HL Deb 18 September 1972 vol 335 cc709-14

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to pay tribute to Lord Fisher of Lambeth, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who died at the end of last week. I do so conscious of the fact that there will be others following me here to-day who knew this very considerable man far better than I did.

Geoffrey Fisher was a Member of your Lordships' House in one capacity or another for 33 years, first as Bishop of London, then as Archbishop of Canterbury, and finally as a Life Peer. It was much to the advantage of this House that he followed the example of his predecessors in office, Archbishops Davidson and Lang, in accepting on retirement the offer of a Temporal Peerage; he was the first Primate to be created a Life Peer. In this way his wise counsel and his friendship were preserved to us during the 11 years of his retirement.

After a distinguished career at Oxford (he managed to "bag" a trio of Firsts) Fisher was appointed Headmaster of Repton at the early age of 27, and in some ways—in the best way—he remained a "headmaster" all his life. He excelled at administration and was proud of it, insisting that efficient organisation had not only practical but also spiritual value. Fisher was a man of incisive mind and extraordinary clarity of judgment. These were qualities which never failed to illuminate the subject of his attention.

As Bishop of London during the war he helped to bring our great city successfully through the strains of war. As Archbishop of Canterbury he will, I am sure, be remembered for ninny achievements. He will be remembered for the part he played in bringing independence and self-government to the Anglican Church overseas, a development in the ecclesiastical sphere which in its way matched the transformation in the political sphere that has brought independence to many of the dependent territories of the Commonwealth. He will be remembered, perhaps, above all for his interest in ecumenical relationships—and here I have particularly in mind his visit to Pope John in December, 1960. This visit was clearly a landmark in the development of closer relations between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. It was also, as was remarked at the time, and as is very evident from the obituaries, the first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to the Pope since the Reformation. He will, not least, be remembered for the revision of Canon Law, in which he strove to bring order and, as he described it, "Godly discipline" into the affairs of the Church.

My Lords, in none of these fields were critics and opponents lacking. One of the reasons was the fact that Fisher himself was a man who temperamentally liked to argue matters out. I personally remember, vividly and affectionately, as a "new boy" attending your Lordships' House, the spirited exchanges with which the Archbishop and the distinguished predecessor of the present Leader of the Opposition, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, used on occasions to delight the House. But, on whatever side of the fence one might come down, nobody could say that under Fisher the Church of England stood still at home. Abroad, he proved himself a great ambassador for the Church.

May I, in my concluding words, just touch for a moment on the man himself? All, I think, who knew Fisher in this House knew that he was the most approachable of men. Those who knew him here had grown accustomed to and liked the twinkle in his eye, his friendliness and his total lack of pomposity. In addition, as all who heard him will know, he had a superb speaking voice. Few of us who were there will forget his part in the Coronation of our present Queen. Above all, Geoffrey Fisher was a family man and he was immensely proud, as he had every occasion to be, of his six sons.

My Lords, in his message to Lady Fisher, to whom he owed a great deal, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that he would be, long remembered for his leadership, his courage and his kindliness". In extending our deep and sincere sympathy to his widow and his family, I should like, on behalf of your Lordships, to recall those three distinguishing characteristics of the man we mourn: his leadership, his courage and his kindliness.

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I should certainly wish to support everything that the noble Earl has said. It seems to me very strange that Lord Fisher, who was such a vital figure when sitting below the Gangway in the seat occupied now by the most reverend Primate, should no longer be with us. He was a very vigorous person. One's first reaction when one met him was to say, "Ah, yes, of course he has been a headmaster." And then, as you got to know him, you found the qualities that the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has mentioned: the lack of pomposity, the ease, the rather headmasterly humour but none the less pleasant for that, and an ability to organise. It would, perhaps, be rude to call him an organisation man these days. But all great institutions like the Church of England need men of that capacity and to a quite striking extent he brought that to the service of the Church of England.

To me, if I may say so, one of the appealing sides of the Church of England is the variety we find among the Primates and their different style. All have been great men in my lifetime, and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury will forgive me for referring to him in this sense. Here we had a man at a time when he was needed, and we ought not to underrate the courage which he had to brine to bear in pursuing his ecumenical objectives. Our dear and greatly beloved friend Lord Alexander of Hillsborough certainly added to our gaiety, and sometimes to our embarrassment, by the vigour of his anti-Roman Catholic views. But, of course, the late Lord Fisher of Lambeth was well able to take care of himself and he did show courage in this matter. There will be others, in particular, I hope, my noble friend Lord Soper, who will know how much he contributed to relations with the other Churches.

My Lords, it was characteristic that this powerful figure should, at the end, have retired and devoted himself to the needs of a Dorset parish, and certainly everyone in your Lordships' House will share the sympathy and the sorrow which we extend to Lord Fisher's family.


My Lords, it was my misfortune not to know the late Archbishop of Canterbury very well, although on several occasions I came across him in the narrow lanes of that very pretty village of Trent in Dorset, which used to be part of my constituency, literally in full flight—in the full regalia of an Archbishop—on his way to take evensong, and it was quite a sight. He will be remembered for many things, not least for the way in which he carried out his duties as Bishop of London during the war, and particularly during the blitz. He also will be remembered, I think, for the improvements which he made in the administrative structure of the Church, the organisation of the Church, and the care he took in trying to improve the stipends of the clergy. He was certainly a controversial figure, but he was universally respected, and we should like to be associated with the expressions of condolence and sympathy which have already been paid by the two noble Lords to his widow and family.

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I speak of the late Lord Fisher of Lambeth with some emotion. My knowledge of him goes back a very long way, for I first knew him when he was a very young headmaster and I was a very young new boy in his school. Lord Fisher of Lambeth certainly loved your Lordships' House, where he had many friends, and no doubt his love for it was apparent when, on his retirement from the Primacy, he accepted a Life Peerage. To our regret, he could not often be with us here in his last years of old age and it is of him as Primate that we are chiefly thinking to-day.

Fisher came to the Primacy at a very difficult time in the last year of the war and after the premature death of William Temple. Temple had been a prophet and a thinker; Fisher's gifts were of a different kind. His administrative ability was immense—equal, I should guess, to that of anyone in any walk of life in the country. But to describe him as an administrator would do less than justice to one whose administration was filled, through and through, with humanity and a desire to help and to care for persons. He used his gifts in setting forward urgent reforms in the life of the Church. Not only did he set about the comprehensive review of the Canon Law of the Church, to which the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has already referred, but he did much to ease the anxiety of the clergy and their families over poverty and awkward housing. He initiated the reform in the Church's government which has now reached fruition in the working together of bishops, clergy and laity in the Church's Synod. His wit and humour were often at hand to lower the temperature of controversial moments and to overcome obstruction, and that wit and humour, I know, are remembered by many in this House.

It is, however, in terms of the outreach of the Church of England in Christendom that history is likely chiefly to remember Fisher's Primacy. The immense change in the fraternal relations of Churches, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, to one another, a change as widespread as it is increasing, owes very much to Archbishop Fisher's energy; and his visit to the Pope in the last year of his Primacy was a courageous and imaginative gesture, the effects of which have, I believe, been growing in every subsequent year. His strenuous journeys to distant parts of the Anglican Communion greatly helped the widespread Anglican churches to be a closely knit family, and because Fisher was the man that he was, a visit by him to another country used to have more than ecclesiastical significance: it helped friendship between this country and the country to which he went. Here at home he cared greatly about the impact of Christianity upon the people widely, and at the Coronation of our Queen his moving simplicity and sincerity in the solemn ritual spoke of the things of God to thousands in the country who watched and listened, and were moved to prayer.

But our gratitude to Almighty God to-day is chiefly for the man himself: a humble, dedicated servant of Christ, full of outspoken courage and of kindness. It is very fitting that we should have paused to-day to tell his family of the sympathy which is in our hearts and to do homage to the memory of a great Englishman and a great Christian.


My Lords, from the standpoint of the Free Churches, which in this respect I can entirely represent, I would crave the opportunity of speaking a brief word in supplementation of the tributes which have already been paid to Lord Fisher. What has already been said of him, as to his personal qualities of kindliness and understanding, is something that has been enjoyed by many of us. In particular, when I had some brief and temporary authority within the Methodist Church, I had the opportunity of getting to know him pretty well over the initial sermon which he preached and which sparked off the now somewhat abortive attempt to bring the Anglican and the Methodist Churches closer together. Your Lordships will remember that he preached a sermon in which he drew the clear distinction between the Church "of" England and the Church "in" England. It was that vision, sparked off, so to speak, by his particular sermon, which energised many of us who felt that here was a great opportunity to follow in the steps of one who really understood and cherished the ideas of the ecumenical movement and the unbroken body of Christ. I should like to add my tribute to him for the way in which he pursued this task. If at the end he foresaw difficulties which some of us had not foreseen, yet in the controversy, with which he continued almost to his last days, he showed some of those qualities to which ample reference has already been made.

He was a man debonair, and therefore entitled, if you read French, to the beatitude of meekness. There was a quality of hard-shell meekness about Lord Fisher which I, for one, much appreciated and which went far to establish the kind of reputation he had of being a good and faithful soldier of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We in the Churches that are still called Free—though we claim no prescriptive right to that—are grateful for what Lord Fisher did. We believe that the seed that he sowed will indeed fructify sooner or later, and that the wider ambitions and hopes which he cherished will not be lost because he himself has passed on. We add our word of sympathy to the family mourning his passing.

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