Sermon Archive

Sunday April 2, 2017
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Turner

On Michael Ramsey
Lenton series on Praying with Holy Men and Holy Women.

He was a huge man – intellectually as much as physically – and it is hard to forget the sight of him lumbering towards you with that twinkle in his eyes shining out from his huge bushy white eye-brows.

I first met Michael Ramsey in 1978 when I left Hull to read Theology in Durham and he was the person who had the most profound influence on my life and my vocation. He lived near my college in Durham and he regularly celebrated the Tuesday morning mass. Serving the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury was an ordeal in itself; not so much that he was a great man but because he was also somewhat clumsy and, shall we say, not always graceful on his feet. But perhaps this was one of those mischievous characteristics – of being a parody of himself.

I think it is probably safe to say that his relationships with students enriched his retirement years to a high degree. Many of us benefited from his weekly tutorials in his study; we sat, literally, at his feet, and he wanted to explore as much as to teach. He was a man that was always learning and had a phenomenal thirst for knowledge. I remember when he came to visit me once at St Stephen’s House; I was looking for him to take him somewhere and found him in the library. He didn’t see me as I came in. He was stacking an enormous pile of books on a table – into a very precarious tower - muttering to himself, “So much to read…so much to learn…so much to read…so much to learn…”

His ministry as a priest and as a bishop was bound up in the lives of real people. Finding the glory of God in people and in ordinary things was something he searched for and believed in:

“People seek the glory of personal distinction through the praise and esteem of others: Jesus reveals the glory of self-giving love, which is the glory of the Father and of the Son…The paradox that the Passion and the glory are one will be learnt only in the practical obedience of discipleship.” (The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ).

He searched for the glory of God in worldly things that had been transformed by the action of God; his theology was formed within the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He had a high regard to the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In speaking of the Eucharist to ordinands he said this: “The liturgy indeed belongs to the people. Where then, and why then, the priests? As celebrant he is more than the people’s representative. In taking, breaking, and consecrating he acts in Christ’s name and in the name not only of the particular congregation but of the Holy Catholic Church down the ages. By his office as celebrant he symbolizes the focusing of the Eucharist in the giveness of the historic gospel and in the continuing life of the Church as rooted in that gospel. He finds that at the altar he is drawn terribly and wonderfully near not only to the benefits of Christ’s redemption but to the redemptive act itself.”

It is significant that he wrote only one major scholarly work. ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ is still on reading lists for those studying systematic theology. Such was his love of people that, once he had become Bishop of Durham, he turned his hand to writing small books that were accessible for all. These little books on faith and prayer have encouraged a multitude of people and one of the most useful is possibly one that is still given to ordinands today – nearly 50 years after it was written – ‘The Christian Priest today’. He was passionate about supporting and praying for those whose vocations and ministry he was responsible for. This responsibility came not from a sense of achievement – quite the contrary – it may be summed up in some words he gave in an ordination charge to those about to be ordained: “Through the years, people will thank God for you. And let the reason for their thankfulness be not be just because you were a person whom they liked or loved but because you made God real to them.” (Christian Priest Today p.81)

Michael Ramsey will be remembered for many things. His mother’s political outspokenness gave him an edge that was sometimes masked by his apparent clumsy and inept manner –He spoke regularly in the House of Lords on moral and social issues but he also practiced what he preached; for example, by giving a home at Lambeth Palace to an Asian refugee family who had been expelled from Uganda.

One of his abiding gifts to the Church, though, must be his love of ecumenism – fostering hope for reunion with the Methodists, respected hugely by Orthodox bishops and, particularly, in his bringing closer together the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1966, Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI signed the first common declaration since the reformation – formally bringing to an end 400 years of enmity and setting the way forward to full re-union. “You are our beloved sister church” said Pope Paul as he greeted Michael Ramsey. And in the garden, just before Michael left , Paul VI slipped on this finger his papal ring given to him from the people of Milan where he had been Cardinal Archbishop; he never took it off. That ring is now kept at Lambeth and is worn by Archbishops of Canterbury whenever they visit the Vatican.

This humble man was, possibly, one of the greatest Archbishops of our time. Like the chapters of his book on the ministerial priesthood, he was a man of prayer – a man of reconciliation – a man of the gospel. He lived his life as he preached about life – surrounding it with prayer and searching for the glory of God in the people he met.

In a letter, after he died, Lady Ramsey wrote this: “M was so happy and peaceful when he died as if he saw Glory and there it was – as he’d known.”

Glory – a glory glimpsed in his life and lived out in the way he lived his life and, significantly, the inscription on his memorial stone at Canterbury – a phrase by St Irenaeus: “The Glory of God is the living man; And the life of man is the vision of God.”

As, Ramsey said himself, “Glory is the one of the great words of Christian vocabulary.” (Introducing the Christian Faith p.46)

Some words of the XI Rector, Father John Andrew who was, of course, Michael Ramsey’s chaplain when he was Archbishop of York and then Canterbury:

“He is the icon of the Episcopate for us Anglicans: learned, saintly, articulate, silent, unaffected by ‘every wind and blast of vain doctrine’ to blow across the churches and still utterly open to what the Spirit may be saying to them. No one can match him. His loving knowledge of the Scriptures, the way he uses them, expounds them, turns them to face a certain light so that they shine, always crystal clear and phrased in the simplest manner possible, set him aside as a teacher of the rarest quality. He is utterly unafraid, often uncompromising in the challenge his preaching and teaching bring to bear on his disciples. He speaks for God and you know it.” (Nothing Cheap and Much that is Cheerful xv-xvi)

I had hoped that Bishop Michael, as he liked to be called, might be able to preach at my first mass but with the problems he was having with his eyes he was unable to travel let alone preach. He wrote me a letter, which I found many years later at the time of the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. In the letter he said these words, which I have always treasured: “I pray that yours may be a priesthood sacrificial, loving and joyful.”

Sacrificial – loving and joyful.

Which, perhaps, came naturally from the many years of living a priesthood just as he had described.

A Prayer inspired by Michael Ramsey:

Lord, help me to be with you;
help me to be truly in your presence.
I am hungry for you,
I am thirsty for you
and, I need you above all things.
Draw my heart and my mind towards you
with the needs of the world on my heart. Amen.

Praying With Holy Men and Holy Women