Necessary Bishop

John Robinson

  • Ahead of his Age: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham by John Barnes
    Collins, 487 pp, £12.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 00 216087 0

From time to time, clergymen of the Church of England attain notoriety by reason of the fact that they stick out to the left or the right or ahead of their contemporaries. They are the glory, the irritants and often the embarrassment of their times. This seems to be an especially Anglican phenomenon: Roman Catholics and Free Churchmen lack either the freedom to attain, or the security to retain, the positions from which they can rub up the Establishment. One such who was to rise higher and stay longer than most was Ernest William Barnes (1874-1953), for nearly thirty years Bishop of Birmingham, an office to which he was nominated by Ramsay MacDonald, who also appointed Hewlett Johnson as ‘red’ Dean of Canterbury. Barnes’s career could scarcely have been more different from that of another near-contemporary who was also a scientist, theologian and prophet – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. While Teilhard worked in obscurity, wrote copiously but could publish nothing, Barnes sat in the seats of influence, if not of power, at Trinity College, Cambridge, the Temple, Westminster Abbey, the Royal Society and the House of Lords, wrote (surprisingly) only three books, yet attracted widespread publicity for almost everything he said.

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