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Private lives made public

28 September 2012

A new online supplement to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography features 60 figures from the 20th-century Church in Britain. Matthew Grimley, one of the editors, picks out some highlights

Talking heads: above: the '60s radical Alec Vidler, sporting his distinctive white tie

Talking heads: above: the '60s radical Alec Vidler, sporting his distinctive white tie

IN 1962, the Anglican theologian Alec Vidler caused a storm by announcing on BBC TV that he was "bored with parsons". There was certainly nothing boring about Vidler. A twinkling, mischievous figure who sported a distinctive black shirt and white tie rather than a dog-collar, he organised a series of lectures to Cambridge undergrad­uates on objections to Christian belief which drew an audience of 1500 a week.

An Anglo-Catholic Ritualist in his youth, he became a leading '60s radical, but his writings influenced all corners of the Church of England - Evangelicals included. He also kept bees, wrote comic letters to The Times, and served as Mayor of Rye, in Sussex, where he had been kissed as an infant by his elderly neighbour, the novelist Henry James, who remarked: "What an intelligent-looking baby."

Vidler (1899-1991) is one of 60 important figures from the Churches in modern Britain featured in a new online supplement to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB). Each biography has been contributed by a specialist in the field. Not all of the subjects of the lives are clerics - lay people and non-Anglicans are well represented - though there are plenty of parsons, too. None of them could remotely be described as boring.

The Oxford DNB, which included more than 58,000 figures from British history, was published in 2004. It was a significant publishing feat, and internationally acclaimed, but inevitably eagle-eyed readers soon began to point out omissions.

Since then, regular online releases on different subjects have plugged some of these gaps. When I started working with the Oxford DNB editorial team on the "Churches in Modern Britain" release, we soon became aware that some important religious groups - especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics - had been under-represented, and some illustrious individuals had been omitted. When we started ap­proaching contributors, their en­thusiasm for the project was overwhelming, and further sugges­tions for new subjects flooded in.

Our selection of 60 lives makes no pretence at being definitive. The Oxford DNB is a never-ending project, and new subjects for in­clusion constantly come to light. But, taken together, the biographies we have assembled point to some sig­nificant 20th-century themes and trends in the history of British Christianity, and in the Church of England in particular.

ONE striking theme is the very different ways in which individ­ual Anglicans re­sponded to the First World War. Some, such as Henry Russell Wake­field (1854-1933), the Bishop of Birm­ingham, initially saw the war as an opportunity for the Church to harness "Christian patriotism".

Arthur Burroughs (1882-1930), later the Bishop of Ripon, came to prominence when he wrote letters to The Times in 1915, urging the need for national moral renewal, and set up the League of the Spiritual War to promote the spiritual welfare of troops.

But F. R. Barry (1890-1976), an army chaplain, who was decorated for bravery at the Battle of the Somme (and was later the Bishop of Southwell), was critical of this idea of war as a mission opportunity, and drew other conclusions from the conflict. He believed that the war had revealed the traditional idea of God as "lamentably inadequate", and went on to become a leading exponent of liberal Anglicanism in books such as The Relevance of Christianity (1931).

Another of our subjects, whose later career was influenced by the horror of the Western Front, was the Evangelical George Francis Graham Brown (1891-1942), who was left for dead on the Franco-German border in 1916, but managed to crawl back to his trench. He was later ordained, and devoted himself to peacemaking in Palestine as the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem from 1932.

ANOTHER significant theme is the critical part played by Christians in the re-
evalua­tion of sexual ethics in the 20th century. There are lives of the Pres­byterian minister Herbert Gray (1868-1956), and the Method­ist David Mace (1907-90), who came together in 1942 to create the Marriage Guidance Council.

The modern debate about homo­sexuality in the Church of England was initiated 60 years ago this year by Derrick Sherwin Bailey (1910-84), an unassuming railway enthusiast, who became the Church's leading expert on sexual ethics, and whose ideas paved the way for homosexual law reform in 1967.

The later conservative backlash against reformers such as Bailey is represented by Raymond Johnston (1927-1985), the conservative Evan­gelical who was director of the Nation­wide Festival of Light in the 1970s.

Some of our selected lives also offer a corrective to the assumption that the history of the Church of England in the 20th century, and of religion in general, is all about decline.

Several biographies tell a very different story, of church growth. Influenced by revivals in Los Angeles and Norway, Alexander Boddy (1854-1930) began to speak in tongues in 1907, drawing huge crowds to the annual conventions he held in Sunderland. He became a leader of the Pentecostal movement in Britain, but, unlike many Pentecostals, refused to leave the Church of England.

Ernest Southcott (1915-76), the six-foot-six-inches-tall Canadian Vicar of Halton, Leeds, began to conduct services in parishioners' houses as early as 1949, celebrating communion at family dinner-tables. Southcott famously said, "We don't go to church; we are the Church," but his own church was often full half an hour before the service began.

Both Boddy's experience of tongues and Southcott's house groups were taken up by a third subject, David Watson (1933-84), who made St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, a centre of the British Charis­matic movement.

THE articles also demonstrate the huge contribution made by women to the Church of England through­out the 20th century, despite their exclusion from the priesthood.

Among Anglican women featured are Constance Penswick-Smith (1878-1938), who was responsible for the revival of Mothering Sunday in Britain. Alarmed that Americans were trying to import the celebration of a secular Mother's Day into Britain in 1913, she instead lobbied for the revival of the more tradi­tional Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

She worked tirelessly for this, rediscovering local Mothering Sunday customs such as the making of simnel and wafer cakes. Her campaign was boosted by the First World War, as troops welcomed an opportunity to remember their womenfolk back home.

By the time of her death, it was said that Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain, and every country in the British Empire. Ironically, Penswick-Smith remained single all her life.

Among other women Anglicans featured are Zoe Fairfield (1878-36), a feminist campaigner and leading light in the Student Christian Movement for nearly 30 years. Her nephew, the advertising guru David Ogilvy, said: "If my aunt had been a man, she would have been an archbishop." That could also be said of several of the other women featured here.

A NUMBER of the individuals we have included combined Anglican­ism with more exotic belief systems. Helen Hanson (1874-1926), a medical missionary to India, found affinities between the in­carnational theology of Charles Gore and Hinduism.

On returning to Britain, she joined the Church League for Women's Suffrage, and was im­prisoned after a suffragette demon­stra­tion in Parliament Square, before serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War.

George Vale Owen (1869-1931), a Cheshire vicar, believed that he could transcribe messages from the spirit world, and was championed as a medium by Arthur Conan Doyle, thus incurring the wrath of his bishop, Francis Chavasse.

Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934), a clergyman's widow from Bedford, declared herself the "daughter of God" in 1919, appointing female apostles and building a worldwide following that believed she could give healing properties to tap water (Feature, 29 July 2011).

But Barltrop could never entirely cut her ties with the Church of England, because she wanted to open the box of prophecies left a century earlier by the millenarian prophetess Joanna Southcott, who had laid down that this could be done only in the presence of 24 Anglican bishops.

Despite the persistent entreaties of Barltrop and her followers (many of whom were themselves the wives, daughters, and sisters of Anglican clergy), the bishops of the 1920s were strangely reluctant to co-operate.

We have also included two clerics who switched religious allegiance with bizarre regularity. The journey of D. R. Davies (1889-1958) took him from training as a Congrega­tion­alist minister, through a fling with Unitarianism, a return to Con­gregationalism, then a foray into Marxism, and, finally, ordination as an Anglican priest under the tutelage of Vidler.

Arnold Mathew (1852-1919) was ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church, became an An­glican, returned to Roman Cathol­icism, and was then consecrated as an Old Catholic bishop, before setting up his own Church, which elected him Arch­bishop of London. He ended up in South Mimms, where the vicar indulgently allowed him to vest as a bishop and sit in the choir.

THE lives of two successive Vicars of Thaxted, in Essex, illustrate changes in Anglican social and political radicalism across the 20th century. Jack Putterill (1892-1980), son-in-law and suc­cessor of the "Red Vicar", Conrad Noel, was a morris-dancing Chris­tian Socialist and amateur astro­nomer, who prompted a walk-out of parishioners when he led prayers for the soul of Stalin in 1953.

But Putterill was, himself, among the objectors in the 1970s when his successor, Peter Elers (1930-86), was alleged to have blessed lesbian partners in Thaxted Church, and then came out as gay on a BBC TV documentary.

These two lives show how Christian Socialism gave way to identity politics as the main marker of Anglican radicalism from the late 1960s onwards. But there was con­tinuity in spite of this rupture: both men maintained Thaxted's dis­tinctive musical traditions, and there were morris dancers at Elers's funeral in 1986.

Besides telling us much about religion over the past century or so,  reading these lives, we hope, will be fun. One of the great things about them is the way that small details can speak volumes about an individual. When he was the Bishop of South­well, F. R. Barry was a remote figure, who took little interest in admin­is-tration, but he did take all the clergy of his diocese, and their families, to Butlin's at Skegness every year.

Another bishop, John Sheep­shanks (1834-1912), was so austere that he covered the whole great staircase of his palace at Norwich with linoleum rather than carpet. Despite his officer-class background, we learn that David Watson wore secondhand shoes from the Oxfam shop. Perhaps the Crown Nomina­tions Commission should include taste in holiday camps, floor cover­ing, and footwear in its selection criteria for the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Matthew Grimley is advisory editor on the Oxford DNB's "Churches in Modern Britain" release, and a Fellow and Tutor in History at Merton College, Oxford.


How to get access

A selection of lives will be available, free, on the front page of www.oxforddnb.com from 27 September until the end of the year. The entire content of the update, and the dictionary itself, is freely available online to members of most public libraries in the UK at the web address above - a public-library ticket number works as a log-in.

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