Michael Ramsey, Conversion, and Christian Reunion


by Jonathan Warren

Introducing Michael Ramsey


One feature of Anglican church history I am especially interested to highlight in these essays is the role that the Archbishop of Canterbury has played in crafting the temper and character of Anglicanism as a theological and spiritual tradition. For Anglicans, bishops are the chief symbol of Christian unity, and no episcopal office is more resonant in this respect than the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his own way, each Archbishop has attempted to model the unity that Christ calls for in the Anglican communion and to extend the offer for union to the other parts of Christendom.  There is, however, arguably no Archbishop who has overseen such profound overtures for visible communion between the fractured churches of Christ than Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), who held the office from 1961-1974. If, as Cardinal Kasper has indicated, many believe that Anglicans and Catholics are enduring an “ecumenical winter,” then we might without too much exaggeration say that Michael Ramsey’s primature was ecumenism’s springtime in Anglicanism (Kasper, That They All May Be One, 14).

Since this essay will cover a lot of ground, I am posting it serially. Part one, on Ramsey’s ecumenism and his thoughts on conversion, will be posted today, 7/7, and part two, on important themes in Ramsey’s thought and their relevance for the contemporary church, will go up on Wednesday, 7/9.

Michael Ramsey, Frank Ramsey, and the Gospel of Christ

Michael Ramsey was the second son born to Arthur and Mary Agnes Ramsey. His father was a fellow of Mathematics at Magdalene College, Cambridge and a Congregationalist, and his mother was a communicant in the Church of England. Although he was baptized in the Church of England, he attended services in his father’s Congregationalist Church. Ramsey departed the Congregational church and became an Anglo-Catholic while in preparatory school, but he always appreciated the emphasis upon the sanctity of conscience that he learned from his Congregationalist years. Michael’s older brother was named Frank, and he followed his father in becoming a Cambridge mathematician. Unlike Michael, however, Frank became an atheist during his college years. Nonetheless, Michael thought of Frank as one of the most intelligent people he had ever met and always looked up to him.

Michael was ordained to the priesthood in 1927, and within three years he was shattered by the loss of both his mother and his brother. When Frank died tragically at twenty six early in 1930, Michael performed the funeral and said a requiem mass at Kings College. Frank’s death deeply shook Michael, not least because he was “faced with acutely worrying questions about the fate of unbelievers” (Habgood, 142). His brother’s atheism “made him always sympathetic to doubters,” and in his later years “he disturbed some by saying he expected to meet atheists in heaven” (ODNB).

The latter quote might make it sound as though Ramsey was a universalist, but I don’t think that is the case. I think the explanation is more complex than that, since Ramsey also recognized that the New Testament presents heaven and hell as “finalities” – its images give us dramatic and abiding warnings of the possibility of ultimate “loss,” even though “what the state of loss may be like or how many may be lost, we do not know” (Ramsey, Canterbury Essays and Addresses, 33, 38-9). We need to find other grounds for Ramsey’s hope for his brother and other professed atheists.

My conjecture is that Ramsey’s hope came from two theological convictions: 1) Salvation is always a gift from God and not from ourselves. We are, as part of the common mass of humanity, dead in sin and in desperate need of regeneration. “We have no rights here, and no rights hereafter. Unprofitable servants at every stage, we know that the Christian life has two facets: on the one side there is God who raises the dead, and on the other there is faith alone” (Ramsey, Canterbury Essays and Addresses, 33). On that account one should be clear in our proclamation about the call to conversion and the reality of ultimate loss, but equally one should not despair about the individual fate of any person. 2) Ramsey regarded many professions of unbelief in modernity not as a rejection of the gospel itself but of the rejection of the intellectual “scaffolding” in which the gospel was couched. Moreover, Ramsey recognized that it was often the lack of “costly discipleship” of Christians themselves who made Christianity seem implausible, but that rejection of an unfaithful church did not in itself signal a rejection of Christ. These themes are summed up in his address at the opening of the 1968 Lambeth Conference:

The faith to which we are called will always be folly and scandal to the world, it cannot be in the usual sense of the word popular; it is a supernatural faith and it cannot adapt itself to every passing fashion of human thought. But it will be a faith alert to distinguish what is shaken, and is meant to go, and what is not shaken and is meant to remain. When men today tell us that they revere Jesus but find God or theism without meaning it sometimes is that the image of God as we Christians in our practice present it is the image of a God of religious concerns but not of compassion for all human life, and it is just not recognisable as the God and Father of Jesus Christ. So too when men reject theism it sometimes means that they cannot accept in this shaken world any easy, facile assumption that the universe has a plan, a centre, a purpose. It is for us Christians to be sure that our faith is no facile assumption but a costly conviction that in Christ crucified and risen, in suffering and victorious love and in no other way, there is a plan, a centre, a purpose. In dying to live, in losing life so as to find it – there is the place where divine sovereignty is found and theism has meaning and vindication. The Bishops who will lead our thinking about faith at this Lambeth Conference will help us to see that faith means standing near to the Cross in the heart of the contemporary world, and not only standing but acting. Our faith will be tested in our actions, not least in our actions concerning peace, concerning race, concerning poverty. Faith is a costly certainty, but no easy security as our God is blazing fire. (Ramsey, Lambeth Conference)

Ramsey and Christian Reunion

At the heart of Ramsey’s ministry from the beginning was the devotion to the reconciliation of all Christian communions and traditions of spirituality. His first book, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, which sealed his place as a first-rate theologian at the age of 31, was among other things an attempt to synthesize the catholic, broad church, and evangelical traditions within Anglican spirituality. Although he was sympathetic to the incarnational focus of the “liberal Catholicism” [1] of Charles Gore and William Temple, Ramsey nonetheless affirmed the evangelical focus on the cross and the atonement.

Ramsey was critical, for instance, of JR Illingworth’s contribution to Lux Mundi – the manifesto of liberal Catholicism, edited by Charles Gore – in which Illingworth urged that incarnation and not atonement was the central dogma of the church. Ramsey responded, “This was incautious, inasmuch as the formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation had sprung, alike in the apostolic age and in the patristic period, from out of the experience of Redemption….It was also incautious, inasmuch as it is the doctrine of Atonement which guards the difference between true and false types of immanentism” (Ramsey, Era in Anglican Theology, 4). Ramsey recognized that without a theology of the cross, the incarnation could easily be used to sanction any development as divine or to deny that humanity is in need of reconciliation with God. By contrast, Ramsey insisted that

The Spirit’s renewal of the Church is linked with the Spirit’s witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The way of truth along which the Paraclete leads is always the way that is Christ himself, as he takes the things of Christ and declares them to the disciples….At the present time there are attempts to understand Christian spirituality as an experience somewhat apart from the historical events of the gospel…in the apostolic age the events and the experience are interwoven….The Christians are justified by faith, they have peace with God, they rejoice in hope, and they rejoice even in suffering, because the love of God was poured into their hearts by the Spirit. But what is this love of God? It is the love made known in the death of Christ for the sake of the ungodly, and in that death the love of God himself was commended to men. The event of the death of Christ not only enables the Christian life, it provides its continuing motive and interpretation. (Ramsey, Holy Spirit, 131)

The “evangelical” impulse in Ramsey’s work can also be seen in the fact that his most central theological insights emerged from the exegesis of Scripture. Without neglecting the tradition of interpretation or the contemporary context, Ramsey’s works are often first and foremost works of biblical theology. It seems likely that this element of Ramsey’s work can be traced to the influence of Edwyn Hoskyns, under whom he learned biblical theology and the theology of Karl Barth after receiving a classics scholarship to Magdalene College at Cambridge.

Ramsey was typically “catholic” in favoring the church’s corporate relationship to Christ over the more typically “evangelical” insistence upon the individual’s relationship to Christ. Ramsey’s solution here was to account for the evangelical principle within the framework of catholic ecclesiology: “two kinds of language have always been legitimate for Christians: one that dwells upon the Body of Christ in which the individual is joined, and the other that speaks of the individual Christian in conscious union with Christ. But both kinds of language describe what is truly one reality: for the individual Christian exists only because the Body exists already” (Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, 38).

In the 1930s, Ramsey first became interested in Orthodoxy after spending a weekend with Georges Florovsky. For the rest of his career, Ramsey committed himself to working towards reunion with the Orthodox. The east-west schism became for Ramsey the schism par excellence, and thus he came to take efforts for reunion with the Orthodox even more seriously than efforts for reunion between Protestants or Roman Catholics:

In the Church of England the passion for unity has expressed itself specially in two directions. (1) Some, of whom the late Lord Halifax was the most saintly example, have been filled with a longing for reunion with the Church of Rome….(2) Others have felt that the first claim upon us is to seek reunion with the Nonconformist Christians of our own land, for they are our immediate Christian neighbours and share with us in the use of the English Bible. Without wishing to criticize either of these longings, and without raising any question of priorities (for Christ’s prayer is that all may be one), I ask my readers to hearken to the less familiar cause of unity with the East. I shall not shrink from making some very big claims: namely, that our familiar divisions have their root in the original schism between East and West, that in unity with the East there lies a remedy for many of the problems and perplexities of the whole Church, that the Church of England has a special debt and obligation in the matter, and that the present crisis in Church and world summons our thoughts Eastwards. (Ramsey, Eastern Orthodox, 3) [2]

In 1939 Ramsey was invited to become a professor of divinity at Durham and the canon of Durham Cathedral, where he met and married his wife Joan Alice Chetwood. In 1948, Ramsey attended the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, where as it happens he met Karl Barth. Barth had apparently never met anything like an Anglo-Catholic – ‘with strange views…concerning tradition, succession, ontology and so on … the outstanding figure in the picture of my first ecumenical experience!” (Chadwick, 67). In 1950, Ramsey became Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and then was consecrated as Bishop of Durham in 1952. He was translated to the see of York in 1956, and finally became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1961, a position he held until his retirement in 1974.

It was as ABC that Ramsey had his most lasting impact on Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Ramsey and Pope Paul VI met together in 1966, an historic event in itself and together they decided to open a dialogue about full communion between these two churches of the Christian west. Their dialogue led to the famous Malta Declaration of 1967, which announced the ambitious “quest for the full, organic unity of our two communions” (par. 17). The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission also emerged from this meeting, which has issued common declarations on authority, the eucharist, salvation, moral theology, and Marian doctrine and has also fostered illuminating discussions on a number of other issues related to the life of the church.

Ramsey passed away in his home in 1988. He was cremated and interred near William Temple, as he desired, in the Cloisters at Canterbury. The inscription on his tomb was a saying of Irenaeus’s: “The Glory of God is the living man; And the life of man is the Vision of God” (ODNB).

Works Cited

Chadwick, Owen, Michael Ramsey: A Life (London: SCM Press, 2012).

Habgood, John, “Michael Ramsey: Man of God,” in Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

Kasper, Walter Cardinal, That They May All Be One: The Call to Unity Today (New York: Continuum, 2004).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Ramsey, Michael.”

Ramsey, Michael, Canterbury Essays and Addresses (London: SPCK, 1964).

Ramsey, Michael, An Era in Anglican Theology: From Gore to Temple: The Development of Anglican Theology between Lux Mundi and the Second World War, 1889-1939 (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1960)

Ramsey, Michael, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (reprint, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009).

Ramsey, Michael, Holy Spirit: A Biblical Study (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).

Ramsey, Michael, “Lambeth Conference Opening Service, July 25, 1968. Sermon Preached at Canterbury Cathedral,” available at http://www.anglicanhistory.org/amramsey/lambeth_opening1968.html (accessed 7/7/14).

Sachs, William, The Transformation of Anglicanism: From State Church to Global Communion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[1] William Sachs describes liberal Catholicism as a “marriage of Broad and High Church concerns” that emerged around the turn of the 20th century, which “became the means of adapting ecclesiastical tradition to modern life. Accepting critical biblical scholarship, Liberal Catholics believed that Scripture revelaed an historical progress of the creation toward final unity. They interpreted the Bible as a cosmic paradigm which encouraged optimism about human nature and history” (Sachs, 148).

[2] Similarly, Ramsey wrote in The Gospel and the Catholic Church that “The drawing together of East and West, including the movement of Anglicans and Orthodox towards unity, has an importance for every member of the entire Christian Church. For the schism between East and West was the parent of later schisms. The East has conserved elements of faith, life, and worship, which the West sorely needs for realizing its own inner Catholicity: the mystery of worship, the communion of saints, of the Church as a family, the close relationship between doctrine and life expressed in the Eastern idea of ‘orthodoxy’, the resurrection as the centre of the Church’s being” (Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, 151).


Jonathan Warren Pagán

Jonathan Warren Pagán is a priest currently living and serving in Austin, Texas. He is married to Tish, also a writer and priest in the ACNA, and they have three children.

View more from Jonathan Warren Pagán


Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments