Ramsey Lecture, Durham - 'The Lutheran Catholic'
Tuesday 23rd November 2004A lecture given in Durham Cathedral by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Michael Ramsey.
In 1948, the first meeting in Amsterdam of the infant World Council of Churches faced major difficulties in producing an agreed text on the theology of the Church: the combined energies of Karl Barth, Georges Florovsky and Michael Ramsey had frustrated some of the more bland and optimistic attempts to draft an ecclesiological basis for the new Council. These three extraordinarily diverse thinkers, whose mutual respect is well-documented, were all determined to prevent what might be called a Liberal Protestant concordat between a bundle of Christian organisations, determined to bid for higher stakes. But the higher stakes did not amount simply to a more ambitious human programme; the root issue was about whether the Church was actually one in some sense, resting upon 'a unity which is [God's] creation and not our achievement'. That this was the phrasing which finally emerged at Amsterdam owed a good deal to the combined talents, both wrecking and constructive, of the three definitely non-Liberal Protestant figures who had pressed for recognition of the unity of the Church in the act of God rather than unity as a goal for human negotiation.
That last turn of expression deliberately echoes something Ramsey wrote in The Gospel and the Catholic Church (hence GCC in this text) (p.175): 'Unity, therefore, exists already, not in what the Christians say or think, but in what God is doing in the one race day by day. And the outward recovery of unity comes not from improvised policies, but from faith in the treasure which is in the Church already'. The language of the 'one race' is curiously prominent in many passages of GCC; it is meant to underline what is perhaps the single dominant theme of that still remarkable book - that the Church is the 'form' of the Gospel. The association of human beings together by faith in Jesus Christ is not an afterthought to the proclamation of the good news of salvation. What the proclamation does is to create relations between human beings comparable to those of ethnic solidarity. The dense and important fourth chapter of GCC explains: the Church is a new race, but it is so because of two prior underlying realities - the fact that Christians participate in the one narrative of Christ incarnate, crucified and risen, and the fact that the one God is active in these events, 'including' the tragedies and conflicts of history, not least Christian history, within his single action (pp.47-50). Ramsey quotes Barth on Romans to the effect that 'the oneness of God triumphs over the whole questionableness of the Church's history'. Here is a form of human solidarity, in other words, whose coherence is given from outside - from the unique history which as a matter of historical fact creates it and from the action and purpose extending from before time to time's end that is God's work. Repeatedly in GCC Ramsey insists that the unity of the Church is in the fact that 'all have died': in virtue of the self-giving of Christ on the cross, all believers are drawn into the one event of that self-giving, culminating as it does in Calvary. There is one movement, one dynamic in the Church, which is the Christian's movement in Christ towards the Father through the emptiness of the cross. Chapters 2 and 3 of GCC are really a long meditation on II Cor. 4 and 5: those chapters describe the re-formation of the basic structures of human self-understanding that goes on in the baptised life, and thus the foundation for any coherent account of Christian mission. But it is the special insight of Ramsey to point out that here also is the heart of any theology of unity. What is unique about the solidarity of this human group is that it is grounded in an event that is constantly going on in and through all those involved; an event that is at the same time the eternal event of God's self-giving as trinity.
It is this picture of unity as one event going on that should help us see what is at stake in Ramsey's theology of the Church, and why - to pick up the theme in my title - he so illuminatingly uses Luther to reinforce his account of what is central in Catholic theology. The meaning of 'Catholic' in GCC is something to do with a belief in salvation as a social fact, as incorporation into the new solidarity of the ekklesia, the 'Catholic fact', as he puts it (65). There is no such thing as an unstructured, individual experience of the new life, a reality somehow prior to the corporate, so that a person might be brought into union with Christ and then start considering how to negotiate with other believers. 'Catholic' belief is belief that is clear about this, clear about the immediate effect of Christ's work in reconstructing who we are with each other as well as with God. It is thus belief that refuses to see Christian commitment as adequately understood in terms of the simple choice of a satisfying alternative among a number of philosophies. Of course Christian commitment is a free decision to walk with Jesus Christ; there is nothing automatic about it, and Ramsey would certainly have agreed that there are no such beings as hereditary Christians. The seriousness of what is involved in walking with Christ immediately makes it clear that we are not dealing with anything less than a sober self-location within a community of others who have likewise brought themselves to decision. But, an enormous qualification in this connection, two elements enter in which change the terms of the discussion. The first and more important is that any decision made by the believer is to be understood as a response to initiative from outside, not a selection from among static or abstract alternatives. The Christian holds that s/he is chosen before choosing, engaged by divine action before owning the consequences. The second is that because of this the consequences of the human decision are out of the decider's control; it will set up relations not fully understood or foreseen because of its nature as a response to and an involvement in an act that is already (eternally) under way. We have (and the image is an obvious one) immersed ourselves in the event that is going on in the Church, in the unity that stems from the Word of God incarnate. In a sermon of 1969, Ramsey wrote of our 'calling to be saints' (I Cor. 1.2) as the ground of unity: 'to have this calling, however poorly we understand it, and to have this goal, however miserably we fall short of it, is to be one with anyone else, with everyone else who has this same call and this same goal'; this is 'a unity not made by us, not chosen by us, but created by Christ' (CP, p.95).
There is an obvious misunderstanding which Ramsey is well aware of and which he attempts to guard against. It is to think that because the model of a reasoned choice of a philosophy of life doesn't fit belonging in the Church, the Church as a visible structure is thereby given rights over the particular person in a way that denies individual freedom and enshrines unaccountable authority. When Ramsey writes about the mediaeval Church, this is the kind of misapprehension that seems to be most clearly in his sights. The mediaeval Church, he argues, failed in faithfulness to the gospel because it defined itself increasingly as a system of institutionalised order or control, comparable to the other systems around - or rather, in the early Middle Ages, providing such a system because no other power was able to. And because of this, the primitive notion of a community of unique solidarity defined by God's act was replaced by a society which guaranteed to 'broker' good relations with God: Ramsey has some tantalising but suggestive remarks about the way in which sacrificial language changed its register in the Middle Ages (pp.168-9), so as to obscure both divine initiative and corporate human response. Whatever he is supporting, there can be no doubt that he is criticising any institutional framework that suppresses human liberty by executive force.
But Christian commitment demands a transformation of how we understand that liberty. It cannot be imposed, but the ethos of the Catholic Church, in Ramsey's sense, nurtures and deepens another sort of freedom - freedom structured around the freedom of Christ to offer himself to the Father and to human beings, that freedom which Ramsey so often writes about in relation to the glory of Christ (there is a good brief critique of some modern theological accounts of freedom in GCW, pp.34-8, and a summary of what is to be learned from Christ's freedom in FFF, pp.11-14). A proper Catholic identity, he implies, is one in which the absorption of what Christ's freedom means is daily sustained by a climate of exposure to the full radical reality of Christ incarnate embracing the cross - in scripture and sacrament and contemplative prayer as well as the reality of that kind of service in the world that does not look for success or fashionable reputation but simply does what Christ does (see, for example, the comments on the 'servant Church' ideal in FCC, pp.55 ff.). And this is different from a supposed Catholic identity for which what matters is that the Church should be a plausible competitor in the struggle for ideological dominance, power over individuals or societies.
The mediaeval Church was not Catholic enough; it did not have sufficient trust in its own inner, organic distinctiveness and tried to occupy and defend a portion of the world's territory. The Reformation was needed to restore the Church's Catholicity. Ramsey's presentation of Luther in GCC has often been noted as one of his triumphs; he is able to seize on the essentials of Luther's protest and show how it reacquainted the Church with the gospel. Luther's movement 'meant the recovery of truths about the Church which are central in the teaching of S. Paul and S.Augustine and in the inner meaning of Catholicism' (GCC, p.171), and these include (pp.188-90) the sense of the Church as a priestly people, the absolute significance of baptism, the focal importance of a ministry of reconciliation and a robust account of the objectivity of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. In various ways, all these affirm the nature of the Church as intrinsic to the gospel and the importance of holding the Church to be what it is in virtue of God's initiative. Luther's passionate attacks on priestly elitism and on the politicising of clerical power (the Church as a kind of state) are in Ramsey's eyes a campaign for restored Catholicism, since they presuppose that the Church is indeed an organism before it is an institution and that the Church's security cannot rest upon a hierarchical system of control.
Luther in short witnesses to a Church that is truly an organic unity, created by the act of God in Christ; even more significantly, he is absolutely clear about the centrality of the cross in the Church. For Luther, the induction into a living membership of the Body of Christ is a matter of embarking on the disruptive and self-questioning path that strips us of confidence in our own ability to heal our wounds or make our peace with God. Under the cross, we find that the will and power of God to heal us is already in action, in a way that no human intellect could have devised. The destruction of our own reasoned plans for reconciliation with God mirrors the self-emptying of God in the apparently Godless terror of the cross. God gives himself away in the humiliation of Christ's life and death; we can only respond if we are prepared to cast off a theology that delivers any kind of plans for our rescue and any kind of rational comprehension of God's action. The Church is a fellowship of those overtaken by God, in mind and heart.
It would not be too much to say that, for Ramsey, every Catholic must be a Lutheran - at least to the extent of resisting any suggestion that faith is a variety of human choice, the selection of a worldview, or that the Church is a structure for humans to manage, a means to organise or edify or support Christian persons. The Church is not a means to anything except our growth into being sons and daughters of God: it is the form of conversion and discipleship. And Ramsey is, for his time, strikingly bold in his insight that Luther is in no sense an apostle of intellectual liberty in its modern sense, nor of religious individualism. By emphasising God's priority, Luther in fact repudiates as strongly as anyone could a religious identity resting on human argument or human feeling, as opposed to that 'being overtaken' to which I've referred.
But Ramsey does not stop with this. As his discussion proceeds, we can see that he also wants to say that only a Catholic can be a good Lutheran. He notes (GCC, pp.190-3) that Luther's historical circumstances made it virtually impossible for him to think about the visible structures of the Church in terms beyond those current in his day. No-one in the Christian West was thinking about visible ministerial structures in any ways other than those defined by law, focusing on prerogatives and powers. What might be called the symbolic geography of the Church was a closed book. Hence he is cavalier not about the practices of the Church, which are as rigorously visible and corporate as anyone could wish, but about the 'order' that sustains and transmits these practices. In Ramsey's argument, the failure to do justice to this ends up by leaving the door open to just those tendencies to individualism and a misplaced concern with interiority that Luther's theology overall moves us away from. The lack of a theology of the apostolic role leaves a gap in the area of the concrete historical givenness of the Church which seems to suggest that there is a whole dimension of the Church's life that is after all amenable to human choice, to a process of devising structures that will function as we want them to. To be absolutely consistent with Luther's fundamental insights, we should have to say that the visible continuities of the ministry, the apostolic function as part of the Church's basic organic anatomy, are hardly less important in the Church's battle to proclaim the priority of God's action than Scripture and sacrament.
This has been Ramsey's theme in the early chapters of GCC, and he has already made it clear that he does not wish to turn this into an argument about conditions for any ecclesial body being recognised as a 'true' church (pp.66-7). But it is certainly an audacious turning on its head of the common Lutheran assertion that a doctrine of apostolic succession is ruled out by the true doctrine of justification. Ramsey is in effect saying that justification by faith really requires something like apostolic succession if it is not to slip into fresh distortion. If we are left to devise our own structuring for the communal organism of the Church, if this is a matter incidental or indifferent for the real identity and integrity of the Body, does this not suggest that there is, so to speak, some bit of our unreconstructed individual ego-existence that remains untouched by incorporation into Christ; and thus that an element of concern about 'works', in Luther's terms, finds its way back into theology? There is something in the Church's organic reality that is not shaped by strict considerations of obedience to God's action, conformity to God's incarnate presence: how can we theologise about ministerial order in this light? But if we can't, then something in the Church is within the scope of our preferences and our convenience, our self-serving and self-justifying
Lutheran theologians have remained unimpressed by this splendidly counter-intuitive move on Ramsey's part. But there is a point to his argument that still deserves attention. He is perhaps less critical historically than we should now like in his confident assumption that there is a seamless and theologically coherent movement in early Christian thought from apostolic to episcopal ministry; and modern ecumenical theology is far more inclined to treat the question of apostolic continuity as relating to a range of practices and structures in the Church rather than simply to the threefold ministerial order. But he does leave us with a perfectly serious question. If the Church is essentially an undifferentiated community of mutual service, gathered from time to time for a visibly united act of worship, does this not weaken the strong Pauline sense of sharply distinct charisms, gifts which give the community a concrete shape? Mutuality in the Church is not simply a relation between abstract persons, whose identities are interchangeable; nor does a theology of charisms in the Church simply mean that everybody has something generally useful to offer, depending on their temperament. Paul seems to think of sets of functions in the Church, 'locations in the Church, that have to be occupied for the health of the Body; God's grace guarantees that these places will not stand empty. And this is rather different from assuming that the community is really composed of persons whose diverse roles can be sorted out in the housekeeping of the Church as time goes on. To be in the Church at all is to be the recipient of some sort of charism, some place to occupy, not because the community decides that a job needs doing but because God knows what the community will need. 'Perhaps we ought to have a few prophets' is not quite the same as the provision by the Holy Spirit of a necessary (welcome or unwelcome) voice in the economy of a church.
Of course the transition from this to a strict defence of apostolic succession in the classical mode is not nearly as rapid and unproblematic as some have thought. But I think it right to insist that we often face a false set of antitheses in doctrines of the Church, as if we had to settle either for the Church as a flat landscape of interchangeable individuals, bound together by common allegiance to Christ, taking on occasional jobs when it seems desirable, or for the Church as hierarchically ordered by divine command. Neither is biblical, neither sits well with a radical connection between ecclesiology and justification by faith. Ramsey sees this; and in stressing so powerfully the simultaneity of entry into the Church and entry into a set of transformed relations, he suggests a way of looking at the forms of 'apostolic' ministry that might avoid the distortions just outlined. If, say, the visible form and ordering of the celebration of the Eucharist is not a matter of what happens to suit this or that specific group of people at this or that particular time, but somehow embodies a set of structured relations and responsibilities in the Body, it is not a yielding to hierarchical fantasy if we say that something is lost when we stop thinking theologically about who presides and why. And what is lost is not 'validity', let alone the grace of God in word and sacrament, but some dimension of the communicative fullness of the Body in its differentiated gifts. That this applies equally to worship in which, for example, gifts of prophecy (however precisely interpreted) are not manifest is a consequence of my argument which might make us all ponder. But it is this question of the communication of the inner foulness of the Body's reality, I believe, which represents the heart of the theological challenge Ramsey is placing before us, the challenge of conceiving what a Church that is truly dependent on God's act looks like.
Throughout my remarks so far, I have assumed that the idea of a Lutheran Catholic, while paradoxical, is not nonsensical. Before going further, I must turn aside briefly to make some comments on one very serious scholar who has recently argued for a fundamental incompatibility between the two. Daphne Hampson's book of 2001, Christian Contradictions. The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought presents a radical opposition between a Lutheranism defined very strictly in terms of the impossibility of effective 'co-operation' with grace and indeed the impossibility of any theology of growth in holiness, and a Catholicism which supposes a real change in the creature as a consequence of receiving grace. The Lutheran always lives form a centre 'outside' the self; the Catholic from a renewed interiority.
I cannot here do justice to a deeply learned and subtle presentation; but I will remark only on one aspect of Daphne Hampson's case. The Catholic position she presents is one in which the gracious action of God has, you might say, gone native in its entry into the human soul. But there is a fair amount in Catholic theology about the fact that the activating source of grace is always the free and uncreated act of God. And the complex twentieth century debate about whether or not there is any sense in which grace is 'anticipated' or even presupposed by nature itself shows a sensitivity to just the problem that Hampson identifies - and a general awareness of the risk of making grace 'native' in a trivialising way. I suspect that she might recognise in Ramsey a genuinely Lutheran rhetoric of dialectical insistence on God's sole priority; she might equally suspect that Ramsey's stress on the category of 'glory' reveals a Catholic commitment to seeing rather than hearing as the basis of theological activity. In her summary of her argument (p.287), Hampson contrasts a hearing model which necessarily interrupts and acts from outside with a seeing one in which the seeing eye retains control of its field and seeks to explore it further. But what this misses is the way in which a theology of vision can talk of being blinded, compelled, absorbed - not being a spectator or even an explorer. Ramsey's theology of God's glory is nothing if not a powerfully interruptive scheme in which to understand what is, incomprehensibly and non-negotiably, before you, you must change and abandon what you thought you grasped. And what Hampson's account also seems repeatedly to sidestep is what it might mean to consider grace as always acting what God enacts, never incorporated in or merged with human agency, even when human agency is transparent to it. Catholic theology shares with Lutheran, after all, a Christology (largely untreated by Hampson) in which these issues are of basic significance. And for all Luther's passionate refusal of any 'synergy' between two agencies, for all his absolute denial that there could be any comparison between divine and human agency, he is clear that, as in the humanity of Christ, divine goodness can be made visible in finite action. If my reading of Ramsey is correct - that he sees the Church as unified by the one thing 'going on' in it, that is the self-offering of Christ in time and eternity, it is hard to maintain that there is no possible bridge between the two admittedly dramatically jarring styles and registers of theology.
But in the last part of what I want to say, I should like to return to the question of what discipleship in the Church looks like when it is serious about God's action and invitation; since I believe that this is the most pressing question that is now before all our churches (not least the Anglican Communion). The challenge is to balance two weighty imperatives. On the one hand, the Church is not the Church unless it is faithful in word and action to the single event that grounds and actively sustains it - the self-gift of God in Christ, with Scripture setting out the full contours of that act in human history and the Church's practice transmitting the form of the reality from generation to generation. It is possible for any group of human believers to lose sight of this, even to misapprehend it drastically; in Ramsey's telling of the story, the mediaeval Church loses in its thinking and its habits of worship most of the truly distinctive gospel features that ought to characterise it. The Church needs the most relentless critique, and its fidelity is not to be taken lazily for granted. And the implication is that disruption, separation, taking up the stance of confessio in Reformation language, are part of the properly theological life of the Church. It is worth pointing to Ramsey's telling quotation from Barth (GCC, pp. 202-3) about the 'tribulation' that belongs to the Church's life as it struggles with sin within its history. And yet if the disruption means a programme of setting up a fresh form of church identity, attempting to create a pure body of true believers, it is in danger of judging the Church's reality or authenticity by 'works', by the success of Christian performance - and this undermines the very supernatural quality it seeks to safeguard in the Body.
The situation is made harder by our cultural setting. The unhappy irony of the Reformation legacy is the steady slippage from the confessional protest of Luther to the consumer choices of modern Christianity in the West - the search for the Church of your taste and preference. Ephraim Radner, one of the most exacting and rigorous of contemporary American theologians, has outlined the irony in a recent book, Hope Among the Fragments. The Broken Church and its Engagement of Scripture, in which he insists that the Church is only itself if it engages with the specific form of Christ as Scripture proclaims it; but also that a movement for reform, purity or separation in the name of this engagement always drifts towards that typically modern pluralism which fails in the long run to do any justice to the utter givenness of God's initiative, fails to think the Church theologically.
'As institutional churches', he writes, 'as formal Christian communities, we now stand in the same condition as that of the first Christians after the resurrection. We have no articulated theology, we have no proven structures of authority, no experienced framework for the reading of Scripture that is common to us as a church' (p.175). This may be optimistically presented as great opportunity; but it should first be recognised as 'the judgment of God's history' - that is, as the result of long-engrained habits of unfaithfulness in our practice. We have forgotten how to be churches. Starting new ones will only compound the problem: the traditionalist is in the same boat as the liberal to the extent that both are prisoners of a denominational market (p.205), even when appeal is constantly being made to the model of Reformation confessio - or even early Christian martyrdom. The only theologically honest response is to acknowledge that God's providence has placed us in a divided and in various ways unfaithful Church, and that we have to learn there a form of repentance (individual and corporate) that is our best route towards the form of Christ: 'That God has placed us in this church at this time must mean that he would have us grow in the from of life that bespeaks the Church's repentant readiness to be healed' (208).
Radner goes on to elaborate what is involved, practically and theologically, in 'staying put' - bearing with the contradictions of the visible institution, 'faithfully navigating a hostile church while remaining in communion with it' (212). It is the most accessible contemporary form of being a fool for Christ's sake in a 'Church of fools, filled with waiting, filled with patience, filled with perseverance, filled with prayer, filed with endurance, filled with hope' (214). But at the larger structural level, this means a polity and policy for our churches - and Radner speaks about Anglicanism in particular - that 'hold dependencies in order': we are bound up in so many relations of dependence - to Scripture, to our past, to our present partners and our present members - but we have to find a way of keeping them in tension, not seeking to relieve the pressure by removing whatever ones we currently find hardest or most offensive (229). And this in turn means a call to the churches to discover a form of holiness that effectively challenges the localisms and self-assertive separatisms that are the most effective cultural captivity of the modern Church.
It is no surprise that Radner's last paragraph but one in this difficult and necessary book takes us back to Ramsey, and to GCC. The Anglican Church's embrace of incompleteness, which Radner sees as central to Ramsey's vision (218), is grounded in a description of the Church 'in terms of the fate of Christ's body in passion and self-giving - an incompleteness divinely opened to the divine gift of new life' (233). Here is the Church's task, its one task that is truly its task as Church. We may not know where the 'real' Church is in abstract terms - and if Radner is right, the question itself is going to lead us in the wrong direction in our present climate. But we may still know where the event of Christ is going on, and we may still know what we must do to align ourselves with it. There's the problem, of course: it is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of cross and resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox - that the harder we search for a church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.
Embracing the incompleteness is not a recipe for passive acquiescence in a Church that is corrupt, implicitly heretical or indifferent to the gospel; it is a recognition that the Church is always at best on the edge of all these things and that the self-seeking individual who believes that the Church's problems are always in the souls of others has the capacity to tilt the community further towards its perennial temptations. We have to be Lutherans after all, in the sense of refusing any model of the Church that allows us to think of the Church as a body to which we choose to give our allegiance so long as our individual spirituality is nourished by it - rather than as the very form of our Christian being. As Luther's example shows, this is far from being a passive acceptance of the concrete tyrannies or infidelities of the Church in history; but it demands a theological vision of those failures. And it also requires a difficult spiritual discernment as to how, in an unfaithful Church, we try to live our way into the one event in which the Church actually subsists.
But what we trying to do is also to become proper Catholics - that is, to live in Christ only in communion with those others whom he has called, and in the differentiated fellowship of complementary gifts and 'positionings' that carries through history a Church that is a visible social phenomenon. Accepting the historical thereness of the Church prevents us from the kind of reinvention of the Church that throws all the emphasis upon our needs and our judgement. In a divided Christendom, the Catholic mindset will not be found only in one institutional structure, and we need to come to terms with what that means; it is fair enough to discuss what structure might best continue to hold the Catholic vision, but we can only approach each other with a measure of humility and recognition of the muddied waters of all our histories.
'Unity exists already', said Ramsey in 1936. He would have ample cause in the years ahead to know what a gap lay between those words and the reality of anxious and proud ecclesiastical bodies negotiating terms of co-operation. But I don't think he would have had second thoughts; indeed, I suspect that he would have thought his vision vindicated. We constantly fail to smooth out the crooked timber of ecclesiastical humanity; if the Church's integrity depended on this, the Church would be an abstraction, an aspiration. But it isn't: there is another timber we are bound to, and it is real even when we are not. 'As [Christ] loses his life to find it in the Father, so men may by a veritable death find a life whose centre is in Christ and in the brethren. One died for all, therefore all died. To say this is to describe the Church of God' (GCC, p.27).
© Rowan Williams 2004