GENERAL ARTICLES

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter's March 15 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter's March 15 1945

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter's

The New Archbishop

THE bell at Fulham Palace rang somewhere in the vast interior but nothing happened. Outside, in the courtyard and the surrounding park, the crusted snow did its miserable best to emulate Moscow, or Winnipeg, and pretend that the English winter is a splendid affair This damp cold of England would penetrate a lovers heart or the thickest fur. Weeks and weeks of it. Probably son~ething has li;tppened to the (~ uli Stream.

I glanced at my watch. It was one minute past 11 and my appointment with the newly chosen Archbishop of Canter-

bury was for 11. Archbishops, kings and premiers are always punctual, so I rang the bell at the Palace door with an increased sense of urgency.

Eventually a good woman appeared from somewhere and let me in. She looked at me without curiosity or hostility, having no doubt that I had come for some reason. Thus, with no fuss or prolonged interrogation, she led me straight to the library of Dr. Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Bishop of London and Archbishop Designate of Canterbury.

For you in Canada, especially if you are housed in the luxury of central heating, unbroken windows and the hothouse delicacy of the new world, it will be difficult to imagine what life in a palace is like these days. There are 70 rooms in this edifice. Twenty are habitable, the rest having been put out of business by nearby bombs. The Fisher family use six rooms but, like most people these days, they concentrate on one— in this case the Bishop’s library—for most of their existence.

The library is big enough to deploy a tank, while a log fire does its best to wage war upon the congealed cold of the rest of the room. The English, wrote Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” display great powers of endurance in war. Believe me, they train for it.

But if you think the library of Fulham Palace is icy there is a most heartening warmth in the personality of Dr. Fisher. Nor is it the professional warmth sometimes affected by the cleric in all countries. It comes, I imagine, from a genuine liking for people, a keen sense of the adventure of life itself and the mellowness which is the afterglow of success.

As you may have noticed in Canada, Dr. Fisher’s selection was not received with unmixed jubilation. Some Left Wing commentators said that Churchill was trying to redress the balance, to establish a “safe” Archbishop after the short but dangerous regime of the socialistic Dr. Temple, whose concern for the unfortunate refused to confine itself within Cathedral walls but spread into the arena of politics.

This much is undeniable. If in 1942 Dr. Temple had not been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury there would have been a clerical rebellion. On the other hand if Dr. Fisher had been passed over as Dr. Temple’s successor no violent protests would have resulted. Unlike his two predecessors he was not marked by the fates as an automatic occupant for the seat of St. Augustine.

In fact no one could be in more striking contrast to the two previous Archbishops than Dr. Fisher. Dr. Lang was the prelate-politician, a type more common in 18th century France than 20th century Britain. In his early days he haunted the public gallery of the House of Commons, longing to be one of the gladiators below, and when he finally turned to the Church he wept. To many of us it seemed that he never lost his love of the political scene and that the evangelist in him was subdued by lingering dreams of statesmanship.

His successor, Dr. Temple, was a human contradiction. Tall, heavily built, comfortable of appearance,

he had the voice of the chairman of a long-established family business. None of the aunts or nephews need have any fear for their investments. The company, including its chairman, was doing well. When he officiated at the memorial service for the late Speaker of the House it might have been a balance sheet we were burying. Outwardly he was a man without emotion.

Yet within his breast were the unquenchable flames of revolt against the inequality of things. There was no kindness he would not perform for the poor there was no friendship that was lost in

obscurity, there was no trouble too great to assist young people of promise. The people felt the flame beneath the deceptive formalism of his speech, and when he had virtually burned himself out, recognizing no laws of ease, or rest, or even pause, the nation mourned him as a great man untimely gathered to his fathers.

What manner of man should be chosen to follow him? Mr. Churchill takes his powers of clerical preferment very seriously. He searched his own heart, and consulted other men.

There was one severe drawback to the choice of the 57-year-old Dr. Fisher—he had never been a parish priest. Never had he been forced to preach in churches where literally three or four were gathered together; never had he gazed wistfully at the collection for the vicar and reflected on the different outlook upon the stars of Hollywood and the Star of Bethlehem; never had he played his part in Heartbreak House, trying to keep up a decent show at the vicarage on the wages of an unskilled laborer.

At Oxford he played rugby, captained his college boat and duly “bumped” his way up the river; and in 1911 he was appointed an assistant master at Marlborough, one of the famous private boarding schools of England, which are called “public.” Three years later he was appointed headmaster of Repton, a similar private-public institution. Two things should be noted about this appointment. Dr. Fisher was 27, surprisingly young to be headmaster of a famous school. Secondly, he took the place of Dr. Temple, following in the footsteps of a man destined to reach the summit. The paths of glory may, as Gray wrote, lead but to the grave, but there are pleasant stopping places en route, and magnificent promontories which are reached more easily if someone has gone before.

Dr. Fisher was destined to remain at Repton for 17 years. The position of headmaster is not, however, such a break with the church as might appear to the casual eye. From the days of the great Dr. Arnold of Rugby, the English have liked the ordained headmaster. There have been notable and successful exceptions but the tradition survives. Therefore Dr. Fisher had no reason to feel that his career would end at the school gates. Yet I very much doubt if he was ambitious.

For one thing he had acquired the nucleus of a boys’ school at home—he now had six sons. It must have been a joy and a relief to have them at school and at home simultaneously. The separation of the small boy from his home is one of the saddest things in life over here.

But the school gates were not to hold Dr. Fisher for ever. In 1932 he was appointed bishop of the ancient diocese of Chester, near Liverpool. There is a Roman wall there and you can walk for miles along it; there is also a tower from which Charles I watched the defeat of his Army; I am sorry to say there is also a small circular racecourse where investors can watch

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London Letter

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the losing battle of the fates. Did the new bishop see beyond the Roman wall the noble pillars of Fulham Palace and even the dim Turneresque outlines of Lambeth?

“I never look ahead,” said Dr. Fisher, puffing a pipe which had been mended with rubber. “It’s quite enough to live out the day without wondering about the morrow.” Certainly he did not clothe himself in any majestic austerity when he became a bishop. On a flag day for raising money for charity he played a barrel organ in the streets, causing many an eyebrow to rise. He also organized a cricket match between himself, his sons, and another cleric with sons against the Cathedral choirboys. He called his team “Lambeth United,” which is not entirely without significance, since Lambeth is the London seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

1939 saw his next step, and one that was to bring him close to the steps of the ecclesiastical throne. The long regime of Dr. Ingram came to an end and Dr. Fisher moved to Fulham Palace as Bishop of London. There were protests that he had not been a parish priest, that long authority had made him impatient of consultation and indifferent to advice, that he was a traditionalist, who would merely follow the existing order.

His friends, and they were many, said that he was a brilliant organizer. They contended that the problem of the Church was to attract youth and here was a man who had spent most of his life with the young. At any rate the Fisher family settled in, with Mrs. Fisher’s sister acting as housekeeper.

But there were deepening shadows. The oldest of the six boys was 21, with the rest straggling downward to mere youngsters. The oldest boy enlisted when war came and is now a colonel with the 14th Army in Burma. Three others joined the fighting services as they came of military age. The two remaining boys are 15 and 16, fearful in the arrogance of youth that they will not see action. The hearts of their parents, looking toward the East, are not so sure.

Mrs. Fisher is trained for a cleric’s wife. Her father was a clergyman, her grandfather was headmaster of Repton. No one can begrudge this sweet lady her satisfaction that Lambeth Palace is so knocked about that it can only be used as a headquarters and not for residence. Actually the new . Archbishop and his family are going to live in the modest Palace at Canterbury,

to the great relief of Mrs. Fisher and the even greater relief of her sister, the housekeeper.

Then what kind of a man is this newly appointed head of the Anglican Church? Is he a great man or, if not, will he attain greatness? It must be against him that he has never known frustration or has never tasted the bitter waters of disillusionment. He has never yearned for high place, like Churchill, and been denied it by the unthinking mob or the jealous few. i He has not struggled toward the light with no language but a cry.

In 1941 he broadcast to the nation, ; and if we study those words now we ! can perhaps ascertain something of his ' hidden creed. “Hitler has not invented any new form of evil,” he said. “He has intensified evil. When Nazism is destroyed there will still be lying and false pride, lust for power and possessions, self-seeking, which always means contempt for others. There will still be the tyranny of materialism and of man’s blind worship of himself.”

Toward the end of that address he asked the question: “How shall we

know God?” and answered, “Just as we know men, by deeds.” There was another compelling phrase when he asked: “How long shall we be content to be prisoners of the world?”

Let us agree that anyone of thought and taste could select these words from the past utterances of the princes of the Church, but if you had talked with him by his industrious but inadequate log fire, as I did, you would have realized that these are the natural expressions of his outlook on the spiritual life. He is not politically minded of that I am certain and will never substitute the Beveridge report for the Sermon on the Mount. He would not challenge Caesar’s authority but neither would he submit to Caesar’s encroachment on God’s territory.

Perhaps his greatest contribution will be his understanding of youth. “This generation,” he said, “has suspended judgment on all established things.” He puffed at his pipe and then repeated: “It has suspended judg-

ment.”

There I must leave him with his mended pipe, the spluttering logs, and all the impedimenta of clerical adminis¡ tration. Human, kindly, humorous, j understanding, perhaps not marked ¡ enough by life’s battles, he has to | prove himself now before the bar of j history. Will he carry the fiery cross or will he be the keeper of tradition?

In my mind I could find no answer to those questions as the worn-out tires of my motor car slithered and crunched their way through the snow-

covered park.