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Religious studies

The great and the fairly tipsy

The Bishops

Richard Harries on orange bicycles, cordon bleu and 28 quarts of beer .

At a time when the Church of England is generally reckoned to be weak and in a state of decline, it is remarkable that the shortlist for archbishop of Canterbury was probably stronger than it has been for 60 or 70 years. Even more remarkable is the figure of the chosen candidate, Rowan Williams, about whom A. N. Wilson has recently written: "For the first time in my life, there might be a figure in public life of something rather close to genius on many levels." All this seems to belie the thesis running through Trevor Beeson's book that bishops are not what they were.

Beeson was dean of Winchester and, before that, chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons. But apart from his priestly and prophetic gifts, he is also a superb journalist and for a number of years edited the radical magazine New Christian . Always readable, truthful without being cynical, sharp without being malicious, at once funny and serious, his writing is such as could well be emulated by writers of our broadsheets.

Beeson has profiled 48 members of the British episcopacy from the early part of the 19th century until the last part of the 20th. He has divided his bishops into 13 different types, each forming a chapter, such as aristocrats, scholars, statesmen, prophets, pastors, controversialists, headmasters, church reformers, social reformers, missionaries, evangelists, odd men out and pioneers.

Among the "statesmen" there is Randall Davidson, archbishop of Canterbury from 1903 to 1928, of whom one critic said: "He sat on the fence with both ears to the ground." This is not entirely fair because during the general strike of 1926, Davidson argued that the government should subsidise the depressed coal industry and mine owners should cancel their proposed reduction of wages. The proposal was controversial enough to have him banned from making a broadcast appeal on the BBC.

The "aristocrats" include William Cecil of the Salisbury family, a delightful, kindly person but totally unsuited to being a bishop. He rode an orange bicycle around Exeter and travelled round his diocese on a special train. Often he would need to telephone his wife to ask where he was. When he arrived in a parish, anything could happen. Detached from an outdoor church procession and lost, he inquired of an astonished villager:

"Which way did the hounds go?" Much more substantial was Cosmo Gordon Lang. In the light of today's controversy about leaks, it is interesting to read that in March 1901, not long after Queen Victoria's death, Lang was mystified to receive a telegram from the prime minister's private secretary that read: "Announcement of your appointment will be in the press on Monday." Inquiry revealed that a letter offering him the suffragan bishopric of Stepney had been misdirected and ended up in the dead letter office. Downing Street simply assumed that its recipient would accept. During his arch-episcopal years he travelled only once, and then fiercely protesting, on a train, and never set foot in a shop. There is a portrait of Lang by Sir William Orpen. Lang showed the painting to Hensley Henson, bishop of Durham, and remarked: "They say it portrays me as proud, prelatical and pompous." Henson replied: "To which of these epithets does your grace take exception?"

Henson was one of the most interesting bishops of the past century; he was bishop of Durham from 1920 to 1939. Beeson regards him as a "controversialist". The letters he wrote to his clergy and to lay people are such that no bishop would ever dare write today. To a colonel he commented: "I hardly think a religious dedication of the silver bugles would be suitable. A line has to be drawn somewhere in these things."

Among the "headmaster" bishops was William Temple's father, Frederick, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 1897 to 1902, having been appointed at the age of 75 when he was virtually blind. The best-known headmaster archbishop in recent times was Geoffrey Fisher, who did a great deal of work in reorganising the Church of England after the second world war. Robert Stopford, a very mild and polite man, when bishop of London once told me that at a gathering of bishops, at which Fisher was going on in his headmasterly way, he felt obliged to rise and say: "Excuse me, sir, we are all headmasters now."

Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford from 1845 to 1869, was said to have "changed the face of the Church of England". Beeson calls him a "church reformer" and repeats the famous story of his debate with Thomas Huxley. However, historians of science are dubious about this. The story seems to have been put about by Huxley much later as part of his campaign on behalf of science against religion. The amount of work Wilberforce got through was phenomenal. As a faithful parish priest, early in his ministry his diary recorded for January 18 1831: "A good Audit Dinner. Twenty three people drank 11 bottles of wine, 28 quarts of beer, 21/2 of spirits and 12 bowls of punch; and would have drunk twice as much if not restrained. None, we hope, drunk."

The Church of England has also been blessed with some great "social reformers", including another predecessor of mine, Charles Gore, who among other things contributed the whole of his personal fortune to the financing of the new diocese of Birmingham. This consisted of £10,000 left to him by his mother. Reflecting on Gore's life, a contemporary wrote: "She who had been aptly described as the Conservative Party at prayer became as a result of Gore's influence, at least in the person of her Anglo-Catholic clergy, the Socialist Party at mass."

Among the "evangelists" come Arthur Winnington-Ingram, bishop of London, about whom Dean Inge concluded in his diary: "The mental processes of the Bishop are, for a man in his position, of almost childish simplicity." Inge also describes a day of intercession and thanksgiving for the war held in 1918: "The Bishop of London preached a most un-Christian sermon, which with a few words changed might have been preached by a court chaplain in Berlin." Yet, or because of this, Winnington-Ingram was in constant demand as a speaker. He was a kindly person with a genuine enthusiasm for the gospel.

Beeson has greatest fun in his chapter on the "odd men out". There was Henry Phillpotts, bishop of Exter from 1830 to 1869, who spent £30,000 (probably about £1 million in today's money) on 50 legal actions, largely against his own clergy. In 1832, after his sustained opposition to the reform bill, a mob attacked his Exeter palace and coastguards were enlisted as a defence force. His effigy was burnt on Guy Fawkes Day. Then there was Tommy Strong, a highly effective dean of Christ Church and vice-chancellor of Oxford University during the first world war, who was also a talented musician and much loved. But when he became bishop of Oxford, he was rather lost. When F. R. Barry, who later became bishop of Southwell, was vicar of Oxford's University Church, he sought advice from Strong about a relatively minor pastoral problem. To his great surprise, he was summoned to the bishop's palace, where he was even more surprised to be invited to stay on for lunch and to continue talking until late in the afternoon. When he got up to go and apologised for taking so much of the bishop's time, Strong replied: "But, my dear boy. I am so grateful to you. I find it so hard to occupy my time here." That was in a diocese covering three counties, with more than 600 parishes, 750 clergy and many schools, colleges and religious communities.

Also in this chapter are Douglas Feaver, with the reputation as the rudest man in the Church of England, and Mervyn Stockwood. One story Beeson does not tell is Stockwood's response when a few years ago a newspaper was intending to "out" a number of clergy who were allegedly homosexual, including Stockwood. A friend rang him in his retirement home in Bath to warn him, only to receive the forceful reply: "Tell them I have had a lot of women as well." According to Beeson: "There was broad agreement among those nearest to [Stockwood] that his disciplined homosexuality precluded the establishing of a permanent, sustaining relationship which might have brought him happiness and fulfilment at the deepest level." Apparently he was deeply depressed for the last years of his episcopate. A complex character, he made no secret of his socialism nor of the fact that he employed a liveried servant and a cordon bleu cook. While genuinely concerned for the poor, he was more often in the company of the titled rich. He hated fascism but - a fact I did not know - was a close friend of Sir Oswald Mosley.

There is no doubt that the life of a bishop today is desperately pressured. In addition to the care of clergy and churches, there is the added bureaucracy brought about by necessary child-protection policies, the criminal-records bureau and tighter procedures for professional conduct and misconduct. There is the challenge of raising money from congregations to pay the stipends and huge pension contributions for the clergy - the Church Commissioners' assets now being scarcely adequate to cover past pension liabilities, let alone anything else. And there is the further challenge of guiding a traditional institution in decline, while encouraging leadership to bring about new forms of Christian life and witness, of which there are many hopeful signs. Managerial gifts are needed and not to be despised, and pastoral gifts, as always, are necessary, perhaps never more so than today when the clergy are prone to low morale because of the lack of public validation of their role. So when Beeson says that nearly all today's bishops are pastoral-managers, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Whether it leaves any of us free to be prophets, statesmen, evangelists, scholars and social reformers, I am happy to leave future historians to judge.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

The Bishops

Author - Trevor Beeson
ISBN - 0 334 02867 1
Publisher - SCM
Price - £19.95
Pages - 248

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