f i r e b r a n d s dam i a n t hompson
Now I’m a Believer he Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson
By John Butler (Scala 292pp £16.95)
The Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury from 1931 to 1963, looked as if he had been drawn by Osbert Lancaster. Long white hair sprouted from the edges of an otherwise bald dome; he wore a frock coat and gaiters; and in photographs he gazes at the camera with an expression of loveable whimsy. Perhaps he practised it in front of the mirror. The Dean was very conscious of his image. His conservative clothes and avuncular manner were in deliberate contrast to his political opinions, which were extremely left-wing. Hewlett was known as the ‘Red Dean’, largely because of his unwavering support for the Soviet Union. History remembers him as naive – the epitome of the ‘useful idiot’. This biography by John Butler presents us with an altogether darker picture, though I’m not sure whether it intends to.
Johnson came from a prosperous Manchester family of strictly Protestant Anglicans. By the time he was ordained, in 1906, he had already served an engineering apprenticeship and studied theology at Oxford. As vicar of St Margaret’s, Altrincham, and Dean of Manchester he displayed a sincere passion to alleviate the conditions of the working classes: he campaigned, for example, against the atmospheric pollution that was poisoning the city’s children. Early on he adopted a version of the ‘social Gospel’ that, despite the trappings of liberal biblical scholarship, can only be described as crude. The state’s alleviation of poverty was the essence of Christianity, even if the state did not realise it. Theological abstractions and sacramental piety were of little consequence by comparison.
Like many radicals of the period, Johnson enjoyed the company of titled and powerful people. At a dinner party given by Lady Anna Barlow in Sandbach, he met the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in London. It was love at first sight – and embarrassing puppy love at that, at least on the part of the then Dean of Manchester.
The Russians recognised immediately that they had made a useful connection, though they can hardly have guessed at the levels of infatuation that Johnson developed after being made Dean of Canterbury.
The appointment was recommended by the Archbishop of York, the socialist William Temple; the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was happy with the idea and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, waved it through. Once settled in Canterbury,
Hewlett Johnson: humbug-in-chief
Johnson quickly established a talent for publicity-seeking: he invited Mahatma Gandhi to visit him, and when the great man arrived, accompanied by a goat, photographers were naturally on hand.
Throughout his career, Johnson was determined to establish a presence in international affairs – an infallible indicator of clerical vanity. During the Spanish Civil War he flew to Bilbao on a ‘humanitarian mission’; on his return he preached propaganda on behalf of the Republicans from the pulpit at Canterbury, infuriating Archbishop Lang. The Rev S E Cottam of Oxford informed the Dean that ‘prayers will be offered next Sunday for the eleven bishops and 15,000 priests assassinated by your friends in Spain’. Johnson was unmoved, as he seems to have been by any atrocities committed by regimes that were doing the work of Jesus Christ simply by virtue of being socialist or, preferably, communist.
The Red Dean’s attitude towards Stalin’s Russia is best summed up by his own reaction to visiting the country. ‘Nothing strikes the visitor to the Soviet Union more forcibly than the complete absence of fear,’ he wrote in 1939. This produced a magnificent rebuke from William Chamberlin in the Saturday Review of Literature:
Having lived in the Soviet Union for some twelve years, I had to rub my eyes when I read that amazing sentence. I think most residents of the Soviet Union would agree with me that nothing is so characteristic of the country as the universal, paralysing, abject fear, the natural and inevitable consequence of a system that numbers its recorded executions in thousands, its arrests and banishments in tens of thousands.
Johnson paid not the slightest attention. To understand why, we need to grasp that he was not one of the many naive clerics who, like the former Monsignor Bruce Kent, made excuses for the Soviet Union. Johnson was not so much a useful idiot as a fanatic; he believed that there was nothing to excuse. When he was summoned to a private audience with Stalin in the Kremlin in 1945, the exchange went as follows. Stalin: ‘My mother was a simple woman.’ Johnson: ‘A good woman. One often sees the mother in the disposition of the child.’ Interestingly, Johnson reported that he and Stalin had talked about the forthcoming British general election, which he predicted Labour would win. In fact, the meeting took place a week after the election. But such inaccuracies are unlikely to have troubled the Dean, who was happy for Soviet-written propaganda to appear under his byline.
John Butler wrote this book at the request of one of Johnson’s daughters; it contains much previously unpublished material about his two marriages and domestic life. My reaction was: who cares? The Red Dean stuck to his faith in Stalin long after the horrors of the Great Terror were revealed. He was the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier; the Church of England should be ashamed that it provided him with its most venerable pulpit in order to spread his lies. r
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