ARCHBISHOPS of Canterbury are swiftly forgotten after their reign is over (the odd Thomas A Becket aside). The cleric simply joins the dozens who have filled the role over a millennium and a half – and time rolls on.
But the colourfully monikered Cosmo Lang – prizes to anyone under pension age who had that name on the tip of their tongue – has re-emerged from ecclesiastical obscurity over the past couple of years. First he appeared in The King’s Speech, portrayed as a meddling fusspot by Derek Jacobi; trying to cut George VI’s speech therapist Lionel Logue out of his role in preparing the monarch for his coronation speech.
And earlier this year, revelations emerged that he had played a key role in engineering the removal of George’s dissolute older brother from the throne, having apparently decided that Edward VIII was morally unfit to lead the country. As history has steadily amassed the case against Edward – feckless and self obsessed, idle and casual about his official papers, cavalierly close to bringing down the monarchy, and a Nazi sympathiser – it may seem that Lang had a point. But he would be savagely derided in the press, and not for the first time. Controversy had dogged this serious minded son of the manse, but to his old parishioners in Stepney, Cosmo Lang was a very different, and much loved character.
When Lang was ‘called’ to be Bishop of Stepney in 1901, most of his flock were probably indifferent, if they even knew who he was. Of two million East Enders, most of them living in poverty or very near it: there would be a small minority attending a Church of England service on a Sunday morning. And the attitude towards the local vicar would generally be dismissive. East Enders had seen a lot of do-gooders, a lot of philanthropists, and heard a lot about God down the years, but hadn’t seen their housing or the health and welfare of their children increase to any great degree.
But Lang already knew the East End. Almost 20 years before, as a student at Oxford, he had heard a sermon by Samuel Augustus Barnett, Vicar of Whitechapel, and become an enthusiastic evangelist for the settlement movement, as Oxford students became educational ‘missionaries’ to Tower Hamlets. Barnett would soon found Toynbee Hall, and Lang would spend so much time working at the Commercial Street settlement that he was reprimanded for neglecting his degree by his tutors.
Two decades on, Lang would spentdhis early days as Bishop travelling around his new diocese, not in a chauffered car, but on buses and trams. He was horrified but not surprised by the poverty he saw still. Of course, clergymen were still seen as prissy do-gooders, liable to stiffen the atmosphere when they entered the public bar or the theatre. But it was a visit to the famed Wonderland boxing club in Whitechapel that won Lang a new sobriquet. Unbothered by the blood, sweat, betting and swearing, he climbed into the ring to referee a bout, being familiar with pugilism from his Oxford and Toynbee Hall days. The locals dubbed him ‘the fighting bishop’ and Lang – who wouldn’t pass up the chance to proselytise – gave an impromptu sermon. “I am on a fighting platform,” he declared. “And it’s good for the old church to take off its coat in a good cause and put on its gloves.”
For Lang was in a fight, as political as it was religious. Although he had been a Tory at Oxford, he was of a liberal hue and mixed easily with the East End’s political leaders, including Will Crooks and George Lansbury (even encouraging the latter back into church). In 1905, he and Lansbury joined the Central London Unemployed Body, set up by government to fight unemployment. He spoke out at Church congresses on how socialism was a growing force (not necessarily a welcome one to Lang) and how the Church should respond to it. And he became a tireless fundraiser for the East End, preaching in richer parishes around southern England and urging congregations to dig deep for the East London Church Fund. The money would go toward providing additional clergy and lay workers in the poorest parts of Stepney, Whitechapel, Poplar and the rest.
He was a rising star, but nobody could have anticipated how meteoric the rise would be. In 1909, at just 44, Lang was enthroned Archbishop of York, an extraordinary leap from the suffragan bishopric of Stepney. Popular wisdom had it that prime minister Herbert Asquith, irritated by political lobbying for the job, had deliberately irked the establishment by picking the youngest man he could find.
Lang took to his role, rather too well according to many. He became a confidant of George V, taking great delight in the vestments, rituals and trappings of his job, and was dubbed “more courtier than cleric”. Biographer Alan Wilkinson writes that, from being “the people’s prelate” he began to act as a “prince of the church”. And he seemed to have lost the popular touch. Speaking out against crude anti-German propaganda during the First World War, he was shocked at the pasting he got in the press. The stress had a dramatic effect. Lang suffered alopecia and pictures of the day show a boyish figure in his mid-forties transformed in just a few years into an elderly man.
By the time he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928, Lang’s socially campaigning East End days were long gone. Retreating into his conservatism, he refused to take sides in the Spanish Civil War and supported appeasement of Hitler and his fascist allies. But it was for his role in the abdication crisis of 1936 that Lang became most vilified. Two days after Edward abdicated, Cosmo Lang put the boot into the departing King in a speech, saying: “From God he received a high and sacred trust. Yet by his own will he has … surrendered the trust … [because of ] a craving for private happiness … [which he sought] in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage.” He then turned to the new King and his speech impediment, with: “He has brought it [the stammer] into full control, and to those who hear it it need cause no sort of embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.”
A popular poem was soon doing the rounds, berating the self-important prelate:
My Lord Archbishop what a scold you are!
And when your man is down how bold you are!
In Christian charity how scant you are!
Oh! Old Lang Swine, how full of Cantuar! [neatly combining two puns, one on Lang’s signature as Archbishop, ‘Cosmo Cantuar’, the other referencing his Scottish birth].
When Lang retired in 1942, he had, in his almost unprecedented 33 years as a bishop travelled a long way from his radical roots. He died in 1945, collapsing on his way to catch a train at Kew Gardens station.