The Michael Ramsey Lecture
November 6, 2017
Little St. Mary’s, Cambridge

By Simon Oliver

It is a great pleasure to join you this evening to honour one of the great Anglican theologians and Bishops of the 20th century, Michael Ramsey. I have many illustrious predecessors as Van Mildert Professor at Durham. I count it particularly daunting but inspirational and a source of enormous pride to follow Michael Ramsey. Whilst I would never pretend for a moment to his depth of learning and spirituality, we do share an unswerving devotion both to Catholic and orthodox Anglicanism and the capacious nature of Anglican ecclesiology, a commitment to ecumenism and a deep love of this beautiful church and its liturgical and preaching ministry.

When Ramsey arrived in Durham as Van Mildert Canon Professor of Divinity in 1940, he was just 35 years old and came from a brief spell as vicar of St. Benet’s. The Gospel and the Catholic Church, written whilst he was a tutor at Lincoln Theological College, was not well-liked by some in Durham and he was regarded as very eccentric. Before his marriage to Joan Hamilton in the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1942, Ramsey lived alone in 12, The College (the cathedral close), a huge building that looks like a castle that the cathedral now lets as six substantial flats. You may know that Ramsey served as an air-raid warden during the war, although he was less distinguished in this role than he was as a theologian or bishop. He never quite grasped the difference between the air raid siren and the all-clear. He would often mistake them and rush round The College waking the residents as the all-clear was sounded, just in time for them to see the German bombers return from Newcastle.


Ramsey wrote important books on several biblical and theological topics, notably the resurrection and the transfiguration. A key concern throughout his career was ecclesiology and the nature of the orders of ministry in the Church. His exploration of the relationship between the Christian gospel and the Church was the topic of his first and perhaps most remarkable book, published in 1936, The Gospel and the Catholic Church.[1] In 1972, a couple of years before his retirement as Archbishop of Canterbury, he published The Christian Priest Today, based on charges given to his ordinands during his episcopal ministry at Durham, York, and Canterbury. In the second chapter of that book, Ramsey asks “Why the priest?” (given the waning trust in institutions and their hierarchical power structures). He writes:

There are Christians who crave for a Christianity without institutional forms; but, more significantly in this connection, there are also Christians who want the Church to be a more lively society, with far more spontaneous initiatives in leadership and service, and they see the existence of a professional ministry as a hindrance to the mature self-realization of the Church’s members in creative responsibility.[2]

That sentence could have been written yesterday.

Amidst the very vigorous debate about mission, leadership, resourcing theological training, and the enabling of lay ministries that currently characterises the Church of England, an improved theological understanding of the orders of ministry and their relation to the gospel of Jesus Christ, such as Ramsey offers, would surely be beneficial. Anglicans are not always good at self-understanding, and we sometimes mistake what is integral if not essential for what is expedient and negotiable. This is not to suggest that a significant number in the Church of England is seriously proposing that we do away with the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons, but it is to suggest that our foggy understanding of the nature of the Church and its ministerial orders is compromising our confidence in who we are as Anglicans, our place in the Catholic Church and how we best engage in mission to the world. The ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons is regarded by some as something we must cope with or work around, rather than the structure and root of mission to the world.

One example of the debate about leadership and ministry in the Church concerns how better to enable lay ministries — a question with which Ramsey was deeply concerned during his archiepiscopate. We often lack a clear and coherent account of what distinguishes lay ministry precisely because we lack a clear and coherent account of what characterises ordained ministry. It is only when we understand the nature of episcopal, priestly, and diaconal ministries — their nature, scope, and purpose — that we properly understand the particular tasks and charisms of lay ministries.

Our aversion to difference or differentiated hierarchy in the Church tends to merge ordained and lay ministries in such a way that clergy very often get in the way of callings in the body of Christ that are not theirs. This means that, strangely, the Church becomes too clerical and too churchy. We think that Christian ministry is the kind of thing that clergy traditionally do — teaching the Bible and preaching, taking services, and organising missional strategies — but lay people should be allowed to do that too because we don’t want to be exclusive and elitist. When we talk about lay ministry, we tend to talk about what lay people can do within the Church — the churchy stuff. But we reflect rather less about what it means to be a Christian leader sent from Church into the secular work place — in industry from the shop floor to the board room, administrators and support staff in the private and public sectors, the civil service, the financial industry, the emergency services, medicine, teaching, the law, or politics.

What I should like to offer in this lecture is a small contribution to our self-understanding, particularly with respect to the ordained ministries of the Church of England. This is a way of increasing confidence in our Anglican and Catholic identity. It is a precursor to realising the nature and responsibilities of the people of God and how lay ministry enables ordained ministry and vice versa. There will be two parts to this discussion, both prompted by writings of Michael Ramsey. The first concerns the nature of the episcopate and its place at the root of both lay and ordained ministries. Here, I’ll be commenting on The Gospel and the Catholic Church.

The second concerns priesthood, particularly presidency at the Eucharist, as this relates to the Gospel of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Here, I’ll be following Ramsey’s lead in The Christian Priest Today, particularly the final chapter, “Priesthood: Jesus and the People of God.” In that final section of my talk, I’ll be linking priesthood — both the order of priest and the royal priesthood of the whole Church — to the Eucharist via the doctrines of Creation and the Atonement. I will begin, however, with the episcopate, using The Gospel and the Catholic Church as a starting point.

The Episcopate and the Gospel

The Gospel and the Catholic Church is a complex exploration of the nature of the Catholic Church as the living embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rowan Williams has summed up the core claim of that book very clearly: the Church is the “form” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[3] Ramsey writes:

The Catholicism, therefore, which sprang from the Gospel of God is a faith wherein the visible and ordered Church fills an important place. But this Church is understood less as an institution founded upon the rules laid down by Christ and the Apostles than as an organism which grew inevitably through Christ’s death and resurrection. The Church, therefore, is defined not in terms of itself, but in terms of Christ, whose Gospel created it and whose life is its indwelling life.[4]

Ramsey is arguing against the view that Church order is secondary to the Gospel. In other words, the Church is not a group of people who come together to share their faith in Jesus Christ and then decide on a structure for the Church that offers the most promising way of spreading the message. Church order in not a matter of expedient strategy, a means of managing resources, the vehicle for the expression of a more original personal experience or — as it had become in the late Middle Ages as its catholicity was compromised — a mechanism for the salvation of souls, the means of establishing good relations with God, or a juridical body that supresses human freedom.[5] The Church is the form of the Gospel, the living mystical body of Christ into which we are incorporated by dying with Christ in our baptism and being reformed as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, to paraphrase the first letter of St. Peter. In other words, our relations as Christians do not rest on a common set of ideas about God and Jesus or an ideology, but something much more essential that is akin to racial solidarity. In St. Paul’s terms, we become a new creation, from top to bottom.[6]

There is only one Church, so unity is of its essence (John 17:20-23). For Ramsey, there is a kind of de facto unity of the Church that rests in our one baptism in the death of Jesus Christ that finds its source in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died: therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who dies and was raised for them.”[7] The Church is the unity of God’s people — the royal priesthood — and it makes that unity visible. How does it do so? How is the order of the Church the core of its visible unity?

To answer that question, we need to return, like Ramsey in chapter 4 of The Gospel and the Catholic Church, to the Church as it began to take shape in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic periods. I can only paraphrase Ramsey’s complex argument as it is rooted in Scripture and patristic texts. The following words are more mine than his, but the development of the early Church in the late first and early second century can be expressed succinctly as a search for visible unity in response to a need to transmit authority across generations (unity across time) and the desire for unity across geographical and cultural boundaries (unity across space).

The Church came into being as Christ called the apostles, commissioned St. Peter, converted St. Paul, and sent the Holy Spirit. The Church that came into being in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost was not simply the local Church of Jerusalem, but the Church Catholic in at least this sense: there was nowhere it did not belong. The particularity of Christ (this person Jesus) and the universality of Christ (the one who fills all in all; Eph. 1:23) likewise characterise the Church as both local and universal. The Church does not become Catholic as it spreads to the four corners of the earth like a multinational corporation. It always is Catholic because it belongs everywhere in God’s creation; indeed, the Church gathers all creation to itself. Christ is for each one of us as individuals, but at the same time not for anyone in particular — not a racial group, a political or intellectual elite, a social class, or generation — but for all in their particularity (Gal. 3:28).[8] The particular and universal character of Christ and his Gospel meant that the Church formed by that Gospel, likewise particular and universal, traversed geographical and cultural boundaries very quickly. Initially it united both Hellenistic and Hebraic cultures as it spread across the Mediterranean. St. Paul’s letters are in large part focussed on the question of how one preserves the unity of the Church’s witness in the face of ever-increasing cultural diversity and geographical spread. The unity of the Church in this kind of context, however, cannot rest on everyone agreeing to a set of very particular propositions. The unity of the Church is a gift of the Spirit rather than something of our own making. Because we are physical, corporeal beings who do not exist only in the realm of ideas and propositions, the unity of the Church must be made visible. We must be able to see that unity in such a way that it transcends the opinions and predilections of individuals, or a particular locale, generation or culture. In the second century, a response to this question was to appoint overseers with a distinct shepherding and teaching office that is focussed particularly on the building up of the one body of Christ in a certain region or locality in visible communion with other localities. For Roman Catholics, the unity of the Church is most particularly visible in the See of Rome and the Papacy. For Anglicans and Orthodox, the unity of the Church is made visible in the Bishop and the collegiality amongst Bishops and, at the provincial level, by the episcopal primus or Patriarch. So the episcopate makes visible the unity of the Church across space — geographical and cultural.

The unity of the Church was also challenged in the sub-Apostolic period because of a crisis of authority. In the first century, those with teaching authority were the original witnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry or, by dint of his extraordinary conversion and missionary zeal, St. Paul. As those first witnesses began to die out, a question arose: who could now teach within the Church? How was the continuity of that teaching with the apostolic witness to be maintained? The answer: through the laying on of hands and the appointment of a new generation of overseers who were ordained by the previous generation of overseers. The episcopate therefore answers the question concerning how the unity of the Church across time is to be maintained, as well as across space. This is why the Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches preserve the historic episcopate — the episcopate extending back through time via the laying on of hands — to preserve and make visible the unity of the Church in history. This is not about a special “pipeline” of authority flowing from Christ through history to our bishops that works mechanically, as it were, independently of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is the visible handing on of the order of ministry from one generation to the next — the calling down of the Spirit onto the ordained — for the gathering and shepherding of God’s people that the gospel demands. The unity of the Church across time refers to the inseparability of the Church in the present age with the Church of the apostles and the ecumenical councils of the first six centuries. In other words, the Church established by Christ is one and the same Church of which we are members today. The historic episcopate makes that unity visible.

One of the most important aspects of episcopal ministry, therefore, concerns the protection (an important aspect of shepherding) of the unity of the Church in obedience to Christ’s prayer and St. Paul’s teaching (John 17:20-24; 1 Cor. 12:12-31). Two further signs of unity coalesce around the bishop: the cathedra and the Eucharist. In the bishop presiding at the Eucharist within the cathedral as the mother church of the diocese, the unity of the Church across time and space is made visible. This is a sacramental order — an order of signs that both point to and constitute the unity of the Church. So the ministry of the episcopate, long before it is ever managerial, organisational or strategic, is sacramental. Its missional character is grounded in its sacramental power as conferred by the Holy Spirit through the Church.

Something like this pattern of theological reasoning leads Ramsey to make a very bold claim that is not well-loved by the ecumenical movement. It is written with the supreme confidence of youth but is easily misunderstood. He writes this:

We are led, therefore, to affirm that the Episcopate is of the esse of the universal Church; but we must beware of mis-stating the issue. All who are baptized into Christ are members of his Church, and Baptism is the first mark of churchmanship. Yet the growth of all Christians into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ means their growth with all the saints in the unity of the one Body, and of this unity the Episcopate is the expression. It speaks of the incompleteness of every section of a divided Church, whether of those who possess the Episcopate or of those who do not. And those who possess it will tremble and never boast, for none can say that it is ‘theirs’. It proclaims that there is one family of God before and behind them all, and that all die daily in the Body of Him who died and rose.[9]

I take it that Ramsey is not claiming the churches not ordered in the historical episcopate are not churches. He was far too sensitive an ecumenist throughout his career to make that kind of claim. But he is probably saying that we could not intelligibly refer to there being “one” Church in its Catholic fullness without there being a historic episcopate somewhere. The Church would too easily become a fractured collection of regional, national and generational sects. This is not to say that this particular Church order was demanded by Christ and the apostles for all time, but it is to say that it is the order we receive and what is required of any order of the Church is that it make visible the Church’s unity and the form of the gospel.

So the episcopate is the principal gathering and sending ministry of the catholic Church as the form of the Gospel. One way of expressing this is by saying that the cathedral, as the fount of mission, is the seat from where the bishop presides at the Eucharist, ordains, baptises, confirms and then sends into the world. It is not that the cathedral is the fount of mission by being the biggest church in the diocese with the biggest congregation, the best music and the most vibrant adult education programme; that’s too elitist. Cathedrals are not just big churches; they have a particular place in the body of Christ. The cathedral is the fount of mission because it is the principal place from where the people of God are sent into the world. The Bishop, from the cathedra, provides the teaching and sacramental nourishment for the body of Christ that is the energy for its mission in the world. All priests share in the presidency of the bishop and the feeding and sending ministry that is integral to every Eucharist celebrated in the parish. How does this relate to the commonly cited verse in the first letter of Peter that the Church is a “royal priesthood and a holy nation” that gave rise to the Reformation mantra “the priesthood of all believers”? Isn’t the whole of the Church priestly? Why then do we need “priests”? Ramsey refers to this question in the final chapter of The Christian Priest Today, and his answer refers also the letter to the Hebrews and the nature of sacrifice. He writes:

So today the ordained priest is called to reflect the priesthood of Christ and to serve the priesthood of the people of God, and to be one of the means of grace whereby God enables the Church to be the Church.[10]

In the last part of this lecture, I should like to take Ramsey’s cue and explore the ordained priesthood in the relation to the Eucharist, sacrifice and the royal priesthood of the Church. I will begin, however, with a more primitive story about the meaning of food in relation to gift and sacrifice that we find at the very end of Genesis. Why? Because the Eucharist is about the meaning of bodily and spiritual food; it is a response to Christ’s commission to Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). This is the story of Joseph and his reconciliation with his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt. This is part and parcel of Genesis’s theology of creation and the way in which worship and the Temple are images of the cosmic sacramental order. We’ll then move to sacrifice in Temple worship and its relation to the one sacrifice of Christ, the atonement of our sins. In turn, this is a precursor to understanding the way in which the Church is made a royal priesthood in its reception of the food of the Eucharist at the hands of the priest in orders that find their root in the episcopal ordering of the Church.

Gift, the Eucharist, and the Meaning of Food

Joseph the dreamer was the favoured son of Jacob’s old age. Joseph’s 11 brothers, mired in jealousy, sold him into slavery in Egypt. He rose to prominence in Pharaoh’s court because he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. In these dreams God revealed that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of agricultural and economic policy; reserves were accumulated during the seven years of plenty so that the lands could survive the seven years of famine. When the famine struck, people from far and wide were forced to travel to Egypt, where Joseph sold them grain. Jacob and his remaining 11 sons were amongst those driven from Canaan to Egypt in search of food. They encountered their brother Joseph in the Egyptian court. He recognised them but they did not recognise him. Joseph’s brothers were afraid that their plight was a direct consequence of what they had done to their brother and they fought amongst themselves whilst Joseph looked on. After many years, Joseph’s brothers remained deeply guilty over what they had done to their brother; this affected all their relationships. Physical hunger drove Jacob’s sons to seek food in Egypt, yet there is also an emotional, spiritual hunger lying at the heart of this story — a desire for reconciliation and peace.

Joseph shared food with his brothers — the grain that he had stored from the seven years of plenty. However, Joseph secretly gave back the money his brothers had brought to pay for the grain (Gen. 42:25). The food was therefore not traded: it was an unanticipated, secret gift from Joseph to his brothers. This becomes the meaning and the use of the food that Joseph had stored: a gift that eventually effected reconciliation with his brothers and the unity of what were to become the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph’s reconciling gift to his brothers was a result of his grateful and measured reception of the gifts of God’s creation. The implication is that Joseph’s gift bore something of himself to his brothers: his prudence and receptivity to God’s will and providence, as well as his love for his brothers. Joseph’s brothers returned with gifts (Gen. 43:11-15) and Joseph offered further gifts of food to his brothers (Gen. 43:16-25; 44:1). Reciprocity and communion were eventually restored in Jacob’s blessing of his reconciled sons (Gen. 49:1-27).

In the story of Joseph, the meaning and value of food, the fruit of creation, was to be found in reconciliation and the celebration of communion.[11] The offering of gifts as expressions of thanksgiving and penance with the purpose of effecting reconciliation with God was the basis of the ancient practice of sacrifice. In the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly families offered gifts to God on behalf of supplicants for the restoration of communion. These took the form of grain, oil, or incense, as well as animal sacrifice. Rather than these sacrifices being “given up” or lost (which is the modern colloquial sense of “sacrifice”), they were often returned to the people, sometimes in the form of food. This established a reciprocal economy of the gift within the elaborate system of Temple rituals. Such reciprocity established the worshippers’ fellowship with God: the worshipper was invited by divine graciousness to offer gifts to God which were returned to form a relational bond. Ritually, this was expressed in the form of a meal shared in God’s Temple using the gifts sacrificed on the altar. The return of sacrifices in the form of food, while certainly not an element of every Temple sacrifice, was nevertheless an important expression of fellowship with God and amongst God’s people.[12]

However, this reciprocity was broken by human sin, for sin is the refusal of God’s gifts. Sacrifice was seemingly inadequate to renew humanity’s intimate relationship with God. The author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it this way when writing of humanity’s estrangement from the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of God:

This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right. (Heb. 9:9-10)

How can the relationship of reciprocal exchange with God be restored in the face of human sin? Because humanity has estranged itself from God, it is humanity which must offer sacrifice to God for the renewal of that reciprocal relation. However, any human action will be tainted by sin; it “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper.” Only a divine action will be fully replete and perfect. Only a divine action can, once and for all, atone for human sin. The perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice can therefore only be offered by a divine humanity, namely the incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. So it is Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross, as both fully divine and fully human, which brings the salvation of humanity and the re-establishment of reciprocity with God.

The nature of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement is, of course, a matter of considerable theological controversy. However, in contrast to later theories of the atonement that refer to civic legal practices of justice, punishment, and recompense, the New Testament writers frequently refer to Christ’s sacrifice with reference to the prevalent Jewish theology of sacrifice. For example, it has been argued that Christ’s sacrifice is best understood through the narrative and practices of the Passover sacrifice of a lamb. I wish to discuss the suggestion that Christ’s sacrifice is best understood in terms of the Jewish sin offering.[13]

The ritual system of sin (or guilt) offerings is described particularly in Leviticus 6:8–7:10. These sacrifices involve flour, grain, oil and animals. Some elements are “wholly burned” (Lev. 6:8-23). However, there is an important element of reciprocity in these “most holy” sacrifices. Whoever touches the flesh of the sacrificed animal in the ritual of the sin offering is rendered holy and the animal is returned to the priests — but only to the priests — as food to be consumed in the holy place (Lev. 6:24-30). Similarly, every grain offering baked in the oven is to be returned to the priest (Lev. 7:9). However, “every other grain offering, mixed with oil or dry, shall belong to all the sons of Aaron equally” (Lev. 7.10). As sacrificial gifts are offered to God for atonement following the sin of the people, these are returned to the people for their nourishment. Typically, however, the reciprocity is enjoyed by the priests — they receive back the flesh of the animal of the sin offering and guilt offering, as well as the grain offering.

The letter to the Hebrews describes these sacrifices, which are offered year after year, as “only a shadow of the good things to come” (Heb. 10:1). Christ’s sacrifice is interpreted as the fulfilment of Levitical sacrifice. He is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek who, in being replete and without sin, offers himself not over and over again but “once for all” (Heb. 10:10). He is both priest and victim while also standing in our place. Christ represents all of humanity, yet this is, at one and the same time, the sacrifice of God because Christ is God incarnate. However, how is this sacrifice rendered reciprocal? In what sense is the sacrificial gift of Christ offered to the Father returned to the people? Is there any way in which, like the sin offering, guilt offering and grain offering described in Leviticus, the sacrifice of Christ is returned as food? The sacrificial offering of Christ, who as sinless nevertheless represents every sinner, is returned to the people as food in the Eucharist in the form of the body and blood of the victim and priest (1 Cor. 10:16). Whereas the reciprocity of the sin offering in the Old Testament was enjoyed particularly by Levitical priests, now the Church is “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9-10) so everyone partakes in the reciprocity of Christ’s gift of himself: the people of God are a priestly people in receiving the gifts of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice in the Eucharist, this royal priesthood being made visible through the apostolic order of priests who preside at Christ’s meal. This is how Christ reconciles us to God (2 Cor. 5:19) and not vice versa; it has little to do with the more base versions of substitutionary penal atonement.

The Eucharist bears further meaning: it is also eschatological as an anticipation of the wedding feast of the Lamb. Meanwhile, the sacrificial offering of Christ on the cross is the manifestation of the eternal offering of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In other words, the sacrificial offering of Christ is not something that just happens to take place in first-century Palestine as a reaction to human sin; it belongs to very trinitarian life of God. Refracted through human sin and violence, Christ’s obedient gift to the Father becomes bloody and violent. It is by means of the eucharistic sacrificial gift that we are incorporated into the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the eschatological banquet of heaven, both of which are participations in the eternal reciprocity of the Trinity as the Son eternally offers himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

This understanding of the eucharistic sacrifice does not involve the external mimicking of divine gratuity, as if we witness God’s generosity at a distance and set about copying him. Rather, we are drawn into the infinitely merciful reciprocity of donation that is the divine life. This is the gracious sharing in the overflow of glory that the Father and the Son eternally exchange in the Spirit. By means of the return of Christ, the sacrificial victim and priest, as food in the Eucharist, we enter into the divine life — the divine economy of reciprocated gifts — to feast at the table of the Lord.

The Eucharist is therefore about the ultimate meaning and value of all food. It is the providential gift of God for the sustenance of his creatures and the means of Communion. Through a sacrificial meal, God restores his people to the divine economy of reciprocated gifts by the offering of his own life as our food: the body and blood of Christ. This points to the sacred nature of food as the fruit of God’s creation, the work of human hands and the means of Communion.[14]

The Eucharist is also about the meaning of ministry and the orders of ministry in the Church. When the risen Jesus commissioned Peter at the end of St. John’s Gospel, he does so in the context of breakfast — a meal — on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus commands Peter to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” ‘”feed my sheep.” The people of God are fed in Scripture and sacrament as one flock, for “though we are many, we are one body, because we all partake of the one bread.” The principal president of the one Eucharist and the one who tends the sheep is the bishop in whose ministry the priest shares. But everyone — all the baptised — are now drawn into this sacrificial ministry in their reception of the Eucharist by which they are made “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9). The key point is that we know creation as sacramental because we have sacraments, we know the Church as priestly because we have priests with the bishop as the fount of the Church’s priestly ministry. But this is never intended to obscure the ministry of the whole people of God; quite the reverse. It is precisely Ramsey’s argument that, in the late Middle Ages, the orders of ministry did obscure the ministry of the whole people of God and compromise its freedom in such a way that the Church’s catholicity was compromised. Thus it was right that the Church in England took a stand to restore the Catholicity of the Church. It seems that we need to restore our deep confidence in that Catholicity which genuinely sets free the ministries of the whole Church, ordained and lay. This requires, however, a deeper understanding of the Church as the form of the Gospel and its structures of ministry as enabling properly differentiated mission in the world as the Church, as Christ’s body, fills all in all.[15]

The Rev. Canon Prof. Simon Oliver is Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Abbey House, University of Durham.


[1] Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Longmans, Green & Co., 1936). More recent reissues are available.

[2] Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today, 2nd ed. (SPCK, 1985), p. 6.

[3] Rowan Williams, “The Lutheran Catholic,” Ramsey Lecture, Durham, November 2004. See also his discussion of The Christian Priest Today.

[4] The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 66.

[5] See The Gospel and the Catholic Church, pp. 66-67.

[6] This is also reminiscent of the ecclesial and baptismal ontology that lies at the heart of John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion (DLT, 1985): “The Church is not simply an institution. She is a ‘mode of existence,’ a way of being” (p. 15, italics original).

[7] One of the most memorable claims of The Christian Priest Today is that the essence of priestly ministry is found in 2 Corinthians 4:10: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

[8] By stressing “in their particularity,” I want to point out that “difference” is not erased in the body of Christ. In other words, differences of race, gender, or society are not reduced to something homogeneous. Rather, these differences — which are integral to who and what we are — are blended in harmonious difference within the differentiated body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

[9] The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p.85.

[10] The Christian Priest Today, p. 111.

[11] This is reminiscent of the meal following the return of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The son had squandered the gifts of his father by treating them as mere consumable resources. Upon his return, a new gift is offered in the form of a meal to effect and express the reconciliation of father and son.

[12] Communion involves the sharing of life that is, as the Anglican theologian John Milbank has argued extensively and with formidable originality, the reciprocal exchange of gifts. By “gifts,” we do not mean simply birthday and Christmas presents, but the donation of oneself to another. Good examples would be the cooking of a meal for one’s family or the donation of one’s time and attention to a friend. Such gifts bear something of the giver (the giver’s character, talents, and desires) to the recipient. See Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2017), ch.5, on which the latter part of this lecture is based.

[13] See, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:21 or Hebrews 9:28, or Exodus 29:14.

[14] In this context, it is striking that one of the most damaging practices for our environment is the commodification and waste of food which simultaneously renders large portions of the world’s population without enough to eat. The food that found its meaning and value in reconciliation and communion in the story of Joseph and Christ’s gift of the Eucharist is now a locus of separation and division in the contemporary world.

[15] When this lecture was presented in Cambridge in November 2017, an interesting question was posed about the relation of the diaconate to licensed lay ministries in the Church of England. The functions of both ministries are often indistinguishable. However, one charism of the diaconate as an ordained (and therefore permanent and catholic) rather than commissioned or licensed ministry (which is local and temporal) concerns visibly holding together two apparently different poles of that ministry: service and the authority that comes from the laying on of hands. The deacon, as embodying most visibly the servanthood of Christ at the Eucharist and thereby servanthood as a form of life, is also ordained to proclaim and teach the gospel.

As Archbishop Rowan continually stressed during his archiepiscopate, most particularly in an address at Evensong in Westminster Abbey in 2010 whilst sat alongside Pope Benedict XVI, there is not authority in the Church except that which is born of service: “There is, we know, no authority in the Church that is not the authority of service: that is, of building up the people of God to full maturity. Christ’s service is simply the way in which we meet his almighty power: the power to remake the world he has created, pouring out into our lives, individually and together, what we truly need in order to become fully what we are made to be — the image of the divine life. It is that image which the pastor in the Church seeks to serve, bowing down in reverence before each human person in the knowledge of the glory for which he or she was made.”

The deacon, as both authoritative teacher and servant, makes visible this aspect of the authority of priests and bishops (who are, of course, also deacons!) in the Church that was first made visible in Christ: in the Church, there is only the authority of service and not the authority of will or force. Whether the Church of England should make greater use of a permanent diaconate is, of course, an ongoing question.

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[…] core claim of that book very clearly: the Church is the “form” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[3] Ramsey […]

Dale Coleman
4 years ago

Lovely article. I love Michael Ramsey, and I’m working on a book about becoming an Episcopal priest, and spending a great deal of time from the first meeting with him in 1976, at Nashotah House. I have one criticism: A Deacon is ordained as servant, and to “proclaim” God’s Word. A Priest is ordained to “preach”. One of the necessary gifts of a priest is to preach. The discernment process of the church for a priest is to find this out. The deacon serves the church in part by reading-proclaiming the Gospel at the Eucharist.