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Author(s): Trevor Beeson
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Trevor Randall Beeson OBE was Dean of Winchester in the last two decades of the 20th century. He is also an ecclesiastical obituarist.
Lord Rupert Ernest William Gascoyne Cecil (nicknamed ‘Fish’), who was Bishop of Exeter from 1916 to 1936, was something of an eccentric.
He would feed crumpets to the rats and throw powdered copper sulphate on the fire in order to turn the flames green. Once, while robing in the vestry before a service, he held a handkerchief between his teeth, but forgot to return it to his pocket and proceeded to the altar with it still hanging from his mouth. He was heard to complain that the Bible was ‘an awkward book’, and would often ring up his wife to ask where he was.
Cecil is just one of 48 of the most colourful members of the English episcopacy, who are profiled in Trevor Beeson’s witty and entertaining new book. He features the aristocrats and courtier, scholars and statesmen, prophets and pastors, controversialists and reformers, and even the ‘odd men out’, who have had a prominent role in both Church and State during the last two centuries.
Described as ‘a deliciously funny study’ by Damian Thompson in The Daily Telegraph, ‘The Bishops’ is not just an amusing read for people interested in the Church of England, but a delightful read for all.
Among the other bishops that are recalled, is Frederick Temple, who as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1902, put the crown on King Edward VII’s head back to front and when he knelt in homage was unable to rise.
Bishop Barnes of Birmingham is another who is featured. In 1927 he accused the Anglo-Catholics of holding ‘sacramental beliefs not far from those of the cultured Hindu idolater’, and later championed not only genetic engineering and euthanasia, but also a single European currency.
And then there was T.B. Strong, Bishop of Oxford, a musical man, who not only disliked public occasions and wasn’t keen on church services, but who once commented that the sound of many village choirs ‘was such as to twist the intestines of a hyena’!
Throughout the book Beeson argues that the entertaining and dynamic bishops of the type featured, are now in a desperately short supply. Gone are the visionary leaders who combined intellectuality with spirituality and charisma, replaced, he says, by pastoral administrators.
He calls for the return of such characters, bishops who cannot only deal with the practical demands of today, but individuals who ‘will bring warmth to their services, not preach overlong, and spend time at the party in the parish hall afterwards’.
The Bishops By Trevor Beeson is published in May 2003 priced £12.99