Henson: a brief biography

Philip Williamson

Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947), was a leading churchman during the first four decades of the twentieth century, a member of the House of Lords, a renowned preacher, a prolific writer and a forthright public moralist. In both his religious and political ideas he was a determined individualist, taking his own course, unafraid of expressing unpopular opinions and disagreeing with his superiors and colleagues, and liable to be in a minority of one. His experience of national life was unusually varied: he ministered to the poor and the unemployed in London and County Durham, but also knew or came into contact with many of the privileged, the wealthy and the leaders of the nation. He was a complex man: clever and learned, reading widely and deeply; publicly self-confident and combative, yet as his Journals reveal, privately introspective and sensitive.

Henson was the sixth of eight children of a small-scale businessman who had rejected the Church of England, turned towards a harsh puritanism and joined the Plymouth Brethren. After an unhappy childhood, he was able to enter the University of Oxford but due to financial difficulties only as an independent student, unattached to any college. Henson always considered himself to be an outsider, even after his brilliant first degree and his election to a fellowship of Oxford’s most elite institution, All Souls College. As a private tutor in Birkenhead in 1885, he witnessed the poverty of large parts of the population, and felt a vocation as a ‘slum priest’. In 1887 he became head of the Oxford House Settlement in Bethnal Green, and after ordination in 1888 he was a highly successful vicar of Barking, a rapidly growing parish with a large, working-class population.

Hospital of St. Mary and St. Thomas, Ilford.

In 1895 ill health obliged him to move, becoming chaplain to the Hospital of St Mary and St Thomas in Ilford. In 1902 he married Isabella Caroline Dennistoun (1870-1949); their only son was stillborn. On the recommendation of the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in 1900 he became a canon of Westminster Abbey and rector of St Margaret’s, Westminster, the official church of the House of Commons. Here he observed many of the great national occasions, and participated in the coronations of 1902 and 1911 (as he would again as bishop, in 1937). He became acquainted with many of the leading figures in British life, and developed distinctive attitudes in church and public affairs, marked by a particular concern with a ‘national’ perspective.

At first Henson was a high churchman, and he long remained a leading defender of the establishment of the Church of England. But he became a critic of anglo-catholic ‘ritualists’, moved toward a liberal or ‘modernist’ theology, and sought to reconcile church establishment with church union, through intercommunion and interchange of pulpits with the English and Welsh nonconformist (or ‘free’) churches, and closer fraternal links with the Scottish presbyterian churches. Against the bishops, he supported undenominational religious teaching in state schools. He opposed the use of episcopal authority to censor clergymen for holding unorthodox views, and he himself became notorious for questioning the apostolic succession of bishops and ministers, and seeming to doubt the doctrines of the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ. He supported revision of the Book of Common Prayer, as a means to overcome the problem of discipline within the Church – the adoption by anglo-catholic ritualists of practices which were technically illegal, under the Act of Uniformity and canon law, which required strict adherence to the worship and doctrines set out in the Prayer Book of 1662. Church affairs were far from being his only concern: he preached, lectured and wrote on many of the great public issues, and on humanitarian causes, notably the foreign office exposure of the brutalities of the Putumayo rubber company in South America.

David Lloyd George, 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor (1863–1945)

In 1912 Henson was appointed Dean of Durham. He was a prominent opponent of the Liberal government’s measure for disestablishment of the Church in Wales, and equally of the movement within the Church for greater self-government, loosening its dependence upon parliamentary legislation. For him, the Church of England was an expression of the English nation, and he was a critic of the Enabling Act (1919) which gave powers to an elected National Church Assembly. This, he believed, weakened the Church establishment, and created a distinction between members of the Church and members of the nation. In 1917 Lloyd George as prime minister appointed Henson as bishop of Hereford, against the advice of the archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson. Lloyd George, from a Welsh nonconformist background, wanted to appoint an outstanding preacher, and had no interest in the theological and ecclesiastical issues that exercised members of the Church. His decision provoked an ecclesiastical ‘scandal’ on the grounds of Henson’s heterodox opinions, with a formal protest by the bishop of Oxford and public criticisms from ten other bishops. The appointment proceeded after the archbishop of Canterbury persuaded Henson to accept a careful form of words asserting his acceptance of the Apostle’s creed.

Henson was a successful bishop at Hereford; even so, his promotion by Lloyd George to the bishopric of Durham in 1920 was again made against the advice of the archbishop of Canterbury. In the economically depressed north-east England, Henson supported many efforts to improve the conditions of the working population, and to raise funds for the relief of unemployment. But he was a vocal opponent of trade unions and socialism, vigorously engaging in new controversies on social and economic issues. He was conscientious in his diocesan duties, spending much time visiting parishes, advising his clergy, and delivering and publishing a notable series of addresses on pastoral care. He continued his commentaries on a wide range of contemporary issues, including spiritual healing, and becoming a leading opponent of the Oxford Group movement. After the parliamentary defeat of the revised Prayer Book in 1927-8, he concluded that parliament could not remain as the supreme body in the Church of England’s affairs. Reversing one of the chief tenets of his career, he now tried to mount a campaign for disestablishment of the Church, but without success; in consequence, he spent much of the next decade in ecclesiastical isolation. But he continued to attend national meetings in London, and to record and comment upon the great public issues of the day, including the abdication of King Edward VIII. As a member of the House of Lords, he supported divorce reform, and became a prominent opponent of the British government’s policies towards Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and a critic of the persecutions of the ‘confessing’ church and the Jews in Germany

Henson retired in 1939, and moved to Hintlesham in Suffolk. In 1940 he was re-appointed as a canon of Westminster Abbey on the recommendation of Churchill, who like Lloyd George admired his public speaking and had been particularly impressed by his opposition to appeasement, and who thought his forceful preaching at the heart of government would contribute to the war effort. During his career, Henson published some 75 books and pamphlets, and perhaps 500 letters to The Times; and large numbers of his sermons, lectures and further letters were printed in other newspapers. In full retirement from 1941, he prepared three volumes of memoirs, misleadingly and mischievously entitled Retrospect of an unimportant life (1942–30). On his death in 1947, his ashes were interred in Durham Cathedral.