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  • A Heart in My Head: A Biography of Richard Harries
  • William Sachs
A Heart in My Head: A Biography of Richard Harries. By John S. Peart-Binns. (New York: Continuum. 2007. Pp viii, 275. $33.95. ISBN 978-0-826-48154-2.)

An experienced biographer of modern Anglican bishops, Peart-Binns turns his attention to one of the Church of England's major recent figures. Until his retirement in 2006 Harries (born in 1934) was bishop of Oxford for nineteen years, thus holding one of the Church's most influential and ancient sees; he currently is a member of the House of Lords with the title of Baron Harries of Pentregarth. Before that he had served various parishes and academic institutions. In the process he had become a noted leader and author. His influence as bishop would deepen considerably.

Yet Harries cut a different path and emerged as a different sort of bishop. To be sure, his theological orientation and positions on social issues could be stamped as liberal. But Peart-Binns gets beneath labels. Harries brought intellectual acumen and a commitment to Christianity's core affirmations. He saw himself as avoiding the pitfalls of uncritical liberalism or conservatism. On some issues his position was clear and grounded. But as a whole, the mosaic of his views and actions proved complex and difficult to explain.

Peart-Binns has faced a considerable challenge in trying to assess Harries's career. First, the volume of his activity has been extraordinary. A biography becomes a dizzying account of committees chaired, books and articles published, national and international issues addressed, and international and religious leaders consulted. The reader struggles through a numbing sequence of meetings, issues, and personalities.

Second, Harries has been a private figure—warm and receptive at one level, but obscure about himself and his deeper motivation. Access to him and to a large amount of unpublished material has given Peart-Binns an enviable opportunity to probe his subject closely. Although admiring, he has not hesitated to reveal aspects of Harries's personal struggle or to question his actions at points. No simple key to the man emerges, but the narrative suggests a theme that the author could have done more to develop.

While functioning readily within the Church of England, Harries instinctively sought impact beyond it. In effect, he intended to update the church's role as a religious establishment. As one of its senior bishops, he assumed [End Page 845] responsibility for addressing the major issues of the day. More even than a church leader, Harries achieved wider public influence in this way. Like many of his colleagues he spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and communism in Eastern Europe. He reached out to Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. He encouraged nuclear disarmament and a thoughtful approach to ethical issues.

What distinguished Harries, even as his role within the church grew, was the extent of his attention to the world beyond it. As Peart-Binns notes, Harries was alert to the changing status of religion within English life. He revealed an ability to deliver publicly compelling statements on major social issues. He intended less to change the church than to impact public discussion. He grasped the truth of new forms of human experience without compromising basic tenets of Christian commitment. This fueled his core intention, for which he encouraged the rise of various extra-ecclesial interest groups and untraditional groups within the Church.

He was convinced that Christianity must be restated in a way that was morally compelling for a new age. Judging by the sheer weight of his activities, Harries developed considerable influence. It is not clear that he changed the church, but he advanced public understanding and, in doing so, presented the Church of England in a more substantial public light.

After tracing Harries's accession to the episcopate, Peart-Binns turns to a more thematic and less strictly chronological approach. Yet the blur of detail remains. In Peart-Binns's effort to encompass all that Harries has done, he risks losing narrative control. But he has ample command of his material and insight into a subject whom he admires. What results is...


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