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Sermon at Centenary of the birth of Archbishop Michael Ramsey

Sunday 31st October 2004

An address given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at an Evensong service to mark the centenary of the birth of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. The service was held at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

It's always entertaining to divide the human race into two categories and decide which group particular people belong to. You're either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative, according to W.S.Gilbert. You're a Roundhead or a Cavalier, a Platonist or an Aristotelean, a Greek or a Hebrew. You belong with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Bach or Mozart. You're an optimist or a pessimist – bearing in mind the definition that an optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist is afraid he's right...

And the game can be played with theologians, of course, not least with Anglican theologians. Do you stand with those who see the world as basically God's good creation, with human beings radiating God's image, or with those who assume that our fallen state is so extreme that the first thing we are aware of is always sin and failure and our need for help from outside? Can we properly use nature and culture to find out about God, or do we depend absolutely on what God tells us in the events of revelation and the pages of the Bible? The former picture is associated with people like Erasmus on the eve of the Reformation; with the great poets and preachers of the seventeenth century, with the Cambridge Platonists and Bishop Westcott and F.D.Maurice and William Temple; the latter with Calvin and the Puritans; with the Evangelical Revival; or with Kierkegaard's pushing towards the edge of what can be understood by reason and ethics, and with Karl Barth, greatest of all Reformed thinkers in our age.

'Christian humanism' is what people tend to call the first picture; the second is sometimes referred to as a 'revelationist' or 'redemptionist' view. But we encounter some obvious problems as soon as we start thinking through both the words used for these views and the actual thinking of the people involved. Calvin had a staggeringly high doctrine of human nature – that's why the failure of human nature was so appalling to him. Bishop Westcott had a profound sense of the evil and corruption in the human heart; that's why the possibility of restoration was so exhilarating. George Herbert is aware of God in the world around, yet he is one of the most searching analysts of human self-deceit and of the need to read the world through the cross of Christ. Karl Barth believed that, in a world where unspeakable tyranny and violence tried to justify itself by appealing to the pattern of creation itself, it was essential to deny that there was any road from the world to God. But the miracle was that God had opened a road from himself to the world and had said Yes to it, out of his unforced free grace, and everything in consequence was alive with his possibilites.

Michael Ramsey wrote a good deal about Christian humanism, one way or another. He produced a very good book on trends in Anglican theology at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century; he delivered here in Cambridge an extraordinary tribute to F.D.Maurice; in 1968, he reviewed for the Spectator a collection of essays on The Humanist Outlook, defending what he considered a true humanism. And in his Scott Holland Lectures, published under the title of Sacred and Secular in 1965, he discussed the 'long and honourable history' of Christian humanism, and the challenges it faced. After a flowering in the Middle Ages, and a huge new opportunity at the Renaissance, this tradition foundered on the rocks of a controversy between religion and science – or rather between 'a religion which distorts its own true character and a scientific theory negligent of science's own manysidedness' (p.69).

You might think, then, that if there is anything at all in the polarity between humanism and redemptionism, Ramsey is pretty much on one side of it.Yet in fact he offers as much evidence as a Barth or a Westcott of the relative uselessness of the parlour game we started with. For Ramsey, there is in fact no easy cross-over between the wisdom of human culture and the wisdom of God, for the simple reason that God's wisdom is made plain only in the cross. 'In Jesus the human race finds its own true meaning', he writes in 1969 (God, Christ and the World, p.100); the cross represents the fact the this meaning is rejected by human beings, but the rejection itself is exactly what makes possible the manifestation of the true glory of humanity and God together. The cross is the ultimate sign of a love that will not protect itself or hold back; precisely in letting itself be wholly rejected it can appear as supremely free. When no advantage of power or security is involved, then love can appear as a total giving-away, utterly independent of the world's conditions. A human event becomes the carrier of God's own character, and in that event humanity is shown to be, and enabled to be, the mirror of divine life.

So when Christians engage with the world and with their culture, they don't do so in the hope that they will be readily accepted and that Church and society will flow together in a seamless unity, with no clash of values. Rather, they engage, listen, co-operate, because it is only in the service offered to the world by disinterested love that the action of God becomes manifest. If the world rejects what the Church offers, so be it; love without conditions means that this has always to be reckoned with as a possibility and even as a gift. To be the servant of the world does not mean being a slavish imitator of the world: quite the contrary. It is to be so free from the world's definitions that you're free to offer God's love quite independently of your own security or success. Sometimes the world may be in tune and sometimes not, sometimes there is a real symbiosis, sometimes a violent collision. But the labour continues simply because the rightness of the service does not depend on what the world thinks it wants and whether the world believes it has got what it needs from the Church.

This is to do no more than to paraphrase the Beatitudes which we heard read in this service. To be 'blessed' is simply to be where God would have you be: if you are aware that there is a place where God would have you be, then your state of mind, your achievement in occupying that place, the effects of your labours all become irrelevant. 'Rejoice and be exceeding glad': you are where God is, in the place of poverty, humility, peacemaking, suffering, longing for justice, and what mattes is to be there faithfully.
' Humanism'? Yes, but a strange variety, we might well say. The final point of human liberty, the ultimate assertion of human dignity, is to be free with God's freedom. What greater affirmation of the dignity of the human creation could there be? But that freedom is the freedom to empty yourself of self-defence and self-deceit; to be there where God is whatever happens. 'Let us also go, that we may die with him', says Thomas in John's gospel. You can only be a 'humanist', in Ramsey's sense if you are willing to let go of quite a lot of what you think is bound up with your 'human flourishing' – to be converted, in fact, brought into the presence of God's glory in the cross so that in the Holy Spirit the true glory of the human creature may be born in you. 'Man's true glory is the reflection in him of the divine glory, the self-giving love seen in Jesus' (GCW, p.100).

The theme is already there in that first great work of Ramsey's, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, where he writes – in words of some contemporary relevance – that the real battle over belief in the Creed is the struggle between a word of sin and salvation and mediation by Christ and 'a humanistic view of Christ who is called Divine because He is admired as Perfect Man' (p.134). It is an unusually negative use of the word 'humanistic', but it brings out very plainly Ramsey's conviction that we do not actually know what humanity is when we are out of sight of Christ's cross, we do not know either the glory or the horror. And he continues with a surprising quotation from F.D.Maurice – surprising for those who think of Maurice as the supreme example of harmonious convergence between Church and culture.

'"In that day", wrote F.D.Maurice, "when the intellect and the will shall be utterly crushed upon the car of the idol which they have set up; in that day when the poor man shall cry and there shall be no helper; may God teach his saints to proclaim these words to the sons of men. He was born of the Virgin, He suffered under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, dead and buried, and went down into hell. He rose again the third day, He ascended on high, He sitteth at the right hand of God, He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. May they be enabled to say, This is our God, we have waited for Him.'

Humanism? Yes, the only kind worth believing for a Christian. Divorce your human aspiration from this, and you will never reach the heart of what it is to be human. The great Jesuit thinker, Henri de Lubac (how close to Ramsey in so many ways!) observes in his wonderful Paradoxes of Faith what a mistake it is to think in terms of trying to humanise the world before Christianising it. 'If the enterprise succeeds, Christianity will come too late: its place will be taken. And who thinks that Christianity has no humanizing value?'(p.69). But this cannot mean that we as believers do not struggle for justice, for liberty and peace; rather it says that justice, liberty and peace sought in human terms alone will be empty and fragile, and that even their attainment in the terms most people think of them, will not deliver that fullness of humanity which is holiness.

Michael Ramsey had no interest in dictating to the world what to do or frustrating the aspirations of reformers. He simply reminded believers of what they had seen and learned in Christ crucified. There is no alibi for service, for being at the disposal of a world full of terrors. There is no promise of a welcome for this service. There is only the twofold Johannine conviction that we must be where he is and that he has promised to be where we are. In this dark meeting of wordless loves, the glory of god and of God's human image is uncovered. The kingdom is there, given, the inheritance is handed over. 'Behold the Man': this is our God, we have waited for Him.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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