Anyone confused by the goings-on in the Church of England in the last few years might turn with relief to the biography of a prelate born in 1863, who retired from his diocese of Durham in 1938 to spend the marginal years of old age brooding over a long career, and made his final exit in 1947. Retrospect of an Unimportant Life is what Henson called the memoir over which he spent so much time in those years, and no man in his right mind is likely to claim much more for himself at an age when all ambitions should have receded. There was a flicker of what might have been a glorious sunset, in 1940, when Churchill recalled Henson to a canonry at Westminster, but when he arrived at the Abbey it was to find ‘that he could hardly read the lessons properly, even with a magnifying glass as well as spectacles; that his sermons were to tiny congregations and in the blackened church he could hardly see his notes.’ Before the end of the month he had resigned, ‘realising that it was time to go back to his quiet corner and wait for the release of death.’
There is a certain panache – even though it was a failed panache – about this final scene of public life, and Henson was a man who had been much in the public eye, at various times in his life, a large figure, small though he was physically. Such figures are made by circumstances as well as by intrinsic qualities and Henson, who had the sturdiness and plain-spokenness, not to say sometimes the recklessness, to make him noticeable in any walk of life, operated in a world in which a bishop could still attract a certain attention because he was a figure in the Commonwealth and in which ecclesiastical controversies still had a certain scandalous interest. Things are different now that the notion that England is a Christian country has become so attenuated that prominent churchmen themselves seem more anxious to justify themselves in post-Christian terms than to enlighten the world at large by reference to the dogma to which they are supposed to be attached. The public career of Henson illustrates some phases of this change, and it is an exceptional good fortune that the task of writing this biography has fallen into the hands of so scrupulous and learned an historian as Owen Chadwick. The subtitle ‘A Study in the Friction between Church and State’ indicates – if indication were needed – the biographer’s sense of the general importance of his subject, but his eye is on the man in all his quirkiness and complexity so that the authenticity of the portrait is nowhere threatened by any attempt to prove a thesis.
That Professor Chadwick did not rush to take up the invitation of the Dean and Chapter of Durham to write a life-of Henson may be gathered from what he says in the preface to this volume. He seems to have had serious, reservations about his subject. For him the author of Retrospect of an Unimportant Life was ‘many things – cantankerous, decisive, courageous, difficult, clear-headed, truculent – but not lovable’. Chadwick was particularly put off by what looked like Henson’s folly and vanity in including in the third volume a letter from Lloyd George telling him that ‘nothing in his’ – Lloyd George’s – ‘life gave him more satisfaction than his making Hensoa into a bishop.’ The scruple shows something of the quality of the biographer. ‘Did Henson really believe,’ he asks, ‘that Lloyd George, who invented the welfare state and won a Great War and created modern Ireland, put the making of a single bishop at the top of his list of achievements?’ It is the voice of sober realism. Canon Charles Pattinson, who had been Henson’s chaplain, finally persuaded Chadwick to take on the at first rather repugnant task of spending so long with the Henson papers and writing the bishop’s life. Pattinson told him that ‘Henson’s autobiography, seemingly so frank, seemingly so devoid of reticence, was not what it looked.’ It was indeed ‘all nonsense’, in Pattinson’s view, and he had himself begged Henson to ‘throw it away and not to print it’ So there was still a mystery to be solved, and this book no doubt comes as near as anyone ever will to solving it.
Chadwick begins his story by telling us what he has been able to establish about Henson’s father and grandfather. There is a certain pattern in this, for Henson père had quarrelled with his father and left his home on the Somerset-Devon border in his teens and worked his way up to some prosperity in business. That Henson fils was uneasy with his father, reacted against him and later began to adopt some of the old man’s prejudices is evident as the story of his life unfolds. There were emotional strains on the female side also, for Henson’s mother died when he was six and three years later his father married again – a fortunate eventuality, however, for Emma Theodora Parker, a German by origin and 30 years younger than her husband, was a benign influence in this not altogether benign circle. There were other children, including an elder brother who escaped to business early and ‘won the repute of being the rudest man in Calcutta’ – quite a distinction, one imagines – ‘collected a large fortune, and retired to Minehead in Somerset where he lived several years unhappily, with no interests, and no friends, and no conversation, and no religion except prejudice against Roman Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism. He inherited his father’s hatred of Catholics.’ Father had been a follower of a desperado called Baptist Noel who marched out of the Church of England following the Gorham case, which was the occasion of a great dust-up in 1849 about the powers of the Privy Council in ecclesiastical cases. The air Henson breathed in his childhood must have been fairly discouraging, one way and another. In his determination to ‘keep his motherless family unspotted from a corrupt world’ Henson senior decided that the children must not go to school and the future bishop was ‘deprived of school companions, deprived of games, deprived of holidays, deprived of everything but religion, brothers, sisters and a good library’. At 13 he seemed about to get away from all this to business in London, in accordance with his father’s plans, but at the last moment the plans fell through, to his own great distress. It was this turn of events which led to Henson’s going to school after all, at the age of 14, to his being an ‘usher’ in another school at the age of 16, and finally, against his father’s better judgment, to his getting permission to go to Oxford as a non-collegiate student. He had no money and as little society as he could have had in such circumstances, but he emerged as a fellow of All Souls, which he regarded as the beginning of his Oxford life. That was in 1884. Hardly surprising if he turned his back on his earlier years. ‘The fellows discovered,’ Chadwick says, ‘that in electing this unusual creature, they elected not only a fellow unlike any they ever met, but a friendly affectionate youth with a gift of sparkling talk and witty repartee.’ Henson found himself not only sipping port but, in a rnodest way, laying bets. He was assimilated by a new world in which it was a not unnatural thing that his abilities should take him to the palace in Bishop Auckland and to the House of Lords. It was a kind of metamorphosis Oxford could achieve, in a more elitist society, and it cannot be said that in the 20th century that university has altogether lost its power of effecting such changes of fortune – now more numerous and less dramatic perhaps, but still sufficiently rewarding.
There is a certain superficial incoherence about Henson’s ecclesiastical career, but in setting out the facts Chadwick leaves one with the impression that his subject was more of a piece than most men. Though it can be shown that he blundered on from one massive conviction to another, one has a sense that the underlying mass was somehow as constant as a human being is likely to be – which perhaps amounts to saying that vows, dogmas and statements of principle are less than they seem, and certainly less than they claim to be at the time of utterance. Henson might have been a businessman; he might have been a lawyer; in fact he became a priest. It was hardly a remarkable outcome, given his background and the general social and psychological conditions of the 1880s. The first move was towards something not incompatible with his final resolution but a little different from it. He vowed himself to a single life for the sake of the poor – which did not stop him, 16 years later and a canon of Westminster, proposing to the daughter of a Scottish squire four days after meeting her and finding her ‘a very charming companion’. In 1886 he considered becoming a Roman Catholic – though ‘assuredly not because I believe in Roman Catholicism,’ he said. It was at least partly through the persuasions of Gore, then reigning in Pusey House, that he was ordained in the Church of England. In 1888 he accepted the living of Barking.
He was full of energy, and Chadwick gives a fascinating account of this episode, in which Henson ably fulfilled the fashionable Oxford dream of the role of a slum priest. In 1894 he wanted to go back to Oxford, but, we are told, ‘Oxford would not have him back.’
There followed a curious interlude as chap-plain of an almshouse at I1ford. During these years there blew up one of those ecclesiastical rows which then had more importance for the world at large than is ever likely to be the case with such things now. Much passion was spilt on what used to count as Romanising practices such as the reservation of the Sacrament and the ritual displays which appear to have had a disproportionate fascination for some Anglo-Catholics; there were complications also about the behaviour of Lord Halifax in Rome and of Bishop Creighton in the cathedral in the Kremlin. All this brought to life once more the question of how far Parliament was empowered to regulate the Church. ‘The crisis in the National Church,’ says Chadwick, ‘changed Henson’s life. It made him think out his Anglo-Catholicism. It revived his strenuous contention for establishment, and made him think further his notion of a national Church. And it made him famous, and so opened the door to the longed-for departure, from Ilford.’ So confused, in real life, are spiritual and temporal concerns and perhaps motives.
Henson’s next 12 years were spent as a canon of Westminster and as rector of St Margaret’s. It was during these years that Henson got used to the idea of being a public figure. It could hardly be otherwise, and his sharp and ready tongue, in the service of a life-long determination to say what he thought whether people liked it or not – and perhaps especially when they did not – made him a striking one. No doubt Henson enjoyed the use of his gifts, but it is one of the graces of his character that he prepared his sermons with care and, in so doing, often made them less telling, but also less rash, than they might have been. During these years, too, the former Anglo-Catholic and passionate denouncer of sectaries began to think more of the essential unity of Protestants, and looked to the Nonconformists to ‘come and help the Church instead of undermining what good it could do’. He also acquired a taste, which seems to come easily to the clergy, for irrupting upon the issues of the day as if holding an ecclesiastical appointment somehow gave him the right to an outsize voice in affairs. Perhaps his notion of establishment was a little too much the notion that this was required of him. However, he followed the same course in later years, as Bishop of Durham, when he had, by one of those volte-faces which were part of his style, suddenly and, as it were, casually thrown overboard the case for establishment. He was not only loud and frequent in his denunciation of dictators but full of advice as to how the government should conduct its relations with them. ‘Come storm or hail, you must speak.’ He enjoyed crying for justice whether it did any good or not; perhaps he thought such interventions more efficacious than prayer. It would be more charitable to say that that is how prophets operate. But it must be said that, to the unenlightened eye, the behaviour of Henson, or of Headlam or Bell for that matter, in the face of Hitler and Mussolini looks no different from and no wiser than the ordinary bewildered talk of middle-class English people of the time.
Chadwick’s tact and scepticism in the use of what must have been a large mass of material, including Henson’s own diary in many volumes, backed by a wide and deep knowledge of Church history in other times and places, enables him to present simultaneously several levels of his subject’s reaction to events, so that what we are left with is not an interpretation but a living figure, uncertain and unsatisfactory – the dominant traits are never offered as the man himself. Henson may rest in peace: the Church of England assuredly does not.
Did Henson leave any pointers as to what her future course should be? It is difficult to see any, for if Henson was not infrequently convinced that he saw with clarity what should or should not be done, the subsequent history usually shows that he did not see very far. He addressed himself always to what he saw as the needs of his time, and the times were always changing.
There is a sense in which all Henson’s reactions were fashionable reactions, and even when he – as they say – courted unpopularity he was drifting with the times. It was just that, being so plain-spoken, he was apt to say what many more would be saying shortly afterwards – a recipe for a successful career, whether in the Church or elsewhere. If he faced horrid scandal when he was appointed Bishop of Worcester at the invitation of Lloyd George, it was because he ‘had proclaimed, in lecture, in sermon and in print, the right of other men to deny the two miracles of the creed and still hold office as priests’: it was soon to become difficult to see what degree of disbelief was not allowable, or what exactly was meant by those who claimed to believe.
When, in the crisis over the Prayer Book of 1928, Henson suddenly changed course to deny the right of Parliament to have a say in such matters, he was moving no further than to claim for the Church a freedom which was quickly to become identified with the ordinary notions of democracy. His difficulty in both junctures was that he stood for conscience, and conscience, on the public stage, is hardly to be distinguished from mere opinion. In the political world, opinion is the supreme governor, or so it is popularly believed. The Pope can preach democracy in Poland and monarchy in Rome, but no such duplicity is possible in the Church of England, which has been a part – or it might be said an aspect – of the body politic and not a separate polity with its own designs and ambitions. Through all his changes, Henson was deep in this English tradition which sees the common honesty of the citizen as no different in temper from that which the Christian should exercise when he puzzles over his dogma. The duty of a preacher such as he was to instruct consciences. There was a certain sleight-of-hand about this, for he emerged in a world in which a gentleman with an Oxford accent, living in a large vicarage or even a palace, would customarily be listened to with respect. What happens when one opinion really is as good as another? Is a nation imbued with the findings of the Christian conscience even thinkable in such circumstances? Or must the Church retreat behind its own battlements and become the enemy of civil society? Or at best a pressure group among how many others, differently motivated?
The creeds themselves have a political history, in the Roman Empire, the feudal world and the residual monarchies: the politics of disintegration will not leave them untouched, any more than it will the institutions in which they have been transmitted. For all its turbulence, in our perspective the career of Hensley Henson looks bland, as that of a churchman hardly aware of the gathering storm.