Archbishop Garbett and State Propaganda

Church, State and Propaganda: The Archbishop of York and International Relations – a policy study of Cyril Forster Garbett, 1942-1955

 

University of Hull Press, 1999,  pp 302,  £14.99

This account of one aspect of the ministry of Cyril Garbett, Archbishop of York, is clearly a Cautionary Tale for Senior Ecclesiastics.

Garbett, who died in 1955 at the age of 81, was a devoted curate, parish priest and bishop. He spent seventeen years at the beginning of his pastoral ministry in the parish of Portsea.  There he came to know poverty face to face.  He supported a variety of worthy causes from decent housing to free medical care.  After Portsea came thirteen years of Archbishop of Southwark, where his social concerns were expressed with even greater authority.  In his In the Heart of South London Garbett made his convictions clear: “The foulness of every slum denies that God is love”.  From Southwark he went to Winchester and from Winchester, not without some sideways hope of Canterbury, he was appointed to York.  At York, as partner to William Temple at Canterbury, Garbett acted as a moderating influence on Temple’s crusading enthusiasms.

Garbett was always an establishment man with clear ideas about church-state relationships:  “The Church has the responsibility of arousing and educating the conscience of the state and the nation on matters of public policy and administration.”

This book is concerned with one aspect of Garbett’s work.  He would have described it as his international Christian mission.  More realistic observers might now describe it as the use made of him by the British Foreign Office.

It was not until the middle of the Second World War that his international role developed.  With much behind-the-scenes Foreign Office encouragement, Garbett visited the Soviet Union in September 1943.  Though he maintained that “the purpose of the visit was religious and not political,” the wider aim was to encourage others to take a more positive view of the Soviet Union, now the major ally in the war against Nazi Germany.  Garbett’s rather rose-tinted view of life in the Soviet Union, a view encouraged by the Foreign Office, did not suit John Heenan, future Archbishop of Westminster. His blunt comment was that those who “still insist that there is no religious persecution in Russia are enemies of Christ’s Church”.

Having served his purpose well with that visit, Garbett was easily persuaded by the Ministry of Information to travel to the United States in 1944 where he became even more effusive about life in the Soviet Union: “Marshall Stalin, being a great statesman, has recognised the power of religion.”

This pro-Soviet perspective did not last.  Within a few years Garbett changed direction in exactly the way which the government required.  With the war over and the Cold War well launched, the need was to bolster the Western alliance against the Soviet threat.  The change was not immediate.  After a visit to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in 1947 he still insisted that Britain should resist pressure from the United States to combine against the Soviet Union.  By 1948 however his York diocesan leaflet apportioned all the blame to the Soviet Union for the failure to achieve a peaceful post-war settlement.  From then on his Cold War position was consistently clear. Indeed by 1954 Garbett was criticising those who opposed the development of a British nuclear weapon on the grounds that without it “our nation would be powerless to work for peace…”

He effectively used his platform in the House of Lords to help to bring public opinion behind government policy.  Before speaking, however, he regularly sought advice from his Foreign Office and official contacts.  Brendan Bracken of the Ministry of Information wrote a revealing letter to Garbett after the war.  “Your journeys to the United States, Russia and Greece [where he had supported British military intervention] were of the highest value to us.”

Other journeys were yet to come.  In 1951 Garbett visited Malaya by which time he clearly thought that his prime role was to give support to British troops fighting there.  He and the resident Anglican bishop did not see eye to eye on this. Garbett wrote: “He is overloading my programme with a number of minor diocesan… and even parochial engagements.  He cannot see that it is really of importance that I should see something of the men who are fighting.”

Garbett died in 1955 still, Archbishop of York.  He found it very difficult to retire because “no one will want to listen to me”.  His death came before the peerage promised by Anthony Eden could be announced.  He had certainly earned it.

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