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Response to Review of Cosmo Lang. Archbishop in War and Crisis

I have enjoyed reading the various reviews of my book, Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis. Reviews, rather like the minutes of meetings, speak to us not just of the matter reviewed, but of the preoccupations, concerns, sensitivities and even ecclesiology of the reviewers.

I rather regret that my book has been described as a biography of Lang. It is not a word I have used. I rather think of it as a study, which inevitably strays into the biographical, in order to set its subject in context and to tell a good tale. At an early stage in my book, I make it clear that this is not a study of Lang’s influence overseas, but rather of his archiepiscopal ministry at home. It might be summed up as a re-evaluation of how this quirky man – Cosmo Gordon Lang – occupied this quirky office – archbishop of Canterbury – and how he dealt with three particular and distinct crises affecting the life of the Church of England: the Abdication of Edward VIII, the on-going crisis following the Commons' rejection of the Revised Prayer Book. Regarding the second of these, I fear that I must take issue with the reviewer: my interpretation of the situation after December 1928 is that those in the Church of England who were always going to get worked up about that sort of thing did so, while the rest took little notice. Something things don't seem to change much in the Church of England, and the Second World War until 1942 (the chapter which I enjoyed writing most).

Shortly before he retired as archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams sent me a letter of congratulations on my book and suggested that I might turn my attention to Lang’s influence overseas. I shall certainly give this careful thought, though I am conscious that a colleague is already researching this topic. No book remains the last word for long: soon, someone will produce another book about Lang and claim that I was too harsh, too soft, misunderstood something, or that some new document sheds fresh light. I wish them every success!

Going through Lang’s papers, I was struck by two things. Firstly, I was amazed at his intelligence and perseverance. He would carefully research and untangle a complex problem, only to find that some bishop or other person would interfere and mess it all up again. He would sort it out a second time, only for things to go wrong once more. On his third attempt, Lang might be successful. Secondly, I was very moved by Lang’s pastoral care of people. I mention in my book the letters he wrote to Jewish émigrés with families stranded in Nazi-occupied Europe. I was also moved by a little collection of letters he wrote to a disabled old man in Leeds, whom he had known years earlier when he was a curate there. The man had suffered a debilitating stroke and lived in very poor conditions. Each year he would send Lang a spidery letter, and each year Lang would send him a carefully composed reply, trying to give him hope and letting him know that he still mattered. Here, we see Lang the priest, quietly trying to help people. There was much more of that than might have been expected.

Much of the criticism of Lang was deserved, but much was not. No book is perfect, and from the outset I have been aware that, because of the subject matter, mine is somewhat uneven (as, indeed, are a good many books), but nevertheless I hope it may start to redress the balance. If Cosmo Lang, Archbishop in War and Crisis leads to Lang’s ministry being better understood and appreciated, then I shall not have wasted my time.