- Herbert Hensley Henson: A Biography by John S. Peart-Binns
Any new biographer of the English ecclesiastic Herbert Hensley Henson (1863–1947), bishop of Hereford (1918–20) and Durham (1920–39), faces two significant challenges. The first is Henson himself. One of the outstanding figures of early-twentieth-century English Anglicanism, Henson had almost uncontrollable propensities to self-documentation (he authored both a triple-decker memoir—unpromisingly titled Retrospect of an Unimportant Life [London, 1942]—and a manuscript diary running to more than 100 volumes) and uncompromising public statements that frequently made him the center of national controversy. Alongside these he exhibited a pained reserve about his early life and subsequent psychological and spiritual complexities; these helped fuel an unsettled theological and ecclesiological position and identity. His life is consequently one [End Page 669] of twists and turns in allegiance and advocacy that could perplex and frustrate contemporaries, even as they remained in awe of his capacity to articulate with unrivaled clarity key dilemmas facing the Church of England, in some instances (such as the case for and against establishment) from both sides of the fence. The prize for the successful biographer is thus an exceptional insight into the modern history of Anglicanism; the test to offer a convincing account which makes coherent sense of his eventful career. Peart-Binns is not the first to try; and herein lies the second challenge. Ecclesiastical historians need courage to tread again a path taken by the late Owen Chadwick, whose Hensley Henson: A Study in the Friction between Church and State (Oxford, 1983) the London Times judged possibly “the best ecclesiastical biography of the century.” A reviewer is therefore forced into a comparison with the earlier work.
Peart-Binns certainly brings new material to light, having gathered a significant body of reminiscence and archival material (now deposited with the Henson papers in Durham). He takes due account of relevant scholarship that has appeared since Chadwick wrote, although he puzzlingly makes no reference to Robert Lee’s important study of relations between clergymen, capitalists, and colliers in The Church of England and the Durham Coalfield (Rochester, NY, 2007). His work is also characterized by more extended quotations from Henson’s writings, well chosen to demonstrate his rhetorical skills, and a greater interest in setting the wider context for those unfamiliar with the history of Anglicanism. Peart-Binns’s volume is nevertheless much slimmer than Chadwick’s and perhaps inevitably cannot match the high style of his predecessor (which he occasionally reproduces where he judges it to offer an unmatchable rendition); the author is no mean stylist himself, however, as his book is highly readable. There are differences of emphasis. The Chadwick work is preferable for its discussion of Henson and divorce, and his time as dean of Durham. The Peart-Binns book is strong in its attention to Henson’s role in the Lambeth conference of 1920; in its treatment of his response to the Conference on Christian Politics, Economics, and Citizenship (COPEC); and in its firsthand accounts of his relations with clergy in Durham.
In terms of overall interpretation, however, this does not seem as significant a reappraisal as the publishers suggest. Peart-Binns makes more of Henson’s chippiness about class in his interactions with those more naturally at home in the English establishment than this son of a member of the Plymouth Brethren (which makes Peart-Binns seem the less sympathetic biographer), but is less inclined than Chadwick to psychological speculation as to the legacy of his unhappy early years. He is also more impatient with Henson’s theological and ecclesiological development, to which he devotes less attention and is consequently a less illuminating guide. The two books otherwise offer largely compatible accounts. Thus Peart-Binns does not replace Chadwick; but the student of early-twentieth-century Anglicanism can nevertheless usefully supplement the earlier work with material only to be found in this new study. [End Page 670]