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"Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang" by Sir William Orpen

Legend has it that when Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang first set eyes on his official portrait, painted by Sir William Orpen, he dolefully lamented that it made him look “proud, pompous and prelatical”. Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, standing beside him at the time, inquired only, “to which of these epithets does your Grace take exception?” No small part of British public opinion sided with Lang’s caustic rival even then. Following the Primate’s controversial radio address, broadcast to nation and empire in the wake of Edward VIII’s abdication, one contemporary wag took him to task in satirical verse:

My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are!

And when your man is down, how bold you are!

Of Christian charity how scant you are!

Oh! Old Lang Swine, how full of Cantuar! 

Posterity has proved little kinder. Lang’s official biographer, J.G. Lockhart, scarcely knew his subject, harboured little sympathy for his aims and trivialised a lifetime’s work in a torrent of unsubstantiated anecdote. More serious ecclesiastical historians have since found him both wanting in Church leadership between the wars (Adrian Hastings) and lacking any vision for the future after 1939 (Alan Wilkinson). The general view today is that his principal concern during those momentous years was to avoid doing or saying anything that might embarrass the government of the day (Edward Carpenter). He thereby earned the contemptuous neglect he has subsequently suffered. To the degree that scholars take any interest in his life and legacy at all, it is as a dubious exemplar of the repressed homosexual in high places, alternatively “outed” by A.L. Rowse and David Starkey.  To the extent that any public memory of the man survives, it is as the oleaginous courtier portrayed by Derek Jacobi in The King’s Speech.

This is a travesty of the truth. Dr. Robert Beaken has now set about putting the record straight.  He has succeeded triumphantly. Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis is a major work of historical scholarship. It effects a profound revision in our understanding of a critical figure in the ecclesiastical life of early-twentieth century England. It also makes a significant contribution to the political and social history of pre-war Britain more generally. It is beautifully written. And it is a compelling read.

Lang was certainly one of the most successful—perhaps the most successful—ecclesiastical politicians of his age.  Appointed suffragan Bishop of Stepney as early as 1901, he was nominated for the Archbishopric of York by Asquith in 1908, when he was just 44 years old.  Twenty years later, he was transferred to Canterbury.  He served as Primate of All England until he was nearly 80.  The ninety-seventh archbishop proved, in his own words, “no new St. Francis nor a latter-day Savanarola”. It is by no means clear that the Church of England suffered significantly as a result. His was certainly a difficult Primacy.  No one who had to cope with Bishop Barnes in his prime would have expected an easy time. But the Prayer Book crises of 1927-8 threatened more than just bad publicity for a complacent Establishment. That so many Anglo-Catholics remained in the Church thereafter—that, in fact, a recognisable national church held together at all—owed much to the continual good sense and ceaseless labours of the man whose shrewd administration of an otherwise recalcitrant institution many found easy to despise afterwards.

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