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An archbishop put to the test

07 December 2012

Bernard Palmer looks at a revisionist book about Cosmo Lang


Disestablishment: Lang in procession (behind the first cross) at the creation of the province of Wales, 1920

Disestablishment: Lang in procession (behind the first cross) at the creation of the province of Wales, 1920

Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in war and crisis
Robert Beaken
I. B. Tauris £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT226 )

ONE of my abiding childhood memories relates to an end-of-term concert at my kindergarten in December 1936, at the height of the Abdication crisis. After we had given a spirited rendering of the National Anthem a parent enquired plaintively: "Which king to reign over us?"

I was reminded of the occasion on reading the section of this highly informative book dealing with the abdication of Edward VIII (Features, 19 October). Lang played a crucial part in the affair from an early stage - and counselled the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to ensure that the kind abdicated in favour of his brother Bertie (George VI). Robert Beaken has researched extensively to reach this conclusion, which is in stark contrast to the popular perception of Lang as an uninvolved bystander until the end, when he gave an unfortunate radio broadcast that appeared to be kicking a man when he was down. But Lang had felt justified in putting pressure on Baldwin by his strong conviction that Edward was an unsuitable occupant of the throne.

This is but one instance of Beaken's challenging the popular picture of Lang as a weak and inef­fective archbishop. He has had ac­cess to many new sources of information not available to Lang's previous biographer, J. G. Lockhart, whose "Life" of Lang was published in 1949, four years after Lang's death. Beaken is to some extent dismissive of Lockhart, who, he claims, never met the Archbishop, had no access to his official papers, and had a tendency to exaggerate or simplify things for the sake of telling a good story. This may, of course, have been the journalist in Lockhart trying to get out: he was for many years a regular contributor to the Church Times. Beaken does con­cede, however, that Lockhart's biography, in spite of its limitations, is "fairly good".

Beaken's own book is not a biography in the fullest sense, as it concentrates on Lang's handling of three particular crises: the King's abdication, the ongoing upset in the Church of England after the rejection of the 1928 Prayer Book by the House of Commons, and the opening years of the Second World War. Of the rest of the Primate's life and career he says very little. The years from Lang's birth in 1864 to his succession to Archbishop Davidson in 1928 - including his time as Vicar of Portsea, Bishop of Stepney, and Archbishop of York - are covered in a mere 11 pages. This gives Beaken the necessary space to deal in depth with his three great issues.

In his view, Lang was a shrewd and hard-working Archbishop of Canterbury who steered the Church through some extremely choppy waters. The image of him as a "sen­timental old buffer" resistant to change is, according to Beaken, a caricature. On the contrary, Lang was a canny judge of people and events, with his finger firmly on the pulse of church life. There were two sides to his character, however, which pulled him in different direc­tions: his deep Christian faith and desire to serve both the Church and the poor, and a streak of ambition which made him seem at times aloof and prelatical. Moreover, he was a workaholic who found it hard to delegate, never took a day off, and suffered from poor health.

He remained a moderate Anglo-Catholic all his life, and hoped that the influence of Anglo-Catholicism would permeate the entire Church. But, of course, he was also con­cerned with the other two main parties, the Evangelicals and the liberals, and endeavoured to per­suade the three sides of the triangle at least to talk to one another.

Lang's wartime work centred on the need to keep the administrative and pastoral machinery of the Church running. But he never lost sight of the war at national level, and found that the radio offered him an ideal platform from which to propound his views - he broad­cast to the nation 11 times from 1939 to 1942. His compassion­ate side re­vealed itself both in his atti­tude to conscientious objectors and in his refusal to be swayed by public clamour for the indiscrim­inate bomb­ing of German civilians. King George and Winston Churchill seriously considered awarding him a George Medal for his wartime leadership.

Beaken does not shirk the ques­tion of Lang's sexual proclivities. He rejects the claims made in recent years that Lang (who never married) was a repressed homosexual: the evidence is slight, he says. There are some fascinating glimpses of Lang's attraction late in life to the actress Ann Todd, with whom he appears to have had some sort of platonic relationship. He even told his chap­lain, Alan Don, in a light-hearted aside at dinner one evening in 1933, that he was going to marry her! Beaken's final verdict: "There is no good reason to doubt that he re­mained chaste all his life."

The author ends by declaring that, if Lang was not a great arch­bishop, he was undoubtedly a very good one. His book argues its case per­suasively, and will do much to re­store Lang's tarnished reputation. It is handsomely produced: its 247 pages of text and 53 of notes, etc., are supplemented by 16 pages of illustrations. There is a foreword by the present Archbishop of Canter­bury.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.


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