Wittier than the two halfwits

04 March 2016

Henry Montgomery Campbell was enthroned as Bishop of London 60 years ago tomorrow. Malcolm Johnson celebrates his wit


The life of a bishop: Henry Montgomery Campbell in various roles

The life of a bishop: Henry Montgomery Campbell in various roles

SIXTY years ago, on 5 March 1956, Henry Montgomery Campbell was enthroned in St Paul’s Cathedral. He banged three times with his crozier on the West Door, but nothing happened; so he turned to his chaplain and said: “We’ve come to the wrong place.” Eventually, the doors swung open to reveal the ageing Dean and Chapter: “The see yields up its dead,” Henry said, exercising the mordant wit for which he is now so fondly remembered.

Henry knew the diocese of London well. After ordination as a priest in 1911, he had been vicar of West Hackney (1919-26), and then vicar of Hornsey (1926-33), where he had opened a centre for the unemployed in a building made available by the government. In 1933, he followed his father-in-law as Rector of St George’s, Hanover Square.

He had married Joyce Thicknesse in 1916; they had four children. Later, when asked about them, Henry said: “My son never does anything today that could be done in a fortnight; so he’s a solicitor. My eldest daughter is a doctor at one of the London hospitals — the death rate goes up and up but they like it. Another daughter can neither read nor write; so she is a teacher.”

Henry was consecrated as Bishop of Willesden in 1940, before being translated to Kensington two years later. In 1949, he was appointed to Guildford; because the new cathedral, designed by Edward Maufe, was being built at the time, he was enthroned in Holy Trinity, Guildford.

He later told George Reindorp, who inherited the position: “The first bishop of Guildford went out of his mind; the second had no mind to go out of; then they had me; then a saint; and with you they have started all over again.”


I LEARNED of Henry when I did my selection conference for ordination at Farnham Castle (then the Bishop of Guildford’s official residence), in 1958. We were allowed to roam around the house, which was unoccupied as Henry had moved to London two years earlier. I went into his study and there, scribbled on the wallpaper, was a list of the rural deans.


I was told that, when walking back from the town one day, Henry had met a student on retreat. The young man said: “The Holy Spirit has told me to do some shopping,” to which Henry replied: “One of you is mistaken; it’s early closing day.”

He owed his preferment to London to his friend Geoffrey Fisher (then Archbishop of Canterbury), who had written warning him that he was about to be asked, and describing the job as “a bomb” on its way from Downing Street. Despite their friendship, Henry thought that Fisher was a “hard man who boils his eggs in widow’s tears”.

He accepted the high-profile position, although he considered himself “a modest man who is no figure in public life, but simply and solely a Father in God who goes round the parishes visiting the chaps — the only thing I am any good at”.

In fact, his obituary in The Times described him as “a wise and discerning administrator who could quickly grasp the essentials of a situation and impart to it his own sure touch. He was at heart a man of prayer and great dedication.” He was also brave, and had won a military cross at Gallipoli.

As a bishop he cared for his “chaps”, and apparently held two garden parties each year for them, saying: “I ask all the morons on one day, but do not specify which day.” He reportedly found the Guildford clergy amiable, but stupid. “At least I cured them of the former,” he remarked; and, in one letter of recommendation, he wrote that the cleric was “a trifle weak on commandments 7, 8, 9, and 10”.


WHEN he arrived in London, he lived in Fulham Palace, and supervised the necessary improvements. On offering a friend of mine a parish in Hackney, he said, drolly: “You won’t do any harm, and you might do some good.” Occasionally, he would stay the night at a vicarage; he once reported that he had heard of the milk of human kindness but had not met the cow before.

Writing to the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, the Revd Patrick Gilliat, he said: “Kindly be a Prebendary. The duties are not onerous, the rewards are even lighter. You have to behave decently when you go to St Paul’s; but I hope this will not deter you from accepting.” And, when a churchwarden expressed surprise that Henry was visiting Pentonville prison, he replied: “It’s much the same as anywhere else, except that there I’m preaching to convicted criminals.”

One ordinand told the story of his visit to his bishop: “Take a chair, Clinton,” Henry said.

“It’s Fiennes-Clinton, my lord,” came the reply.

“Take two chairs, then.”

Henry notoriously disliked the Lambeth Conference. “There is no need to go to the zoo,” he quipped; “for here we have asses who bray, monkeys that play, and elephants that never forget.”

He loved the Athenaeum Club, but hated being disturbed. He described being interrupted while doing The Times crossword: “I’d got to 12 Down when someone asked me to speak at his village debating society — ‘We need a wit,’ he said. ‘Try those two members over there,’ I replied, ‘They are halfwits.’”

He also remarked that “when the Club is closed, we have to go to the United Services Club across the road and listen to the boastings and postings of the so-called Silent Service.”


IN 1959, Mervyn Stockwood was appointed Bishop of Southwark. When the new Bishop arrived at Lambeth, clad in purple cassock, cloak, and socks, Henry greeted him. “Hello Mervyn — incognito, I see.”

Giving advice on appointments, he told the Archbishop: “If a man can’t get on with anybody, make him a bishop. He goes to a parish, quarrels with the incumbent, is rude to the organist, and insults the verger. He departs, and is never seen again. Make him a dean: he will quarrel with the Chapter at matins, but has to face them all at evensong.”

After a visit to a famous Anglo-Catholic parish, Henry said: “When I arrived, a being of unparalleled magnificence came up to me and said ‘Sit there, and I’ll come for you’.’ Shortly afterwards, the three sacred ministers entered, and there followed a liturgy which bore little or no resemblance to anything in the Book of Common Prayer. Most of it was inaudible, and the rest incomprehensible. The being then came to me and said: ‘We’ve finished. You can begin now’.’ Thus encouraged, I mounted the pulpit.”

Henry died on 26 December 1973, but not before he had penned a few more satirical lines: “Tell my clergy when I’m gone For me to weep no tears, For I shall be no deader then Than they have been for years.”


The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson is Master Emeritus of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine.

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