Martin Warner reflects on the life, teaching and example of Bishop Edward King

On 21 November 1890 the saintly Bishop King received the judgement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, in the case concerning unlawful ritualism that had been brought by a disgruntled parishioner in Lincoln, and funded by the militantly protestant Church Association.  

The scene in Lambeth Palace was one of near Papal splendour – scarlet robes, silver maces, and full-bottomed wigs. The archbishop, having successfully laid claim to a court that had not been convened since 1699, was seated on a dais; he was attended by his chosen assessors and before him was the glittering primatial cross of Canterbury. Grand and historic though this was, Bishop Stubbs of Oxford was unimpressed: “It is not a Court; it is an Archbishop sitting in his library”.

Many of us, reading the details of the controversy and the terms of the judgement about the mixed chalice, the lighting of candles, and making the sign of the cross, might be tempted to regard the matter as hopelessly irrelevant and trivial. But the liturgical freedoms that we enjoy today were won by the endurance of Edward King through the process of that trial and the humility and dignity with which he bore it.

The judgement that Benson delivered was received as a victory for the ritualists. More significantly, it was a scholarly and far-reaching statement about the ecclesiology of the Church of England. As the Guardian observed, it demonstrated that ‘The Church of England of the present is historically one with the Church of England of the past… She was not a creation of Henry VIII or Edward VI.’  

Among those who rejoiced in this judgement was Lord Halifax, the indefatigable supporter of Anglo-Catholicism, particularly in the North. Irritated by the way devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was being inhibited within the Church ofEngland, he was famously to say to another archbishop, Cosmo Gordon Lang, ‘I cannot conceive anything more splendid than that your Grace should be executed on Tower Hill. Nothing but the martyrdom of an archbishop can save the Church of England. I crave the honour of it for you and that I should live to be there, so that I might plunge my handkerchief in your blood, and pass it on… as the most precious of heirlooms.’

No such martyrdom befell that primate, and we might rightly understand that there was good humour in Halifax’s words, since he and Lang were old friends.

But there is also a degree of seriousness in the language that Halifax was using. It is a seriousness that King would have understood.  

Central to King’s life and ministry as a Christian and as a bishop was the freedom of the Church to worship in the manner instituted by her Lord, Jesus Christ, who ‘did institute, and in his holy gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death until his coming again’.    

The recovery of the Eucharist as the defining action of the Church was central to King’s evangelistic strategy as Bishop of Lincoln, the huge diocese that served the counties of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. 1n 1886 only 120 parishes had a weekly celebration of the Eucharist; in the overwhelming majority of parishes (288), it was monthly. A decade later, 222 parishes in Lincolnshire alone celebrated the Eucharist every week and on holy days.  

But this numerical growth was not the mere achievement of liturgical reassessment. It demanded a commitment from those who exercised the priestly ministry that was itself a form of martyrdom in their radical and all-consuming obedience to Jesus Christ and the call to serve those for whom he had shed his own blood.  

King, that most attractive of human beings, was clear that the demands of this vocation were life enriching, not mawkishly limiting: The more I see of life, the more wonderful it is.’ This world, King says, is where we learn to make friends; it is in the glory of eternity that we enjoy what friendship betokens.

King was no sentimentalist. The priestly vocation is not for the faint-hearted. He writes to a friend about impending ordination: ‘I have always regarded the feeling of the slenderness of the thread of Faith to be a warning that one must hold on with the whole being…there is nothing for it but an absolute aufzugeben [abandonment].’

This complete abandonment to the will of God is the template of the spiritual discipline that is essential to the evangelistic and proper celebration of the liturgy, in which, by the utterance of human words, Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, is materially present beneath the outward signs of bread and wine, as the good news of abounding grace and a pledge of the glory that is to be ours.  

The abandonment King speaks of is not the loss of identity, personality and unique qualities from which the exercise of priesthood must feed, and without which it becomes desiccated and dull. These things that constitute our humanity are the gifts of God to every priest for use in the exercise of the priestly vocation. They are the means to that end which is the proclamation of Jesus Christ.

‘Nothing anonymous will ever persuade’, King observes. It is a person’s distinctive faith and conduct that give life and power to what they preach. This is not about what you feel; it’s about the core of who and what you are and the mysterious paths of your searching for God that have shaped you and compel you still. If you cannot dare to expose your own searching for the living God, you will not entice others to embark upon the only exploration that makes the difference between life and death.

‘Pondus meum amor meus.’ That’s how St Augustine of Hippo sums it up in his Confessions: ‘Love is the weight by which I act.  To whatever place I go,’ Augustine continues, ’I am drawn to it by love. By your gift, the Holy Ghost, we are set aflame and borne aloft, and the fire within us carries us upward.’  

Lending the full weight of all our gifts, experience, will and discipline is what preaches and persuades. The weight of love in the life of Edward King drew others to the mystery and disclosure of their destiny in the Eucharist, where that love is made evident in the foretaste of its perfection in heaven.  

May we who minister in the Church of England today lend all that we have and all that we are to this work and martyrdom of love.

The Rt Revd Dr Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, is the Chairman of the Council of St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He preached this homily at the House’s commemoration of Bishop King, its founder, on Edward King Day, 8 March 2017.