Always Turning to the Cross: The Gospel and the Catholic Church

Book Review

The Gospel and the Catholic Church: Recapturing a Biblical Understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ. By Michael Ramsey. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson (2009; originally pub. 1935). 200 pp. (plus xvi). $19.95 (paper). $9.95 (Kindle).

It has been 85 years since Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) wrote his The Gospel and the Catholic Church, but this rich-yet-concise volume remains a powerful and persuasive case for the church’s always turning to the Cross—to find itself, define itself, and be itself. It is rightly considered by many to be a 20th-century Anglican classic. Whatever one’s views of Ramsey, his theology, or his ecclesiology, one cannot deny the relevance and power of his call to the cruciform life. Whether he succeeds in his ecumenical goals, however, may not be quite so plain.

Ramsey, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury (the 100th) from 1961 to 1974, wrote this first book when he was a priest and lecturer to ordination candidates, long before his 1952 consecration as Bishop of Durham. He has long been regarded as an Anglo-Catholic with a strong ecumenical reflex but is not always so easy to pigeonhole, as this book demonstrates. Ramsey in retirement had a long and warm association with Nashotah Theological House in Wisconsin. One delightful and informative addition in the 2009 edition is (now-retired) Nashotah Professor Fr. Arnold Klukas’s preface, which provides a superb summary of Ramsey’s life and ministry and in understandable fashion provides the reader the book’s theological and historical context.

Given the staying power of The Gospel and the Catholic Church, some might be surprised that it was not met with great respect when first published in 1935. Rowan Williams notes that “dismay” was the reaction of those who saw Ramsey reflecting the “foreign irrationalism” of Barth and others, those who counter-culturally saw orthodoxy as answering liberalism’s failures in the face of that era’s monstrous evil.[1] But that same historical context (and how it tragically progressed from one world war to the next) is probably also what gave particular resonance and resilience to Ramsey’s call to return in unity to the foot of the Cross. Especially to the degree we might perceive ourselves in analogously unsettled times, Ramsey’s book can have enhanced force and relevance.

The entire thrust of Ramsey’s book, to borrow the first half of a Luther quotation he offers, is to “Learn to say . . . with Christ, the Cross, the Cross.” (145). While not an explicit rejoinder to liberalism in the manner of Barth, Ramsey is plainly advocating the Cross as the church’s proper focus, instead of social and political concerns, obviating and transcending political and ideological divides. Those, Ramsey would argue, as well as ecclesiological matters, would be set to rights only with the sine qua non of a crucicentric orientation—a proposition he knew would flummox his liberal critics. “For the Church exists for something deeper than philanthropy and reform,” he writes, “namely to teach men to die to self and to trust in a resurrection to a new life that, because it spans both this world and another world, can never be wholly understood here, and must always puzzle this world’s idealists.” (7). With respect to “order, ministry, and sacraments,” Ramsey likewise asserted they had to be considered “in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection of which the one Body, with its life and order, is the expression.” (6)

That call to the Cross necessarily was a bidding to come and die (to borrow Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words two years later). It was a call to sacrifice and humiliation and self-emptying, at the “deepest point of the Son of God’s identification of Himself with men and of His entry into the stream of human life.” (19). It was a following of Christ in every sense of following, and a recognition that it was the Cross and Resurrection that gave birth to the Church, gave reason for the Church, was the source of the Church’s fellowship and unity, and gave hope to the Church and thereby to the world. “The death to the self qua self,” Ramsey notes, “is the ground and essence of the Church.” (22) Reflecting Christ’s death and resurrection, “the Church is the scene of dying and rising in every age of history.” (35)

Part One’s second section deals with the shape of that Church, and its focus is on the Body. But while Ramsey certainly sees faith apart from the Church as nonsensical, he does not ignore individual faith and belief. That faith, too, he defines in terms of the Cross: “That life begins with an act of faith and initiation that verily means ‘death’,” he reminds his readers, and the Christian’s life is not merely a looking back to a past death but a “present sharing in His dying and rising again.” (28). Indeed, it is this realization, this death of Christ, that reinforces to the individual Christian that he or she is not isolated, but part of a greater Body. “From the Church therefore the Christian never escapes; it is part of his own existence since it is a part of the Christ himself.” (33)

Ramsey thus pulls his understanding of that Body, the Church, even closer still to Christ. Indeed, that Body is not a “body” in the collective modern sense (e.g., the body politic), but points instead to the very person of Christ—his Body. Echoing Calvin, Ramsey sees the Church as Christ’s body—i.e., as Christ.

Ramsey sees this as key to understanding and obtaining unity in the Church—although the four vehicles for that unity that Ramsey reviews (baptism; apostles and prophets; Holy Scripture; and the Eucharist) have between them been the sources of disunity through the ages, a fact that Ramsey frankly glosses over (although it must be conceded that in 1935 the variations of Christian belief, polity, and practice were perhaps fewer than today’s). And it is in this portion of his book that Ramsey lets show his Anglican slip. Setting himself up for a later argument that the episcopacy is the esse of the Church, he notes that both the Canon of Scripture and the Episcopacy were both “developments,” and then neatly, but illogically, suggests that if one then accepts one (presumably Scripture) as essential, it makes no sense to ignore or reject the other (Episcopacy). (53)

Ramsey does allow for the confusion of Biblical terms regarding church leaders, seems to agree that reasonable people can differ on such things, and concedes that presbyters and bishops were likely at some points the same. He then says one should not be “archeological” about these matters, but rather “evangelical.” (60). Rather than make the usual arguments about bishops and thereby exposing himself to (presumably Presbyterian) arguments for other church structures, Ramsey builds a case why bishops are—in spirit if not in nomenclature–the successors of the Apostles (as was Paul the Apostle). And with respect to Apostolic Succession, about which he acknowledges there is disagreement, he concludes it is essential: “. . . the Church’s full and continuous life in grace does depend upon the succession of Bishops, whose work, however, is not isolated but bound up with the whole Body.” (71)

Ramsey, writing amid the Ecumenical Movement of that decade, attempts in these pages to be ecumenical, but ultimately falls short. His argument that the foundation of apostles and prophets necessarily requires the episcopacy is certainly one supported by the practice of the Church (and Ramsey offers a strong case from history), but it does not in the view of many, ipso facto, foreclose other sorts of church structure. Indeed, even the Lambeth Quadrilateral allows for the episcopacy to be “locally adapted.” (In fairness to Ramsey, he later showed flexibility in this way with Leslie Newbigin in the Church of South India.) It is surprising (and to this reviewer disappointing) that rather than allow that episcopacy was bene esse, he asserted it was the esse of the Church, even as he sandwiched that stand in ecumenical and charitable language. He may assert that the episcopacy is not only Roman, Greek, or Anglican—but in fact, it has largely remained just that (as least as Ramsey would understand it). (72-73)

The 21st century reader cannot but wonder if Ramsey’s view of bishops and apostolic succession would be different today, given the departure from orthodoxy of so many of those who had hands laid on them in apostolic succession—even if one views them in the aggregate. Throughout Ramsey’s apology for the episcopacy there is an underlying assumption that bishops in fact do guard and teach the truth, they do act in unity with the Body, and that they are exercising an apostolic role. That assumption may be more difficult to hold today, especially within certain expressions of Anglicanism.

A right focus on the Cross has obvious implications for worship. And if the Eucharist is the summing up of the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross, then at the altar is where this focus is most evident and most powerful. If we are Christ (because we are his Body), and the sacramental Body and Blood are Christ (present in their taking), then we are also, Ramsey asserts, that Body and Blood—or at least our fellowship one with another is a “close corollary.” (97) The Eucharist is the Church’s sacrifice: it is also Christ’s, as his self-giving continues with the Father through his intercession for us. He is eternally priest for us. While Ramsey seems to stray perilously close to a non-Anglican view of sacrifice, he makes plain that Christians “commemorate [this sacrifice] as a finished event in history and as an eternal fact in heaven.” (98; emphasis added).

In Part Two of his book Ramsey steps back and in essence tests his vision of the Church against the teachings of the Church Fathers (Eastern and Western), the Roman Catholic Church (medieval and modern), and Reformers (Calvin and Luther), before then proffering “Ecclesia Anglicana” as a worthy synthesis of the best of all of those.

Noteworthy in these chapters is Ramsey’s warm affinity toward Luther especially. (He defended both Luther and Calvin as churchmen, but thought Calvin was merely utilitarian in his churchmanship; 168). Luther properly focused, Ramsey believed, on the substance of the Church’s teaching rather than its structure, and Ramsey also (given his thesis) approved of Luther’s endorsement of Augustine’s language equating Christ and Church. (162) Ramsey sees in Luther the same connection between Christ, Church, and Cross that he does. He notes the failures of Luther’s followers to have Luther’s sense of churchmanship and instead to show tendencies of individualism. He diagnoses the failure as the result of not having proper “Apostolic Christianity”—a not-so-subtle suggestion that had Luther had an Anglican episcopate none of the bad things that followed in the Continental Reformation would have happened. Some might find that assertion a tad bit parochial, and question whether even a church polity with bishops would have made any helpful difference given the actual history. There is no small irony that what he lauds Luther for (not focusing on structure) he then repairs to himself in criticizing Luther.

Ramsey sees in Anglicanism all the elements of the Church as he thinks it should be—even in its seemingly disparate and contradictory parties (Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical—and maybe even Broad-Church sorts). It has a “strikingly balanced witness” in Ramsey’s view, while he admits its incompleteness, brokenness, clumsiness, and untidiness. (188) He sees its future as he sees that of the larger Church: the Body of Christ at the foot of Christ’s Body on the Cross.

The Gospel and the Catholic Church is an amazingly packed volume given its reasonable size. While the language of the text is accessible to the engaged and educated Christian and Anglican, it is unfortunate that those parts in languages other than English (Greek, Latin, French, and German) were not translated for readers in the book’s reprinting. The best recommendation for the book is its comprehensiveness, timelessness, and staying power as a case for Anglicanism—an Anglicanism with ecumenical sensibilities. While Ramsey is most often tagged an Anglo-Catholic, his book’s message transcends any Anglican party or denomination. In fact, a running theme of the book is the inability of any church to claim that status to the exclusion of others who adhere to the Gospel and who focus on the Cross.

The Gospel and the Catholic Church stands as a coherent vision and explication of Church against the backdrop of what so often appears to be a larger Church without any discernible focus or basis for unity. Eighty-five years on, it really has no equal and no worthy substitute.

  1. Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (Cambridge: Cowley Publ., 2003), 88.

Alexander Whitaker

Alexander Whitaker is President of King University in Bristol, Tenn., where he is also Professor of Law and Religion. He has law degrees from the University of Virginia and Georgetown University, and before his higher education career was an active-duty captain in the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps. An Anglican layperson and former ACNA diocesan chancellor, he holds graduate theology degrees from Duke University and Trinity School for Ministry, where he has served as trustee for more than a decade.

'Always Turning to the Cross: The Gospel and the Catholic Church' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican