Cosmo Lang

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Cosmo Gordon Lang, Baron Lang of Lambeth (1864-1945) was Archbishop of York (1908-1928) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1928-1942).

Lang (like his predecessor as Archbishop, Randall Davidson) was a Scot and originally a Presbyterian. He was educated at Glasgow University and at Oxford, and studied law, envisaging a career as a barrister and probably later as a progressive Conservative politician. However, he became convinced that he was called to be a priest, and with great reluctance abandoned his previous plans.

Lang's beliefs were Anglo-Catholic but liberal; seeing the Lux Mundi essays as his early ideal. During his career he gently encouraged the Catholic trend in the Church of England, succeeding in "normalizing" it. He was the first Archbishop since the Reformation to actually wear a mitre, previously seen as too Catholic a symbol (although bishops had used them as emblems).

In his early career he was a "slum priest", living in conditions of great discomfort in a condemned building and mixing with what would now be called the "underclass". In 1901 he became Suffragan Bishop of Stepney in London. In 1908 he was appointed Archbishop of York, a stunning promotion which recognized his status as a rising star.

As Archbishop of York, however, Lang began to behave, at least in public, more as a "prince of the Church". It was unkindly said of him that "he could have been St Francis of Assisi or Cardinal Wolsey, and he chose to be Cardinal Wolsey". Nevertheless those who knew him personally were impressed more by his kindness and shrewd judgment.

In the First World War, Lang criticized some of the excesses of anti-German propaganda, and as a result became a target of public abuse; a shock which seems to have had a deep impact. Contrary to his public appearance, Lang was a man who lacked inner confidence.

In 1928, when Randall Davidson retired, Lang was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Davidson's retirement followed, but was not in fact connected with, Parliament's rejection of the proposed new Prayer Book. Lang was faced with calls either to reopen the question or to challenge parliament, but in fact he took what proved the wiser course of simply letting the new book come into unofficial use.

Lang had probably gone to Canterbury too late. He was still a superb speaker and preacher, but the energy that had made him such a star at the turn of the century had departed. His image was now as "proud, pompous and prelatical". Soon after appointment, he was seriously ill, further reducing his energy and impact.

However, he was active in both Church and public affairs in the 1930s. In 1930 he presided over the Lambeth Conference. The 1930 conference is especially remembered for its declaration on contraception. Previously, the Anglican Church had taken essentially the same line as Roman Catholicism, opposing any artificial contraception, and this had been endorsed at the previous (1920) Lambeth Conference. However in 1930 the Conference agreed by majority that contraception could in certain circumstances be justified. Lang did not seem to have strong views on the subject, and was apparently mainly concerned with achieving an agreed outcome.

In 1936 he treated A.P. Herbert's Divorce Law Reform Bill with neutrality, taking the view that although the Church disapproved of easier divorce he accepted that the bill was desirable for the state.

Lang was relatively close to both Stanley Baldwin and (somewhat more surprisingly) Neville Chamberlain, and was broadly a supporter of their appeasement policies.

In 1936 Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry a divorced woman. It was widely assumed that Lang had played a leading role in forcing the King out, but in fact he was not closely involved, although both the King and the Prime Minister knew his views. After the Abdication Lang made a very unwise radio broadcast on the subject which was seen as "kicking [Edward VIII] when he is down"; this probably helped to cement the public belief that he was the key figure, which has since passed into popular historical memory.

However, his historical reputation has been considerably improved by recent research which has shown his active concern about the Nazis' racial policies. Lang supported moves to assist refugees and backed George Bell, who supported anti-Nazi clergy in Germany, against Bishop Headlam, who wanted to emphasize good relations with Germany.

Lang retired in 1942, partly in order to make way for William Temple Temple was a strong Christian Socialist, and opinion both in the Church and the general public foresaw great changes in the post-war period. It seemed Temple's hour had come. However, Temple died in 1944. Lang died in 1945. He died suddenly, while on his way to a meeting of the Trustees of the British Museum; his last words are said to have been "I must get to the station", as he lay dying on the pavement near Kew Gardens station. He is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

Lang has generally been seen as a man of great gifts who failed to live up to his early promise. Lang himself seems to have agreed with this: in contrast to his public air of pride and conceit he was privately filled with self-recrimination and a sense of failure. He never married.

Sources:

John G. Lockhart, Cosmo Gordon Lang (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1949).

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