Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 5 September 2010

5 September 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

Herbert Hensley Henson

No one who regularly preaches from this pulpit can be unaware of the history of great men, and until very recently it was only men, who have stood in this place. I want, therefore, to use the three Matins sermons this month to think about three of those men who were all canons here in the twentieth century, and perhaps to ask what they might still have to say to us today.

I start with someone who was, I believe, the only person ever to be a canon here twice. Herbert Hensley Henson first came as a Canon and Rector of St Margaret’s in 1900 at the age of 37 and stayed here for twelve years until he moved to become first Dean of Durham, then Bishop of Hereford and then Bishop of Durham, where he remained until he retired in 1938. But throughout the 1930s he was very critical of the dictators in Europe, Mussolini and Hitler, making passionate speeches again them and against any compromise with them in the House of Lords. So in 1940 Churchill invited him to come back to Westminster as canon again and even ordered the entire cabinet to attend here to witness his installation, which in the event happened during an air-raid in 1940. Henson was 77 years old at the time and sadly his failing sight meant that he was not able to manage the role, he had difficulty even in reading the lessons, so he resigned in less than a year in 1941, but he still enters the record books as the only person to be a Canon here twice.
He was as a boy from a relatively poor background, but his father was a deeply religious and serious man who joined the Plymouth Brethren, a rather narrow evangelical sect, and he would not risk his son being corrupted by meeting other boys at school so educated him at home. The young Henson had read very widely in his father’s library such that by the time he was 14 he had probably read more theology than many clergy at the time had read when they were ordained. When his father was eventually persuaded to send him to school his fellow pupils were amused to discover than on many things the new pupil was more well read than his headmaster. The headmaster did recognise his ability and made him head boy, which, among other things, made Henson responsible for discipline in the dormitories. When some boys misbehaved Henson would not name them to the headmaster, and the headmaster accused him before the whole school of lying. Henson was incensed, and in his own words ‘I delivered myself with more passion than respect’, and that night wrote a scathing letter to the Headmaster, climbed out of the school, walked the five miles home and never went back. Subsequently, and by a complex route, he eventually was persuaded to try for admission to Oxford University, where it had recently become possible to enrol as a student without entering a college, which made acquiring a degree much cheaper. Henson read Modern History, got a first class honours degree and sat the competitive examination for a fellowship of All Souls College, the extraordinary College in Oxford that did not, and still does not take any undergraduates and which had enough wealth simply to appoint distinguished scholars to a fellowship. Henson won the competition and always later believed that his true life at Oxford started from that time.

He had always wanted to be a preacher, and he was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford to his Oxford fellowship at the age of 24, but very shortly after that was appointed as Head of the Oxford House, which was the home for four working men’s clubs in the east end of London. He loved the work, being a natural teacher, having a passion for the poor and the under-privileged, which passion he held with otherwise rather conservative political views, and he much enjoyed open-air debating with atheists and others in the east end. But then at the remarkably young age of 25, and having just been made a priest, he was offered the post of Vicar of Barking, a major parish on what was then the edge of east London, and he was to be the youngest vicar in the Church of England. As a parish priest was immensely successful, engaging in public controversy with Union leaders and others in the area, and becoming a very popular, albeit a rather waspish and controversial Anglo-Catholic parish priest. He left exhausted at the end of seven years, and then spent some time writing on public and ecclesiastical issues in various publications including in the correspondence columns of The Times, and that gave him the space to move from his Anglo-Catholicism to a more central position, offering a very strong defence of establishment in the press, but also believing that biblical scholarship had to be taken seriously even if it challenged some traditional views of the historical accuracy of the New Testament.. This all brought him to the notice of the wider public including to the Prime Minister, and at the age of 37 he came here as Rector of St Margaret’s and a Canon.

He had a very distinguished twelve years here, further enhancing his public reputation as a preacher of extraordinary ability, and at his final service at St Margaret’s several hundred people were left outside not able to get in, so great was the crowd.
After five years at Durham as Dean in 1917 he was offered by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, the post of Bishop of Hereford. The appointment caused an outcry amongst the theologically more conservative, led by his erstwhile fellow canon here at the Abbey, Charles Gore, by then Bishop of Oxford. What seemed to incense them was Henson’s defence of those academic scholars who thought there were genuine questions about the historical accuracy of what the New Testament said about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. One of them was a clergyman called Thompson, who was a fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, and whose licence to preach had been withdrawn by Gore as Bishop of that Diocese. Henson wrote in a book: ‘One thing is unquestionable. In setting a ring-fence about the narratives of Christ’s birth and resurrection, and exempting them from the critical methods allowed to control the rest of the New Testament, Mr Thompson’s opponents have taken up a position which is really impossible to justify on any other principles than those which direct the policy of the Vatican.’ Gore was furious, and following the announcement of Henson’s appointment to Hereford Gore wrote a formal protest to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Davidson, having earlier spoken with him and Davidson’s report of that discussion said of Gore ‘He passionately exclaimed ‘it all turns, though you won’t see it, on his disbelief in miracles as such. He believes Our Lord had a human father, and that His Body rotted in the tomb. A man who believes that cannot, with my consent, be made a Bishop in the Province.’ Actually Henson’s view was more nuanced than that, he simply thought there was a genuine scholarly debate about the issues and on the conclusions of that he declared himself to be agnostic. Well, in the end, there was an exchange of letters between Davidson and Henson which provided sufficient face saving for Gore not to resign and Henson was duly consecrated as Bishop of Hereford. After a very few years he was moved by Lloyd George to be Bishop of Durham, about which move there was no public controversy, and he stayed for many years and was, I believe, considered to be a very good bishop.

Why I find him a compelling example lies in three qualities he demonstrated in his life and ministry.

First, he was passionate about the freedom of intellectual inquiry, and the debate in which he was engaged about the historical accuracy of the New Testament was such a public one, even during the First World War, with bishops prepared publicly to disagree with one another. It certainly made for an interesting church. That debate has now largely subsided at least in public in the Church of England, and that is, to my mind, one of the reasons that the Church’s engagement with many on the fringe and outside the Church in England is weaker today than it was in his day. We could do a lot worse than reflect on his passion on open intellectual debate.

Secondly, Henson had no doubt that it was the role of clergy whether here in Westminster or later in the more senior positions he held  to engage in the serious public issues of the day whether they be theological or political. He was an important and much respected intellectual force in the land because of the quality, passion and clarity of the arguments he advanced. Perhaps on that front as well we need more bishops like him today.

Then, thirdly, and perhaps more humanly, he could also use his devastating wit to good effect to deflate the mighty. He was once with a group of people being shown round Lambeth Palace by Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1930s, and Lang showed his visitors the portrait of himself done by William Orpen. Lang said he did not like it, because it made him ‘look proud, prelatical and pompous’. Henson responded from the visitors ‘and to which of those epithets does Your Grace take exception?’ We need bishops like that.

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