Geoffrey Fisher

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The Lord Fisher of Lambeth

Archbishop of Canterbury
The Right Reverend Geoffrey Fisher.jpg
Fisher in 1939
Installed1945
Term ended1961
PredecessorWilliam Temple
SuccessorMichael Ramsey
Personal details
Birth nameGeoffrey Francis Fisher
Born(1887-05-05)5 May 1887
Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England
Died15 September 1972(1972-09-15) (aged 85)
BuriedSt Andrew's Church, Trent, Dorset
DenominationAnglican
SpouseRosamond Fisher
Children
  • Henry
  • Francis
  • Charles
  • Humphrey
  • Robert
  • Temple

Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Baron Fisher of Lambeth, GCVO, PC (5 May 1887 – 15 September 1972) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961.

Background[edit]

Geoffrey Fisher was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, to Rev. Henry Fisher and Katherine (née Richmond),[1] he grew up in Higham on the Hill, Leicestershire. He was brought up an Anglican, being the son, grandson, and great-grandson of rectors of Higham; this line of clergymen was a branch of the gentry family of Fisher of Caldecote Hall, Leicestershire, which resided at Foremark, Derbyshire in the sixteenth century. Fisher was also a descendant of the industrialist and agriculturalist Joseph Wilkes.[2]

Fisher 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, especially in the case of Marlborough which had been founded for the education of sons of the Clergy, it was common for schoolmasters to be in Holy Orders, and headmasters were typically priests.[citation needed]

In 1914 Fisher was appointed Headmaster of Repton School, succeeding William Temple, whom he later also succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury. Roald Dahl wrote about him in his book Boy: Tales of Childhood. Fisher married Rosamond Forman, daughter of Arthur Forman, who was a Repton master and Derbyshire cricketer.[3]

In 1932 Fisher was appointed Bishop of Chester, and in 1939 he became Bishop of London;[4] when William Temple died unexpectedly in 1944, Fisher was selected as Archbishop of Canterbury by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Archbishop of Canterbury[edit]

Fisher put considerable effort into the task of revising the Church of England's canon law; the canons of 1604 were at that time still in force, despite being largely out of date.[5]

He presided at the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and later at her coronation in 1953 as Queen Elizabeth II; the event was carried on television for the first time (the previous coronation, that of George VI in 1937, had been filmed for newsreels).

Randolph Churchill was concerned about rumours involving Archbishop Fisher with Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon when she had planned to marry Peter Townsend, a divorced man. In his view, "the rumour that Fisher had intervened to prevent the Princess from marrying Townsend has done incalculable harm to the Church of England", according to research conducted by historian Ann Sumner Holmes. Margaret's official statement, however, specified that the decision had been made "entirely alone", although she was mindful of the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Nonetheless, there was subsequent criticism in the UK about the Church's inflexibility as it related to divorce.[6]

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 English Reformation, and an ecumenical milestone.

Fisher was also a committed Freemason,[7] as were many Church of England bishops of his day. Fisher served as Grand Chaplain in the United Grand Lodge of England.

Nuclear controversy[edit]

In 1958, at a time of heightened fear of nuclear war and mutual destruction between the West and the Soviet Union, Fisher said that he was "convinced that it is never right to settle any policy simply out of fear of the consequences. ... For all I know it is within the providence of God that the human race should destroy itself in this manner."[8] He was also quoted as saying, "The very worst the Bomb can do is to sweep a vast number of People from this world into the next into which they must all go anyway".[9]

He was heavily criticised in the press for this view, but a number of clergy, including Christopher Chavasse, Bishop of Rochester, defended him, saying, "In an evil world, war can be the lesser of the two evils."[8]

Successor[edit]

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, a suitable successor. This dynamic ("Ramsey never quite manages to shake off his fear of his old headmaster"),[10] and the fact that Fisher and Ramsey had very different personalities and approaches to life- "Fisher, a leading Freemason, is brisk, efficient, bossy, conservative, a stickler for correct dress... Ramsey is dreamy, liberal, humorous, vague, scholarly, easily bored, with a tendency to walk around with his shoelaces undone"-[11] made relations between the two men difficult. Ramsey later relayed to the Reverend Victor Stock the conversation Fisher had with the Prime Minister.

According to this account (of which there exist several different versions), Fisher said:[12]

I have come to give you some advice about my successor. Whomever 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 his life. I was his Headmaster at Repton.

Macmillan replied:[12]

Thank you, your Grace, for your kind advice. You may have been Doctor Ramsey's headmaster, but you were not mine.

Ramsey was duly appointed.

Another version of this story, from Ramsey's personal secretary, relates that Ramsey, aware of Fisher's misgivings, offered to remove himself from consideration; Macmillan responded: "He may have been your headmaster, but he wasn’t mine, and besides, I want you as Archbishop."[13] On another occasion, Ramsey (who "delights in telling friends the story") gave an embellished account: 'He said, "Oh, Prime Minister, I shall be retiring shortly, and I don't think the Archbishop of York, Dr Ramsey, would be entirely suitable as my successor." And Macmillan asked, "Why is that?" So Fisher said, "He was a boy under me at Repton, and I don't think he'd be very suitable." So Macmillan said, "Oh, Dr Ramsey would be suitable." And Fisher said, "Dr Coggan, the Bishop of Bradford,, would be very suitable." So Macmillan said, "Well, Archbishop, you may have been Michael Ramsey's headmaster, but you're not mine, and I intend to appoint Dr Ramsey. Good afternoon."' The tone of Macmillan's response to Fisher's suggestion stems from the poor relationship between the two men; in his diary, Macmillan referred to Fisher as "a silly, weak, vain and muddle-headed man", and complained of their meetings that "I try to talk to him about religion. But he seems quite uninterested and reverts all the time to politics."[14]

In a letter to Macmillan following Fisher's announcement of his intention to retire, Macmillan's appointments secretary David Stephens observed: "I only see two candidates of archiepiscopal stature: the Archbishop of York (Ramsey) and the Bishop of Bradford... Here it is fair to remark that the Archbishop of York has not settled down happily alongside the present Archbishop of Canterbury, he never seems quite to have got over the rela­tionship established at Repton, where Ramsey was at school when Fisher was headmaster. They are men of a very different type and live on entirely different planes. Ramsey is less worldly and a more distinguished theologian than Fisher, he knows absolutely where he stands on all matters of doctrine and theology. Fisher likes to have his own way and is sometimes unpredictable in his actions and judgements, his capacity is prodigious and he hates to delegate. None of this makes him an easy man to work with, and Ramsey is not the first to suffer these difficulties. I mention this relationship for two reasons, partly as a warning that Fisher’s view of Ramsey ought not to be taken altogether at its face value, and partly to explain why Ramsey, during his five years as Archbishop of York, may appear not to have grown in stature to quite the extent that was hoped when he was first appointed, he nevertheless remains the out­standing figure in the Church of England today."[15]

Retirement and death[edit]

Fisher was made a life peer, with the title of 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).[16] 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 Randall Davidson in 1928), although Fisher was the first to be created a "life peer" following the Life Peerages Act 1958.[17]

Fisher died on 15 September 1972 and was buried in a crypt in St Andrew's Church, Trent, Dorset, a place he had chosen himself, he had been an honorary assistant priest in Trent since his retirement.[18] A side chapel at Canterbury Cathedral was subsequently dedicated to his memory, situated next to a similar memorial chapel to Archbishop Michael Ramsey.

Honours[edit]

As well as being created a life peer, Fisher received the Royal Victorian Chain in 1949.[19] and was made Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in 1953.[20]

Legacy[edit]

A house at Tenison's School is named after him.[citation needed]

Literary reference[edit]

An incident of cruelty to a student said to involve Geoffrey Fisher is described in Boy: Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl; however the headmaster at the time was Fisher's successor, John Christie, and historians agree the allegations are based on a mistake by Dahl.

References[edit]

  1. ^ https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-31108
  2. ^ A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, fifth edition, vol. II, ed. Sir Bernard Burke, Harrison, Pall Mall, 1871, p. 1588
  3. ^ "The Peerage.com". The Peerage.com. Retrieved 30 April 2011.
  4. ^ "New Bishop of London Elected". Hull Daily Mail. British Newspaper Archive. 23 September 1939.
  5. ^ "Primate And Reform of Canon Law". Nottingham Evening Post. British Newspaper Archive. 20 May 1947.
  6. ^ Ann Sumner Holmes (13 October 2016). The Church of England and Divorce in the Twentieth Century: Legalism and Grace. Routledge. p. 78–79. ISBN 9781848936171. Retrieved 3 January 2019.
  7. ^ "Full Masonic Biography of Fisher". Mqmagazine.co.uk. Retrieved 30 April 2011.
  8. ^ a b Time, 28 July 1958 Retrieved July 2011
  9. ^ The Guardian, 28 August 1999 Retrieved July 2012
  10. ^ Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, Craig Brown, Simon & Schuster, 2011, p. 277
  11. ^ Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, Craig Brown, Simon & Schuster, 2011, p. 277
  12. ^ a b Peter Hennessy, The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 (Palgrave, New York, 2001), p. 250.
  13. ^ https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/headmasterly-g2gcwqtptpn
  14. ^ Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, Craig Brown, Simon & Schuster, 2011, p. 277
  15. ^ https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2009/9-january/features/a-quiet-word-about-the-next-archbishop
  16. ^ "No. 42369". The London Gazette. 2 June 1961. p. 4053.
  17. ^ George Carey interview
  18. ^ Carpenter, E., Archbishop Fisher, His Life and Times, London, Canterbury Press, 2012.
  19. ^ "No. 38493". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1949. p. 5.
  20. ^ "No. 39863". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 June 1953. p. 2946.

Bibliography[edit]

Primary:

  • Fisher Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, London

Secondary:

  • Edward Carpenter, Archbishop Fisher: His Life and Times. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1991.
  • Andrew Chandler and David Hein. Archbishop Fisher, 1945–1961: Church, State and World; the Archbishops of Canterbury Series. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.
  • P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Archbishops of Canterbury. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2006, pp. 268–71.
  • William Purcell, Fisher of Lambeth. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969.
  • Alan Webster, "Fisher, Geoffrey Worth, Baron Fisher of Lambeth (1887–1972)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

External links[edit]

Church of England titles
Preceded by
Luke Paget
Bishop of Chester
1932–1939
Succeeded by
Douglas Crick
Preceded by
Arthur Winnington-Ingram
Bishop of London
1939–1945
Succeeded by
William Wand
Preceded by
William Temple
Archbishop of Canterbury
1945–1961
Succeeded by
Michael Ramsey
Academic offices
Preceded by
William Temple
Headmaster of Repton School
1914–1932
Succeeded by
John Christie