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.

The product of a Birmingham grammar school, Barnes became not only a good but one may say a great Trinity mathematician, influencing and teaching Hardy and Littlewood, the outstanding British mathematicians of the first half of this century. A research Fellow of Trinity, who had no idea that Barnes was a Trinity man, let alone a bishop, said to me recently: ‘You don’t mean Barnes of Complex Analysis?’ He was still reading his papers after three-quarters of a century.

This was the man who, as an FRS, was to be Dean of Chapel at Trinity, Master of the Temple, Canon of Westminster, Gifford Lecturer, and the most famous of a distinguished line of outspoken Bishops of Birmingham. Besides intellectual gifts, he had notable powers as a speaker and preacher, rare personal charm and kindliness combined with a prophetic courage and integrity, and, less obviously, a deep strain of personal piety and even mystical awareness.

What, then, made him such an unsympathetic and acrimonious controversialist, such an isolated and lonely figure, with so little achieved in the way of reform, no school or succession, and nothing to do but hang on till nearly eighty? For an assessment of the man we are now indebted to his eldest and most distinguished son, recently retired as British Ambassador to the Hague. ‘Some will say,’ he is the first to confess, ‘that a son should not write about his father ... It is not easy to strike a balance between affection and objectivity. Slavish adulation and unseemly criticism are both out of place.’ Avoiding each extreme, however, he has given us an eminently readable, if at times over-extended book – even in those places where the subject-matter of interminable ecclesiastical bickerings now seems unbelievably boring. Where judgment is kind, the materials for a more severe assessment are almost always supplied. Above all, we are taken behind the scenes, where we can better appreciate ‘the contrast between the public and the private man, the warm and simple heart behind the hard and learned head’.

More than most men perhaps, he was a complex mixture: scientist and moralist, pacifist and controversialist, rebel and disciplinarian, revolutionary and traditionalist. The antitheses are all there, but they are often more apparent than real. He himself would have denied them all, seeing no conflict between science and morals, between respect for the law and freedom of thought, between the best of the past and the new knowledge of the present. A man of peace, he always held that he was no controversialist, that he was in this respect more sinned against than sinning.

That is well and fairly said. Yet, again, why was the public effect often so different from the personal intent? What made him, as his DNB entry says, so ‘thorny and unbending in controversy, and indifferent to the exasperation roused by his utterances’? A tell-tale admission provides a clue: ‘There was little poetry in him.’ However correct the matter, the manner was frequently heavy-handed, prosaic and tactless. He seems to have had remarkably little power to enter imaginatively into the feelings of those with whose language or symbols he disagreed.

On the nub of his ecclesiastical controversies, the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, mystery was quickly accused of being magic, and popular sacramentalism dismissed as superstitious idolatry or ‘the religious materialism of a pre-scientific age’. Despite the provocation of opponents spoiling unchristianly for a fight, his challenge to subject a consecrated wafer to chemical analysis was inept and tasteless: he deserved to be misunderstood. Appreciation of myth as a profound form of truth, rather than its antithesis, would seem to have been beyond his grasp and his dogmatic rejection of miracle strikes one now as revealing a prosaically mechanical view of the universe. One cannot help having some sympathy with Archbishop Lang’s exasperated, and no doubt exasperating, tone as he ended his side of a lengthy exchange: ‘I will content myself with saying that the whole conception of the relations of spirit and matter which seems always to underlie your reiterated utterances on this deep subject seems to me to belong to a past age both of science and philosophy, and in this respect I am bound to say that I wish you were a better Modernist.’

Indeed, his constant appeal to ‘the uniformity of nature’ and ‘inert matter’ inevitably raises the question whether he really was as ‘ahead of his age’ as his son’s title suggests. In some things, he certainly was. He was percipient and fearless in many causes that made him in his time a voice in the wilderness: the ordination of women, both as priests and bishops, divorce and remarriage in church, intercommunion and reunion with the Free Churches; and, above all, in his stands on such issues as war, industrial and international conflict, birth-control, euthanasia and abortion. And, though strongly conservative by natural inclination and ‘Victorian’ in his moral standards, he was, after all, the first Labour bishop.

In other things, he was very much a child of his times. A modernist without being truly a liberal, he opposed, for instance, the abolition of compulsory chapel at Trinity, and his unpopularity there, which led to an unreconciled break with the College, to which he never returned, cannot simply be attributed to his pacifist views in time of war. But on scientific and theological fronts, too, he showed himself strangely old-fashioned. It has been said unkindly of Bultmann’s demythologising exercise that he was ‘knocking his grandmother’s religion with his grandfather’s science’, and something of the same charge must be laid against Barnes.

This is especially true of his last book. The Rise of Christianity, the product of much lucubration in his increasingly isolated years during the Second World War. The literary and historical criticism it incorporates, though revealing a scope of study beyond most diocesan bishops, especially in their seventies, belonged even then to a past generation of New Testament scholarship. At times, it shows what has been called ‘a monumental preference for the inferior evidence’ – in its acceptance, for example, of the early martyrdom of the Apostle John. At other times, its judgment is strikingly uncritical for a trained scientist. Thus, he regards the Didache as primitive (as I believe on other grounds it is) because it ‘appeals especially to the modern Christian humanist’ in that it contains no miracles (since it is a manual of early church discipline, that is hardly surprising). And his methods of excising from all the Gospel accounts and from 1 Corinthians the, to him, offending identification by Jesus at the last supper of the bread and wine with his body and blood are so arbitrary as to reveal little more than prejudice. C.H. Dodd, the leading New Testament scholar of the day, was impelled to one of his rare excursions into polemic when he exposed his position with an authority which Archbishop Fisher’s headmasterly rebuke could not touch.

The Rise of Christianity was the work of a loner who had ceased to listen to those who could have helped and corrected him. Charles Raven, whom Barnes would have liked to succeed him as bishop, said of him, in an ‘eloquent and laudatory’ Memorial Lecture (quoted by Alec Vidler in his ‘Centenary Retrospect’ in The Modern Churchman), that he could not have ‘brought himself to the necessary self-exposure; nor did he aim at accommodating his views to those of others ... He was not made that way. Compromise or concession to majority views were not for him.’ One is bound to contrast the temper of other prophets of the same generation (and what giants they now seem) – William Temple, George Bell and even Hensley Henson. They, too, met with their share of opprobrium, but they did not develop what the son acknowledges in his father was ‘an opposition mentality’, as his thoughts increasingly fed on themselves and pushed i into minority positions almost for their own sake. Yet to the end he was listened to with respect, and by those in his own diocese who knew him best regarded with affection.

As one obituary put, ‘Barnes was a necessary event in the spiritual history of the 20th century.’ He was a man of stature, and there are few like him, if any, today. It is a chastening exercise to recall, with this honest tribute, of whose sympathetic stringency he would have approved, what the church and the world made of him – but also helped to make him into. In the words of Jesus ‘it is necessary that offences come.’ Barnes gave them – and received them – in plenty, but always, as he saw it, in the cause of speaking the truth in sincerity and love, at whatever personal cost.