Barnes, Ernest William

(1874-1953), bishop of Birmingham

by A. E. J. Rawlinson, rev. Matthew Grimley

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Barnes, Ernest William (1874-1953), bishop of Birmingham, was born on 1 April 1874 in Altrincham, Cheshire, the eldest of the four sons of John Starkie Barnes (1843-1922) and his wife, Jane Elizabeth Kerry (1850-1938), of Charlbury, Oxfordshire. The fact of his having been born on April fool's day delighted his many antagonists in later life. An elementary schoolteacher, J. S. Barnes was appointed headmaster of a school in Birmingham, so his son's boyhood was spent in the city which later knew him as its bishop. Educated at King Edward's School (the school of B. F. Westcott, J. B. Lightfoot, and E. W. Benson), Barnes went up to Cambridge as a scholar of Trinity College in 1893 and in 1896 was bracketed second wrangler. In 1897 he became president of the union and was placed in the first division of the first class in part two of the mathematical tripos. In the following year he was first Smith's prizeman and was elected a fellow of his college, becoming assistant lecturer in 1902, junior dean (1906-8), and tutor from 1908 to 1915. In 1909 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Barnes's relations with his Cambridge colleagues were not always harmonious. A shy man conscious of unusual powers, he could be arrogant in controversy and did not shrink from declaring his views. In particular, the strong pacifist principles of which the outbreak of war in 1914 found him an ardent champion failed to endear him to the more bellicose of his colleagues at Trinity, who deprived his friend Bertrand Russell of his fellowship because of his pacifism. It is said that Barnes, whose father was a Baptist, was a professed atheist when he first went up to Cambridge but as an undergraduate experienced conversion to Christianity. In 1902 he was made deacon and in 1903 he was ordained priest. In 1915-19 he was master of the Temple; in 1918 he was made canon of Westminster; and in 1924 Ramsay MacDonald, in the first act of episcopal patronage by a Labour government, nominated him bishop of Birmingham. In 1916 Barnes married Adelaide Caroline Theresa (1881-1963), daughter of Sir Adolphus Ward, master of Peterhouse, Cambridge; there were two sons of the marriage, which was a very happy one.

A broad churchman, whose training at Cambridge had been primarily mathematical, Barnes conceived it to be his mission and duty to urge the need to substitute a world outlook based on the natural sciences for the traditionally scriptural outlook characteristic of Christian theology. He preached what came to be known as 'gorilla' sermons, supporting the evolutionary theory of man's biological descent from some creature akin to the apes. He opposed all forms of the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, which he saw as a hangover from pagan mystery religion. The essence of Christianity, as he understood and practised it, lay in a personal discipleship of the Jesus of the gospels, and in accepting an ethic based on the sermon on the mount. His congregation at the Temple during his mastership he believed to consist of 'wistful agnostics' in need of the spiritual diet of somewhat self-conscious modernism which he provided.

It was probably during this period that Barnes's best work as a preacher was done. There was a challenging incisiveness about his utterances, and an evident, if somewhat naive, intellectual honesty, which his congregation of able lawyers could appreciate; nor at this stage does controversy of a public kind appear to have arisen, although at the Temple, as in Cambridge, there were those who shook their heads at Barnes's pacifism. The canonry of Westminster gave him a wider audience, and by the time of his appointment to Birmingham he had already become something of a controversial figure. His opinions were by now well known. His gorilla sermons were generally held to be unnecessary since the theory of evolution had long ceased to be a matter of dispute among educated churchmen. But his attacks upon the doctrine of the real presence caused pain and distress to many and were widely resented.

The Birmingham diocese to which he went in 1924 was largely Anglo-Catholic in tone, and there were plenty of parishes in which the accustomed usages were not such as the bishop approved. Barnes, who had no prior experience of parish life, was shocked to discover that the reservation of the sacrament was common in Birmingham churches. In 1925 trouble threatened because he refused to institute a patron's nominee to a vacant benefice (St Mark's, Washwood Heath), unless he agreed in advance to discontinue the practice of reservation which had been customary in the parish. The incumbent designate preferred to withdraw; the next candidate gave the assurance, although it went beyond anything the bishop was legally entitled to demand. Fifteen other Birmingham incumbents refused to accept his prohibition on the reservation of the sacrament; Barnes treated them as rebels, refusing to license curates for them, or to allow them support from diocesan funds.

In September 1927 the bishop preached a vigorous gorilla sermon in Westminster Abbey, and in Birmingham a fortnight later he delivered an address on sacramental teaching which contained a provocative onslaught on the doctrine of the real presence. A public protest was made ten days later in St Paul's Cathedral, where the bishop was about to preach, by a London incumbent who appeared with a large body of laymen. Denouncing the bishop as a heretic, he demanded that the bishop of London should inhibit Barnes from preaching in his diocese and that the archbishop of the province should arrange for his trial. The bishop took the unusual course of addressing an open letter to Archbishop Davidson in which he complained of the disturbance and, defending his position, remarked that no one should drive him to Tennessee or to Rome. The archbishop published a courteous reply, assuring the bishop that no one in England desired to lead or drive him to either, dismissing the evolutionary sermons as of little importance, but criticizing as needlessly wounding what the bishop had said about sacramentalism. Before the end of the year the bishop published, in reply to his critics, a book giving a positive account of his beliefs, with the title Should Such a Faith Offend?, which caused the controversy to die down for a time.

In 1929 the bishop once again refused to institute to a benefice the nominee of the patrons unless promises were made which went beyond those required by law. The patrons of this parish (St Aidan's, Small Heath) included the bishop of Truro, W. H. Frere, and the controversy went on for eighteen months. In the end the patrons obtained from a judge of the High Court a writ of mandamus directed to the archbishop of Canterbury enjoining him to license a fit person to the benefice. Archbishop Lang admitted the patrons' original nominee. Barnes was also a leading campaigner against prayer book revision in 1927-8, opposing the new book's latitude on the question of reservation.

The Second World War saw Barnes involved in a controversy with the makers of cement. At a public meeting in Birmingham in November 1940 about providing air raid shelters, he had attacked the Cement Makers' Federation as a ring of monopolists holding up the supply of cement at a time of great public need in the interests of their own private profit. The bishop was sued for slander. He did not appear in court, although he was represented by counsel. The cement companies were awarded £1600 damages. It was an index of the respect, and even affection, in which Barnes was held by this time that the money was raised by lay friends in the diocese. In a speech in the House of Lords in June 1941 the bishop returned undaunted to the attack, maintaining that a cement ring did exist, that it was contrary to the public interest, and that big business was using libel and slander actions to suppress criticism.

In 1947 Barnes entered the lists as a theological author. His book The Rise of Christianity aroused fierce opposition for his denial of miracles and his disparaging treatment of St Paul. Barnes's grasp of New Testament criticism was slight, confused, and outdated, and even his fellow modernists were embarrassed by the book. The outraged orthodox demanded his condemnation. Under great pressure to take action of some kind, but unwilling to prosecute, Archbishop Fisher, in a presidential address to convocation, after expressing deep appreciation of the bishop's Christian character and of the sincerity of his aims, delivered a strong and damaging criticism of his book and of certain of its presuppositions, and cautioned readers against accepting its claim to be an adequate and impartial setting forth of the truth. While declaring that he 'would have no trial in this matter', he went on to say: 'If his views were mine, I should not feel that I could still hold episcopal office in the church'. The hint was ignored by Barnes who made a defiant personal statement in the House of Bishops. Action parallel with that of the archbishop of Canterbury having been taken also in York convocation by Archbishop Garbett, the matter was allowed to drop.

The furore made the book a best-seller, and it was serialised in the Sunday Pictorial. But its long-term impact was negligible; Roger Lloyd described it as 'a theological dead-end' (Lloyd, 481). Nevertheless, many modernists felt that Barnes had gravely damaged their cause. For his part, Barnes always denied that he was a modernist, insisting instead that he was an evangelical.

Barnes also made controversial public interventions on other questions. He supported divorce law reform and the ordination of women, while his belief in eugenics led him to criticize Commonwealth immigration to Birmingham in the early 1950s, as he believed that immigrants would dilute the national stock.

The external record of recurring crises and controversies by which his tenure of the see of Birmingham was marked exhibits Barnes as a very unusual type of prelate: a stormy petrel of the episcopate. Yet there is another side to the story. Thorny and unbending in controversy, and indifferent to the exasperation roused by his utterances, he was none the less personally charming and manifestly a man of the highest character and purpose. He had made initial mistakes, but in the later phases of his episcopate he mellowed appreciably. He had either worn down opposition or had reached a tacit modus vivendi with his opponents. His was a complicated and many-sided character; he could be shy and awkward, but he was inwardly eager for friendship and capable of great personal kindness. The story is told that a young Anglo-Catholic curate who went to tea with him returned from the encounter remarking: 'I do not know whether I agree with him, but I know he is a saint'. By all but a few of the laity of his diocese he was held in the highest honour and admired as a man of inflexible courage. The administrative side of a bishop's work was admittedly not congenial to him, but during his time at Birmingham a considerable number of new churches were built and consecrated, and new parishes were formed to meet changing conditions. He resigned his see in May 1953 and died on 29 November of the same year at his home at Hurstpierpoint in Sussex. His ashes were interred in Birmingham Cathedral.

The best contemporary sketch of Barnes came from Hensley Henson:

Tall, pallid with much study, with stooping shoulders, and a voice at once challenging and melancholy, he commands attention as well by his manner as by his opinions, which are almost insolently oppugnant to the general mind. He is a good man, but clearly a fanatic, and in a more disciplined age, could not possibly have avoided the stake. (Henson, 272)
Though he escaped the stake, Barnes suffered the punishment of ostracism by his fellow bishops, and became increasingly lonely and paranoid at the end of his life. One of his sons, Sir John Barnes, wrote a sympathetic biography, Ahead of his Age (1979), which went some way towards restoring Barnes's reputation as a serious thinker and church leader. Barnes was a fellow of King's College, London (1919) and Gifford lecturer at Aberdeen (1926-8); he received the honorary degrees of DD from Aberdeen (1925) and Edinburgh (1927), and LLD from Glasgow (1926).


J. Barnes, Ahead of his age: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham (1979)
A. M. G. Stephenson, The rise and decline of English modernism (1984)
A. Vidler, Scenes from a clerical life (1971)
H. H. Henson, Retrospect of an unimportant life, 2: 1920-1939 (1943)
R. Lloyd, The Church of England, 1900-1965 (1966)
A. Hastings, A history of English Christianity, 1920-90 (1991)
A. Vidler, Magic and religion (1930)
The Times (30 Nov 1953)
personal knowledge (2004)
private information (2004)
G. K. A. Bell, Randall Davidson, archbishop of Canterbury, 2 vols. (1935)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1954)

LPL, corresp. relating to dispute with crown over appointment to St Jude's, Birmingham
U. Birm. L., corresp., papers, and engagement diaries

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1918, NPG
photograph, c.1924, NPG
E. Kapp, charcoal drawing, 1930, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
D. Wynne, bronze sculpture, 1954, Birmingham Cathedral
photograph, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  
£21,899 19s. 6d.: probate, 24 Feb 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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