cosmo g. lang

Cosmo Lang

Cosmo Gordon Lang, 1st Baron Lang of Lambeth (31 October 1864 – 5 December 1945), was a bishop in the Church of England. He was the Archbishop of York (1908–1928) and, later, Archbishop of Canterbury (1928–1942).


Lang (like his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson) was a Scot and originally a Presbyterian. He was born at Fyvie manse, Aberdeenshire, the third son of the Reverend John Marshall Lang (1834–1909), then Church of Scotland minister of the parish, and his wife, Hannah Agnes (1840–1921), daughter of the Reverend Peter Hay Keith, minister of Hamilton. He was educated at the University of Glasgow and at Balliol College, Oxford. He 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: in 1889, on the eve of being called to the bar, Lang kept hearing an inner question: "Why shouldn't you be ordained?" One Sunday at evensong in Cuddesdon parish church he heard an inner voice: "You are wanted. You are called. You must obey." With great reluctance he abandoned his previous plans. (On the other hand, while at Oxford he used to practise the signature "Cosmo Cantuar", indicating where his true ambitions lay.) After severing his connections with the bar he entered Ripon College Cuddesdon and was ordained a priest in 1891.


Lang's beliefs were Anglo-Catholic but liberal, seeing the Lux Mundi essays as his early ideal. He gently encouraged the Catholic trend in the Church of England during his career, succeeding in "normalizing" it. He was the first archbishop since the English Reformation to actually wear a mitre, previously seen as too Catholic a symbol (other bishops had simply 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 confirmed his status as a rising star.

Archbishop of York

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 by his kindness and shrewd judgement.

In the First World War, Lang criticised some of the excesses of anti-German propaganda, recalling his "sacred memory" of the Kaiser kneeling beside Edward VII at the bed of Queen Victoria. As a result he became a target of public abuse, a shock which seems to have had a deep impact — the alopecia which followed turned a young-looking, dark-haired man into an elderly-looking bald man with white hair; even friends did not recognize him. Contrary to his public appearance, Lang lacked inner confidence.

In 1926 Lang baptised Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II, in the private chapel of Buckingham Palace.

Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1928 Lang was made Archbishop of Canterbury after the retirement of Randall Davidson, which 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 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". Moreover he became seriously ill soon after appointment, 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. But the 1930 Conference agreed by majority that contraception could be justified in certain circumstances. 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, the bill was desirable for the state. Lang was relatively close to both Stanley Baldwin and (somewhat more surprisingly) Neville Chamberlain, and broadly supported their appeasement policies.

A committee was appointed in 1937 by the Church of England and headed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to investigate spiritual mediumship. After two years of careful study, Archbishops Lang and Temple submitted the committees report. It was expected by the Committee and by the general public that the guidance contained therein would be made available to the rank and file of the Church of England who, up to then, had no official lead regarding communication with the deceased. However, the report was shelved by the House of Bishops and never published.

Edward VIII controversy

In 1936 Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry a divorced woman, Wallis Simpson. Lang stated on film that he had the gravest doubts about the sanctity of the marriage, thus indicating that for him it was potentially a resignation issue. Both the King and the Prime Minister (Baldwin) knew his views and it was widely assumed that Lang had played a leading role in forcing the King out. Lang unwisely made a radio broadcast after the abdication 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 in the abdication crisis.

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

Final years

Lang announced his resignation on 21 January 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 remained active in the House of Lords.

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. On 10 December a service was held in Westminster Abbey and, simultaneously, a requiem was sung at Canterbury Cathedral where, that afternoon, the funeral took place. After cremation the ashes were interred in St Stephen's Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, on 11 December.

Personal life and legacy

Lang has generally been seen as a man of great gifts who failed to live up to his early promise. Lang may himself 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.

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