Faithful Witness: The Confidential Diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, the Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931-1946.
Edited by Robert Beaken with a Foreword by Justin Welby.
London: SPCK 2020. Pp. xxii + 506.  $35.00.

Review by Peter Eaton

When Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Archbishop of York, was looking at his official portrait by Sir William Orpen to be hung in Bishopthorpe, he remarked dolefully that it made him look proud, pompous, and prelatical. The Bishop of Durham, Hensley Henson, himself no shrinking violet, who was standing nearby, asked him, “To which of those adjectives does Your Grace take exception?” Henson, who was himself as sui generis a personality as Lang, once said of him that he was “a man of second-class intellect but of first-class gifts.”

There is no doubt that Lang has struggled, both during his life and after his death, to find his rightful place in the even-handed judgment of others, and we owe Robert Beaken a huge debt for his efforts in balancing that judgment. In 2012 Beaken gave us his ground-breaking study, Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis, and now he has edited one of the more important primary documents for an understanding of Lang and his era in this publication of large extracts from the diaries of the man who was his chaplain, and perhaps his closest confidant, Alan Don, who, after he left Lang’s service in 1941, went on to Westminster Abbey, first as a canon and the rector of Saint Margaret’s, Westminster, and then subsequently and quite unexpectedly (for he was bound for a canonry at Canterbury at the time) dean of Westminster. The diaries here reproduced cover the period from Don’s appointment as chaplain to the archbishop in 1931 to his appointment as dean in 1946.

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Diaries and collections of letters are always among the most important witnesses to history, and I devour them like other people do detective novels. So when this volume came with a thump through the letterbox, I took the first exit off the highway of life that I could and locked myself away with it, for it is un-put-downable. Here the life of Lambeth Palace, the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Canterbury, and all the busy-ness of church and state that were encompassed by those few blocks on either side of the Thames between Lambeth Palace and Buckingham Palace, and that were Don’s world for all these years during such a tumultuous era, come vividly to the mind’s eye. The gradual passing of diary-keeping and letter-writing from our human experience over the last couple of generations will mean a terrible loss of witness to everyday life for those who come after us and want to understand what it was like to live in this age, and this is a serious matter. This volume is an eloquent reminder of how important such documents are.

There is so much that is striking about all that we learn in these diaries that it is impossible even to remark on a small part of it. But what is particularly illuminating is the progression of understanding of contemporary events and people that unfolds in these pages. This is most notable with respect to the run-up to and the conduct of the Second World War. We are inclined to look back on this time with the harsh assessment that hindsight provides, and we forget that there was a huge aversion to another war after the horrors of World War I (which had ended only 20 years before), and no one wanted to rush into another conflict. There was also the question of whether Britain could have entered the war any earlier than it did from the point of view of its own preparedness. In these pages we see the unfolding realization over time of the inevitability of conflict, and we learn once again that the tipping points of history are not always of our choosing, or even of our engineering.

We see other “development,” too. Don’s reflections on William Temple, who succeeded Lang at York in 1929 after Lang’s translation to Canterbury in the previous year (and of course again when Lang retired from Canterbury in 1941), grow in appreciation, from an early entry for December 11, 1931, when Temple bungles an episcopal ordination, to an entry on January 15, 1933, when Don remarks about one of Temple’s sermons that “he is a marvel in the orderliness of his mind and in his capacity for producing what he wants out of the right pigeonhole and clothing it in clear and incisive language.” But in the same entry about another lecture: “[Temple] was too philosophical and not simple enough — the average listener would not carry much away.” Don refers in an entry on December 22, 1936 to a piece by Temple in the papers during the abdication crisis that he assesses as “maddening” and that “will merely serve to infuriate people.”

Three years later, in an entry for February 26, Don says that he read Temple’s new Readings in Saint John’s Gospel, remarking that “it is noticeable how staunchly conservative he has become in his theology,” and this from one who was himself no radical, but who was what used to be called a “Prayer Book Catholic,” for whom the “Catholic Creeds stand — Sacramentalism stands — the Christian way of life stands — nothing else makes any sense at all.” After Temple’s translation to Canterbury, in an entry for December 2, 1942 we read what became a common criticism: “There are those who think that [Temple] speaks too much — there are those who do not like what he says on the social implications of Christianity — but he is at least making people sit up and take notice — and that, I think, is his object.” The next year, in an entry for February 19, 1943, Don remarks that “[Temple] will not be so cautious as his two Scottish predecessors. He will be more ready to try experiments and to take risks,” and this might mean “stormy days ahead.” We learn also, in an entry for December 16, 1931, that Temple remarked that he had found Gandhi “the most definitely ‘repellant’ individual he had ever met” — an assessment for which this may be the first attestation, as Gandhi does not even appear in the index to Iremonger’s biography of Temple.

And yet in Don’s entry for October 26, 1944, the day Temple died so suddenly and tragically at the age of 63 after a primacy of a period measurable in months, there is this entry, which deserves to be quoted at length:

William Temple has died — this shattering news leaves one speechless and dumbfounded. By all human reckoning he and the Prime Minister [Churchill] are the two men that the country needs most at the present time. Even the Prime Minister could be better spared, for in a sense his work is done — he has brought us in sight of military victory — but William Temple’s work has just begun and many were looking to him more than to any other one man for leadership in these coming years when a spiritual victory is the one hope of better things.

Surely the ways of Providence are past finding out. During his short archiepiscopate William Temple has sown seeds which will yet bear fruit — he has made many people think — he has shaken the self complacency of men in many walks of life by insisting on the implications of Christianity in spheres too often regarded as purely secular and therefore beyond the range of the Church’s influence and concern…

There is nobody who can fill his place. Who is to succeed him at Canterbury?… William Temple was in a catalogue by himself and his loss is a staggering blow to the Church of England in this particular moment in her history.

We get in these pages the picture of a thoughtful, able, committed, faithful, wise, loyal priest who moved easily and with quiet confidence among all those to whom he was called to minister, from monarchs to workmen. The picture that Don paints of life in the center of war-time London is vivid and heart-breaking, and though quite self-contained, his words are no less moving for that. Here is part of his entry for March 8, 1944:

Heard last night that my Godson, Anthony Lyttleton, had been killed in Italy. Poor Sibell [Anthony’s mother] — she has now been twice widowed, has lost her Anthony, while her other boy, Tom Shuttleworth, returned from North Africa hopelessly crippled by the loss of a leg. Such is war!

We get wonderful glimpses of church life in the period, too, especially at a time when a deeper catholic faith and practice were becoming acceptable and more the norm in establishment circles: bishops were now commonly decked out in copes and mitres (Lang was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to wear a mitre, and Temple the first to be enthroned wearing one), and it was the occasion, extraordinary even by today’s standards, of the Orthodox baptism of the son of the King of Yugoslavia in Westminster Abbey with both vested Anglican and Orthodox clergy arrayed, that incense was used in the Abbey for the first time since the Reformation — and in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, no less. Indeed the then Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, was there as well, holding the newly baptized baby.

There is a marvelous entry for November 18, 1938 about liturgical revision and its difficulties:

William Ebor: [Temple] who was presiding murmured at the close, ‘Thank heavens, I am not a Protestant!’ — his brother of Canterbury [Lang] had said yesterday, after enduring Crabtree’s long speech in the Church Assembly, ‘The one form of religion which I could never conceivably embrace is Protestantism.’ A few days earlier, the Bishop of Gloucester had been bleating about the obstinate complacency of the same section and their inability to believe anybody to be right but themselves — they are likewise the cause of infinite trouble in South Africa, in Sydney and elsewhere — one recognises in them the successors of men like Prynne and other fanatics of bygone days, from whose predominance the Church of England is slowly recovering.

Here we have, clearly stated, the understanding that Anglicanism is not properly categorized as a “Protestant” church, but represents its own unique identity among the family of churches, an understanding shared by other churches, it has to be said, that was the fruit of the early ecumenical movement. It was common in ecumenical circles until recently to refer to “Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants,” making the distinction clear. But even in such an arena where a deeper sensitivity might be expected, the proper distinctions are beginning to be blurred.

We learn a great deal about Don in these pages, but of course we learn even more about Lang, and this book goes a long way to filling out what has been, until Beaken’s research, an imperfect picture. Even the most recent portrayal of Lang, by Derek Jacobi in the film, The King’s Speech, plays into the old stereotype. And while it does so for obvious dramatic effect, Lang, as complex a person as he was, was far from the ridiculous old codger we saw in the film. The picture that we get of Lang in Don’s diaries is so much more compelling than the caricature. Lang was a consummate courtier of the old school — the last of the courtier archbishops — and had good and close relationships with the Monarchy (with the exception of King Edward VIII, with whom so many had a difficult time), from Queen Victoria to King George VI. Such was Lang’s loyalty that, according to Don’s diaries, he never spoke to anyone of his private conversations with any of the monarchs or consorts whom he served, not even to his most intimate counsellors, and it was King George VI, out of affection and gratitude, who provided to Lang the lifetime use of one of his properties where Lang could live in retirement. No subsequent archbishop has enjoyed such ease with the Monarchy.

Lang was a workhorse who could speak effectively and well even at short notice, who was respected by the Establishment and loved by those who worked and cared for him throughout his long life, and who was sustained by a firm, if reserved, catholic Christian faith and practice. Lang was an attentive diocesan bishop in Canterbury, visiting all his parishes — not a common practice in his day, and a cause of concern to his chaplains for the strain it put on his health. Lang came under the early influence of the saintly bishop Edward King as he was preparing for ordination, and before he became a bishop he was a faithful parish priest who lived a starkly simple private life. This never changed: he wore the same patched and stained purple cassock for his entire episcopate, and his private rooms in Lambeth Palace were spare. If Lang was rather ambitious as a younger man (it is said that he used to practice signing his name “Cosmo Cantuar” when he was still a priest), he had reason to be, and it was on account of both his considerable achievements and his promise that he was catapulted from being the suffragan bishop of Stepney to be Archbishop of York at the age of 44.

One comes away from these diaries appreciating Don and sharing in his admiration and affection for the one he calls “C.C.” (for Cosmo Cantuar) in his diary entries. “Dear old Cosmo is gone,” Don writes in his entry for December 5, 1945, “I loved him and shall miss him dreadfully.” And this reader found that, as I came to the close of this fascinating book, I would miss the old man, too, and his faithful chronicler.

Beaken gives a helpful introduction, and provides notes, bibliographies, a “select biographical index,” as well as a proper index for the entire volume. While I appreciate Beaken’s reluctance not to overload the page with footnotes, and while the notes that he does supply are quite useful, there are many people not identified in the footnotes or in the biographical index, and there are entries that could have used some explanation. For example, there are two references to Nobody’s Friends, including the trial by fire of having to “justify” oneself for membership, but this is not explained, and it would have made for an entertaining and illuminating footnote.

But these minor criticisms must not detract from a significant achievement in making this primary document available to us. As far as I could tell, the only person mentioned in the diaries still alive is the present Queen, and that itself is remarkable. For she is a living witness to so much that is told in these pages. Beaken tells us that there is a further collection of diaries from Don’s time as dean of Westminster for the years 1947 to 1953 that are likely to be as enlightening and compelling as these, but the librarian at the Abbey has refused access to them as they contain references to persons still living. What a tease. I for one hope that Dr. Beaken and I outlive all these folks about whom the librarian is so concerned, as I am already impatient for Alan Don’s diaries from his Westminster years, and Beaken will be just the right person to bring them to us.

The Right Reverend Peter Eaton is the Bishop of Southeast Florida.

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