The Bishop and the American

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Writing this piece while on holiday in France has reminded me how I struggle with speaking in a foreign language. Not so Joseph Barber Lightfoot, who became Bishop of Durham in 1879. Greek and Latin were his favourite languages, though he was also fluent in Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and Italian and had a working knowledge of Arabic, Syrian, Ethiopian and the Coptic dialect.

He was regarded as having one of the finest minds in Europe. At Trinity College Cambridge, in 1851, Lightfoot won the award of the first Chancellor’s Medallist in Classics plus a first class in Mathematics. It is said that his classical papers did not contain anything which could fairly be called a mistake.

In 1861 he was appointed Hulsean Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and his lectures on the New Testament attracted such large numbers that they had to be given in the hall of Trinity College. He wrote pioneering commentaries on Galatians, Philippians and Colossians with Philemon as well as producing multi-volume works on the Apostolic Fathers including St Ignatius and St Polycarp.

When Prime Minister Disraeli invited Lightfoot to become Bishop of Durham in 1879, Lightfoot questioned his suitability for the task. He had never held another bishopric, had no small talk, was given to long periods of silence, and lacked the social graces which oil the wheels of leadership. However, in response to urging of his friends, he accepted the challenge and in short space of ten years established himself as one of the Church of England’s greatest bishops. Besides his massive gifts of learning he turned out to have strong administrative skills and considerable money-raising capacity much needed in the Durham diocese at the time. He enjoyed his work as a bishop and financed out of his own pocket a fine new church in Sunderland dedicated to the honour of St Ignatius.

Never an eloquent preacher, his sermons nevertheless attracted good congregations. As bishop, he was apt to preach the same Easter Day sermon each year in the cathedral. When a member of the congregation asked the reason for this, Lightfoot replied: ‘I have not changed my mind on the subject since last year.’

It was said that the bishop was not much to look at with a ‘heavy low slung jaw’. When an artist completed the best-known portrait of Lightfoot, the painter declared that he had ‘the jaw of a murderer’.

Once, when standing on a Scottish railway station, an American woman approached him: ‘I am told that the Bishop of Durham will be on this train. Can you tell me if that tall, handsome man is he?’

‘No, ma’am,’ replied Lightfoot, ‘the Bishop of Durham is short and plain.’

But perhaps I should conclude by quoting the assessment of R H Malden that ‘all his activities were inspired and dominated by singlehearted devotion to his Master’ and that he ‘showed more clearly perhaps than anyone else has done that the temper of the scholar and historian is not incompatible with the most sincere and simple Christian faith and piety’.