Henson’s speeches in Church bodies

The Representative Church Council was formed in 1904 as periodic joint meetings of the convocations of Canterbury and York, with the purpose of enhancing representation within the Church. It consisted of a house of bishops, who all attended ex-officio, and houses of clergy and laymen with elected as well as ex-officio members. The Council was reconstituted in 1920 as the National Church Assembly to act as a forum for Church self-government, endowed with legislative abilities by the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act – the ‘Enabling Act’ – passed by parliament during 1919.

Henson was an ex-officio member of the Representative Church Council successively as a proctor for the chapter of Westminster Abbey, dean of Durham and bishop of Hereford, and of the Church Assembly as bishop of Durham. Yet he was in principle ill-disposed towards both bodies, from the perspective of an ardent defender of the Church as a national institution represented above all in parliament. In 1913, for example, he referred to the Representative Church Council as ‘that preposterous assembly’.[1] Ever averse to ‘canting’ and ‘windbaggery’, he was impatient of the sense of self-satisfaction displayed by many members of the Council and Assembly during debates.[2] He regarded both the Council and the Assembly as narrowing the Church from a national into a sectional body, representing members of the Church but not members of the nation as a whole. Most of all, he feared the dominance in these bodies of special interests, particularly those of the high church ‘party’, in which – he was painfully aware – the best speakers in the Church were concentrated.[3]

His fears were confirmed after the creation of the Church Assembly. During its first session, he commented in his Journal on the dominance of the proceedings by ‘the Clique’. This comprised Lord Selborne, Viscount Wolmer, Lord Hugh Cecil, Lord Parmoor, and William Temple – all broadly sympathetic to high church interests – who had pressed hard for an Assembly through their leading role in the Archbishops’ Committee on Church and State, 1913-16.[4] Nothing in his experience of the Assembly during the next few years led him to alter his view, either of its centre of gravity or its adverse effects on the Church of England as an established Church. As he wrote to a correspondent in 1925:

The more efficient the Church Assembly becomes as the organ of an autonomous sect, the more repulsive to it becomes the obligations & restraints of the national Establishment.[5]

Nevertheless, Henson attended most of the meetings of both bodies, even when – as from 1913 – distance from London made this more difficult than it had been during his Westminster years. He was an ex-officio member of the RCC first as proctor of the Westminster Chapter and then as Dean of Durham, in addition to his ex-officio membership both of the Council and the Assembly as a bishop. Moreover, he often spoke during their sessions; indeed, they provided the occasion of some of his finest speeches, often belying remarks in his journal that his intervention had been ‘poor’.[6] Following his speech in the Church Assembly in 1936 opposing the Church’s continued support for establishment in the aftermath of the Prayer Book crisis of 1927–8, his arch-opponent Lord Hugh Cecil handed him a note saying it was the most ‘powerful and brilliant’ he had ever heard.[7]

His speeches ranged widely over important areas of concern, not just in the Church but also in public life in Britain generally.

The following list of Henson’s speeches in the Representative Church Council and in the Church Assembly will be supplemented by his speeches in Convocation in due course.

[1] Henson, Journal, 3 July 1913.
[2] Henson, Journal, 19 Nov. 1920.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Henson to George Frodsham, 28 Feb. 1925, HHH 105.
[6] Henson, Journal, 27 Nov. 1917.
[7] Henson, Retrospect, II, 377.