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Reviews > Book reviews >

THE MINERS’ BISHOP: Brooke Foss Westcott


Epworth Press £19.99 (0-7162-0578-5); Church Times Bookshop £18

FOR A TYPE of the ideal Anglican, it would be hard to beat Brooke Foss Westcott, the New Testament scholar who became Bishop of Durham at the end of his life and of the 19th century. Exemplary Anglicanism is not one of the qualities assessed in this study of Westcott’s ideas by Graham Patrick, who is himself a Methodist minister; but the evidence for it is there. Westcott would have liked the ecumenical resonance.

First, he was a reconciler. He kept scholarship and reverence together; before he lectured, he said a prayer. In his work with Hort on their famous edition (begun while Westcott was still a young classics master at Harrow) of the Greek New Testament, just as in his teaching when he went back to Cambridge as a don, or in his commentaries on John and Hebrews, Westcott held that scrupulous attention to the text drew out its force as the word of God. “Virtue comes forth from the letter”, he told his Durham clergy, “in answer to the touch of faith.”

Second, his theology was earthed. From the incarnation he derived a belief in universal human fellow-ship. He had first learnt a social conscience from his headmaster at King Edward’s, Birmingham (James Prince Lee, later Bishop of Manchester). It was sharpened when a canonry at Westminster, and then his bishopric, sensitised him to urban and industrial misery. In his best-known moment at Durham, in 1892, he helped miners to a strike settlement.

Third, a respect for non-Christian faiths tempered his strong support for overseas mission. Kipling’s line “Send forth the best ye breed” might have been written about Westcott and his wife: four of their sons went out to convert India. Yet Westcott believed Hindus and Muslims could add to the “completer apprehension” of the gospel.

Fourth, he wanted an educated clergy. Westcott House, the durable theological college at Cambridge that issued from his efforts, was not exactly what he meant. He had hoped that ordinands could get a wider than merely clerical education inside the mainstream colleges. In fact that turned out to leave gaps. But his conviction that the faith should be studied historically did survive him.

With all this, and although his unconcern for his own comfort and dignity prompted talk of saintliness, he could not altogether escape odium academicum in others. On the outer shores of Anglicanism, his broad-church affirmations were found musty. He admired Browning’s verse; his own prose was sometimes held to share its opacity.

Graham Patrick, in calling his book The Miners’ Bishop, stresses a period in Westcott’s life when the bishop stepped outside his own expertise. His achievement as an industrial mediator was only to persuade the mine-owners to cut wages by less than they had threatened to. On the other hand, treading where no bishop had trod before, he did give the miners a sense that he minded about them as human beings.

Patrick buttresses his sympathetic judgements with more quotations from like-minded scholars than he needs. It is his trawl through Westcott’s own writings that proves valuable.

John Whale is a former editor of the Church Times.

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