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Primate who was always a headmaster

21 November 2008

Bernard Palmer onthe man who ledthe post-war C of E

Break from Lambeth: Dr Fisher with his wife, Rosamond, on holiday in Scotland in August 1959 ASSOCIATED NEWSPAPERS

Break from Lambeth: Dr Fisher with his wife, Rosamond, on holiday in Scotland in August 1959 ASSOCIATED NEWSPAPERS

Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury
David Hein

SHORTLY after taking over in September 1968 as editor of the Church Times, I found myself crossing swords with Lord Fisher of Lambeth (as the ex-archbishop had by then become) on the subject of the Anglican-Methodist reunion scheme.

Since his retirement in 1961, he had proved a thorn in the flesh of his successor, Michael Ramsey, by his vigorous opposition to the scheme. He now desired me to reprint in my paper a letter that had already appeared in The Times, and which repeated at tedious length arguments with which my readers were all too familiar. I declined to oblige him. His Lordship’s response was that of a headmaster thwarted by a tiresome pupil: he wrote to me asking me to cancel his recently renewed postal subscription to the Church Times.

It is a great pity that Fisher’s retirement was marred by his petulant campaigning against the reunion scheme because, as David Hein argues in this brief but trenchant biography, his primacy was a notable one, verging at times on greatness. His misfortune was that he was always being compared unfavourably with his predecessor, William Temple, and with the man whom many thought ought to have succeeded Temple, George Bell.

In fact, Fisher had succeeded Temple once before, as Headmaster of Repton in 1914, and had proved far abler in that position. Temple was no organiser or disciplinarian (“I doubt if headmastering is really my line,” he once confessed to his brother); and Fisher’s initial task at Repton was to clear up the muddle left by his predecessor.

He was first and last an adminis­trator — and can be criticised for not adopting a more imaginative style of leadership, and with dom­inating or interfering when he should have let go. And Hein quotes Trevor Beeson’s comment that many of Fisher’s episcopal colleagues resented being treated as if they were public-school housemasters subject to an increasingly talkative and dictatorial head.

Hein discusses Donald MacKin­non’s well-known comment that the worst misfortune to have be­falled the Church of England’s leadership at the end of the war was “less the premature death of William Temple than his succession by Fisher of London and not by Bell of Chichester”. Although in the end he comes down on MacKinnon’s side, and agrees that Bell probably would have been the wiser choice, he argues convincingly that both Fisher’s strengths and Bell’s weak­nesses were greater than Mac-Kinnon acknowledged, and that the two men appear to have been roughly equal in their varying qualities.

Fisher has been much assailed for his championship of canon-law revision as the Church’s number-one priority. But the object of the exer­cise, in his view, was to enable the Church to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. Updating the canons was a necessary step in this effort of reconstruction. He later referred to this time-consuming process as “the most absorbing and all-embracing topic of my archiepis­co­pate”.

He did, however, have the grace to declare, when there was a call for a Convocation debate on the hydro­gen bomb: “If we say nothing there will be protests that the Church gives no lead and that, when the world is in jeopardy, it talks about nothing but its own canons.”

Hein is an American and a pro­fessor of religion and philosophy. He regards Fisher’s primacy as “pivotal” and one that cries out for fresh examination. This he provides in good measure — and with com­men­dable brevity. Both researchers and general readers frightened at having to tackle Edward Carpenter’s massive biography will greet a text of 121 pages with cries of joy.

But the book has been compiled with a scholar’s attention to detail. It is immensely readable, with plenty of good stories and succinct summings-up.

Hein covers clearly and concisely all the great issues of Church and State with which Fisher had to deal: his work as an ecumenist, including his famous Cambridge sermon of 1946, and his 1960 meeting with Pope John XXIII; his pioneering work in encouraging the formation of new Anglican provinces in Africa; his part in the Queen’s coronation in 1953; the Suez invasion and the introduction of premium bonds (both of which he opposed); and the critical issue of nuclear wea­pons.

Throughout it all, however, Fisher remains a thoroughly human figure who could derive great satisfaction from completing the crossword in The Times every day after lunch. It was his “supreme recreation” — providing him with a daily problem that, unlike the other problems that confronted him, was entirely artificial.

Fisher was game to the last. On 14 September 1972, aged 85, he suffered a stroke. He told his wife when she came to minister to him: “Don’t bother me, dear. I’m busy dying.” He died peacefully in his sleep 24 hours later.

Dr Palmer was editor of the Church Times 1968-89.

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