Archbishop Randall Davidson

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Michael Hughes
The Archbishops of Canterbury Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     238 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the latest instalment of The Routledge Press’s Archbishops of Canterbury Series, Michael Hughes explores the life and work of Randall Davidson, who served for twenty-five years as Primate of All England (1903-1928) before establishing the modern precedent of archiepiscopal retirement. After Harrow and Oxford, Davidson’s ecclesiastical career began and ended at Lambeth Palace through familiar routes of establishment patronage: his friendship with the son of Archbishop Archibald Tait secured him a recommendation as the Archbishop’s chaplain (a longstanding friendship of Tait and Davidson pères sealed the appointment, and he himself responded by marrying Tait’s daughter), while his Scottish Presbyterian upbringing endeared him to Queen Victoria, who saw him made Dean of Windsor, Bishop of Rochester, and Bishop of Winchester, a trajectory that made his translation to Canterbury almost an inevitable progression a couple of years after her death. 

Davidson came to the office with “a very ‘Victorian’ view of ecclesiastical politics” (29), but his time at Canterbury was a period in which he and the Church that he led attempted to come to terms with a rapidly-changing situation “as the old world collided with the new” (41). It fell to him to steer the Church of England through a number of challenges and crises over the two-and-a-half decades of his tenure, but most significantly of all to provide religious leadership during the difficult and bloody years of the First World War. 

In retrospect some might regard Davidson as a hero of ecclesiastical liberalism: he willingly ordained William Temple in 1910 and consecrated Hensley Henson to Hereford in 1918, despite the fact that “their views on doctrine were seen by many as heterodox, and deeply inconsistent with traditional Christian (let alone Anglican) teaching” (6). Hughes concedes that Davidson’s early quiet and personal Presbyterianism—he himself averred that as a boy he had “no recollection of receiving any teaching upon Churchmanship”—meant that he “never understood later in life the passion that matters of doctrine and liturgy exercised on so many who belonged to his generation” (10). However, he defends Hughes from the accusation of his having been little more than a “courtier-priest” or ecclesiastical administrator.   

Davidson failed to solve many of the challenges that faced him at Canterbury because he preferred “to focus on the concrete rather than the abstract”—an impossible task in a Church of England in which a pre-existing plurality of theological opinion and liturgical practice continued to grow during the years of his archiepiscopate. Hughes concludes that he was, in fact, “a Realist,” in that “he understood the complex pressures shaping and confining almost all aspects of the Church [of England]’s work,” and that he “was instinctively doubtful about the possibility of the Church possessing a clear and unambiguous sense of the will of God” (168). 

Hughes’s book rescues Davidson from the sheer volume of material that George Bell reproduced in his doorstopper biography of 1935, which has to a great extent since buried him from view. He gives us a new view of his subject by presenting us with a small number of fluent chapters, divided chronologically into pre-war, wartime, and post-war themes, which he follows with an appendix presenting a number of primary sources that bring out a little more of the nuance of Davidson’s character and style of approach. He concurs with Bell’s principal theme that Davidson was a good man who did his best for his church and his country, although with mixed and sometimes even intangible results.

In Randall Davidson, Hughes presents us with an Archbishop of Canterbury who “played an important role in the history of the Church of England, skilfully contributing to its development, and providing its members with a leadership characterised by the values of tolerance and service.” Although some might have regarded his caution and sense of proportion as little more than dullness and a lack of imagination, when it came to managing divided ecclesiastical parties or helping the Church adapt to a changed world while retaining its own influence within it, Hughes concludes—while remaining open to his subject’s shortcomings—that “it is hard to imagine that anyone else could have been as effective” (171). 

This book will be a useful resource for anyone seeking to explore more deeply the under-currents of the ecclesiastical and political world of Edwardian and neo-Georgian England, and—the odd typographical blemish notwithstanding—its author is to be congratulated for having produced it. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Serenhedd James is Associate Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, where he is also Lecturer in Theology at Oriel College, and an Honorary Research Fellow at St. Stephen's House.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Hughes is professor of history and head of department at Lancaster University. He has published a book and numerous articles on Nonconformity in the twentieth century, as well as writing extensively on Anglo-Russian relations, with a particular emphasis on relations between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy (a subject with which Randall Davidson was particularly concerned). He was for many years a Lay Reader in the Anglican Church and has published five monographs and more than thirty articles in scholarly journals.


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