John Turner on a bishop worth remembering

One Sunday, when he was on holiday, Bishop Hensley Henson heard a sermon delivered by an enthusiastic preacher, who recounted miraculous events which he claimed to have witnessed during his ministry in India. ‘As the congregation was leaving the church, he flew after me, and addressed me a question, “Was my sermon too unorthodox for you?” “Sir,” I replied, “it was not the unorthodoxy of your discourse that impressed me most, but its incredibility.” (EF Braley, ed Letters of Herbert Hensley Henson, London, 1950, p185) Entertaining though they are, it is not for ripostes such as this that Herbert Hensley Henson (1863–1947) deserves to be remembered, and still less for what may be called his latitudinarianism; what is impressive about him is his understanding of some of the Church’s basic needs.


Henson was in a sense a self-made man. His father could not afford to send him to a public school, but his step-father persuaded him ‘to consent [to my going to Oxford], but only on condition that my expenditure should be as small as possible, and my academic career as brief as was consistent with my taking a degree.’ (Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, OUP, 1943, p4) He obtained a First Class in Modern History, and was elected to a Fellowship at All Souls’ in 1884. Having come to Oxford desiring ordination, in 1887 he was ordained deacon, and priest the following year. As canon of Westminster and rector of St Margaret’s (1900–1912) he gained a great reputation as a preacher at a time when, as he put it, ‘sermons counted for much in English life.’ (Retrospect, p57) Towards the end of 1912 he became Dean of Durham, and in December1917 he accepted the proposal of the from the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, that he should be appointed Bishop of Hereford. A storm of protest arose, on the ground that various passages in Henson’s books showed that his teaching was heretical, especially what he had written about the Virgin Birth. In the end Henson reluctantly signed a letter which Archbishop Davidson had drafted in terms which he felt would enable him to proceed with the consecration, and this took place on 2 February 1918. In 1920 Henson was translated to the see of Durham, where he remained until he decided to retire in January 1939.

From Ad Clerum

Henson’s Ad Clerum (first published in 1937) is composed in the main of charges delivered to his Durham ordinands. When it was reissued in 1958, Michael Ramsey, then archbishop of York, added a Preface in which he remarked: ‘While the Church as a whole knew Herbert Hensley Henson as a controversialist and both feared and relished his pungent polemics, those who were brought nearest to him in his episcopal character cherished most of all his pastoral wisdom and sympathy.’ (p3) Now, as when they were first spoken to men about to be ordained, some of his warnings are extremely pertinent, as for instance this:

The clergyman’s life is so filled with small activities that he will be in great danger of losing his hold on the great verities of faith.’ (p63)

I suspect that the pressure of ‘small activities’ imposed by the bureaucracies of Church and State is in fact considerably greater to-day than it was in the 1920s, but I wonder how many bishops are urging their clergy to resist it – not a few bishops have probably long ago succumbed to the same pressure. Some may wonder why Henson so often uses the word ‘clergyman’, but an explanation can be found in one of his letters: ‘There is a world of potential failure in that word “priest”. I wish we had been content with the more accurate and modest – presbyter.’ (Letters, p155)

On another occasion he told his ordinands:

I need not remind you that the expounding of the Holy Scriptures, which is the normal duty of the parish clergyman, requires a far larger range of knowledge now than was formerly requisite … Mere exhortation is so common now, and is so freely given by untrained laymen, that a special importance has come to belong to the preaching of the clergy.’ (Ad Clerum, pp122–23)

This statement, uttered some seventy years ago, is likely nowadays to provoke a hostile reaction. Henson was unkind and unfair in describing, I presume, readers as “untrained”, and their sermons as “mere exhortation”. It is also very doubtful whether sermons, however learned and gifted the preacher, either could have been in Henson’s time, or could be now, effective ways of instructing congregations in the truths of Christianity. How this can best be accomplished, and what should be done about sermons, I will not discuss here, but Henson was certainly right when in the same context he reminded his hearers that for them, ‘Some acquaintance with history, criticism, and psychology is indispensable, as well as familiarity with the sacred text and an adequate grasp of theology.’ How far all this can rightly be demanded of today’s clergy is debatable, for some NSMs and many stipendiaries suffer under the burden of ‘small activities’. What is incontrovertible is the need for some people in the Church, whether ordained or not, to be given opportunities for study, and then for them to find ways of helping fellow-Christians to advance in the knowledge of the faith.

Henson always upheld the importance of visiting:

One of the main sources of pastoral inefficiency in the English clergy to-day is their ignorance of their own people, an ignorance born partly of the neglect of pastoral visitation, but partly caused by the very brief tenure of parochial charge which now marks the Church of England.’ (Ad Clerum, p148)

But in another address his diagnosis went deeper:

There are, in fact, numerous clergymen in charge of parishes who have never realized religion as a personal experience, unique and masterful, the most real of all experiences, the most heart-searching, the most lastingly effective.’ (p163)

On the same occasion he quoted from Professor CCJ Webb a paragraph including the words, ‘The true enemy of religion in the modern world … is the purely secular habit of mind engendered in the hurrying life of great cities … To this secular habit it is probable that Christianity alone of the historical religions can hope to offer an effectual resistance.’ Henson commented:

Such ‘effectual resistance’ will never be offered by a secularized Christianity … If one conclusion more than any other ‘leaps to the eyes’ of the student of ecclesiastical history, it is the moral and spiritual powerlessness of a secularized hierarchy. Yet it is precisely secularization which in this secularist age is the most subtle and insistent danger to which the clergy are exposed’ (p.163–64)

Anglicanism in the twenty first century would do well to pay heed to much of Henson’s teaching.

John Turner is a retired priest