The Gospel and the Catholic Church by A.M. Ramsey: An Appreciation and Discussion Part Two Michael Newnham and Duane W.H. Arnold
The Gospel and the Catholic Church by A.M. Ramsey:
An Appreciation and Discussion
Michael Newnham and Duane W.H. Arnold
“Thus the first need of the Christians, in face of the apathy and the bewilderment about the Church, is to know and to be able to say plainly what the Church really is.”
Ramsey wrote ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ in the 1930s. More than a decade had passed since the wholesale killings of the First World War. The results of the great depression still held sway in both Europe and America, generating a continuing sense of financial uncertainty. Stalinist Russia had begun to emerge from the throes of revolution to once again become a power on the world stage. Populist, nationalist, autocratic and fascist regimes were rising in Europe and the Far East. Some questioned the value of democracy as a workable system of government.
Within this maelstrom, there were questions as to the nature, value and importance of the Christian Church. Some in the Church sought, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to align themselves with the new political realities and even to endorse nationalist and, in some cases, racial policies. Others, saw the Church as an instrument of progressive ideals. Meanwhile, among the broad middle, there was a rising sense that the Church, as it had been known, was simply irrelevant.
In many ways, it was a time much like our own.
In the midst of these conflicting claims Ramsey decided to write a book. “This book is written as a study of the Church, and its doctrine, and unity and structure, in terms of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.” He then goes on to describe the very nature of the Church as being centered in death… and only then in life.
Duane: Michael, earlier you talked about the “filter” of suffering. In Ramsey’s book, suffering seems to be the unresolved “Why?” of the Christian life. Did the book give you any way to approach this unresolved “Why?” in a different manner?
Michael: The theologies I was familiar with saw suffering as something to be defeated…there was an expectation of temporal deliverance from suffering (usually though prayer) because suffering was not supposed to be a part of the Christian experience except for brief training purposes. Thus, if you were not delivered, something was wrong with you or your faith. That notion never seems to have crossed Ramsey’s mind. Suffering unto death in sacrificial love anticipating resurrection is the very definition of what it means to be in Christ in his writing. Therefore…suffering becomes part of who you are in Christ, rather than something to be overcome.
Duane: I think you’ve hit on something important. So many theological systems are built on “absolutes”. That is, all questions must be answered. The answers, in the main, are binary. They are “yes” and “no”. We tend to speak of faith in Christ as a “commitment”, made once and then acted upon throughout life. Yet, in our lives, we all carry questions. We all carry the “Why?” that Christ cries out in the Passion. Yet, most theological systems leave little, if any, room for that question. It seems to me that Ramsey, along with many of his era such as Lewis, Barth, Congar, Rahner and so many others, seemed to accept that carrying the questions, living the questions, was simply part of what it meant to be a Christian. As Ramsey wrote, “…within [Christ] and especially within His death and resurrection the Church is actually present. We must search for the fact of the Church not beyond Calvary and Easter but within them.” Michael, why do you think so much of current Christian thinking is enamored with power, success and, indeed, even a triumphalism that has little to do with finding our true reality in the passion and the resurrection?
Michael: That’s another question that turned things upside down for me. Ramsey (and Scripture) is very clear that our whole faith and “the church” is to be found victorious through and in the sacrificial love that leads to death and then resurrection. In other words, without an identification with Christ that embraces living in sacrificial love grounded in following the example of Christ there is no faith, nor is there a true church. I keep using the word “sacrificial” intentionally…the point, as St. Peter said is that we are all “living sacrifices”. There is little celebration or boasting walking with one cross and toward another cross. Further…and I say this with fear and trembling…it makes one wonder if what we call “church” today has anything to do with Christ…
Duane: It is not an irrelevant question. I think when you place Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension on a timeline, that is, in the past, rather than as a present reality, you run the risk of constantly asking the question, “What’s next?”. Then, we “fill in the blank” with “seeker friendly”, contemporary or traditional, progressive or conservative. In other words, we focus on style in lieu of substance so we can stay on a timeline that, in our opinion, is moving forward. Yet, Ramsey recognized that the substance of what we call “church” is primary. “For, as [Christ] is baptized into man’s death, so men shall be baptized into His; and as He 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.” I think this is why later Ramsey made the very blunt statement that, “Individualism… has no place in Christianity and Christianity verily means its extinction”. Yet in our era, individualism and singular personalities in the Church are considered desirable. Michael, what do you think has changed?
Michael: Somewhere in the last hundred years or so, the measure of “success” in the church changed from faithful living in a consecrated community to the number of people in a building on Sunday. Michael Ramsey’s biblical view of the church and the Christian life will not “sell” well in this culture. I’ve yet to see a church sign inviting people to “come and die”. Ramsey’s views were not an unusual ecclesiology for most of the church age…they certainly are now.
Duane: No, I’ve not seen a sign, but in a Eucharistic community of faith, the central act of worship is not the “gifted teacher” or the spellbinding sermon, but rather it is participation in, and proclamation of, a death. It is a death that breaks into the present and defines the future. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
We will continue this conversation in future installments. If, however, this discussion interests you, please feel free to enter into the conversation through your comments. The book, ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ by A.M. Ramsey, is available through Amazon in both print and digital formats. Either can be accessed through our Amazon Associates link.