This blog briefly considers the long and complex relationship between two 20th century Archbishops of Canterbury: Geoffrey Fisher (1887-1972) and Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), which began when Fisher was Ramsey’s headmaster at Repton School, and continued until Fisher’s death.
Fisher became headmaster of Repton in 1914 at the age of 27. He developed a focus on pupil discipline, which some believed had become slack under his predecessor, fellow future Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. Ramsey was a gifted student there, but he was regarded as clumsy and shy, and was somewhat in the shadow of his elder brother Frank, who was at school at Winchester College. Frank was a brilliant mathematical economist who was to die tragically young in 1930.
On leaving Repton in 1922, Ramsey won a scholarship to Magdalene College Cambridge, and Fisher was to move on to become Bishop of Chester in 1932 and then Bishop of London in 1939. Following ordination, Ramsey served as a curate in Liverpool and then as Professor of Divinity at Durham from 1939. He moved to a similar role at Cambridge in 1950, but in 1952 he was offered the position of Bishop of Durham. Ramsey faced a difficult decision, as taking up this first role as a diocesan bishop was likely to end his academic career.
Fisher, who had become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1945, was not convinced that this was a suitable role for his former pupil. Fisher thought Ramsey lacked suitable experience, and the two men were in different wings of the Church of England: Fisher being an evangelical, Ramsey a liberal Anglo-Catholic. Nevertheless, Ramsey did move to Durham, and both he and Fisher were to receive significant exposure in 1953 at the Queen’s coronation. Fisher crowned the new monarch, whereas Ramsey acted as one of her ‘supporters’ along with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Harold Bradfield. Many watching the ceremony on television saw Bishop Ramsey for the first time, his appearance giving the impression that he was much older than his age at the time, which was 48.
In 1955, the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett was seriously ill, and he was to die towards the end of that year. Despite Ramsey’s perceived lack of experience, he was chosen to succeed him. Whatever their differences, the pupil and his former headmaster were now the two most powerful figures in the Church of England. Ramsey thrived at York, leading an Anglican delegation to Russia in 1956, contributing significantly to the Lambeth Conference in 1958 at which Fisher presided, and touring central Africa in 1960.
Yet Ramsey’s relationship with Fisher had become increasingly strained. In particular, Fisher was known not to favour Ramsey as his successor at Canterbury. He had long seen him as too academic and Anglo-Catholic, but to that could be added his views that Ramsey was not a good administrator (one of Fisher’s strengths) and that he was cool about establishment (one of Fisher’s great enthusiasms).
When Fisher retired in 1961, he favoured Donald Coggan, then Bishop of Bradford and a fellow evangelical, to succeed him. He is reputed to have said to Prime Minister Harold MacMillan that as Ramsey’s former headmaster he did not consider him suitable. Macmillan is said to have replied that Fisher may have been Ramsey’s headmaster, but he had never been his, and Ramsey duly moved from York to Canterbury. The cautious conservative had been replaced by a reformer more prepared to speak his mind. Coggan replaced Ramsey at York, and was to succeed him at Canterbury in 1974. In retirement Fisher and his wife moved to Dorset, where he served as an honorary assistant priest. But he was to write frequent letters of advice to Ramsey, many of which Ramsey probably found fairly unwelcome, until his death in 1972.