Cosmo Lang. Archbishop in war and crisis – a review

I recently reviewed Robert Beaken’s study of Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury, published by I.B. Tauris in 2012. The full review in Reviews in History shows that I think it an ‘important reassessment’ which ‘goes a long way towards superseding [the work of J.G.] Lockhart and presenting Lang afresh’. Robert very effectively rescues Lang from his reputation as ‘a figure caught in the headlights, reactive rather than in the lead, a puritan and a snob.’

The book has three primary concerns: with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy; with the disputed process of liturgical reform within the Church of England; and with the Second World War. Chapter 7 deals with the war; Chapter 6 with the stalemate in relation to liturgical revision that Lang inherited after the Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-8. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy in general, and the abdication crisis in particular, and are very clearly the centrepiece of the book.

The review did make some substantive criticisms, which I reproduce at length here. The first is of one of interpretation:

Beaken rightly emphasises that in the period between the wars the office of archbishop still mattered in English public life. The opinion of Canterbury was sought and listened to on matters of moment; and the archbishop’s correspondence clearly shows that many of the general public expected something of ‘their archbishop’, even if those expectations were inchoately expressed and neither compatible nor realistic. All this is right, and worth emphasising; but it is difficult to recognise the ‘simple narrative of secularisation’ against which Beaken sets himself as one now held by very many historians. The work variously of Callum Brown, Grace Davie, Hugh McLeod and many others have all deepened and complicated our understandings of what secularisation is and how it occurs; and so Beaken is pushing at, if not an open door, one which has been unlocked and left ajar.

Also on matters of interpretation:

For Beaken, Lang’s radio broadcast of December 1936 […] was ‘an unusually unwise and unreflective action’, in that Lang allowed himself to reflect unfavourably on the mores of the social circle around the former king. However, the receipt of many letters and a ‘torrent of abuse’ in the popular press does not necessarily prove that an archbishop is not doing his job, but only that he has expressed an unpopular but arguably necessary view. Despite Lang’s evident enjoyment of the quiet entwining of archbishop and establishment, he was able to see where lines should be drawn.

The other criticisms were about the shape of the book, and its style:

At the broadest scale, the book is strangely shaped, such that it appears not as a rounded study of an archbishop at a time of crisis, but as three substantial studies of particular issues, hedged around with some rather desultory supporting materials. The three themes of the royal connection, the war and the Prayer Book crisis between them occupy two-thirds of the book, with the royal material alone forming nearly a third. This leads Beaken to neglect other issues that merited greater treatment. Lang’s path from bishop of Stepney (1901) to his arrival at Canterbury in 1928 are dealt with in five breathless pages; a time that included the controversy over Lang’s public comments on the First World War, which cried out for a fuller treatment. Similarly, Beaken’s account of a pivotal time in ecumenical relations at home and abroad is perfunctory. Lang’s time in office saw acute economic hardship and the Jarrow March, as well as the rise of home-grown Fascism and pitched violence on the streets to counter it. None of these receive the slightest treatment, in a study entitled ‘Archbishop in War and Crisis.’ […]

By contrast, significant space is instead given over to a discussion of Lang’s sexuality. Beaken is largely successful in showing that Lang was probably not a repressed homosexual, but a lonely figure who found it difficult to form close personal relationships of any kind. To this reviewer, however, it is not clear that those making the case for Lang’s homosexuality ever established why the matter should be all that important, and neither is Beaken convincing as to why it is important that Lang was not.

Robert’s response is at the foot of the review.

Who owns the Authorised Version ?

Simon Heffer makes a very interesting comment in passing in a review of a new book by Roy Strong on country churches. (Literary Review , Oct 2007, p.45-6). Surprised by Strong’s ‘pronounced lack of conservatism’ when considering the development of Anglican worship, he continues:
“It is all too often left to atheists like [Heffer] to seek to uphold the beauty of the 1662 Prayer Book and the King James Bible, while believers like Strong argue for progress.”
Historically, Heffer is, I think, quite right. Whilst there were during the period of liturgical revision in the 1960s and 1970s plenty of conservatives within the church, there was much agitation against the new rites amongst those professing no faith at all, and without any connection with the Church of England, except in the broadest sense of having been born to it.

What is less clear is whether this is as odd a state of affairs as Heffer seems to imply. What is at stake is the idea of a national church, and whether the Church of England had a ‘duty’ to preserve the 1662 and the AV ‘for the nation’, whether or not they served the contemporary purpose of the church as a living, worshipping body of individuals. There are arguments to be had about whether the new liturgies and biblical translation are as beautiful as language (probably not), and whether beautiful language is fundamental to worship (rather than merely desirable for some worshippers in some times and places). There is also an argument that continuity in forms of worship (beautiful or otherwise) is important to the church’s sense of itself in time (see earlier post on Rowan Williams).

There is, however, some way to go yet to establish from those arguments that the ‘preservation’ of these texts requires their continued ‘vicarious’ use (in Grace Davie’s sense) by the Church on behalf of those who don’t attend the services for which the texts were composed. Historic churches will fall down if not maintained, but do the AV and the 1662 not remain beautiful in the library ?

Worship, language and the ‘family history’

While reading Alana Harris’s exploration of changes in language, and the arguments about maintaining tradition (in Redefining Christian Britain), I was reminded of part of Rowan Williams’s recent Why study the past ?. I reviewed it a while back (for the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin), an extract of which reads:

“Williams sees the task of engaging with the past as one not purely of historical empathy for its own sake, but as a form of understanding and engaging with one’s fellow Christians in a way as necessary and as profound as cross-cultural and ecumenical conversation in the present. [….] Ever mindful of a constant and profound tension between the strangeness of the past and its urgency as our ‘family history’, it is the case that ‘our immersion in the ways in which they responded becomes part of the way we actually hear the call ourselves …’ (p.31) This leads Williams to a brief, yet to this reviewer, profoundly important, consideration of the degree to which the worship and conversation of the churches should embody languages and visible practices that both act as symbols of contemporary unity and enable a continuing ‘conversation’ with Christians of previous generations.”

I’m sure there’s a lot here that might help us understand conservative reactions to liturgical change in the 1960s and 1970s. Although it is rarely expressed in quite these terms, perhaps part of the opposition to the sidelining of the Book of Common Prayer is to do with a sense that some means of cross-generational communication is being lost. It puts the arguments about the Book of Common Prayer being part of a ‘linguistic heritage’ into a new light – it is quite easy to read these appeals to ‘save the language of Shakespeare’ purely as aesthetic arguments, or as more secular appeals to a national cultural inheritance.