Book review: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill

[An extended version of a book review to appear in the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.]

The career of Stephen Neill (1900-84) was among the most truly global of all Christian lives. Born and educated in England, he went to India in 1924 as a missionary, became a theological educator, was ordained priest in the Anglican church, and in time was made bishop of the diocese of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli). Leaving India in 1945 for Geneva, he was among those who formed the World Council of Churches, a remarkably prolific author, an editor of the work of others, and assistant bishop to the archbishop of Canterbury. He was professor of ecumenics and theology at the University of Hamburg (1962-68) until, at the age of 68, he took on the task of forming a new department at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Retirement was as a residential guest at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, during which he completed his autobiography, God’s Apprentice, which was published in 1991, after his death.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this variety and geographical reach, Neill’s career has not been fully taken into account by historians of twentieth century Christianity. As such, Dyron Daughrity, professor of religion at Pepperdine University in California, has placed historians greatly in his debt in producing this biography, the fruit of two decades’ engagement with Neill. The source material is copious: more than sixty books, and innumerable articles and reviews, which Daughrity (quite reasonably) does not attempt to list in full. Crucially, a chance conversation with N. T. Wright, bishop of Durham, revealed the existence of an extended unpublished version of Neill’s autobiography, in Wright’s possession. Building on Daughrity’s earlier work on Neill, most notably a 2008 study of Neill’s early career, this new book fills what was a significant gap in the literature, and is unlikely to be superseded.

That such a gap in the literature has persisted might have been explained by the scattered and multilingual nature of the relevant archives. A great many of the biographers of Neill’s generation have been friends or close colleagues of their subject; of these, Neill had relatively few that lived long enough to take the job on. But the gap is perhaps more readily explained by the revelation, made in 1991 by Richard Holloway (soon to be bishop of Edinburgh) while reviewing God’s Apprentice, of the circumstances in which Neill left India, which Neill had omitted from his account. Neill had been accused of inflicting corporal punishment on adult men in his pastoral care, for which purpose he carried a whip, causing scandal in the diocese. Holloway did not know, but Daughrity lays out, that the pattern continued when, remarkably, Neill returned to England to take up a Cambridge chaplaincy; it was known to colleagues in Germany; accounts survive of the same in Kenya. Donald Coggan, of the same wing of the Church of England, disclosed that he had known of it for many years, as had Lesslie Newbigin, a colleague from the WCC days in Geneva. Troubled all his life by insomnia and depression, Neill was (in Holloway’s words) ‘banished’ to spend the rest of his life ‘wandering the earth as a theological mercenary’ (202), leaving behind him a trail of damaged people who ought to have been able to place their trust in him.

Much historical work remains to reckon with the ways in which all the churches dealt, and failed to deal, with abuse of all kinds. Precisely what it was, in the kind of evangelicalism in which Neill was raised, that gave rise to the kind of understanding of sin, repentance and punishment in which Neill placed the kind of discipline he meted out, remains to be explored fully. (Readers may no doubt hear the resonances with the recent scandal in England associated with Emmanuel Church Wimbledon). Daughrity’s study will be a significant resource in those enquiries, as it will in assessing Neill’s scholarly output, on which his reputation is likely to depend. But his achievement as a biographer – and it is no mean achievement – is to steer a course between hagiography and censure, laying out Neill’s undoubted (indeed prodigious) achievements, alongside such grim failures, giving each its due weight while allowing the reader to draw their conclusions.

For this reviewer, Neill’s strengths, through a kind of inability to assess them rightly and temper their exercise, became his weaknesses also. His appetite for work, and tolerance of physical hardship when in India, was great; his commitment to prayer and preaching was genuine and strenuous. Neill’s intellect was formidable, and his facility with other languages remarkable; Daughrity rates him ‘without question, one of the greatest minds in the twentieth century’ (288). As a statement concerning Neill’s facility, this is clearly true, but questions remain over the enduring worth or otherwise of some, though not all of his books. One cannot avoid a suspicion of a certain superficiality in a career that produced a book each year in the midst of extremely heavy commitments and persistent ill health, and much of the time without access to the requisite library facilities. This readiness to write on everything – from St John Chrysostom to the gospels, the medieval Church of England to Kierkegaard, from the history of mission in India to psychology – is the confidence of one who delayed taking up a Cambridge fellowship to go to India, was offered a bishopric at 32 (which he refused) and continued to hear often from others of how brilliant was the mind he possessed.

It was also the confidence of one without a doubt in his mind that western mission to Asia and Africa was at base a dispensation of wisdom and civilisation for which the recipient populations ought to be grateful, and could not expect to manage without. Though he was by all accounts loved in India in the 1940s, a colleague in Nairobi three decades later regarded him as at base a racist, who knew little of Africa and was disinclined to learn. It is this unreconstructed understanding of mission which arguably vitiates much of his work. But it was this self-confidence, added to a quick and explosive temper, that made him autocratic and dismissive of the views of others; the same Kenyan colleague found him surprised that African colleagues might refuse to agree with him; in every situation he alienated those who might have become allies. It is at least possible that the his mysterious breach with the missionary Amy Carmichael in the 1920s was in part due to some similar clash of wills. And this unshakeable sense of his own correctness was part of the abuse: dealing the final blow to Neill’s career in India, Neill’s superior Foss Westcott (metropolitan of India, Burma and Ceylon) noted with some surprise the lack of any kind of acknowledgment from Neill of the harm that had been caused. Remarkably, Neill thought it appropriate to put himself forward to succeed Westcott later that year, so complete was his self-belief.

Though overall the book succeeds, there are some imperfections in its execution. Nearly half the narrative is devoted to the two decades in India, and the remaining forty years occupy a similar length. This perhaps matches the importance of those years to Neill; in a sense he never recovered from his departure. But while the account of the Indian period is richly contextualised from archival and other sources, the chapters on Hamburg and Nairobi are notably more reliant on Neill’s own account, which (as, by this point, Daughrity has already shown) was not always full or frank, and on interviews; one wonders whether the university and college archives in Hamburg, Nairobi and Oxford might have yielded information of importance. In the later chapters in particular the narrative energy of the prose flags, such as in the place-by-place relation of Neill’s study tour of Africa in 1950 (228-37), or in the potted summaries of the various books and articles. From time to time, names appear in the narrative for the first time without being introduced. The list of archives consulted is incomplete, Lambeth Palace Library having been omitted. However, these are relatively minor criticisms of what is a major piece of work. Well produced by the Lutterworth Press, which was itself associated with Neill, and reasonably priced, it will be essential reading for historians of world Christianity in the twentieth century.

A Wordly Christian: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill. By Dyron B. Daughrity. (Cambridge, England: Lutterworth, 2021, pp. x, 401. £75 (hardback), £25 (paperback), £16 (epub).

For further reflections on the business of Christian biography, see posts on John Stott, and Michael Ramsey and Walter Hussey.

Book review: In the long shadow of the Third Reich

[A review published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church]

Gerhard Ringshausen and Andrew Chandler (eds)
The George Bell-Gerhard Leibholz Correspondence: In the long shadow of the Third Reich, 1938-1958
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
978-1-4742-5766-4 (hardback)
xxvii + 475

The papers of George Bell, twentieth century bishop of Chichester, are among the most significant and most extensive collections for modern church history. This important volume, generously edited and well produced (and now, since 2021, available in paperback at a reasonable price) inaugurates a series of editions that promises to open up Bell’s papers to those unable to consult them in the library of Lambeth Palace. Bell was a prolific correspondent in general, but his exchange with the German legal scholar Gerhard Leibholz must be among the most extensive of all such correspondences to have survived, now distributed between Bell’s papers and those of Leibholz in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. Though a selection of the letters was published in German in 1974, it is hard to find in libraries outside Germany, and this complete edition – a joint production of British and German scholars – promises to open up the correspondence in new ways. The letters are marked throughout by both great personal warmth and great immediacy and urgency; absent is the sort of self-consciousness sometimes found in letters written with one eye on an unknown later reader.

Readers of this journal may be slightly surprised at how little there is in the letters about the church as such. This is no complaint, but it is instructive nonetheless. Bell and Leibholz were first in contact in early 1939, after Leibholz, a Volljude (in Nazi terms) but baptised a Lutheran, had arrived in the UK from Germany seeking refuge. Once Leibholz had been released from internment, in part due to Bell’s intercession, the correspondence is dominated by the progress of the war, the fate of the German churches, and then (in time) the likely shape of the post-war order. That the conflict was at root a religious one, between a godless Nazism and a true European civilisation that was fundamentally Christian, was a working assumption that lay beneath their remarkable interaction. That the post-war order – that would have to include a reconstructed Germany, the ‘other Germany’ once stripped of the alien accretion of Nazism – should have a Christian basis was something of which politicians had to be reminded, repeatedly and sometimes forcefully; it was not, yet, a matter that required justification, as would be the case before very long. What the reader finds, as the pair discuss the situation, exchange resources, and read and comment on each other’s writing, is a kind of applied political theology that does not yet need fully to justify its assumptions.

This reader, at least, is also struck by the slight improbability of such a meeting of unequals, which the editors suggest may be unique, and I suspect they are right. On the one hand was Bell, a senior bishop of the established Church, member of the House of Lords and the Athenaeum club; on the other Leibholz, a citizen of an enemy power, almost a generation younger, uprooted with a young family, first interned and then forced to scratch around for grants and for whatever might be earned by writing. In time the war ended, and there was the matter of re-establishing contact with friends and family in the chaotic conditions of a ruined Germany, and eventually a return home. The exchanges give a remarkable insight into the precariousness of the refugee experience, even for one as (relatively) well connected as Leibholz. We see Bell intervening to help in practical ways throughout, as he did for many others, both Jews and German Christians: there are countless letters of recommendation and reference; schemes of support are patiently constructed only to be upended by events. But Bell was also a learner. Although in regular contact with the German churches, he himself knew little German, and did not know the country well. Though, as the editors note (p.xv), Leibholz did much to confirm ideas that were already Bell’s, his influence was in giving Bell’s positions a new weight and substance, and in helping lift them out of the more confined milieu of English middle-class and ecclesiastical life. As such, the letters provide a rich and invaluable contextualisation of Bell’s very well-known political interventions, in Parliament and in print. Bell’s learning shows a kind of humility that was not always found on the episcopal bench.

There is also a further connection to a rather more well-known German Christian of the same generation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whose twin sister (Sabine) Leibholz was married. It was through Bonhoeffer, whom Bell knew very well, that Leibholz and Bell were put together. One of the editors, Andrew Chandler, has written on the later legacy of Bonhoeffer’s thought, and his martyrdom at Nazi hands in the last days of the war. If not quite the subject of a cult, Bonhoeffer has taken on a venerable status in later years, and it is an affecting experience to overhear Bell and Leibholz exchange news of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, with an increasing desperation, still clinging in April 1945 to seemingly hopeful but erroneous scraps of information, by which time (as the reader knows) Bonhoeffer was already dead. As the urgency waned in the early 1950s, Bonhoeffer provided a thread of shared memory between the Leibholzes and Bell, whom after his death was described as ‘the most faithful and best friend we have had in the English-speaking world.’ (453) Though neither Bell nor Leibholz bore the ultimate cost of discipleship as Bonhoeffer did, the whole volume intertwines the personal and the political in an unforgettable way. It should be required reading for scholars of the religious and political history of Europe, but deserves a much wider readership than that.

The Lambeth Conference: theology, history, polity and purpose

[A review forthcoming in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church.]

Paul Avis and Benjamin M. Guyer (eds)
The Lambeth Conference. Theology, history, polity and purpose
London: Bloomsbury/ T & T Clark, 2017
978-0-5676-6231-6
xxi + 437

This year sees the latest instance of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the bishops of the Anglican Communion. The singular designation is important, as the editors of this timely volume note: to speak of the Lambeth Conference as a continually existing thing, rather than a sequence of conferences, is to say something particular about its status as one of the four Instruments of Communion which hold the Communion together. First convened in 1867, the Conference has a status without any exact parallel in world Christianity. In common with the other three Instruments, it possesses none of the kind of coercive force that can be exercised from the Vatican; if push comes to shove, any of the provinces of the Anglican Communion may disregard resolutions of the Conference, and the consequences of doing so are not clearly defined. In this sense, each province retains a kind of sovereignty, and it remains an act of the will to continue to recognise the rest of the Communion and to subject one’s own decision-making to it. Yet the Conference, together with the three other Instruments, makes – or has had made on its behalf – more far-reaching ecclesiological claims that is common in relation to the Lutheran World Federation or the World Methodist Council. It is with the nature of these claims, and their gradual emergence since 1867 that many, if not all, of the essays presented here are concerned, to different degrees.

The volume is a timely one for a number of reasons. Published to mark 150 years since the first conference, it also appears four decades since the last substantial study of the Lambeth Conference, during which time scholarship has moved far. But the division within the Communion over matters of sexuality, and its impact on the tumultuous 2008 Conference in particular, has made plain the limitations of the Instruments as means of resolving conflict. As Gregory K. Cameron shows, the attempt to address this sense of ecclesial deficit by means of the Anglican Covenant ran into the sand, and few seem to be rushing to help haul it back onto the road. Yet several contributors argue, more or less strongly, that some more effective means of first brokering agreement and then ensuring that such agreement is acted upon – or that the refusal to do so is somehow consequential – will need to be found if the Anglican Communion is to hold together. This volume does not provide the answers, but its treatment of the nature of the questions that need to be asked will be essential reading for those charged with finding those answers.

As is to be expected with all volumes such as this, the contributors take a wide variety of approaches. Some range rather further than others from the Lambeth Conference in particular, and are more directed to the specific issues that are the source of the current division. There are valuable contributions from historians, notably Benjamin M. Guyer on the inaugural Conference of 1867, and Mark D. Chapman on William Reed Huntington. Jeremy Morris shows that the Conference emerged in the context of, and has continued to be shaped by, changing perceptions of the nature of the office of a bishop. Both Mary Tanner and Donald Bolen (Roman Catholic bishop and ecumenist) highlight the ecumenical significance of the Conference. Others concentrate on process: Charlotte Methuen examines the making of the 1920 ‘Appeal to All Christian People’; Andrew Goddard looks at successive Conference resolutions on issues of sex and marriage as a means by which to understand the patterns into which these deliberations have fallen; Alyson Barnett-Cowan explores in detail the contrasting approaches to structuring the work of the Conference in 1998 and in 2008. There is much more room left for detailed historical work on past conferences – their specific historical contexts, the means by which their agendas were set, and the conduct of business – as relatively few of the essays here penetrate very deeply into the archival record, focussing instead on the printed sources which represent the end of a process and which tend to hide the means of reaching it. The editors express an aspiration that the volume be a spur to further research, and so it may be, at least for historians.

Others address the constitutional, legal and ecclesiological issues more directly. Norman Doe and Richard Deadman examine the impact of Conference resolutions on the law of individual provinces: effects that bear familial resemblances when examined as a whole, but all of them ultimately on the basis of consent. Paul Avis traces the historic relationship between the Conference and the archbishop of Canterbury – the office of whom is recognised as another of the Instruments – as both the instigator of the first Conference, and the host and president of each meeting since. And it is the chapter from Stephen Pickard that addresses the specific issue of ecclesiology most directly. Is it possible to cultivate an attitude of ‘sympathetic imagination’ towards the Instruments, a shared commitment to them as gifts and as signs of grace? While based on an elevated understanding of the episcopate, such an understanding can, Pickard suggests, accommodate the contingent and thus mutable nature of the Instruments whilst still being able to avoid mere pragmatism and resist the manoeuvring of particular interests at a point in time. The question, then, is whether the Anglican Communion can find a set of Instruments in which all can invest and continue to steward as both it and they change. This valuable volume, well produced and reasonably priced, provides a starting point for that thinking.

Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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The fame of C.S. Lewis: a review

Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
978-0-19-881944-8

[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]

Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).

The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).

Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.

In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.

Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.

These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.