THE MINERS’ BISHOP: Brooke Foss Westcott
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
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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