Scholarship and Fierce Sincerity

Henry D. A. Major, The Face of Anglican Modernism

by Calum Gilmour

from Signs of the Times, No. 26 - Jul 2007

This is the title of a recent book on aspects of the life of H. D. A. Major, with particular focus on his roots and continuing connection with New Zealand, the home of his youth. Major is probably better known to readers in the UK as the founder of the Modern Churchmen's Union and editor of The Modern Churchman from its inception in 1911 until he relinquished the editorship in 1956. The Modern Churchman was the predecessor of the current journal Modern Believing. [MCU History, Major's first 1911 editorial]

This book is a collection of essays on modernism, Major's place in the movement, his importance for theological education, and the mutual influence of New Zealand on Major and his influence on religion in New Zealand. The central section of the book is an edition of the text of Major's 'Theological Jotter' and a detailed commentary on its contents by Clive Pearson. The Jotter consists of a rather dog-eared note book hand written by Major in his old age; it was found among Major's papers in the library of Cuddesdon College and is now deposited in the Bodleian Library. Major looks back on his youth in New Zealand, his religious development, and those who influenced this. The Jotter continues with an account of his years at Oxford and his appointment to Ripon Hall. It ends quite abruptly with a short account of a journey he made to Egypt and the Holy Land in 1907 accompanied by his wife, her parents, her sister and husband. Clive Pearson's commentary is detailed and brings the Jotter to life with details about the people mentioned and the places where Major grew up and received his early education.

Henry Major's parents and siblings immigrated to New Zealand in the 1870s. Henry was 6 years old. Henry's father had bought land at Katikati before leaving England and the family settled temporarily in Tauranga, moving to Katikati when their house was ready. Henry was initially educated largely by his father, then later he came under the influence of the Vicar of Katikati, William Katterns, who taught him Latin and French, as well as advancing his religious education. Later Major matriculated and went to Auckland to University. He tells us about this in the Jotter:

I matriculated in the New Zealand University and entered University College, Auckland, where we were required to take a Pass Degree in six subjects, during a period of three years. I took Latin, French, English, Political Economy, Geology and Mathematics. Our Professors were all first-class men... I had to work hard, as I was not nearly as well prepared as my fellow undergraduates... A new world opened for me when I read de Tocqueville's L'Ancien Régime et la Revolution, and Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, and Voltaire's Candide. Political economy... enthralled me, especially J. S. Mill's Political Economy.

Our Professors taught us and examined us terminally and annually, but our degree examinations were conducted from England. This maintained a high standard, and the New Zealand Pass Degree demanded much more accurate knowledge than that of Oxford or Cambridge... I had no intention of going beyond the Pass Degree, but my namesake, C. T. Major, (later Col. Major, C.B.E., D.S.O.) persuaded me to become a candidate for a University Senior Scholarship in Geology. He and I had been working side by side at the same table in the Natural Science laboratory for several terms and I yielded to his suggestion and was greatly surprised when I was awarded the Senior Scholarship by the English examiners. This compelled me to enter later for the Honours Degree in the same subject and I was granted a first class.

The Jotter continues - Major describes his time of theological education and preparation for ordination at St John's College in Auckland. He then moves on to his time at Oxford - an experience which he describes as 'the whitewashing of a colonial' by which he means the whiting over and concealing of the blemishes and inadequacies of his education. Major was particularly aware of the inadequacy of the theology taught at that time in St John's College, Auckland. Here the Jotter mentions many famous names as Major relates his introduction to biblical criticism and the quest of the historical Jesus - S. R. Driver, Armitage Robinson, William Sanday and many others.

At the end of 1905 Major left Oxford and accepted appointment as Vice-Principal of Ripon Clergy College. He had decided to devote his ministry to theological education. Bishop Boyd Carpenter was very supportive of Major and he in turn greatly admired the bishop. In the Jotter, Major describes his life and work at Ripon and then in 1907 he goes on his journey to Egypt and the Holy Land and the Jotter ends abruptly.

The Jotter is a fascinating document and Clive Pearson's commentary brings it to life in an exceptional way. We learn where religious influences come from and the importance of sound scholarship. Modernism has become post-modernism and to understand the latter we need an understanding of the former.

The book concludes with two further essays. Dr Allan Davidson is Director of Post-Graduate Studies in the Department of Theology in the University of Auckland. He examines Major's New Zealand context and assesses the ongoing influences of New Zealand in his life. Major was quite well known in New Zealand and kept contact with friends and especially his brother Arthur. Dr Charles Fox, the noted missionary in Melanesia was one of those friends. Allan Davidson quotes Fox's comment about Major. At the time Fox was at St John's College and Major was curate at St. Mark's Church, Remuera:

I was attending lectures at the University which ended at 10 p.m., and then I had to walk out the 6 miles to St John's College. St. Mark's was half way, and every evening I dropped in to see H.D.A. & have an hour's talk with him, and got to love him... He was young then, rosy faced, full of vigour, greatly loved in the parish, with the obvious promise of good scholarship.

Major returned only once to New Zealand, in 1929. This visit and the sometimes violent reaction to it are described by Peter Lineham in the final essay of the book. Peter Lineham is Professor of History at Massey University in Auckland. His essay provides an analysis of New Zealand religious attitudes at the time and is a fascinating account of the bigoted and vocal opposition that Major faced.

Henry Major was a controversial figure. His liberal theological views were by no means acceptable to Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics alike. The book covers the Girton controversy and the opposition to the liberal movement by such figures as Bishop Charles Gore. However Major was always careful to refrain from personal attack and he had a reputation for being unfailingly kind. There is a priest still living in Auckland who was a student of Henry Major from 1937-1939. We asked him to provide material for the introduction to the book. He gave us an entertaining portrayal of Henry Major as a person and a pastor and it is well to conclude this article with a quote from this description:

Let me begin with his appearance. He seemed a very old man of indeterminate age, afflicted by a number of almost crippling infirmities. He was three parts blind from a condition of glaucoma that limited his power to focus at only two points, either an inch or so before his eyes - he would read a book by holding it right up to his face - or at a distance of about eight feet; everything else was blurred as in a thick fog.

As if that were not enough, he was deaf as well. Electronic hearing aids were available, and were being widely used by the deaf, but he preferred a simple, old fashioned ear-trumpet. It was a large silver contraption which he carried in one of his capacious pockets; he would drag it out and extend it like a telescope, and thrust its great, spoon-like dish near to your face when he wanted to talk with you.

A third deficiency, and one which I am ashamed to say was a constant source of merriment to his students, was his inability to sound his 'r's - they would invariably come out as 'w's.

He was relatively tall with a once strong and probably athletic body, but when I knew him he was bent by his years... Yet this aged body carried an acute mind, a shrewd judgment of people, and above all, an unfailing sense of humour. He laughed at his disabilities, and his little world of students laughed with him...

The picture we form of Henry Major is of a learned theologian and kindly pastor to parishioners and students alike; and a controversial figure who was a brilliant organiser and devoted editor and teacher.

Dr Calum Gilmour is Managing Director of Polygraphia Ltd, a small publishing company founded in 1998, and a retired priest of the Auckland Diocese.

Scholarship and Fierce Sincerity: Henry D. A. Major, The Face of Anglican Modernism is published in Auckland by Polygraphia Ltd.