Nigel Palmer venerates Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln (1829–1910)


On Tuesday, 21 May 1935 two great ceremonies were held in Lincoln Cathedral, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the consecration of Edward King as Bishop of Lincoln. The ceremonies were held in the presence and with the participation of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang; the booklet which served as service sheet and souvenir is still preserved in the Lambeth Palace Library. The morning service, a Solemn Eucharist, was held at the high altar of the cathedral; the afternoon service was a service in the nave, at which the archbishop preached the sermon, with a solemn Te Deum sung by the cathedral choir at its conclusion.

The services were remarkable for a number of reasons. Bishop King died in 1910 and one might have thought that twenty-five years after his death—with the Great War and the Great Depression having intervened and the world, Britain and the Church of England very different places and spaces from those which he had inhabited—his memory as an eminent Victorian of the type caricatured so memorably by Lytton Strachey would have long since passed into history. But it seems not to have been the case: the ceremonies were instigated by the then Bishop of Lincoln, Dr Nugent Hicks, who provided for a collect, epistle and gospel proper to the veneration of Edward King on 8 March for future use in the diocese of Lincoln. This was, then, almost a unique circumstance in the history of the post-Reformation Church of England. The exception were the services established at the Glorious Restoration of Charles II for the statutory veneration of Charles, King and Martyr, although in 1935 those services had long been abolished in any event at the wish of Queen Victoria. It seems she wanted to avoid any occasion for her Scottish subjects to feel disgruntled or unsettled (a vain wish you may think, now as then.)

The Lincoln ceremonies did not avoid the notice of the commission established by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to consider the commemoration of saints in the Anglican Communion in 1957. I quote from their report: ‘This Solemn Eucharist in Lincoln Cathedral is a direct “raising to the altar”, as overt a case of “canonisation” technically as may be: whether the archbishop understood his own act is uncertain but probable; the Bishop of Lincoln… realised it clearly.’

I myself am absolutely certain that as shrewd an operator as Cosmo Gordon Lang knew exactly what he was doing when he presided over these ceremonies. And one wonders in any event whether, as the archbishop moved slowly down the nave of Lincoln Cathedral, preceded and followed by a great plenitude of diocesan dignitaries, and catching a glimpse no doubt of the great statue of Edward King by William Blake Richmond in the south transept under the medieval glass of the Rose Window, he thought back to that summer night in 1895 when he had been sent to be confirmed by Bishop King prior to his ordination:

‘I went to Lincoln in a mood of unwonted shyness and nervousness… There was an ordinands’ retreat going on and I was ushered straight into the room where the bishop was supping with his ordinands, and someone was reading to them in their silence. I had never seen men in cassocks before and I felt desperately like a fish out of water. But when I took my place beside him, the dear old bishop seemed to discern my discomfort of mind, and, putting his hand on my thigh, whispered to me: “They’re not half as good as they look, and I’m the naughtiest of them all.” Next morning, very early, he confirmed me in his chapel and I made my communion immediately after … at last a full member of the Church of England.’

This passage is from a collection of notes made by Cosmo Gordon Lang for a projected memoir or autobiography, which he never really began and certainly never completed. King’s words to the future archbishop are a marvellous example of the legendary charm and consideration that he had for putting people at their ease. They are, however, much more than that. In the few (not really very good) memoirs and biographies of King, much emphasis is placed on his radiant features, and the effortless aura of love which surrounded him when he entered a room. ‘We have buried our saint’ wrote the Bishop of London after his funeral, and much has been made of King’s effortless manner with all sections of society, from the grooms who looked after his hunters in the episcopal stables, to the farmers whose children he confirmed the length and breadth of his diocese, and the local master of foxhounds upon whose desk sat only two photographs in highly polished silver frames: one of his favourite hound, named Bellwether, and one of his bishop, Edward King. In these accounts, charming as they are, nothing is said about how Edward King achieved this effect. It is as if, in deciding to honour King as one of its saints, the Church of England indulged itself in looking, as so many did in other ways, to the golden period before 1914 in which its home-grown saints were benevolent and charming men, whose Christianity didn’t threaten but only consoled. This is to ignore the personal struggle in which each of us has to be engaged in order to achieve sanctity and heaven, the personal goals which each one of us is commanded to aim for if our profession of the Christian faith is to mean anything. King would not have wanted this, and the truth about him is inevitably more complicated.

It is when we turn to the pictures and photographs that have come down to us of King that we see a rather different story. The cover of your service sheet tonight, and the reproduction of Richmond’s portrait of King as Principal of Cuddesdon, which hangs upstairs in this building by the door of the King corridor, show us a face which is certainly mild. It is a face, though, which is not wholly at ease with the world it confronts with such a direct gaze. It is a face which has known pain and challenge and, one may think without indulging in over sentimentality, some degree of suffering.

In his discourses and sermons, King was at pains to emphasize that each human soul always has to make time to progress on its way to heaven. In a sermon preached in the University Church shortly after he became Bishop of Lincoln, he showed that he was only too well aware of the temptations of being at a great university and, he might well have added, at a great theological college at a great university:

‘Let me say that in most of our lives in the present day there is a want of quietness and this is more or less necessarily so in your Oxford life. It is but a short time you are here. A year’s work is crowded into six months. You are constantly coming and going. New subjects are continually being brought before you… All this tends to dazzle and excite you, and to rob you of that separate individual quietness which is implied in the words, “Get time to think.”… Quietness and consideration should lead a person to self-reflection, to the serious conviction of himself and of his own existence, the realization of self.’ And, in the same sermon, he links this growing sense of realization with a growing sense of sin, ‘in a word, quiet, serious retrospective reflection on our being will bring us to the word “repentance.”’

We should be reminded that when he was an undergraduate at Oriel, King was well known for walking out of gatherings of his fellow undergraduates if they threatened to become too boisterous or rowdy, or if the conversation became too licentious. In later life, he was renowned for the excellence of the cellar which he kept in the episcopal palace at Lincoln, and the liberality with which he dispensed it, but also for the careful temperance which he observed in drinking it. I do not think that these stories indicate a prissy or over-virtuous man who wished to parade his Puritan virtue at the expense of others; I think rather these are the actions and attitudes of a man who realized the strength of the temptations within him to join in the boisterousness and rowdiness and the licentious talk, and to over indulge in good claret. But in the words of Psalm 37, he obeyed the imprecation: ‘Flee from evil, and do the thing that is good.’ He knew that the only way to overcome those temptations was to place himself out of temptation’s way and wrestle with his personal demons—he knew and acknowledged that he was ‘the naughtiest of all.’ And one may think that the cost of that heroic struggle and the suffering it involved is reflected in his countenance. As he wrote in one of his spiritual letters: ‘Anyone who has a high ideal and love of perfection must be prepared to suffer.’ In the same sermon at the University Church, from which I have already quoted, he wrote that the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, which is one of the fruits of the self-realization which he urged, was to begin by causing pain:

‘It is strange and contrary to our natural expectations that the Comforter… should begin by causing pain, the pain of conscience, the pain of the conviction of sin… Let me ask you to dwell on this; it may help you if you find it hard to draw near to God, if you suffer in your efforts to escape from sin.’

And so the example of sanctity which Edward King demonstrates for us, to those who revere him, is perhaps a more complicated example than that which some of his contemporaries perhaps rather sentimentally perceived: adored by his ordinands and undergraduates at Cuddesdon and Christ Church, revered throughout his diocese for his devotion to his flock, a simple and all-encompassing love of humanity, somehow transmuted by the divine wisdom into a shining reflection of the divine love. King reminds us that holiness is the result of work and prayer and attention to the devices and snares which evil sets before us constantly. We, especially at this time of Lent, should ‘pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit’ as the bishop exhorts us at our deaconing and priesting to help us combat that evil within ourselves. Sanctity is not created (although it may be acknowledged) by the actions of archbishops, or even bishops, celebrating solemn eucharists in cathedrals, or popes or papal curias calibrating the quality of miracles, and it does not come naturally to anyone, not even to an Edward King. It is not the result of the ritualism for which King was pilloried in his day, nor can it be worked at by a devotion to the externals of religion. Holiness is always to be worked at, and worked for, diligently and by each one of us in our own way. We will not always succeed in that endeavour, but this should not stop us; as Robert Browning writes: ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ And so King joins the examples of countless saints who have gone before us, who give us hope that if they can achieve sanctity so can we, however difficult the path they demonstrate may be. Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, pray for us.

This homily was preached at St Stephen’s House, Oxford on Edward King Day, 3 March 2019. Father Nigel Palmer is the assistant priest at St Benet’s, Kentish Town.