Nonconformity

Simon Green

Henson was an ordained priest in the Church in England for nearly sixty years; he was, at various times, an incumbent vicar and rector, a canon and dean of different cathedrals, and twice a bishop. These commitments, in both belief and practice, necessarily placed him in an ambivalent relationship with the many branches of English nonconformity. Moreover, what institutional differentiation demanded, personal experience for long corroborated. His father’s sectarian intolerance, the outcome of an association with the Plymouth Brethren, left Henson with an enduring hatred of protestant fanaticism. His early appointments in Birkenhead, Bethnal Green and Barking were spent almost entirely amongst the poor, which convinced him that the true mission of the visible church was best pursued under the liberally endowed auspices of a national church. Henson came to fame as an eloquent defender of the Anglican establishment against what he saw as the unjustified assaults of ‘political non-conformity’ upon the integrity and endowments of the Church. For years, he was a sworn opponent of the Liberation Society, the principal nonconformist body that sought disestablishment of the Church of England.[1] He long regarded the existence of more than 150 dissenting bodies in later-Victorian Britain as evidence of little more than the perverse consequences of ‘religious freedom’. As late as 1938, he urged one correspondent to obey the ‘rules of godly discipline’ to ensure that the ‘tendency, already disastrously strong among all Protestants, to regard religion from a merely individual point of view’ was not strengthened further.[2]

For all that, Henson’s attitude towards, and relations with, the major branches of English nonconformity changed very significantly during the course of his career. Scarcely less did their feelings for, and connection to, him. The young Goreite[3] openly conceded in his Journal that the – his – Anglican mind desired ‘nothing less … than the annihilation of dissent.’[4] Yet twenty years later, Henson’s name was widely circulated in Church circles as a suitable candidate for the vacant see of Truro, on the grounds that he was ‘persona grata to the dissenters in a diocese full of [such men and women].’[5] By the time he left Hereford for Durham in 1920, he had even come – anyway, publicly – to regard the border county’s nonconformists as ‘among my colleagues in the great spiritual venture to which I was committed.’[5]

In truth, there were always subtleties to Henson’s position in this matter. The young firebrand had still professed himself willing to ‘assume an attitude of friendliness’ to those otherwise ‘odious’ people, so long as they ‘consent[ed] to resist the ruin of the Church.’[7] The studied hypocrisy which that stance might have required was long rendered unnecessary by the fact that so many amongst this nefarious multitude seemed unwilling to countenance any such concession at all. But the imminent threat of ‘political nonconformity’ – that is, the spectre of General Disestablishment across both England and Wales – gradually waned with the years of Unionist rule, after 1886. Henson’s Churchmanship evolved during the same period. The ‘English Catholic’, who had insisted upon ‘the apostolic origin and unique authority of Episcopal [government] in the Church’ offered little with which Barking’s nonconformists could have found common cause.[8] But the author of Godly Union and Concord (1902), who concluded as a result of ‘theoretical enquiry’ and ‘practical experience’ that ‘ecclesiastical organisation’ could ‘never be primary’ in true Christian witness – put bluntly, that bishops were not essential for the administration of the Church – pointed to an altogether more ecumenical understanding of the potential ‘unity of all English Christians.’[9]

This is what Henson preached for a decade, following his appointment as rector of St. Margaret’s, Westminster.[10] These were the most fertile years of his protestant latitudinarianism. It was not that everything he said was pleasing to contemporary English nonconformity. Indeed, his ever more radical engagement with modern biblical criticism and those reinterpretations of the biblical story which it entailed (e.g. about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection) often struck a discordant note with those literalist readers of the scriptures amongst English dissenters increasingly tending towards ‘fundamentalism’.[11] Nor, despite his admiration of individual adherents, did Henson’s institutional toleration extend as far as Quakers or Unitarians. The former were judged in ‘error (for such I must needs hold it to be)’ about ‘the external ceremonies appointed by Christ and His Apostles.’[12] The latter, he insisted, fatally failed to recognise, ‘the Person of [Our] Redeemer.’[13] But the man who, in mid-life, observed that this ‘passion for religious unity’ had been forged at least as early as any ‘defence … of the principle of Establishment’ – moreover, that each had begun with a ‘dread of bondage to [any] system’ – argued with ever increasing vigour for closer connections between the Church and mainstream English nonconformist organisations, from the death of Queen Victoria onwards.[14] He even achieved some success in this goal, at least until his perceived apostasy [in terms of the Church, i.e. disestablishment, but not at all in terms of the free churches] of 1928.

Charles Gore later in his career, as Bishop of Oxford.

Henson’s theory of Church unity was profoundly radical in its potential implications. It might have created a very different established church in England. His practice tended to be rather more cautious. He began by preaching about the possibility of inter-communion between the protestant churches in England. He came to argue for the propriety of admitting non-Anglicans to communion and of Anglicans receiving the sacrament from non-episcopal bishops.[15] From the time of his appeal for the reunion of the protestant denominations in 1901, he frequently received invitations to preach in non-Anglican churches. After some hesitation, and even tactical refusals, he generally accepted.[16] That proved controversial enough. When he agreed to preach at Carr’s Lane Chapel, Birmingham, in 1909, Gore issued an Inhibition against him. When he fulfilled his promise, Gore threatened to prosecute him.[17] He was an enthusiastic supporter of those joint services, held by the several churches together, during the Great War. He long hoped that this might prove to have a lasting legacy.[18] As bishop, both in Hereford and Durham, he sanctioned occasional sermons by nonconformist ministers in parish churches.[19] Henson remained optimistic about further progress towards reunion until the mid-1920s. He took particular pleasure in the declaration of the Lambeth Joint Conference (1920) that ‘Free Church ministries [were] to be recognised as true ministries [both] of Christ’s Word and Sacraments in the Universal Church.’[20] For that acknowledged them as members of true churches with which reunion was possible. As such, he argued that Anglicans and ‘our Nonconformist brethren’ were kept apart less by ‘conflicting dogmata’ and more by ‘inbred divergences of religious taste and habit’, particularly ‘our monotoned prayers’ and their ‘extemporaneous outpourings’.[21] These, he long believed, might eventually be overcome.

However, this enthusiasm eventually faltered. Indeed, Henson came to observe how such hopes had faded more generally as the religious world became ‘weary of discussions about Reunion.’[22] The old polemicist in him had little doubt where the greater part of the blame for such disillusion lay. It could be traced to those ‘Anglican enthusiasts’ (for which, read Anglo-Catholics) who sought union not with their fellow English protestants but to ‘any and every sect in West or East’ (Roman Catholic or Orthodox) which, no matter how ‘paltry or degraded’ yet ‘possessed an historic episcopate.’[23] But it was best attributed not to the bigoted infantry but to their benighted generals: more particularly, to the ‘present guidance’ which, from the primacy of Lang onwards, had not merely sanctioned but actively promoted the policy thereby ensuring that such success as may be ‘attained’ would be ‘purchased by the alienation of our true allies – the other Churches of the Reformation.’[24] As Henson summarised the matter, less than one year before his death, ‘the real hindrance’ to reunion ‘is not with the non-Episcopalians but with ourselves.’[25]

[1] See essay ‘Henson and (dis)establishment’.
[2] Henson to Miss Jean Bovey, 27 March 1938, in Braley (ed.), More letters, pp.128-9, at 128.
[3] See essay ‘Henson and modernism’; and ‘Henson and (dis)establishment’.
[4] Cited in Henson, Retrospect, 1, 9 (Journal, May 1885).
[5] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 143 (Journal, 26 July 1906).
[6] Henson, ‘A farewell letter to the clergy and laity of the diocese of Hereford’, 4 Sept. 1920, in Braley, More letters, 16.
[7] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 13.
[8] Ibid., p. 36.
[9] Ibid., p. 76.
[10] Ibid., p. 114.
[11] Ibid., p. 36.
[12] Henson to Faise Pease, 16 Dec. 1923, in Braley, Letters, pp. 28-9.
[13] Henson to the Archdeacon of Northumberland, 28 Mar. 1934, Braley, Letters, pp. 83-4.
[14] Henson to Lady Frances Balfour, 4 Nov. 1903, as quoted in Henson, Retrospect, 1, pp. 75-6.
[15] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 162.
[16] Henson to Rev. Dr. John Hunter, 21 Dec. 1903, in Braley, Letters, 7.
[17] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 93-4.
[18] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 237.
[19] Ibid., p. 299.
[20] Henson to A.A. Boddy, 23 Sept. 1926, in Braley (ed.), Letters, p. 48.
[21] Henson, Retrospect, 1, 297 (Journal, 28 July 1918).
[22] Henson to the Bishop of Eau Claire, 24 Feb. 1935, in Braley, Letters, p. 88.
[23] Henson to the Archbishop of Armagh, 21 Oct. 1931, in Braley, Letters, pp. 63-4.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Henson to the Bishop of Chichester, 29 Dec. 1946, in Braley, Letters, p. 193.