve a larger purpose in this post.

It has often been noted that most who have taken the name Cantaur have been less than the greatest minds of the Anglican Church, but somehow the last century has produced three ABCs about whom has been said, “He is the most theologically astute ABC since St. Anselm himself.”  I cannot judge such sayings, but at the very least, Michael Ramsey stands alongside William Temple and Rowan Williams as a creative and original theologian in his own right.

At this point I’ve not read as much Ramsey as I should like to.  But even what I have is enough to excite me to read more.  His classic theological work is The Gospel and the Catholic Church; a book written very early in his academic career and one that has apparently had a mixed reception.  Ramsey was writing this in an Anglican school system very much dedicated to the liberalism of its time yet also when Barth was starting to be read and the “Biblical Theology” movement was coming into its own.  It is remarkable the sheer amount of theology that is crammed into this thing.  From the first chapter Ramsey is quick to remove any sense of worldly ‘purpose’ from his ecclesiology; the Church is made and has its life only in the life death and resurrection of Christ.  It doesn’t play chaplain to the State, neither is it there to spread progressive values.

But this is also a mysterious participatory life.  Here Ramsey is well ahead of his time for a Protestant.  It may have been his deep appreciation of the Eastern Orthodox and/or his refusal to ‘rationalize’ how the New Testament talks about Gods life in the Church, whatever influenced Ramsey, he envisioned the Church as in the process of theosis.

But this forms only the beginning to this work.  From there Ramsey attempts to explicate church order and unity, the episcopacy and apostolic succession in light of this Passion as opposed to locating it in the predetermined discussions as they have been developed.  For him ‘Christian authority consists not in propositions about God [or, presumably the Church], but in God’s own redemptive action.”  This is a section I should like to work on in the future:  teasing out how the structure of the Church ought to be reflective of its life given by God in Christ.  This section of the work is among the most novel and creative.

The next part of the book consists in a series of three essays of historical theology exploring the “Church of the Fathers,” including both the Greek and Latin fathers; “Developments in Catholicism,” in which he critiques the Roman Catholic Church for what he sees as certain discontinuities; and “The Reformers and the Church.”  Ramsey was very much a sensitive reader of the Reformers and though himself often (and correctly) identified by others as “Anglo-catholic,” he was passionate that the Gospel and it alone stood at the heart of the Church.

In the next to last chapter Ramsey talks about the “Ecclesia Anglicana”  and (typically) locates it both in the Reformation but also, on account of it’s historic order, within the intents of the Catholic Church.  He here has a great little section on F.D. Maurice.

In a concluding note Ramsey returns again as he did throughout to the topic of Christian reunion, which for him cannot occur except as the Gospel is more and more ingested into the Church.

This work easily sums up the reason I feel so at home in Anglicanism.  As with any church, in practice we are mixed, but at its best Anglican theological reflection usually follows this exact order:  You must begin in the Scriptures; however authoritative and valuable the developments of history, Scripture (as it testifies to Christ) forms the heart of how we think of ourselves; then you move to the Church Fathers who still (providentially?) form a paradigm for integrating spirituality and philosophy into an holistic theology; but both the medieval church and the Reformation church have a rightful place even if both must be integrated with a tad bit more attentiveness; and it is only after this that we ought to begin to talk about the ‘Anglican Church’ and identity.  The mixing of the universal and the particular are perhaps one of the reasons that Anglicans have not historically excelled in systematics but rather in devotional theology.

But that’s mere speculation.  Whatever the case, by this book as well as his Anglican Spirit and An Era in Anglican Theology From Gore to Temple: The Development of Anglican Theology from ‘Lux Mundi’ and the Second World War 1889-1939, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury has taught me how to feel at home in the Episcopal Church even when sometimes I still feel like a baby Anglican.

Other important works of his include: (please leave comments with others)

The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ

The Christian Priest Today

Be Still and Know

A great starting point with secondary literature is Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings and Glory!. Owen Chadwick also composed this biography.



    1. Well, some are stronger than others so I’ll just say most of them but I don’t agree with all of them, or at least the precise way he phrases his critiques, though I do for most:

      1 – He feels that unity in government took the place of unity is race (I’m assuming he means something like ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’ here)
      2 – Without placing a blame on a side or the other, the Great Schism he feels is a ‘development in Catholicism’ that is inexcusable.
      3 – The turn to ‘legalism’:

      “The Confessor, whose true function is to blend the offices of Father, Physician and Judge, and to subordinate law to the Gospel, becaume primarily the Judge, trying cases and assigning penances. Sin came to be measures ad a series of quantitative acts rather than as an attitude of the soul. The merits of Jesus and of the saints and of the penitent were treated as quantities which can be added and subtracted…which often obscures the meaning of divine redemption, and of the mystical Body of Christ.” 167

      4 – Developing clericalism which in turn clericalises the Eucharist and the sense of the People as Corpus Christi, as compared to the Eucharist (and Festival) alone, was damaged.
      5 – The loss of episcopal concilarity and the rise of the Pope as juridically ‘above’ all other bishops: “The climax of Papal supremacy marks the climax of the distortion of genuine Catholic order.” 172
      6 – Post-Reformation Catholics (and Protestants he says) became way too individualistic

      These are the main points, though he does go on to discuss what were in his day ‘recent’ developments of renewal. Keep in mind he critiques Protestants as well in other chapters though, as I mentioned, he is a good reader of Reformers. I imagine he would line up pretty closely with the Pro Ecclesia high-church Lutherans.


  1. Thanks, you’ve given a nice introduction here. I think I’m going to try to read The Gospel and the Catholic Church soonish.

    That quote about the “turn to legalism” is pretty interesting. Not that I have a good read on currents past, present, and future within Rome but its still interesting. I like the emphasis on Gospel here and I’ll be interested to check out his reading of the Reformers (does he discuss Cramner?).


  2. He doesn’t do anything with Cranmer and his section on Anglicanism is mostly about the combination of Protestant “Gospel” commitment and “Catholic” order rather than a specific theological core.


  3. ADH,

    Thanks for this rec. You know, I’ve never read Ramsey, although I’ve heard of him, obviously, from Wright, Williams, Radner, et al. I’ll have to remedy this ill!


  4. You should know, Chris, that he also wrote a little book in response to the charismatic movements of the time entitled, “The Charismatic Christ.” And, I believe he also wrote a book on the Holy Spirit governed largely by the practices of the biblical theology movement. I look forward to reading them both.


  5. Very funny story at the beginning. Thanks for doing this series on “Anglican Identities”, it is quite helpful. I don’t really have an ecclesiastical home right now, but I am very sympathetic to and somewhat allured by the Anglican tradition.


    1. Thanks for the encouragement Daniel. Anglicanism is a wonderful tradition. Be forewarned though…we are in a lot of distress right now.


  6. Yes, I’m aware of the distress. Every 5 minutes or so I hear that the Anglican communion is going to split. What would you say are the opinions of this blog’s authors on the state of the Episcopal Church USA?


    1. Well Daniel I could guess where the other guys are at but I’m not sure I should simply answer for them. I know all of us are in healthy parishes where we feel at home. For my part, whatever the problems it engenders, I support taking the steps to remain in full relationship with the larger Anglican Communion and I disapprove of all that we’ve done to lose that.


  7. […] Eucharist.  I found a very solid congruence and even overlap between what he is arguing and what Michael Ramsey did in his still neglected The Gospel and the Catholic Church.  For instance the need to ground […]


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