The King’s archbishop

The main story is great:  how someone comes to terms with a harsh childhood and fear of destiny (in the King’s Speech, of course).  The Duke of York/George VI faces his stammer bravely and wins through to a continuous speech summoning the nation to World War II.  You can hear the original in all its crackly magnificence here.

The casting was good, and I was waiting for some wayout daftness from the delightful Ramona Marquez (Karen in Outnumbered) as Princess Margaret.  Derek Jacobi was wheeled out as Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was presented as the usual fuddy-duddy, if not absurd, cleric, frightened equally of a playboy King (Edward VIII) wanting to marry a twice-divorced American and of an emerging royal leader (George VI) wanting to use unconventional ways to overcome his stammer.

So what was he really like?  He was a son of the manse from Fyvie in Aberdeenshire, who had a fairly meteoric rise to the Church leadership, losing quite a bit of his dangerously radical support of better working conditions on the way.  He had grand ideas which mostly came to nothing, in his lifetime anyway.  Church unity schemes foundered, as they tend to;  the proposed revision of the Prayer Book in 1928 was rejected twice in the House of Commons.  The one thing that did go through was limited Church approval of contraception in 1930.

Cosmo Gordon Lang supported the tithe system (farmers contributing to the Church), Appeasement, and the Church’s refusal to re-marry divorced people.  He accepted that the Church was out of kilter with society, apparently remarking: “it was no longer possible to impose the full Christian standard by law on a largely non-Christian population”.

So what was his role in the Abdication Crisis that hurled the diffident, stammering Duke of York onto the throne?  He had to ask himself whether he could crown and anoint a king (Edward VIII) who seemed to be flouting Church teaching on marriage so blatantly.  His influence over the wayward king seems to have been limited.  Edward VIII is reported as saying, the Lang was “rather … accustomed to the company of princes and statesmen, more interested in the pursuit of prestige and power than the abstractions of the human soul”.

Two things strike me:

British (?English) Society in the 1930s was perceived by Lang as ‘largely non-Christian’ – which should be remembered by those who dream longingly of a golden heyday of Christendom in the not-too-distant past.

And Lang might have had more authority if he had stayed closer to his prophetic and spiritual core.  It sounds as though Edward VIII was yearning for something that Lang could not give, because it was overlaid with trappings.  Apparently, Lang was the first bishop to wear a mitre on formal occasions since the Reformation.

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