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headmasterly

Geoffrey Fisher

Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Baron Fisher of Lambeth GCVO, PC (May 5, 1887September 15, 1972) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961. Lord Fisher died on September 15, 1972 and was buried in a crypt in St Andrew, Trent, Dorset. His wife is also interred there.

Background

Fisher was brought up in an Anglican background, and was educated at Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford. He was an assistant master at Marlborough College when he decided to be ordained, becoming a 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 also later to be Archbishop of Canterbury. By most accounts Temple had not been a very successful Headmaster and Fisher had to restore discipline. The children's author Roald Dahl (1916-1990) attended Repton during Fisher's tenure, and in his autobiography he recalls a friend's account of being caned by Fisher both casually and cruelly - "vicious beatings" - a procedure that apparently was repeated many times with other boys, causing Dahl to have a "lasting impression of horror" and doubts about the sincerity of churchmen generally. In fact, Dahl expresses surprise that Fisher could ever have become Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to David Hein, his in his 2008 book Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury 1945-1961, "Dahl's biographer, Jeremy Treglown, has pointed out, however, that the incident Dahl describes took place in May 1933, one year after Fisher left Repton."

In 1932, Fisher was appointed Bishop of Chester, and in 1939 he was made Bishop of London.

Appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1942 Cosmo Lang was the Archbishop of Canterbury to be replaced by 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. However, Temple died in 1944. Some 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 is, ultimately, in the hands of the Prime Minister. Winston Churchill disliked Temple's politics but accepted Cosmo 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 George 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.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Fisher put an 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.

He presided at the marriage of HRH The Princess Elizabeth and later at her coronation in 1953 making her 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 was a committed Freemason Many Church of England Bishops of his day were also members of Freemasonry. Fisher served as Grand Chaplain in the United Grand Lodge of England.

His successor

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. Ramsey later relayed to the Reverend Victor Stock the conversation Fisher had with the Prime Minister: Fisher said,
I have come to give you some advice about my successor. Whoever you choose, under no account must it be Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of York. Dr Ramsey is a theologian, a scholar and a man of prayer. Therefore, he is entirely unsuitable as Archbishop of Canterbury. I have known him all my life. I was his Headmaster at Repton
Macmillan replied,
Thank you, your Grace, for your kind advice. You may have been Doctor Ramsey's headmaster, but you were not mine.

Hein says that "several different accounts of this meeting have been handed down".

Retirement

Fisher was made a life peer, with the title Baron Fisher of Lambeth, of Lambeth in the County of London (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), although Fisher was the first to be created a life peer following the Life Peerages Act 1958.

Legacy

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. Some 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. Indeed, a house at Tenison's School is named after him.

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.

Bibliography

Primary:

  • Fisher Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, London

Secondary:

  • David Hein, Geoffrey Fisher: Archbishop of Canterbury, 1945–1961. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications / Wipf & Stock, 2007. http://wipfandstock.com/store/Geoffrey_Fisher_Archbishop_of_Canterbury_19451961/
  • British edition: Geoffrey Fisher. Archbishop of Canterbury Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke & Co., 2008.

Reviewed in The Living Church, Feb. 2008; Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 2008 (and see Dr Andrew Chandler's letter in response, TLS, April 30, 2008); Sewanee Theological Review, March 2008; The Historiographer, Spring 2008; The Expository Times, June 2008; and Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2008.

  • P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Archbishops of Canterbury. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2006, pp. 268-71.
  • Edward Carpenter, Archbishop Fisher: His Life and Times. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1991.
  • William Purcell, Fisher of Lambeth. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969.

References

External links

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