Reginald Heber, the great hymn writer, was also an early missionary bishop

The idea of the Gentleman Bishop is, to us, either a Barchester joke or a modern, managerial mockery, but it was not always thus. The English Church of Reasonable Men did not seek to spread its benign influence, but when compelled to by nineteenth century expansionism, sent many forceful and courageous pastors into the far corners of the globe.

The East India Company was a firm exponent of multiculturalism. Trade in India was its raison d’être, and Christian missionaries were for a long time banned in Company districts: nothing must be done to antagonize relations between the different religious and ethnic groups in the coastal trading cities of the sub-continent. The first Bishop of Calcutta, Thomas Middleton, though an able and learned man, was largely frustrated in his ambitions.

The second Bishop began life as the younger son of the landed gentry. His brother, Richard, inherited the lands at Marton in the West Riding, and became Europe’s greatest book collector, thereby bankrupting the estate, but that is another story. After a brilliant academic career at Oxford and a European tour, Reginald was ordained and given the wealthy family living of Hodnet in Cheshire in 1807; he then married the daughter of the Dean of St Asaph.

Hymn writer

For the next sixteen years, he worked hard as parish priest, with an earnestness ahead of his time. Bampton Lecturer in 1815, editor of Jeremy Taylor’s collected works, a serious biblical scholar, an accomplished sketcher and no mean poet. His most memorable achievement from this time is his hymns. We still sing many of them, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’, which Tennyson regarded as the best hymn ever written, ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’, ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’ composed for his father-in-law on Saturday evening for a mission service the next day, being only the most notable; but his collection was also important because he set them into the church calendar. If he was not the first in the CofE, he was certainly one of the earliest proponents of the idea of linking readings, hymns and sermon, each Sunday, as far as possible into a single coherent whole.

In 1823, he set sail to become Bishop for all the English churches east of St Helena, as far as Canton and New South Wales, but principally the great empire of India. In less than three years he was dead, of a brain haemorrhage, and buried behind the altar of a little church in south India, where he had confirmed eleven young Tamils, and preached to them in their own language, only a couple of hours before he collapsed. They had heard he was there and had come to seek the sacrament from him, having not been included in the great service of the previous evening.

Had he lived it is possible that the Anglican Church in India would have been more robust and orthodox in its ecclesiology. Who knows? What is certain, and why I have grown rather fond of him as the most famous son of our parish, is that he shows a grasp of the tradition and a vision of the Church that we do not normally expect in the decades before the Oxford Movement.


In his cathedral in Calcutta he ordained the first Indian priest, having been careful before leaving England to obtain the necessary Letters Patent from the Crown, so that those whom he ordained need not ascribe the oaths to the sovereign if they were not British subjects. He also re-ordained Lutheran ministers who were acting on behalf of CMS, first as deacons and then as priests, despite indignant opposition. The Society was not keen to surrender their own missionaries to the control of someone constrained by the demands of what they saw as the Established Church of India. However, the ministers themselves (one a former Muslim) wanted a bishop, and the authority and fellowship that went with him. As Heber said to his clergy, ‘we are holders of an apostolic commission’; others’ call to the ministry is less regular, though their labours are no less sincere. Humbly as we are bound to think of ourselves, we must not appear to undervalue our apostolic bond of union.’

Many years earlier he had written to a friend, ‘How can a man prove his mission, even to himself, unless it be confirmed either by the imposition of hands by the Church, or by miracles? Even our Saviour did not take upon Himself his office till such time as God visibly and manifestly, by a miraculous descent of the Holy Ghost, set Him apart for this work.’

Another aspect of this vision of history and unity came from his contact with the Armenian Church. He began the translation of the Prayer Book into Armenian (completed only after his death), but firmly rejected plans to make the Indian branch an independent (quasi-Protestant) church. ‘Their existence thus long as an entire church, in the midst of a heathen land, with the observance of primitive discipline and order; their self-respect, and the high place they have retained in the opinion of their heathen neighbours, have all been greatly owing to their dependence on Antioch.’

The apostolic bond

Only a historic church, with a clear sense of its apostolic bond with the Primitive Church, with clear and properly ordained clergy, can offer the assurance of the salvation it preaches. If Heber worked himself to an early grave, it was in part because his vision of a bishop proved so popular: far more people wanted his ministry and authority than he had ever imagined. ‘I have found that the Church of England, her ceremonies and clergy, are daily gaining popularity. We are not here an old establishment, acting chiefly on the defensive; we are a rising and popular sect.’

His chaplain, later Archdeacon of Madras, is fulsome and affectionate in his praise of ‘this beloved Apostle of the East’, and proud to cite a Lutheran minister’s admiration: ‘This is the golden age of the Church restored: this is indeed the spirit of a primitive bishop.’

Heber had a deeper interest in local religious culture than we find later in the century. He particularly loathed the Muslim treatment of women, especially as it was a relatively new introduction to Indian society; but he also showed sensitivity to local custom. One of his last letters argued for a more careful consideration of the caste system. ‘I have also some fears that recent missionaries have been more scrupulous in these matters than need requires. God forbid that we should wink at sin! But God forbid also that we should make the narrow gate of life narrower than Christ has made it.’

If there were more bishops like Reginald Heber, would we still have an Anglican Communion? We might have a better sense of why it should ever have existed.

Nicholas Turner is the Curate of Marton in the West Riding.