Review of Robert Beaken, Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2014)

Review of Robert Beaken, Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), ISBN 978-1789763552, Pp. xix + 300.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

In his biographer’s view, the reputation of Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 to 1942, has suffered unfairly in the seventy years since his death. He was attacked for being “proud, pompous and prelatical” and is often remembered only for the critical public speech he made during King Edward VIII’s abdication crisis in 1936. This seemed to lack any sign of Christian charity towards the monarch he had earlier sworn to serve loyally. But Robert Beaken presents a more favourable picture, based on a full examination of Lang’s papers in the Lambeth Palace library. He portrays a church leader faced with complex and difficult situations, both ecclesiastical and national, whose temperament was elitist but not cavalier, and who held together the divergent segments of the Church of England with considerable adroitness. That said, Lang lacked both the theological scholarship and the charismatic personality of his successor, William Temple. And in the changed atmosphere of the post-1945 world, he appeared to be a devotee of the past and the top-heavy establishment of the Church of England. In Beaken’s view, however, Lang deserves the credit for holding the Church together during the Second World War without reproach, maintaining the morale of the public and helping the Church to adjust to a variety of thorny political situations.

beaken-langLang was born in Scotland, the son of a distinguished Presbyterian minister. When he came to study in Oxford, he switched allegiance to a moderate high Anglicanism and opted to be ordained in the Church of England. His gifts were obvious and he quickly gained preferment. In fact, in 1890, at the age of 36, he became a suffragan or assistant bishop, and at the age of 44 was selected to be Archbishop of York, the second highest appointment in the English hierarchy. He spent twenty years there, before being moved to Canterbury in 1928. In Beaken’s view, it was hardly his fault that he was appointed to York too early and to Canterbury too late in life. He was a loner and a workaholic, and a bachelor who had difficulty in relating to others even of his own class and complexion. As a result, he never established any personal associations and had no following to uphold his legacy. This biography will, however, serve to record his achievements and gives a sympathetic analysis of Lang’s actions during the difficult and traumatic years of the 1930s.

Beaken admits that Lang was ambitious and a snob, and even speculates whether his keen desire to attain high office may have stemmed from a need to justify his conversion to and ordination in Anglicanism. His greatest gift was to be an administrator, getting on with the daily grind of an archbishop. This made for an uneventful career, broken twice by major crises, one ecclesiastical and one political.

The first of these arose in the 1920s over plans to issue a new Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England, to update the 1662 liturgies, which had survived largely unchanged since Cranmer’s days four centuries earlier. After the shock of the Great War, such reforms were held to be necessary for revitalizing church life. The reformers, especially in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, sought a liturgy more inclusive of their desires for more colourful and prayerful services. But evangelicals viewed such ideas as an attack on the Reformation heritage of their church, and as a dangerous precedent for “creeping Romanism”. By law all such changes had to be approved by Parliament. But when the new Prayer Book was presented in 1927, it was twice defeated in the House of Commons, due to the mobilization of those MPs who were fearful of any innovations, especially if derived from Roman Catholic practices. Following this setback, the then Archbishop Davidson resigned, and Lang was left to pick up the pieces and to try and heal the obvious disagreements about churchmanship.The two major issues were: first, who held the lawful authority to alter the Book of Common Prayer and its rituals; and second, what changes, if any, were desirable or acceptable to the majority of the Church of England? Beaken regards Lang’s actions as insufficient and tepid. Certainly he appointed a high-level commission, but it took seven years to produce a report, and then recommended keeping the status quo. On the second point, there was no agreement, so confusion reigned. Different parishes, even adjacent ones, could and did provide wholly different liturgies, and the situation still remains unresolved. It was not, in Beaken’s view, Lang’s finest hour.

On the matter of King Edward VIII’s abdication, the second of Lang’s crises, Beaken claims that Lang played a much more decisive part. He acquits him on the charge of organizing a “plot”, along with Prime Minister Baldwin, to force the king to abdicate. But he does suggest that quite early on Lang recognized Edward’s unwillingness to maintain the role of a dedicated Christian monarch upholding traditional values, as had his father before him or his niece after him. Lang saw the monarchy in sacramental rather than merely political terms. But Beaken is critical of the speech made shortly after the abdication which scolded the former king for not upholding the ideals of the Church on Christian marriage, and for associating with those “whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts of his people”. At the time Lang was attacked for being smugly sanctimonious—and not only by the king’s supporters. At the time, too, most people in Britain blamed the king’s mistress, Mrs. Simpson, the twice divorced American, for causing the catastrophe. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now share Lang’s view of Edward’s unsuitability, and can be thankful that his successor was quickly able to restore the aura of the monarch, as could be seen in the splendid ceremonies of the 1937 coronation, over which Lang presided.

Lang’s leadership of the church and nation as the war clouds regathered over Europe earns Beaken’s praise. He had learnt the lessons of the earlier war, and avoided any claims of divine guidance or approval of Britain’s war efforts. Most of his time was spent in keeping the administration and pastoral witness of the Church of England going. It was not glamourous, but rather a humdrum necessity. Lang did, however, lead in denouncing the Nazi victimization of the Jews, and guided the country during national days of prayer. Even though he was outspoken in opposing the Nazi regime, he also warned against any spirit of vindictiveness or hatred towards the enemy. He joined his colleague Bishop Bell in condemning the blanket bombing of German cities and gave his support to the pacifists’ desire for conscientious exemption from military service. He also gave leadership to discussions for future post-war plans, but soon the added strains of war-time, including the bombing of Lambeth Palace, led him to recognize that he should retire. A younger man would, in any case, be needed to take up the burden of post-war reconstruction. So, in March 1942 he resigned and was replaced by William Temple.

In summary, Beaken believes that Lang left the Church of England in better shape after his fourteen years in office. At the same time, he notes a certain sadness about Lang’s character. “He sat at the top of an ecclesiastical pyramid, the focus of all sorts of unrealistic hopes and expectations, trying to hold together and to guide his Church, and coping with an unenviable workload. … As Archbishop of Canterbury, Lang simply kept going, doing his best for long hours, day by day, filled with an almost Calvinistic sense of duty and obligation” (238-239). He had inherited a ramshackle church government, and struggled under a heavy burden of office without adequate support. Still, his vision for a Christian England was upheld and in many ways is still in place.