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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.

Not that Lang complained about his lot. He never considered “happiness . . . to be the only aim in life”. Nor would he have been confounded by the decline in his posthumous reputation. He knew his job was practically “impossible” and even suspected that his life was very nearly “indefensible”. But then he had, in a sense, been born to it. He was the son of Dr. John Marshall Lang, long time minister of the Barony Church, Glasgow.  His brother, Marshall, went on to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Perhaps the only remarkable aspect of his own vocation was Lang’s conversion to Anglicanism, which seems to have been hard won. Scholarly success, by contrast, was easily achieved. He secured his Glasgow MA at the age of 17, took a First in History at Balliol and became a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford in 1888. A distinguished career at the bar would have been his for the taking. 

Instead, Lang became an Anglo-Catholic priest. That commitment also drew him towards the ideal of priestly celibacy. He was almost certainly chaste all his life.  He seems, in fact, to have been as much a repressed heterosexual as what would now be called gay. Certainly, his platonic friendships with young women were no less poignant than those he enjoyed with men. Either way, he endured a great deal of loneliness in later life.

He made up for a lack of personal fulfilment by work and ambition. He was a remarkable clergyman from the first. But early entry into royal circles—he first preached to Queen Victoria, at Osborne House, in 1898—never blinded him to a parish priest’s more humble purposes. As Bishop of Stepney, he travelled by bus and brought “extraordinary variety … and zest” to addressing the problems of the East End and its many benighted parishes.  He was the first Archbishop of York ever to go down a coal mine.  His major work of ecclesiastical social criticism, The Opportunity of the Church of England (1905) was devoted to the plight of the poor and the best means by which contemporary religious organisations might seek to help them.

Even in high office, he committed himself more to public service than private gain. This was no mere platitude for someone of such pronounced Victorian sensibility. Long before the scourge of Edward VIII, Lang was prepared to be unpopular for what he believed in. He preached moderation during the conflict of 1914-18, and defended the cause of the conscientious objectors. He wrote indignantly to The Times denouncing the anti-Jewish propaganda of Der Sturmer as early as 1934. He was a cautious and sensible, “appeaser” at the time of Munich, and an equally cautious and sensible “warmonger” after the occupation of Prague. He openly prayed for Allied victory during the war, but expressed doubts about the moral wisdom of bombing German civilian targets in May 1941—long before Bishop Bell.

Finally, he was wise, patient and effective when it came to the abdication. He was far from ill disposed to the Prince of Wales in January 1936. He came to doubt Edward VIII’s fitness for kingship only gradually and reluctantly. He never exceeded his constitutional privileges and—subsequent sensationalist rumours to the contrary—no more than loyally supported Baldwin in their decisive opposition to an ill-conceived proposal for a morganatic marriage to Mrs. Simpson. Lang subsequently came to regret the tone of his public chastisement of the departing monarch. It has long since been forgotten that Archbishop Temple condemned the errant king in an altogether more trenchant diocesan newsletter, published just two weeks later. More to the point, it was Edward’s wilful dereliction of duty, not his compulsively idiosyncratic sex life that really offended the “first subject of the nation”. The same, seemingly censorious, bachelor was quite willing to reconcile himself to the distribution of prophylactics amongst the troops by the Army Medical Corps in September 1939.  He was even able to turn a blind eye to the not infrequent use of maison tolerées (brothels) by British troops stationed in France, until the evacuation of Dunkirk.  He lived just long enough to see the defeat of the Axis powers for which he had unostentatiously striven, dropping dead on 5th December 1945, outside of Kew Gardens underground station, on his way to see Anne Todd, the unrequited love of his declining years.

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