Archbishop in War and Crisis
London: I.B. Tauris, 2012
Hardcover. xix+300 p. ISBN 978-1780763552. £25.00
Reviewed by Stephen Parker
University of Worcester
The significance of Cosmo Gordon Lang is argued for in Robert Beaken's detailed, human and readable study of this early twentieth-century archbishop (of York: 1909-1928; of Canterbury: 1928-1942). William Temple, that quintessential leader of the church, has cast a backward shadow over his predecessor’s achievements and reputation, and although Beaken's study is unlikely to reverse this (Temple is far too important a figure and Christian intellectual for this to happen), what is possible is that this study will lead to a re-appraisal of Lang's contribution in some respects, not least his steering the Church of England through the choppy waters in the years following the Prayer Book crisis, and in laying the foundation that led to the archbishoprics of Temple and Fisher, and to some extent enabling their achievements.
Lang has suffered disrepute as an Archbishop more than most, partly due to what Beaken observes to be the inadequate biography written of him by J.G. Lockhart, ‘someone who never met Lang, did not have access to his official papers, and had a tendency sometimes to exaggerate or to simplify things for the sake of a good tale’ . Lang’s part in the abdication crisis (subject of a recent TV documentary, Edward VIII : The Plot To Topple a King, and in which Beaken appeared), his undeniably crass radio broadcast on this matter, and about George VI’s speech impediment, (documented in an appendix at the back of the volume), are remembered more than anything else about Lang. Of late, Lang’s portrayal as an all-but anonymous interfering senior cleric in the Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech only serves to reinforce and popularise the stereotype of Lang, and his role in royal politics of the 1930s, the events of which appear to prove endlessly fascinating. Beaken’s biography is not a defence of Lang in these respects, but in many ways it offers a rounder and more sympathetic picture, in line with the historical evidence Beaken has been able to unearth.
Having outlined his meteoric rise through the Church of England from a Scottish Presbyterian background, via Glasgow University and Balliol College, Oxford, Beaken focuses the main chapters of his study [chapters 4-7] upon the most critical events for church and state in the interwar years, the Prayer Book and abdication crises, and Lang’s pastoral role during the Second World War. Developing a picture of the man, Beaken shows how Lang conceptualised Christianity, royalty, church and state as synonymous, borne of the intimate access to the upper echelons of society the archbishop had. In this context, Lang’s discomfiture with the moral ineptitude of Prince Edward seems more understandable, explaining why the scheming Lang was party to the removal of the King. Lang’s ambiguous sexuality, his affection for his chaplains, a question of fascination, and taken to be a code for his homosexuality by his biographers, is dealt with sensitively by Beaken, who also reveals the touching, rather dependent, relationship Lang had with the actress, Ann Todd, whom Lang was on his way to see the day he died.
Despite gently critiquing Lang, Beaken clearly has an affection for his subject not often easy to maintain when writing a biography. Consequently some of the details of this study are sensitively, even warmly, though not sentimentally, described. This study shows the key role the Church of England still played in national life in the middle twentieth century, functioning in the person of the archbishop, pastorally and politically, at the highest level – despite Lang’s particular shortcomings. It is interesting to compare Lang’s archbishopric – and the position of the Church he represented – with that of successive generations. Rowan Williams, who writes the Foreword to this volume, for instance, felt himself to be working amidst a much changed cultural position, to that of his predecessors. When Williams became archbishop he reflected upon the now ambiguous place of Christianity in British life, writing of society as having lost its icons.(1) Even so, Williams was still called upon to counsel a Prince of Wales over personal matters, and his public utterances still cited as authoritative. Whatever the contingencies over time, the Church of England and its archbishops thus still show signs of currency amidst this perceptibly different situation. Whatever may have been lost, some things have clearly been preserved. Amidst this, perhaps the personality of the Church’s supremo – whatever its strengths or shortcomings – seem to matter less than their role and the institution they represent in providing for a future for the Church. Within this, Beaken’s study demystifies in giving the Church a human face. Was the Church led by the right person at the right time, a time of crisis and at the dawn of a new era? Beaken concludes so of Lang, despite his complexities.
(1) Williams, Rowan. Lost Icons : Reflection on Cultural Bereavement. London: Continuum, 2002.
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