Simon Green

Handley Moule, Bishop of Durham.

On 2 February 1918, Henson was consecrated bishop of Hereford in Westminster Abbey.  This was no ordinary inauguration ceremony.  Several of his new episcopal colleagues – including Winnington-Ingram of London and his old friend, ‘Fish’ Cecil of Exeter – refused to take part in the event.  His own bishop, Moule of Durham, declined to present Henson to the archbishop.  Archdeacon Hough, who was appointed suffragan bishop of Woolwich at the same time, made it very clear that he did not appreciate sharing his elevation with someone criticised as a ‘heretic’.  At nearby St. Matthew’s Church, Great Peter Street, an irate Anglo-Catholic priest preached a sermon vehemently denouncing everything that was then going on in the nearby Royal Peculiar, and also ruefully predicting the inevitable separation of the English established Church from the universal Christian Church that this entailed.[1]

Exterior of Hereford Cathedral.

These bizarre proceedings constituted the culmination of six weeks of frantic struggle between the various factions of the Church of England, set in motion by the decision of the prime minister, Lloyd George, to nominate Henson to the vacant see of Hereford, on 8 December 1917.  During the intervening days, the archbishop of Canterbury had threatened to resign his primacy while Henson considered abandoning the Christian ministry altogether.  Bishop Gore of Oxford lodged a formal protest against the appointment (on 3 January 1918); other clergy, numerous laymen and various church societies made their criticisms public, and a petitioning campaign was begun; the Church was seriously threatened with schism.  Only a last minute ‘declaration’ of Henson’s ‘orthodoxy’, achieved by way of an exchange of letters with the archbishop (both letters, in fact, written by archbishop Davidson), saved the day – or at least, Davidson’s long-standing archiepiscopacy and Henson’s first episcopal appointment.[2]

No senior nomination had provoked so much opposition for more than seventy years.  The reason was, at one level, simple.  Many in the Church, particularly on its (otherwise rarely concordant) Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings, regarded Henson as a renegade.  This was because from the time of his appointment as rector of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and through his years as dean of Durham, Henson had repeatedly and publicly argued that affirmation of the two great miracles of the Apostle’s Creed – namely, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of the body of Christ – was not required of those seeking holy orders.  More controversially still, he had pronounced – if not his denial of these two miracles – certainly his agnosticism about them.  Yet Henson was about to become an official guardian of the Truth.  For conservative evangelicals, such as Dean Wace of Canterbury, or Anglo-Catholics, like Bishop Gore, this was a test case.

It was also a critical episode in the history of English modernism and liberal protestantism, more generally.  ‘Modernism’ had begun as a specifically Roman Catholic response to the ultramontane challenge posed by the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870.  It had developed an alternative teaching designed to make the Church both scientifically relevant and morally progressive.  To that extent, it also spoke to, and even informed, a parallel form of protestant liberalism.  Certainly, both sought a similar synthesis between inherited Christianity and modern forms of knowledge, especially in that kind of historical theology which grew out of German biblical criticism.[3]  By 1917, Henson was firmly established in the public mind as the most prominent and outspoken ‘modernist’ – perhaps better, theological liberal – in the higher echelons of the Anglican establishment.  This was in many ways an unmerited reputation.  Henson was no great theologian, having failed to complete his studies of this subject at Oxford.  Nor was he much of an institutional partisan.  He continually declined to become a member of the Churchmen’s Union (founded in 1898, to ‘maintain the right and duty of the Church to restate her belief from time to time as required by the progressive revelation of the Holy Spirit’), despite being urged by Dean Inge and other friends to do so.[4]  To be sure, he wrote regularly for Henry Major’s Modern Churchman, a journal inaugurated in 1912 specifically ‘to vindicate the truths of Christianity by the light of scholarship and research’, though by no means always on specifically ‘liberal’ subjects.  Moreover, he became more critical than supportive of its efforts to alter Anglican doctrine and practice after World War I.[5]  Even as Dean, and increasingly in later years, Henson sometimes rejected the label ‘modernist’ altogether, preferring to describe himself as ‘an old-fashioned “Latitude man”, who had strayed from the seventeenth century into the twentieth.’[6]

It was not that Henson was ever an anti-modernist.  This was not least because he never regarded ‘modernism’ as a specifically Anglican issue, but rather a problem that confronted every aspect of the modern Christian Church; this could not be avoided by any ‘educated … or thinking … Christian’.  It had been specifically repudiated only by a backward-looking Papacy and those biblical illiterates increasingly attracted to Protestant fundamentalism.[7] To that degree at least, Henson regarded modernism, broadly conceived, in much the same light as the radicals of the Churchmen’s Union: namely, as the proper response of sincere Anglicans ‘to the needs and knowledge of the day.’[8]  However, Henson came to that view by a different route from most of those he long called his ‘fellow liberals’.[9]  This made a considerable difference to the extent to which he ever became a true ‘modernist’ or, indeed, a ‘liberal’, whether in their eyes or his.

Ironically, Henson began his ecclesiastical life as something of a Goreite.  It was Gore’s writings – and not, for instance, Essays and Reviews (1860) – that first led him to modernism.  Gore’s essay in Lux Mundi (1889) broke with the Tractarian tradition, by embracing German biblical criticism and integrating historical scholarship into Anglo-Catholic theology.  Henson often doubted just how profound Gore’s departure had been in this respect.[10]  But it was sufficient to enable a young English Catholic to interpret the teaching of his other Oxford mentors, above all Lightfoot and Westcott, as recognisably and admirably ‘modernist’, at least in their interpretation of the Bible. It was also useful, especially in his opposition to the ‘ritualist’ lawlessness then endemic in the later-Victorian Church, for Henson to note that the most brazen ceremonialists were also amongst the most antediluvian creedalists of the age.[11]

In rejecting Goreism, Henson opened himself up to the possibilities of liberal protestantism.  In this way, he became thoroughly historical in his approach to theology, more particularly in relation to the religion of the Incarnation.  That led him to the ‘agnosticism’ he increasingly expressed about the miraculous aspects of the creed.  He also acquired an ever more pragmatic attitude to the organisation of the visible church.  These were not, in themselves, particularly unusual beliefs for an educated clergyman to hold during the years before the outbreak of the First World War.  What was unusual was Henson’s willingness to state them so clearly and so often.  The result was an outpouring of sermons that both repudiated a traditional Patristic Christology and rejected the Anglo-Catholic insistence upon a divinely ordained episcopacy.  That capacity for limpid argumentativeness that induced Asquith to offer him the Regius chair of ecclesiastical history at Oxford in 1908.  And it was for the very same reason that Archbishop Davidson was unable to conceal his disappointment that Henson had not accepted the institutional marginalisation that this otherwise prestigious appointment would probably have entailed.[12]

Lloyd George was the first anti-Anglican ever to be put in charge of Church patronage.[13]  Hereford was the most rural and conservative diocese in the country.  The frenzied state of the wartime Church did the rest.  But the great scandal of 1917-18 turned out to be the high point of Henson’s modernism.  Certainly, the more thoughtful amongst contemporary Anglo-Catholics (notably Bishop Talbot), similarly the serious radicals amongst the ‘modernists’ (for instance, Mrs. Humphrey Ward), noted that Henson, in making his declaration, committed himself to nothing incompatible with the Incarnation, the Trinity and at least some form of the Resurrection.  Moreover, as a bishop Henson increasingly came to see his ecclesiastical responsibilities less in terms of bold speculation and more about that proper ‘wardship of the integrity and due proportions of the Christian religion as these had received authoritative expression in the Apostolic literature of the New Testament.’[14]  Little of this ever found its way into the pages of The Modern Churchmen, after 1918.  Indeed, Henson wrote just one further article for that journal subsequent to his appointment to the see of Durham.[15]

The effect was subtle but striking.  The free-thinking dean proved a cautious prelate.  Indeed, as the ‘Modernists’ became more strident, he turned more critical of them.  So much so that, in 1921, the leading Anglo-Catholic Lord Halifax felt moved to convey his ‘warmest approval’ to the bishop of Durham for suitably pungent remarks made during a sermon to the Church Congress at Birmingham about ‘extremist modernist opinions’ expressed at the Cambridge conference of the Churchmen’s Union that year.[16]  As ‘modernist claims’, particularly about the ‘person of our Redeemer’ became more subversive, so Henson’s criticisms of them were that much more pointed.  This reached a stage when, in 1930, he was approached by ‘a group of young clergymen’ to ‘lead some kind of organised counter-movement to the Modernist teaching about our Blessed Lord.’  In the event, he declined, citing his long-standing opposition to ‘Movements’ and urging them to wait upon the verdict of the Doctrinal Commission (1922-38).[17]  None of this prevented him from taking the lead in condemning Bishop David for inviting a Unitarian minister to preach in Liverpool Cathedral four years later.  His public opposition to any further toleration of ‘Unitarian attitudes’ towards the founder of Christianity, rendered official in a resolution passed at the Convocation of York, even won him ‘orthodox’ approval in The Times.[18]

So did the poacher turn gamekeeper?  Not really.  The clerical polemicist may latterly have assumed an episcopal gravity in matters doctrinal that others had not have expected of him.  But if Henson never became a thoroughgoing ‘modernist’, nor even a theological ‘liberal’, in the precise sense of those terms, his subsequent ‘rejection of the new’ was influenced as much by tone and implication of contemporary modernist writings – most notably in their apparent contempt for the Church and its traditions – as it was determined by his conception of the truth of things.  There were certainly strict limits to his back-tracking.  When he came to construct a personal confessio fidei at the end of his life, Henson could still not help observing that ‘I find myself compelled to accept an agnostic position over an ever larger proportion of the ground which is covered by official and conventional credenda.’[19]

[1]  Chadwick, Henson, 136-45.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Graham Ward, ‘Modernism’, in Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper (eds.), The Oxford Companion of Christian Thought (London, 2000), 442-3; Alistair Mason, ‘Liberal Protestantism’, idem., pp. 385-7.
[4] Henson, Retrospect, 2, 315.
[5] The Modern Churchman, vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1912), 51.
[6] Henson, Retrospect, 2, 315.
[7] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 158 and 212-13.
[8] Objectives of the Churchmen’s Union; Object 3, part II: ‘[W]hile paying due regard to continuity, to work for such changes in the formularies and practices in the Church of England as from time to time are made necessary by the needs and knowledge of the day.’
[9] Henson, Retrospect, 2, 315.
[10] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 53, 155.
[11] Henson, Retrospect, 2, 188-9.
[12] Henson, Retrospect, 3, 178.
[13] Rosebery, Balfour and Campbell-Bannerman were Scottish Presbyterians who behaved as Anglicans when they were south of the border.  Lloyd-George was a Welsh nonconformist, wholly out of sympathy with its established church, and not much enamoured of the English version either.
[14] Henson, Retrospect, 2, 315-16.
[15] Henson, ‘Christianity as the way’, The Modern Churchman, 16 (April 1926), 30-6.
[16] Henson, Retrospect, 2, 143-4.
[17] Henson to Bishop Lawrence, 21 Oct. 1930, in Braley, More letters, pp. 65-6 at 66.
[18] Anon., ‘Unitarians and unity’, Times, 9 June 1934, 15.
[19] Henson to the Bishop of Derby, 27 Sept. 1943, in Braley, Letters, pp.145-6 at 146.