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Conspicuous thunderer

14 February 2014

Bernard Palmer finds that there is more to say about Henson

Herbert Hensley Henson: A biography
John S. Peart-Binns
The Lutterworth Press £25

HENSLEY HENSON occupies a unique position in the editorial annals of the Church Times. He is the only Anglican cleric whose appointment to the bench of bishops was denounced by the paper week after week up to his consecration with vitriolic fury. It was to the see of Hereford that he had been nominated by David Lloyd George in December 1917. By a quirk of fate the then editor, Ernest Hermitage Day, happened to live just outside the city of Hereford, and so was physically as well as emotionally at the heart of the battle.

What had Henson done to excite the paper's wrath? It was his allegedly liberal interpretation of the Creeds, particularly in regard to the Virgin birth and the resurrection, that made him anathema to many in the Church - and not merely to Anglo-Catholics. A number of bishops announced that they could take no part in his consecration; and Charles Gore even threatened to resign his own see of Oxford if it went ahead. The first two Church Times leaders opposing the appointment were headed "Unhappy Hereford" and "The Hereford Scandal". Members of the Cathedral Chapter were urged to vote against his election.

John Peart-Binns devotes a dozen pages of his biography of Henson to the Hereford controversy. He discusses the machinations of the rival camps with conspicuous fairness - and certainly with far greater objectivity than Hermitage Day in his denunciatory editorials. The biography is the first to appear since Owen Chadwick's in 1983. It is based largely on primary material researched by the author in the libraries of Durham Cathedral and Lambeth Palace.

His analysis of his subject is shrewd. Henson, he asserts, revealed a "monstrous and morbid egotism" - an insatiable desire to be noticed. A largely self-educated man, Henson set out to make his mark by the force of his intellect. It was his self-projection that made him the most feared controversialist in the Church. On many important issues he tended to isolate himself and (as on a key vote on the Enabling Bill) to be the sole dissenting voice.

Before going to Hereford, Henson was successively Vicar of Barking, Canon of Westminster, and Dean of Durham. He spent less than three years at Hereford before his translation to the see of Durham by Lloyd George - in the face of strong opposition from Archbishops Davidson and Lang. He was happily married, but his only child, a boy, was born dead: "his tiny face", wrote Henson, "had a care-stricken and sorrowful look which sufficiently confessed his father." His many books were buttressed by hundreds of letters to The Times, a favourite channel for his controversial views.

His years as Bishop of Durham (1920-39) were highly successful in the opinion of both Peart-Binns and, surprisingly, the Church Times. Hermitage Day had been succeeded in 1924 by Sidney Dark; and, shortly before his resignation, the paper hailed Henson as having been in his later years "universally trusted and whole-heartedly honoured". He delighted in talking to unemployed miners and showing them round Auckland Castle. Likewise, he would often invite junior members of the clergy to lunch with him at the Castle. But he was still capable of showing his prickly side - as when the officiant at the wedding of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson in June 1937 was a priest from his own diocese. Luckily the man concerned, a bit of an exhibitionist, resigned before he could be sacked.

Henson threw himself into many great church controversies, such as the reform of central church government, and Prayer Book revision. He began by being very much a champion of the church establishment, but by the end of his life was equally strongly in favour of disestablishment. Today, no doubt, he would be thundering in letters to The Times against women bishops and same-sex marriage. His much acclaimed autobiography, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, was published in three volumes in 1942, 1943, and 1950. But there is an unexplained gap relating to his early years, and no lifting of the veil on his innerlife.

Herbert Hensley Henson is Peart-Binn's 20th episcopal biography, and sets the seal on his justly renowned achievement as a chronicler of the lives of Anglican bishops. His literary reputation may not be equal to that of Chadwick, but there is much in his life of Henson which will not be found in Chadwick's biography of 30 years ago. Peart-Binns can be read with profit as an admirable complement to Chadwick.

Dr Bernard Palmer is a former editor of the  Church Times.

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