Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury

I watched The King's Speech on DVD last night, and noted again the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, played by Sir Derek Jacobi. Cosmo Lang was the Archbishop who buried George V, excoriated Edward VIII after his abdication, and crowned George VI and his wife Elizabeth--and Elizabeth II, too. He is not portrayed very sympathetically in the movie: a bit of a prig about Lionel Logue, etc--and this reviewer of a biography of an Archbishop of Canterbury who reigned over the Church of England during a crucial modern era notes that portrayal:

'I HATE Cosmo Lang!’ exclaimed a member of the audience when Robert Beaken spoke to a seminar at the IHR about Lang, archbishop of Canterbury and subject of this important reassessment. As Beaken rightly notes, Lang’s reputation has suffered in the years since his death. His time as archbishop (1928–42) spanned years of economic depression, the rise of fascism, a royal abdication and the outbreak of world war. But, despite this, the prevailing picture has been of a figure caught in the headlights, reactive rather than in the lead, a puritan and a snob; this image has not been altered by his portrayal (by Derek Jacobi) in the recent film, The King’s Speech. Lang’s case was not helped by the biography by J. G. Lockhart, published in 1949. Written without any particular acquaintance with Lang or access to his official papers, Lockhart’s book has long been unsatisfactory, but it has taken until now for a replacement to appear; and Beaken’s study goes a long way towards superseding Lockhart and presenting Lang afresh.

The book has three primary concerns: with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy; with the disputed process of liturgical reform within the Church of England; and with the Second World War. Chapter seven deals with the last, presenting a panoramic view of Lang’s work in the first and darkest days of the war, when Lang was in his mid-70s. Beaken very effectively documents Lang’s interventions at the highest level: in the articulation of peace aims; in negotiating the rhetorically difficult transformation of Soviet Russia from enemy to ally; in articulating the need for national intercession and for remembrance of the 1914–18 conflict in changed circumstances. There are important refinements to the literature in relation to Lang’s early opposition to the obliteration bombing of Germany (191–3), and (in response to the work of Tom Lawson) concerning who knew what and when within the Church in relation to the Holocaust (206–7).

But these national affairs were not the limit of an archbishop’s concerns. Beaken very effectively documents Lang’s interventions in relation to refugees, evacuees and conscientious objectors, to venereal disease in the army abroad, and to the observance of the Sabbath at home. Lang was supportive of the government and the war effort because he strongly believed that the struggle was a just and necessary one. At the same time, there were limits to what could be morally acceptable even in war, and Lang intervened in private and public as far as there was any likelihood of those efforts being effective.

Read the rest here, including the author's response to the review.

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