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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.