Geoffrey Fisher

From Academic Kids

Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Baron Fisher of Lambeth (May 5, 1887September 15, 1972) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961.

Geoffrey Fisher had a successful career in the Church of England, culminating in a relatively long tenure of position of Archbishop of Canterbury, but has subsequently received a somewhat critical historical assessment.

Having grown up in an Anglican background, he was a teacher at Marlborough when he decided to be ordained, being ordained priest in 1913. At this time the English public schools had close ties with the Church of England, and it was not uncommon for schoolmasters to be in Holy Orders. Headmasters were typically priests.

In 1914 Fisher was appointed Headmaster of Repton, succeeding William Temple, who was by an odd coincidence also later to be Archbishop of Canterbury. By most accounts Temple had not been a very successful Headmaster and Fisher had to restore discipline.

In 1932 Fisher was appointed Bishop of Chester, and in 1939 he was made Bishop of London, a key post in the Church of England. In all these positions he was noted as a successful administrator; his dioceses functioned well.

In 1942 Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, retired, 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. Many considered that the best choice now would be George Bell, the [[Bishop of Chichester]]. However, it was Fisher who was appointed, a fact which has caused controversy ever since.

Appointment of Bishops in the Church of England was, ultimately, in the hands of the Prime Minister. Winston Churchill disliked Temple's politics but accepted Lang's advice that Temple was the outstanding figure and no-one else could be seriously considered. This time, however, the situation was less clear-cut. It has been widely assumed subsequently that Bell was passed over because of his criticism in the House of Lords of the obliteration bombing strategy. While it is probably true that this greatly reduced any chance of Bell being appointed, it is not in fact clear that Bell was likely to be appointed anyway. Temple had apparently regarded Fisher as his obvious successor.

As Archbishop, Fisher tended to see his task as one of internal administration above all, although he did not neglect public affairs. He put a huge amount of effort into the task of revising the Church of England's canon law. The canons of 1603 were at that time still in force, despite being largely out of date.

One of his most high-profile tasks was to preside at the 1953 Coronation, crowning the young Queen Elizabeth II. The event was carried on television for the first time. (The previous coronation, in 1937, had been filmed for newsreel.)

He is remembered for his visit to Pope John XXIII in 1960, the first meeting between an Archbishop of Canterbury and a Pope since the Reformation and an ecumenical milestone.

Fisher retired in 1961. He advised the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, that he did not consider Michael Ramsey, who had been his pupil at Repton, as a suitable successor. However Macmillan disregarded his advice and appointed Ramsey, who many have considered as the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury in the twentieth century. Fisher was made a life peer, with the title Baron Fisher of Lambeth (Lambeth being a reference to Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury). By this time appointment to the House of Lords as a peer had become a convention for retiring Archbishops of Canterbury (none had ever retired before Davidson in 1928).

In retirement Fisher made rather a nuisance of himself for his successor, finding it hard to adapt to being out of the system.

Fisher had said when he retired that he believed he left the Church of England "in good heart", but soon after the Church was plunged into the turmoil of the 1960s and did not find it easy to cope. Many have in hindsight criticized Fisher for having failed to use the period of his primacy in a purposeful way. Important though canon law may have been, it is now widely doubted among Anglicans that this was really where the Church's energies should have been put. Had Temple lived, he might have played a leading role in the post-war reconstruction, in which he would have found much common ground with the leaders of Clement Attlee's Labour Government. In a sense the criticism is unfair because it asks that Fisher should have been someone else. He was a relatively uncomplicated man, who was happy with the Church of England and wanted to make it work well. His experience was in some ways limited, having never been a parish priest. These criticisms of Fisher are often linked with his reputation as a "headmasterly" figure.

It should also be noted that this criticism of the 1950s as a time of lost opportunities is hardly restricted to Fisher and the Church of England. The charge of complacency is also made against the churches in general, and against British governments in this period.

Was Fisher a flogger?

A question that has continued to raise much interest is the allegation that Fisher, while Headmaster of Repton, was cruel in his use of corporal punishment. This charge derives especially from the memoirs of Roald Dahl, who was at Repton, in which he recounted a sadistic flogging (of a friend of Dahl's), with long pauses between blows and other psychological cruelties. However, a later biography of Dahl established that Dahl's memory was at fault, in that the flogging he described took place under Fisher's successor. As far as Dahl's biographer could establish, Fisher's conduct was unremarkable, though probably on the strict side of normal, for his time.

References

  • Edward Carpenter, Geoffrey Fisher, His Life and Times.
  • Roald Dahl, Boy.
  • J. Treglown, Roald Dahl.


Preceded by:
Henry Paget
Bishop of Chester
1932–1939
Succeeded by:
Douglas Crick
Preceded by:
Arthur Winnington-Ingram
Bishop of London
1939–1945
Succeeded by:
John Wand
Preceded by:
William Temple
Archbishop of Canterbury
1945–1961
Succeeded by:
Michael Ramsey

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