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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

'Unimportant'? A brief life of Hensley Henson, Dean & Bishop of Durham

Among my predecessors, Hensley Henson was one of the most waspish of all the Deans of Durham.  He became Dean in 1912, left the Deanery in 1917 to go to the See of Hereford, and returned to Durham in 1920 as its Bishop, retiring just a few months before the outbreak of the second world war.  He wanted to be a scholar-dean: ‘I would endeavour to associate my tenure of the Deanery with some literary achievement which would renew the tradition of Dean Waddington… and finally emancipate me from the humiliating excitements of ecclesiastical conflict’.[1]  He relates that unfortunately for him and for us, it did not turn out as he had hoped. Most of his writings that had impact in their day, and that are still remembered, belong to his later life. And it is probably true to say that it was not for their intellectual substance that they were valued so much as their fearless engagement with so many central issues of global, national and church life. These include church and state, Christian moral thought, the practice of ministry and of course, his autobiographical writings[2].

‘HHH’ as he was often known was born in 1863. A Londoner, his childhood was unhappy, and left him with a lifelong sense of being an outsider. He went to Oxford as an unattached undergraduate: his father who was badly in debt could not afford to support him at one of the colleges. This strongly reinforced the awareness that he did not belong to the mainstream of the talented and intelligent, for all his intellectual ability. He took a first in modern history and was soon elected a fellow of All Souls. Having discerned early on a vocation to priesthood, he was ordained in 1887 and appointed Vicar of Barking the following year. Here his talents made him one of London’s most popular clergy, increasing the congregation, it is said, from 250 to over a thousand. In 1895 he became chaplain of an Ilford hospital, and in 1900, a canon of Westminster and Vicar of St Margaret’s. This great public platform gained him widespread admiration for the brilliance of his preaching. He was noticed in high places. Asquith had planned to make him Dean of Lincoln, but Henson’s wayward behaviour led to a change of mind: he said it would be ‘like sending a destroyer into a landlocked pool’.[3]  The issue concerned his advocacy of union with non-conformists. He had defied his old friend Bishop Charles Gore in preaching in a congregational church in Birmingham. So Henson became Dean of Durham instead. 

His arrival in Durham was heralded by a dramatic development in the Deanery.  Like Spencer Cowper before him, Henson, or rather Ella his wife whom he had married in 1902, took a dislike to the great house which she thought gloomy and colourless.  Her opinion was perhaps not altogether without ground.  The photographs in his predecessor Dean Kitchin’s history of the Deanery[4], an incomparable record not only of its past, but also how it was inhabited in Edwardian times, show that the house was decorated and furnished in a heavy Victorian style that did not do justice to its elegant 17th and 18th century architecture.  So Ella set about putting colour back into Spencer Cowper’s solarium, and the Chinese silk wallpapers, as brilliant now as they were in 1912, show how well she succeeded.  It was a metaphor of a new era in the Deanery, both the house and the office.  The 20th century had arrived.

As I have said, Henson had already gained a reputation as a brilliant preacher and controversialist before he arrived at Durham.  He was a passionate defender of the establishment of the Church of England but had moved away from the high church position he had occupied as a younger man. In the year of his appointment, he published a book arguing that clergy should be free to air their doubts about the virgin birth and bodily resurrection in the pulpit. This led to the legendary controversy surrounding his preferment to Hereford in 1917.  He was appointed by Lloyd-George against the advice of Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. A number of bishops refused to attend his consecration, an act that wounded Henson deeply. In 1920, he was appointed Bishop of Durham. This time, his reception in his diocese where of course he was already well-known was uncontroversial and warm.  

Back in Durham, it was not long before he ran into trouble. The Durham coalfield was seething with discontent and unrest under the economic and industrial strains all England was experiencing, and the recalcitrant attitudes of local pit owners. Conflict was rife, with both miners’ and employers’ attitudes coloured by the Russian Revolution four years earlier. On Labour Day, 1 May 1921, Henson was invited to speak to a gathering of mine workers and employers at Hartlepool to try to achieve understanding and avert a damaging strike. The memory of an earlier episcopal intervention in a mining dispute in County Durham was still green: the great Bishop Westcott had been widely admired during the coal strike of 1892 for bringing miners and employers to Auckland Castle and successfully mediating between the two groups. It was not that Henson misjudged the occasion. He praised the miners, and pleaded to everyone’s better nature for an end to class war. But he unwisely included as a throwaway remark, a reference to the few, not the many, who were ‘shirkers’. This was mistaken to be a denigration of them all. For a while, the mood that year was ugly. Henson was able to redeem it by never failing in his conscientious care for miners and their families and his often generous financial provision for them, despite his dislike of organised labour and the trade unions.

But things soon turned sour again. This time, it came down to a difference of opinion between the Bishop and the Dean and it tells us quite a lot about Henson. Welldon took an exalted view of the office of Dean. Once, he was speaking to a meeting of railwaymen at Stockton and one of them asked, ‘Who is worth more to the country – a Dean or an engine-driver?  He replied: ‘A Dean is worth more than an engine-driver, if only because the engine-driver would take people from Stockton to Newcastle, but a Dean would take them from Stockton to heaven’.[5] 

His relations with Henson were notoriously bad, and the Bishop found in him exactly the right target for his acid wit. When preaching at Court and lunching afterwards at Buckingham Palace, King George V happened to ask his granddaughter Princess Elizabeth what she had liked best at the zoo on their visit the previous day.  ‘The rhinobottomus’ she replied.  Henson at once said: ‘Thank you, my dear Princess, for giving me a word which so adequately describes my Dean’.  When a lady asked him at a dinner-party if he had seen the play Pigs in Clover, he replied: ‘No, but I have seen the Dean of Durham in bed’.  Welldon was suspicious of the telephone, and would only allow a single appliance to be installed in the Porters’ Lodge to serve the entire College.  (That however was more advanced than Henson, who refused to have a telephone at Auckland Castle at all, so his chaplain had to make daily trips to a public phone in the market place in order to transact the business of the diocese)[6]. 

Relations came to a head. This time, it was another matter entirely that proved the trigger. Welldon was a leader of the temperance movement while Henson thought the whole idea of prohibition both absurd in itself and damaging (as he looked across the Atlantic) politically and socially. The brewers regarded Henson as their champion and liked the implication that the ‘liquor bishop’ would ‘rather see England free than England sober’.[7] The Dean decided to brief against his Bishop. He addressed the annual Miners’ Gala in July 1825 appealing to the Labour Party to ‘solve the nation’s drink problem’ and dissenting from Henson’s well-known views. Unfortunately, Henson had written a newspaper article a few days earlier on ‘The Coal Crisis: an explanation and a warning’. The topic was the miners’ demand to be paid a ‘living wage’.

Henson argued that this act of folly would put their very industry at risk. They were furious. A banner was processed on the racecourse proclaiming ‘to hell with bishops and deans! We want a living wage!’ There were mutterings about the vast stipends enjoyed by church dignitaries, and the Cathedral’s ownership of a well-known colliery, the Dean and Chapter pit at Ferryhill. Then a large man attired in an episcopal habit was seen amid the throng. This was not the Bishop but the Dean who had been a colonial bishop in East India. ‘Here he comes’ the crowd shouted, ‘throw him in the river!’. After a beating, they almost succeeded but for the intervention of the police. Who knows if the miners were intent on throwing a church dignitary into the river, not caring whom, or whether they mistook Welldon for Henson? But from then on, Henson paid attention to his personal security.

In the national church, the issue that long preoccupied him was that of disestablishment. I have said that he began as a fervent advocate of the established church. This was to change dramatically with the debacle over Parliament’s refusal to endorse the revised Book of Common Prayer twice over, first in 1927 and then again in 1928. This requires a lecture in itself, but briefly, the reasons for Parliament’s dislike of the draft text were based on a lingering protestant suspicion, fanned by a successful public campaign headed by well-known evangelicals, that the book conceded the historic Reformation position of the Church of England by countenancing such practices as eucharistic sacrifice and prayers for the dead. It is salutary to be reminded that what was called anti-Romanism was in some circles a live issue well into the 20th century, and is still not yet put to rest.

Because the revised Prayer Book had been unambiguously endorsed by the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church Assembly acting under its legal mandate of 1919, Henson regarded Parliament’s rejection as an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of the church. He now began to clamour loudly for disestablishment to which he gave the title of a notorious book he published in 1929. In it, he argued (presciently, many think today), that as the nation could no longer be said to profess the Christian faith, the church should be given the freedom to govern itself. His cry fell on deaf ears and made him more enemies. However, his public role in the coronation of 1937 seems to have moderated his position. He began to talk about the ‘residual’ Christianity held by the English as compared with the outright paganism that was sweeping across Nazi Germany.

And this observation of what was happening across the North Sea brought out what some consider as the very best in Henson. His stepmother, whom his father had met late in Henson’s adolescence, was a German widow. Henson always retained his affection for her, and her memory probably influenced him when, late in life, he observed the capitulation of a nation he admired to the forces of totalitarianism. He was one of only a few in public life vocally to criticise Nazi anti-Semitism, and support the German Confessing Church and its imprisoned pastor Martin Niemöller. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1936, he was quick to condemn Britain’s lack of concern, and when it came to the Munich crisis of 1938, he was forthright in speaking against an act of appeasement that he regarded as a ‘grievous injury’to the Czechs and a shameful capitulation to Germany’.[8] He had opposed spending on re-armament as he believed it promoted war. But he saw in 1938 that war was inevitable, a ‘holy war against pagan barbarism’ to end which there must be unambiguous victory, not a ‘compromise or patched-up peace’.[9]

This pleased Churchill who in 1940 invited Henson to forsake retirement and return to Westminster as a canon who would preach fervently in support of the war. It was not a success because of his failing health, and he resigned in 1941. He died in Suffolk on 27 September 1947. His ashes are buried in this Cathedral in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, near Bishop Anthony Bek and the memorial to the last of the prince-bishops, William van Mildert. Ella lived on for two more years.

Short men are often pugnacious, and this is true of Hensley Henson. This is evident from the best of his huge literary output, his letters and his long memoirs entitled Retrospect of an Unimportant Life. It is hard to tell whether there is an intended irony in the title, or whether he believed, as an outsider who had never attended public school and had been an impoverished ‘unattached’ student at Oxford, that he was a nobody like the famous diarist whose title he was perhaps echoing.  One writer thinks the book is ‘by turns snobbish, self-regarding, and self-dramatizing’[10].  But Owen Chadwick’s enjoyable biography[11] takes a more sympathetic view of this conflicted, inconsistent and troublesome man.  It demonstrates his far-sightedness, his passion for justice, his hatred of hypocrisy and cant.  He was perhaps one of the few prophets to occupy the Deanery.  His tenure as a wartime dean here in Durham came before he had made his lasting mark on the Church of England.  Yet I like to think that some of his enduring insights about church and society were nurtured in the room he and Ella made so beautiful for future Deans and their families to enjoy.  

[1] Henson, Herbert Hensley, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, London, 1942, I, 147.
[2] Complete list of books and papers in Peart-Binns, J. S., Herbert Hensley Henson, Cambridge, 2013, 192ff.
[3] Grimley, Matthew in ODNB, online source, citing The Times.
[4] Kitchin, G. W., The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912, Durham, 1912.
[5] Beeson, op cit.
[6] Gibby, C. W., ‘Some Deans and Canons of Durham’, unpublished reminiscences, 1979.
[7] Chadwick, Owen, Hensley Henson: a study in the friction between Church and State, Norwich 1983, 165.
[8] DNB, Grimley, Matthew on ‘Henson, Herbert Hensley’, 2004-5
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Chadwick, ibid.

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