IT is not every day that a Church of England bishop sparks a constitutional crisis. Especially not a Yorkshire bishop. But, that is exactly what happened 80 years ago.
The then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, delivered a carefully prepared speech to the Bradford Diocesan Conference (today it would be to the diocesan Synod) in which he referred rather pointedly to the rather deficient piety of the soon-to-be crowned King Edward VIII. However, to understand the speech, it is first necessary to know something about the context in which it was delivered.
Edward was not known to be a regular worshipper. Furthermore, his romantic interest in American divorcée Wallis Simpson was causing some scandal around the Commonwealth.
The British Press had decided not to report the disreputable stories, but the media around the wider Commonwealth did not feel bound to be so morally scrupulous. What was widely known and commented on around the world was largely muted in Britain itself. A self-imposed censorship – unimaginable in today’s UK media world – created some space for waiting to see what would happen ... at the same time as frustrating the gossips.
And this is where Bishop Blunt came in. In his speech to his Diocesan Conference he drew attention to the imminent coronation of the new monarch, but exhorted him to spend more time more consistently in church. In itself this was unremarkable – after all, the king would also become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and could, therefore, reasonably be expected to show a little more conviction. His speech was a defence of the coronation as a sacramental act.
But the bishop then said this: “The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”
It is not clear whether he intended this to question Edward’s love life, but the ambiguity of his language allowed those so inclined to see it as a sanction to question his morality. Debate has continued through the years since Bishop Blunt gave this speech.
How do I know this? I have the original text of his speech, complete with pencil-written annotations, in my office. In fact, I have his entire set of speeches in a box in my filing room. Furthermore, I also have a box of the correspondence he then received as a result of his speech.
Coming from all around the world, many letters praised the bishop for having the courage to speak about a scandal that was being hushed up in the Press. At last, they said, someone is telling the truth and upholding moral propriety in the face of such public scandal. Others, however, berated the bishop for being such a prig and for behaving in such a moralistic and vindictive manner.
These letters are mostly handwritten in beautiful English. One of the most striking is typewritten by a lawyer at Gray’s Inn in London and condemns the bishop for his “most contumacious and impudent pronouncement”, referring later to “the sole and arrogant opinion of the (for the time being) Bishop of Bradford”. One is addressed to “You worm...” Another complains about “gross interference in his private affairs by the traditionally stupid forces of orthodoxy and stagnation”, concluding “This is 1936, not the Dark Ages”.
If anyone tries to tell you that internet trolling is a new phenomenon, point them to these letters. They are fewer, took longer to write and send, and are written mostly in excellent and elegant grammatical English. But, they are equally intended to challenge, belittle, ridicule or encourage the man at the centre, who probably had little clue what was going on.
The question is: did Bishop Blunt intend to say what he was taken to have said? In other words, did he intend to provoke the debate that led to Edward abdicating, George VI acceding and, eventually, Elizabeth II being crowned? Or was it a case of the bishop making a comment – almost as an aside – only to find that his words had become incendiary in the wider world, rather than merely mutedly critical for the benefit of a particular audience?
The rest is history. Edward married Wallis Simpson, they flirted with Adolf Hitler, and then lived the rest of their life away from the public glare of a prurient England. Elizabeth began what has become the longest reign of any monarch, serving both Church, nation and Commonwealth with a diligence and fidelity that commands the respect of even the most republican observers. And during her reign the world and the Church have changed. Modern media have changed the relationship between the Royals and the people, and the line between public and private has been blurred beyond recognition.
The world has changed. Human inconsistency and frailty have not changed. The public still love scandal, and elements of the media feed it. The Church is probably less moralistic.
What will happen next time we await a coronation? Who knows? Perhaps there will be a less blunt questioning of morals and motives. We shall see.
The Right Reverend Nicholas Baines is Bishop of Leeds.