Simon Green

The great question of Church establishment overshadowed Henson’s entire ecclesiastical career. It also defined the profoundest paradox of his public life. For more than forty years, from 1886 to 1928, Henson was one of the most persistent, eloquent and influential apologists for the Established Church in England and Wales. During the last two decades of his life, from 1928 to 1947, he became perhaps the most prominent and certainly the most outspoken advocate of disestablishment throughout the Kingdom. His early defence of the Church – waged principally, but not solely – against the various assaults of later-Victorian and Edwardian ‘political nonconformity’, won him many admirers. That later apostasy dismayed even his closest friends. Perhaps as a result, most commentators, then and since, have concluded that Henson’s youthful commitment must have been as superficial as his later arguments seemed fanciful. Yet both were sincerely conceived and each remains capable of rational defence.

William Reynell Anson, Warden of All Soul’s during Henson’s fellowship.

Henson was Bishop of Hereford from 1918, and of Durham after 1920. Unlike most of his episcopal colleagues, he was born neither to social privilege nor hereditary churchmanship. His father was a Broadstairs businessman of evangelical bent, generally out of sympathy with the Church of England. In middle age, he became involved with the Plymouth Brethren and developed a sectarian intolerance that left his son with an enduring hatred of protestant fanaticism. Henson’s lifelong Anglicanism may have originated from an instinctive reaction to such a stifling apprenticeship in narrow-minded dissent. But it was also nurtured by a richer religious education. After his election to a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1884, he was drawn to Gore’s Puseyite catholicism. This was tempered by the sturdy, reformed, laiscism that he imbibed from Warden Anson at the same time. Neither influence entirely deserted him in later life.

Two years before Henson was ordained priest in 1888, he co-founded the ‘Oxford Laymen’s League for the Defence of the National Church’. Its principal purpose – and, for the next forty years his chief goal – was to oppose the claims of ‘political nonconformity’ against what Henson by then regarded as the legitimate privileges of the Established Church. Its secondary aim – which he long endorsed with equal enthusiasm – was to ‘raise the question of the National Church above the level of party politics.’[1] This was important. General disestablishment could easily have become a Liberal Party policy at almost any time after 1880. Welsh Disestablishment effectively did, from 1886 onwards.

More broadly, Henson upheld the later-Victorian Church establishment against both external enemies and traitors within. He was no great theologian. But he was an accomplished ecclesiastical historian, author of important works in the field, notably Light and Leaven (1897), studies in English Religion in the Seventeenth Century (1903) and the National Church (1908). Only his vocation prevented him from accepting Asquith’s offer of the Regius Chair at Oxford in 1908. Ecclesiastical history taught him that the Reformation had rid his native land of a real, if faltering, religious tyranny. It had also established a Protestantism to which all reasonable persons might subscribe: biblical of inspiration, Trinitarian in doctrine, and efficiently, if not divinely, episcopal by administration. To that extent, Henson judged the royal supremacy over the Church which this entailed to be a declaration of religious freedom. Perhaps as a result, Christian ecumenicalism never interested him. He was indifferent to eastern Orthodoxy and hostile to its Roman variant. More to the point, he long acknowledged the sovereignty of the king and his ministers – later Crown and parliament – over the English Church.

Practical experience taught him something else. This was that the Reformation had created a ‘National Church’ not merely in theory but also in fact. It had initially done the king’s will but it eventually became the institutional expression of the ‘essential unity’ of all ‘English Christians’.[2] That subtle enlargement of purpose had been the product of latitudinarian doctrine and lay government. These had together forged a ‘good’ establishment: good for the nation and good for its protestant religion as a whole. This was because establishment, so conceived, recast the Church ‘as the nation in its spiritual aspect’, enabling its sacred arm to appeal to all ‘thoughtful and religious Englishmen’.[3] At the same time, it ensured that they, in turn, remained both ‘vitally concerned with’ and yet ‘peculiarly disinterested’ about its proper administration. Establishment, thus endowed, also provided for the ‘effective provision’ of a ‘Christian pastorate … [and] religious teaching throughout the country.’[4] These advantages, taken together, guaranteed not only a ‘broadly tolerant vision of Christ’s religion’ but also an ‘effective mission’ to ‘the poor’.[5] Broadstairs had proved that dissent could do neither. Barking demonstrated that the Church still did both.

The problem, of course, was that ‘English Church unity’ was precisely what did not exist at the end of the nineteenth century. More than two hundred sects stood not merely outside, but also often against, the Church. Henson was convinced that, after Church rates had been conceded (1868) and the Anglican burial monopoly abandoned (1880), every justifiable claim for organisational equality had been met. Yet the Liberation Society, an organisation inaugurated in 1844 for the express purpose of disestablishing the Church of England, still pressed for nothing short of capitulation. At the same time, too many Churchmen failed to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ against the ‘common enemy’. Instead, what Henson identified as ‘two extreme sections’ within the clergy, the so-called ‘Ritualists’ on the one hand, and those ‘Protestant Extremists’ on the other, threatened to ‘break … loose’ from mainstream Church life.[6]

These contradictory complaints admitted of a subtle cure. That demanded both resistance and discipline. The purpose of resistance was to prevent Welsh Church disestablishment. This involved rejecting the Irish analogy for Wales and supporting constructive reform. Discipline demanded bringing recalcitrant elements within the Church back into line – if necessary, back into lawfulness. This would be achieved by liturgical reform (Prayer Book revision) and legislative force (the use of the ecclesiastical courts). Each presumed an engaged and responsible state: that is, a secular arm willing to resist those assaults from the outside just as it was required to prosecute subversion within. Put bluntly, only the nation could save the Church. Put more still bluntly still, the Church was almost as great a danger to itself as were its opponents. So Henson opposed every measure proposed for enhanced Church self-government during this period. That, he believed, would only compound the problem.

All of these convictions were shattered by the events of 1919. Welsh resistance ended with the Temporalities Act of 19 August. This was quickly followed by the so-called Enabling Act, establishing a tripartite Church Assembly, granted the right to make organisational and liturgical legislation for the Church. Both were purely parliamentary measures. But if the first was the product of that ‘cynical manufacturing of opinion’ that sometimes made Henson doubt the virtues of democracy, each exposed a degree of ecclesiastical complicity that, for Henson, verged upon betrayal.[7] Certainly, he believed that many within the Church had cravenly surrendered the Principality’s privileges as the inevitable price of democratic politics. Most enthusiastically celebrated the Act as an overdue extension of the representative principle to the ecclesiastical arm of the state. Henson conceded the justice of neither. Instead, he denounced the disingenuous secularisation of the English state implied in these measures and repudiated the surreptitious diminution of the historical national Church – effectively reduced to a denomination – entailed by them. In that way, he identified in those acts an implicit Disestablishment of the Church of England: ‘fallen like an overripe fruit’ amongst men who no longer cared for the health of His Sacred Tree.[8] This is crucial to what followed.

To be clear: Henson believed that an illegitimate disestablishment had covertly been forced upon the Church in 1919. It was illegitimate because it was promulgated without a royal commission. It was covertly wrought by disguising abandonment as self-government. This had openly conceded the national Church in one part of the kingdom and slyly disenfranchised the political nation through the rest of the country. For as Wales was left to the wolves, so the Church’s electoral roll, based upon the baptised in each parish, simultaneously ‘exclud[ed] the greater part of the people of England from any [significant] influence in the affairs of the National Church’, whilst affording ‘unimpeded access’ in the administration of that body to a ‘small minority of zealots … pursuing objectives … inconsistent with a national Establishment.’[9]

William Temple, Bishop of Manchester, Archbishop of York and Canterbury.

This was the real cause of Henson’s apparent volte face in 1928. The so-called ‘Prayer Book controversy’ from 1927 onwards was merely the catalyst. The malignant consequences of surreptitious disestablishment were clear in both. Certainly, Henson noted – with perhaps more force than it deserved – that fewer than half of members of parliament bothered even to vote on the Enabling Bill. Only a slightly larger proportion rejected Prayer Book revision. Church Assemblies from 1920 afforded ecclesiastical representation to about one in ten of the population at most. It was in this unrepresentative and easily manipulated environment that William Temple, and what Henson believed to be the nonsense of COPEC, flourished. Henson also observed that the very ‘democratic’ logic that had brought the Enabling Act into law also demanded that the veto powers outlined in its provisions made sense only on the assumption that they would never be used. The farce of 1927-8 was brought about by parliament’s ill-judged attempts to deploy residual powers that it had long effectively conceded. Events scarcely proved him wrong in this respect. The Revised Prayer Book survived all of parliament’s attempts to suppress it. But there was a broader point. Henson insisted that surreptitious disestablishment would leave the Church vulnerable to secular interference by those who had ceased to care for its spiritual health. Given that choice, he argued that the Church should better opt for explicit separation. It is far from clear that the history of Church-State relations in Britain since 1928 has shown Henson to be altogether mistaken in that diagnosis.

[1] ‘The Oxford Laymen’s League for the defence of the National Church’, Letter, Times, 13 Aug. 1886, 6.
[2] Henson, The national church: essays on its history and constitution and criticism of its present administration (London, 1908), ch. 1, esp. pp. 16ff.
[3] Henson, Disestablishment: the Charge delivered at the second quadrennial visitation of his diocese, together with an introduction (London, 1929).
[4] ‘Oxford Laymen’s League’, 6.
[5] Disestablishment, p. 53.
[6] Henson, ‘The “crisis” and the general election’, Letter, Times, 1 Aug.1899, 15.
[7] H.H. Hereford, ‘The Enabling Bill: its nature and implications: manufactured opinion’, Times, 7 May 1919, 8.
[8] Disestablishment, pp. 6-7.
[9] Ibid., pp. 41-6.