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Guidance from a berating bishop

by
22 July 2022

David Wilbourne finds glimpses of light amid Hensley Henson’s acerbic charges

THIS Petertide, I marked the 40th anniversary of my priesting by reading Hensley Henson’s Ad Clerum (SPCK 1958), containing ordination charges — pep talks before the laying-on of hands — that he delivered as Bishop of Durham from 1920 to 1939.

Henson was a radical priest and bishop, “an armoured car in an orchard of apple trees”, who strove to modernise the Church of England, unafraid to call out archbishops.

Cosmo Gordon Lang once remarked that his portrait at Bishopthorpe made him look pompous, prelatical, and proud. “Which of those three epithets does your Grace take exception to?” was Henson’s acerbic reply. He replied to a vicar’s invitation to preach at the 40th anniversary of the dedication of a church’s tenor bell: “Fortunately I have a prior engagement that evening. I don’t think anniversaries are a good idea, do you?”

So, I opened this volume, with its warm preface by Michael Ramsey, with eager hands, only to be faced with idiosyncratic rant after idiosyncratic rant. Would-be curates are admonished about smoking in the streets and using slang expressions, both difficult to harmonise with genuine reverence; are warned that the motor car is a hindrance to faithful performance of their duty; are admonished not to speak evil of dignitaries, with writing letters of complaint to their training incumbents a form of cowardice, to the ruin of both. Fiercely anti-Catholic with the word “mass” strictly verboten, Henson repeatedly berates what he deems a medieval superstition that confines the Lord’s presence to the Blessed Sacrament.

A stickler for correct clerical dress, he graciously permits not wearing a clerical collar when engaged in rugger or taking a holiday; I noted no such dispensation was granted for bathing or sleeping. This prince bishop, set in his castle and 800-acre park in Bishop Auckland, has no sympathy for clergy poverty or debt. He reminds his hearers that, with £400 a year and house provided, they live like lords, doing a light job, compared with their parishioners who toil in the Durham coalfield — which helped to generate his substantial income.

He belittles those clergy who make an incongruous, unsuitable marriage, with their ill-disciplined family, their ill-managed home, and ill-kept gardens seen as counter-gospel. Clerical competence, he emphasises, cannot be separated from the suitability in mind and habit of the priest’s wife. He feared that many clergy had inadequate belief, no suitable character, and no personal fitness, and said that the Church had no room for clergy who were academic, political, fanatical, partisan, or social reformers — thereby ruling me out on all five counts.

 

A CHURCHILLIAN, he censured his suffragan, the Bishop of Jarrow, for supporting the Jarrow March, saying that Article XXXVIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles anachronistically forbade socialism and communism. The Durham miners, gathering for their gala during the General Strike, manhandled him and tried to throw him into the River Wear, only to discover at the last minute that they had mistaken the Dean of Durham for their Tory bishop.

He frequently speculates why clergy, who, in his view, have a deadening familiarity with spiritual things, are so awful, but this one really takes the biscuit:
 

In an industrial parish the cleric will have the grave disadvantage of living mostly among his intellectual inferiors. To an extent which is exceptional and by no means wholesome he will find himself associated with women, who are prone to meddle. When he visits, he will find the wife at home far more often than the husband. His district visitors and Sunday School teachers will mostly be women. The bulk of his congregation and the majority of his communicants will be women. His annual sale of work will be mostly carried through by women. It is a mere matter of fact that the parish clergyman lives in female society far more than is good for him. The social atmosphere thus created is favourable to clerical self-assertion, for women are apt to invite and accept masculine dominance. To deprecate this abnormal association with women in clerical life is certainly to say nothing derogatory about women as such.
 

Thank God he wasn’t being derogatory.

 

THERE are the occasional glimpses of light amid Henson’s gynophobic tirades, such as when he describes an artificial pulpit-voice as fatal to devotion. He tells those he is about to ordain that their high calling of priesthood is so serious that it should turn their black hair white overnight.

He berates both the Church in the East and the Church in the West for missing Christ. In his view, the Orthodox Church, in promoting Christ in Majesty as Pantocrator, the terrible and terrifying judge of humankind, misses the merciful Jesus by light years. But Catholic Christendom, in promoting Christ sacrificed on countless crucifixes, also misses the Easter Lord who partied and celebrated life in all its fullness.

For Henson, the best image of Christ as ministry exemplar was a simple shepherd — albeit Tory, non-smoking, non-driving, suitably married, and correctly attired — bearing every lost lamb on his shoulders, bringing it home: a heartening message for all the recently ordained, especially those recovering from bruising charges by any latter-day Bishop Hensons.

 

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.

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