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Churchmen’s statecraft

08 November 2013

Bernard Palmer enjoys a survey of clerics' not staying out of politics

"Silly": Bishop Winnington-Ingram, bad boy of Priests and Politics

"Silly": Bishop Winnington-Ingram, bad boy of Priests and Politics

Priests and Politics: The Church speaks out
Trevor Beeson
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99 (Use code CT611 )

IN THIS, his latest book, Trevor Beeson pays just tribute to the Church of England's impressive involvement in social and community work. The Church, he declares, retains a deep social commitment and a concern for the well-being of the nation as a whole.

This is the sixth in a series of books on the 19th- to 20th-century Church of England which focus chiefly on those of its leaders who made significant contributions to its developing life. The previous five volumes have dealt with bishops, deans, canons, rebels, and reformers, and Beeson's own 60-year pilgrimage as a priest. He was successively a canon of Westminster and Dean of Winchester, and has been at times deeply involved in the nation's life. He is thus well qualified to write authoritatively on the subject-matter of his latest publication.

It covers a broad spectrum of British history. Its 19 chapters include events not only in Great Britain, but in Ireland and South Africa - where men of the stature of Ambrose Reeves, Trevor Huddleston, Joost de Blank, and Desmond Tutu confronted the iniquities of apartheid. There are accounts of the part played by the Church in both world wars, and of its attitude to the Welfare State, the Cold War, and the "permissive society". The author's admirably clear summaries of the problems he is discussing are supplemented by colourful sketches of the chief clerical characters involved.

Many of these, such as Bishops Lightfoot and Westcott of Durham, and successive Archbishops of Canterbury and York - including, of course, the immensely able William Temple - are well known in church circles, but others less so. A good example of the latter is James Fraser, "Citizen Bishop" of Manchester from 1870 to 1885 and, in Beeson's view, one of the most remarkable church leaders in 19th- century Britain. By the time of his death, he had become the "most respected man in Lancashire". On the day of his funeral, many businesses in Manchester closed, and thousands of mourners lined the streets.

Although there is much in the book about parish priests, much space is necessarily devoted to their episcopal superiors. Many of these receive authorial approval, although occasionally Beeson is uncomplimentary. Thus, in considering the character of Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London from 1901 to 1939, he quotes a remark by the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith: "He is so superlatively silly that he can do a great deal of harm." And Beeson himself castigates Winnington-Ingram for preaching the "most unchristian sermon" ever delivered in Westminster Abbey; in it, the bishop implied that it was almost a Christian crusade for those who loved freedom and honour to kill Germans - "not for the sake of killing, but to save the world".

By contrast, Beeson has much to say in praise of Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1903 to 1928. He dubs Davidson an archetypal Anglican with a deep regard for tradition and a cautious attitude to innovation. "He had a liberal mind that eschewed the niceties of theology in favour of pragmatic action; a strong belief that Church and State should be united in a common effort to create an inclusive society."

A particular hero of Beeson's is John Habgood, the Primate who, in his opinion, made the "most substantial contribution" to the Church of England's social thinking during the second half of the 20th century. Habgood was very much persona non grata, however, in Downing Street, which helped to account for his not being chosen to succeed Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury. "Margaret Thatcher saw him as a potentially dangerous opponent who could not easily be undermined."

Beeson also praises Rowan Williams, but qualifies his commendation. He describes him as "Britain's finest theologian and one of the nation's foremost intellectuals"; yet he admits that Williams's lectures and sermons, though often "awesome in the brilliance of their analysis", are sometimes so complex in their argument as to baffle even experts as to their meaning. Justin Welby, by contrast, "disclaims intellectual gifts", but has a grasp of business and finance good enough to enable him to confront bankers on their own terms.

So what conclusions does Beeson reach about the achievements of priests in politics over his period? He considers that the Church of England's "most substantial and sustained 20th-century effort to engage with the major component of society was in the field of industrial mission. It was, however, never adequately resourced, the lessons learned have yet to be absorbed, and the Church is no nearer to bridging the gulf between its own life and that of industrial and commercial Britain."

As for the author's final verdict, few will challenge his contention that the welfare of the poor must always be a primary Christian concern.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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