Lord Halifax: an Anglo-Catholic from another time

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By Frederick Quinn

Lord Halifax (Edward Wood), 1881-1959, is sometimes cited as an exemplary representative of early twentieth century British Anglo-Catholic piety, but his record is a complex one.

Halifax grew up in rural Yorkshire amid vast lands and wealth, and after time at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, eventually became Viceroy of India, Foreign Secretary, and British Ambassador in Washington during World War II. He was the one Conservative Party political leader of his era who could have challenged Winston Churchill for the Prime Minister’s post.

Halifax was a devout High Church member, much influenced by his father, who spent 51 years as head of the English Church Union, the principal Anglo-Catholic organization of its era. For father and son the church was not the Church of England but the Church in England. Sacramental life was central to their faith as was the hope for some sort of union with Rome, but only with the Pope as first among the equal bishops of Christendom.

In Washington, Halifax regularly attended the Mission Church of St. Agnes, twenty minutes down Massachusetts Avenue from the British Embassy. He was a regular at the 9:30 Sunday mass. “It was just what we both liked,” his private secretary wrote, ”with incense and little boys in scarlet cassocks and nice children with hymns.” Later, in retirement in his Yorkshire estates, Halifax began each day kneeling in the manor house chapel for personal devotions, after which he read the previous day’s London papers, and set out furnishings for the daily mass, for which he was acolyte. “This is my chapel,” he told the vicar, “and if you don’t mind this is what I should like to do,” drawing on a missal he had cobbled together from several liturgies over the years.

His public record was truly mixed. As Viceroy to India (1926 to 1931) he hoped for a united India within the British Empire. (He called Gandhi a “half-naked fakir.”) As Foreign Secretary (1938 to 1940) he erroneously believed his personal contact with Hitler and Mussolini could introduce an element of reasonableness into German and Italian policies. It didn’t.

Churchill called Halifax the “Holy Fox” and sent him off as British Ambassador to Washington in 1941, but kept most of his important wartime conversations with Franklin Roosevelt to himself. Halifax neither understood nor liked most Americans. When offered a hot dog at a Chicago White Sox’s game, he declined. His preferred sport on a rare day off was fox hunting and Halifax sometimes spent weekends in Mirador, an early nineteenth century Virginia hunt country estate. Probably he was thinking of his own setting as a squire in rural England when he mused after one visit, “I regret there are no slaves. This would be my hour for visiting my slaves. I should talk affably with them. I should visit the sick and aged and read the Bible to them, and when gross impropriety or misconduct demanded it, I should correct them, and every now and again I should pat a little head. Finally, I should make them all sing spirituals to me.” But in contrast he also visited Tuskegee Institute in 1943 and afterwards wrote of its students, “They are asking for bread and getting a stone.” He saw segregation as “a great human problem building up, not being tackled by very wide-seeing people, and a good many things that are being followed are pretty hollow.”

Life was never easy for Halifax, who was born with no left hand. One of his sons was killed during World War II and another lost two legs in an explosion. After receiving news of his first son’s death Halifax wrote, “I went to St. Agnes at seven. I am always asking myself just what is the basis of one’s prayer for those one is fond of and who are in danger. Clearly it can’t be ‘Protect my son.’ In the end of it all you come back to ‘Thy will be done,’ but it is difficult for human nature.” Human sorrow, he reflected, too often dissolves into self-pity and “One cannot be presumptuous enough to pity the person who dies if one has a belief in the future life. I always think it strange the emphasis the church has placed on praying for the dead. Humility would suggest that it was much more important that they should pray for us.”

“He belonged to a different century,” Isaiah Berlin, then an Information Officer at the British Embassy, said of Halifax, who moved easily about the corridors of power and represented a brand of Oxford Movement Anglo-Catholicism that has largely disappeared from British life. Oblivious to the wider political and social movements about him in India, Germany, and America, he also missed out on the larger meaning of Asian nationalism, German fascism, and racism in America.

Frederick Quinn is a contributor to Episcopal Cafe.

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