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The Archbishop of Canterbury and national days of prayer in Britain, 1966-1974
Peter Webster (IHR)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 As Philip Williamson has observed, the early decades of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a new form of national worship in the United Kingdom: the ‘national day of prayer’. Prompted in large part by the First World War, they were distinct from the forms of national worship in the nineteenth century in being neither connected with royal occasions nor instigated by the sovereign, as well as being petitionary rather than thanksgiving, and being instigated by the established churches in partnership with the other mainline denominations. These occasions continued throughout the inter-war period before reaching a second peak during the second disruption of the century, the 1939-45 war.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Although the study of the topic is only just beginning, it would seem that the period after 1947 saw a marked fall in the number of such occasions. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was petitioned on occasions to call such a day, but appears not to have responded apart from in 1951, and that in relation to the King’s poor health. Certainly by the time of Michael Ramsey’s archiepiscopate (1961-74), there was a more or less complete lack of appetite within government or the wider establishment for the calling of occasions of national worship, matched by a similar reluctance amongst the bishops to call such occasions on their own initiative.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Nonetheless, just as Randall Davidson had been inundated with requests for days of prayer on ‘the Japanese War, or Macedonia, or Armenia, or Chinese Labour, or Welsh Education, or the Revival Movement’, the requests to Lambeth Palace to call such days continued to arrive in a steady trickle. As John Wolffe has noted, consciousness of the need for national intercession tends to be most acute in times of war and national emergency; and so indeed the trickle became a flood in relation to a cluster of specific national and international circumstances in the midst of a period of more general crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The period saw war in Vietnam, violence and political instability in Ulster, and an acute economic crisis at home.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Most of these letters were from individuals, but there were some signs of a greater organisation. Some of those that appeared in Ramsey’s postbag had multiple signatories, and a number of MPs thought such letters important enough to forward them to Ramsey, sometimes with their own support added. One prominent evangelical layman wrote to several, if not all of the bishops in connection with Ireland in 1972, and there were also letters to the press, the Prime Minister, Cardinal Heenan and others at various times. It is difficult to be certain about how large a section of the public these letters represent, but when compared with some of the correspondence that was inflicted upon Ramsey on matters such as homosexual law reform or relations with the Pope, those that survive at Lambeth are characterised by coherence and moderation. 
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This article examines these petitions that were made to Ramsey, the grounds upon which the case was made, and the Church’s official reactions to them. In doing so, it sheds light from an unaccustomed angle onto attitudes towards petitionary prayer among some of the public, on understandings of the role of the Archbishop as leader of the nation’s religious life, and of the recent providential history of the nation, particularly during the 1939-45 war.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 To a great extent, the view taken of such calls by Ramsey and the bishops was well settled; so much so that there existed in the files at Lambeth Palace several standard letter templates. Ramsey’s personal view had long been that calls for prayers for specific ends ‘lend themselves to a rather mechanical view of what prayer means.’ Bishop Kenneth Sansbury, who as general secretary of the British Council of Churches was also recipient of numerous letters about prayer for Ulster, was also wary of encouraging ‘a certain “penny-in-the-slot-machine” view of intercession’. Ramsey’s response, similar to that of his colleague at York, Donald Coggan, was instead to call for constant personal prayer as a habit profitably developed among the body of lay Christians. There was greater benefit to be gained through ‘constantly teaching Christian people about the meaning of prayer so that we are all the time building up in the world a community of praying people.’ As the bishop of Glasgow and Galloway observed, it seemed that ‘we only pray when we are in a mess’; church people should already be praying in any case.
Permalink for this paragraph 2 Quite apart from the problematic theology of prayer that national days implied, there were practical difficulties as well. Since requests were made for days of prayer on everything from the 1966 earthquake in Turkey to British entry into the Common Market, there was a reluctance to arrange many such days since by doing so serious in-roads would be made into the liturgical year. In addition, on the handful of occasions when such a day was called, it was by no means straightforward to secure the media coverage necessary to effect the call. One correspondent was surprised to hear that the last Sunday in 1973 had been designated a day of special intention for the economic situation, since neither she nor her rector had been aware of it at the time. As Geoffrey Tiarks, Bishop of Maidstone and Ramsey’s chief of staff at Lambeth explained, the Guardian alone amongst the daily papers had reported the initial press announcement on December 20th; although further pressure had secured mention of the day on BBC radio, the intention to give a week’s notice had been largely frustrated: ‘I am afraid it is a disreputable indication of how little importance those outside Church circles attach to such a call to prayer even when it comes from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Even more pertinently, the issues around which public pressure for days of prayer crystallised in the early 1970s, such as the Troubles in Ulster or the miners’ strike, were not ones that commanded any sort of national unanimity. The standard letter current in December 1973 argued that the judgement to be made by Ramsey was a fine one since ‘it might be that a call to the nation of this kind would not have the same result in the country as in the days of the War, when we were all pretty solidly united. Now, alas, that cannot be said, and the divisive elements in our society, which are so numerous, make the situation more delicate. There is such a climate of indifference to religion and so many acute crises arise that it is impossible to call everyone to prayer each time there is a fresh crisis.’ In February 1972 the bishops of Lichfield and Birmingham began discussing a local event of intercession for the employment situation in the West Midlands, during which discussions concern was voiced about the prospect of extending the event nationally since there was ‘the obvious danger of the Churches seeming to lend support to the economic policies of the present Government, or as some might say, to the lack of them.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 So it was that there were several reasons why Ramsey and his episcopal colleagues were reluctant to call days of prayer, and there were as a result only four such occasions during Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The first was in relation to Northern Ireland in September 1971, and a second on St Patrick’s Day in the following March. The call on St Patrick’s Day was repeated the following year, and the fourth was the final Sunday of 1973, called in relation to the economic situation. In December 1973 the call was released to a ‘day of prayer for the nation and its leaders that God may guide us in facing the present crisis with wisdom, justice and self-sacrifice’. Even then, special care was taken that it was not described as a ‘National Day of Prayer’, since to do so would be ‘totally misjudged and could be severely criticised in the present climate of divisiveness and agnosticism.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In this Ramsey was responding to a clear and growing sense of crisis both within the church and in the nation at large. Between August 1971 and March 1972 Ulster saw the introduction of internment, the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. The period also saw inflation, deteriorating balance of payments figures, increasing budget deficits and strike action by the National Union of Mineworkers from January 1972; December 1973 brought another strike, the imposition of the three day week and soon afterwards the dissolution of the Heath government. That there was a general sense of crisis is a common theme in much of the general scholarship on the period, as political and economic unrest outside the church was accompanied with growing disillusionment within with the hopeful experimentation of the 1960s, and a marked downturn in the numerical indicators of religious activity in the mainline denominations. 
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Ramsey and his colleagues were however neither silent nor inactive in face of the perception of national crisis. There were independent local events, such as the joint special Sunday of prayer for Ulster held in the Roman Catholic diocese of Brentwood and its Anglican counterpart. At various times Ramsey also used speeches to the Church Assembly and the Convocation of Canterbury to address issues of concern. Neither was the national stage abandoned. Ramsey spoke about Ireland in a BBC radio broadcast of ‘Lift up Your Hearts’ in September 1971, and on two separate occasions in the House of Lords. Perhaps most prominently, March 1972 saw a joint service of intercession at Westminster Cathedral, at which Ramsey and the Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council played a part, attended by both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. Despite all this, for some of his correspondents the day of prayer was a weapon in the armoury which it was perverse not to employ. An examination of the reasons advanced sheds valuable light on understandings of prayer and the providential history of the nation that were current among at least some sections of the British laity at this time.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 One reason commonly advanced for such days of prayer was the symbolic effect of joint action between the denominations. The Baptist MP for Wimbledon Cyril Black called for a joint call from Canterbury, Westminster and the Free Churches for prayer for Ulster, to demonstrate ‘the united determination of Christians to seek increasingly a way to restore peace and goodwill, and to pray to Almighty God to direct, guide and bless all such efforts.’ Representatives of theological students in Oxford called for a special Sunday for Vietnam, which would be ‘the kind of opportunity for wholehearted and unreserved joint Christian action that we so avidly seek but too rarely find.’ Such joint prayer could further the reconversion of the nation, since ‘many feel that it is time to call the nation back to God.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 However, for a significant number of Ramsey’s correspondents, such outcomes were side-effects, since the primary purpose of such petitionary prayer was its direct and identifiable effect on events: one listed as number four in his list of reasons to call a day in relation to Ireland ’4. God answers prayer. (I know I need not remind you of this but I include it for the sake of completeness)’ and only later added to the list ‘6. (A secondary reason) Such a Day of Prayer and God’s answer to it, could be means of recalling some indifferent folk to Him.’’ Even whilst accepting that constant personal and corporate prayer was, or ought to be, a given, the acuteness of the effects of the earthquake in Turkey in 1966 prompted a representative of one of the aid charities to write: ‘I remember that you once counselled us to pray all the time and not just on a special day. We are doing this; our work, too, is prayer. But having done all we know that it is not enough.’ One biblical text which was referred to on more than one occasion was 2 Chronicles 7:14, the occasion in which God promises Solomon to hear the prayers of Israel in times of drought or pestilence, ‘if my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways.’ In such times of crisis, it was for the nation as a whole to turn to prayer, and not simply those in the church: for one, the argument that national days of prayer were obsolete since only 7% of the nation were affiliated to a church held no water: ‘it is the people of the Land as a whole who must seek God together for deliverance in a time of extreme National Crisis (2 Chron: 7.14.)’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 For many, the time was one with marked parallels with recent British history. Occasional parallels were drawn with events during the First World War: one remembered being a teenager during the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917, which had been a ‘turning point in the course of the war at one of Britain’s darkest hours, and the same thing could happen again.’ However, for the majority the only benchmark against which the times were to be measured was the most prominent historic crisis still in living memory; that of the Second World War. For one, the situation in Ulster was ‘surely the gravest crisis this nation has experienced since the second world war’, and the days of prayer called during that conflict provided compelling reason to do the same again. One Baptist recalled ‘George VI calling the nation for national days of prayer when faced with the might of Hitler, and how wonderfully we were helped. God still answers prayers, but the request must be made.’ Of particular symbolic power was the great national delivery that some perceived to have occurred at Dunkirk in response to just such a day of prayer, on May 26th 1940. An eighty-nine year old woman with decades of missionary service remembered the occasion and ‘and the marvellous answer’; another recalled that at ‘the time of Dunkirk we saw a modern miracle performed because the whole country was praying together’ and that in 1973 another was needed ‘to save us from ourselves.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 These calls on the Archbishop also reveal a good deal about the role he was thought to play in the religious life of the nation. His correspondents included Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and members of several other denominations, all quite sure that he held a position of peculiar importance amongst religious leaders. One member of the United Reformed Church wrote to assure him that her own congregation had that morning prayed for him, and called on him to take a lead, as the ‘national religious leader.’ However, at the same time petitions for days of prayer could function negatively; as implicit or explicit criticism of the direction of travel in the nation’s moral and religious life, and of perceived neglect on the part of the Archbishop. Ramsey was in 1973 petitioned to support the call from the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child for a special intention for prayer on a Sunday ‘for true guidance to our leaders and the for the awakening of Christian conscience’; a thinly veiled repudiation of the effects of the 1967 Abortion Act, and by implication the role of the bishops in aiding its passage. In an article in the magazine Parson and Parish in 1971, a Lincolnshire rector attacked the recent deputation of bishops to the Prime Minister to petition against the supply of arms to South Africa. ‘Would it not have been far better,’ the Revd Scott continued, if the bishops had paid more attention to the situation at home, and instead asked the Prime Minister ‘to call the people of our own country to a national day of prayer?’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 A number of calls for national prayer explicitly wove together political, economic and moral issues . The early 1970s saw the inception of the campaign that was to become the Nationwide Festival of Light, which reacted against apparent ‘moral pollution’, and some of its literature found its way to Ramsey’s office, along with others interpreting events in apocalyptic terms. In the face of strikes, drug addiction, crime, student anarchy, sex mania and ‘the abortion racket’, the same Lincolnshire rector called for episcopal pronouncements that matched the urgency of the situation ‘to rally those who are bewildered and disheartened by the follies and faithlessness of the present day.’ In the autumn of 1972 a Miss Dean of Bristol listed rising prostitution, vandalism, the troubles in Ulster, industrial unrest, price inflation and the impending cold winter, and suggested that many of her acquaintances wished Ramsey to call a day of prayer to address the apparent crisis. ‘For the last two or three years’ wrote a group of correspondents in late 1973 ‘it would seem that this country has been sliding from crisis to crisis, and that the moral trends have been ever more permissive and ever less Christian.’ Why was it, they wondered, that Ramsey had ‘not felt the desire, and indeed the necessity, to call the Church of England and all devout Christians to a special day or week of prayer.’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 By the early 1970s it had long been the case that the calling of such occasions of concerted prayer was co-ordinated between the various denominations. The octave of prayer for Ulster of September 1971 was arranged jointly with Cardinal Heenan and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, and care was taken to circulate the announcement in advance to all the churches in Ulster, and to the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Indeed, so expected was it that there was some private concern expressed about the apparent omission of the Free Church Federal Council from the call of December 1973. It was however the case that the continuing secularisation of public opinion, ecumenical momentum and the withdrawal of the church from increasing areas of the moral law reinforced the process by which the occupant of Lambeth Palace became more and more one leader amongst many churches, and less and less the religious leader of the nation. An indication of this was the increasing role of the British Council of Churches, whether in passing resolutions and making statements on matters of common concern, but also in the calling of joint days of prayer, as was the case for St Patrick’s Day 1973.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 A further aspect of the same movement, and one that was more particular to the period after 1945, was an increasingly international context in which such occasions had to be framed. In June 1973 there was a joint appeal for worldwide prayer for Northern Ireland from the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s department for ecumenical endeavour. The Pope additionally instituted an annual Sunday in January dedicated to prayer for peace for Catholics, beginning in 1968, with the explicit hope that it might be taken up more widely worldwide. Ramsey was kept informed of the venture, but to begin with chose not to endorse it publicly. However, by 1973 Ramsey was being pressed by some of the bishops to support Peace Sunday (as it had become known and indeed remains at the time of writing) more publicly and to commend it to Anglicans as something to emulate; a suggestion to which he was more open by that time, having already commended it privately to the bishops.
Permalink for this paragraph 3 A good deal of research remains to be done on the after-life of national days of prayer under Ramsey’s successors at Canterbury. The letters continued to arrive at Lambeth after Ramsey was succeeded by Donald Coggan, but Coggan was no more enthusiastic than Ramsey for such occasions, preferring different approaches to engagement with the nation, including the Call to the Nation of 1975. It may well be the case that the cluster of days of prayer called by Ramsey in 1971-3 were the last such significant group. This article has shown that these occasions, and the public correspondence that called for and followed them, reveal much about the state of British religion in the early 1970s. Attitudes towards collective prayer amongst at least some of the public had not been emptied of their supernatural elements, contrary perhaps to expectations in a secularising context. The Second World War retained considerable imaginative power, and played a prominent part in providential understandings of the recent history of the nation. Finally, the correspondence of the Archbishop also reveals much about perceptions, both within his own church and without, of his own peculiar role at the interface of the British church and state.
 Williamson, ‘State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830-1897’, Past and Present 200 (2008), 121-74; at 167. Other than this article, and Williamson’s own forthcoming continuation of the narrative to 1957, the literature on the subject in Britain is almost non-existent, whether in specific or general studies.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Wolffe, ‘Judging the Nation: Early Nineteenth-Century British Evangelicals and Divine Retribution’ in Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (eds), Retribution, Repentance and Reconciliation (Studies in Church History 40 (2004), 299; Williamson, ‘State prayers’, p.166.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  The Sussex industrialist Ernest Shippam appears to have written to several bishops in connection with Ireland: Francis Moncrieff, Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway to AMR, 1/3/72, RP 224, f.12,. The Revd Edward Pratt of Mackworth, Derbys., wrote both to Ramsey and to the press, also about Ireland; letter and telegram to AMR, 22/24 Jul 1972, at RP 224, ff. 15 – 16. Cyril Black MP wrote to Ramsey, Cardinal Heenan and the Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council in September, 1971; letter dated 6/9/71 at RP 205, f.76.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  The archbishops ordinarily received a voluminous post, not all items of which were routinely retained. Letters to archbishops and other religious leaders remain an under-investigated source. For examples, see John Poulton, Dear Archbishop (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1976).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  See, inter alia, Paul Welsby, A history of the Church of England 1945-1980 (Oxford, OUP, 1984), pp.189-92; Adrian Hastings, A history of English Christianity 1920-1990 (London, SCM, third edition, 1991), pp.585, 590. Hugh McLeod, The religious crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, OUP, 2007), pp.188-214.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  See draft TS statement to Church Assembly on Vietnam, dated July 1966, at RP 109:169-70; His address to Convocation in relation to Ulster was reported in the Times, 13/10/71, ‘Dr Ramsey praises lead given to Christians in Ulster’
Permalink for this paragraph 0  See letters of protest about the broadcast at RP 205, ff.123-5; for Ramsey’s interventions in the Lords, see HL Debates, 22 September 1971 vol 324 cols 28-30, and HL Debates, 5 December 1972 vol 337, cols 161-3; see also that of the Bishop of Portsmouth, HL Debates, 2 February 1972 vol 32, cols. 847-51.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Paul Higginson and Bertrand Callaghan OP [of The Mongrels, the ecumenical society of Oxford theological colleges) to AMR 23/2/66, at RP 109, f.158. The letter was also sent to Cardinal Heenan and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Miss Jones (Tunbridge Wells) to AMR, 10/2/74., at RP 271, f.22; see also letters from a Baptist housewife, Mrs Langley of Hove, (7/12/73 at RP 251, ff.65-6) and from an Elim Pentecostal minister, the Revd F. Lavender, District Superintendent of the South London Presbytery (14/12/73, at RP 271, f.70).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Letter from Mrs U.M. Fuchter of the Kent branch to AMR, 7/11/73, with a copy letter from the RC Archbishop Cardiff and the Anglican bishops of Monmouth and Llandaff, asking for clergy support, at RP 246, ff.62-5. For the Church’s role in the reform of the moral law more generally, see Owen Chadwick, Michael Ramsey. A life (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990), pp.145-65; Matthew Grimley, ‘Law, morality and secularisation: the Church of England and the Wolfenden report, 1954-67’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 60 (2009), 725-741
Permalink for this paragraph 0 A Festival of Light broadsheet for February speaks of ‘The National Crisis’ (see RP 271, ff.24-5); see also ‘Countdown to World Disaster’ from the English Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, interpreting recent comet activity as a Sign of the Times, at RP 271, f.31.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Message of Pope Paul VI, dated 8/12/76, at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/messages/peace/index.htm, accessed 15th May 2010.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Council for Foreign Relations memorandum, , dated 11/12/68, at RP 140, f.212; the bishops who made the suggestion were Huddleston of Stepney and Maddocks of Selby – see RP 260, ff.10-18.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Welsby, History of the Church of England p.193-5; on the Call, see Margaret Pawley, Donald Coggan, Servant of Christ (London, SPCK, 1987), p.198 et ff; Dick Williams, Stuart Blanch. A life (London, SPCK, 2001), pp.128-31; Poulton, Dear Archbishop, passim.