The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey
(Hendrickson, 2009, 224 pages)
This is not, despite the title, a book about the Roman Catholic Church. Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop of the Church of England, from 1961 to 1974. The Gospel and the Catholic Church, published originally in 1936, was his first book, and its discussion of Church order and unity demonstrates the ecumenical concerns that would mark Ramsey’s career. His use of the term “Catholic” refers to the universal Church in a general way, not to the Roman Catholic Church specifically. The Catholic vision for the Church that Ramsey articulates is an essential resource for understanding modern Anglicanism.
The main goal of the book is to demonstrate that the historic episcopacy, adhered to by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans, is a constituent part of the Gospel as articulated in the New Testament. In Ramsey’s view, a Church order which includes an expression of unity through the ministry of bishops is more than simply an ancient tradition or a practical method of governance. The historic episcopate is a legitimate and necessary development of the Gospel as it is expressed by the original apostles and as it is worked out in history. Ramsey is critical of an understanding of the episcopacy which simply points to either an unbroken line of succession from the original apostles or to practical considerations for legitimacy. Instead, he seeks to show that a unified and universal Church, governed by bishops who give expression to the Church’s unity across space and time, is a natural development of the New Testament’s understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ.
Despite the fact that it was published nearly eighty years ago, this is an extremely important book for those who are interested in ecumenical theology. Ramsey’s generous approach to various traditions expresses an attitude of reconciliation as well as a theory of unity. He commends what contributes to and critiques what detracts from the unity of the Church in the various branches of Christianity. Recently, discussion of the ecumenical possibilities between Christian communions has been on the rise, and the conciliatory tenor of Pope Francis I has contributed significantly to these discussions. Those engaging in such discussions would do well to imitate the generous, intelligent, and scholarly approach that Ramsey models.