Hugh Lister (1901-44): Priest, Labor Leader, Combatant Officer

By Hein, David | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Hugh Lister (1901-44): Priest, Labor Leader, Combatant Officer

Hein, David, Anglican and Episcopal History

"I knew a man once," recalled the celebrated English theologian Austin Farrer, "but this is not the time for reminiscence, and you perhaps have not been so happy as to know living saints."1 Invariably when Farrer made this kind of remark in his essays or sermons, as on this occasion in Pusey House Chapel, he had in mind an extraordinary individual he had first come to know as a fellow student at Cuddesdon Theological College: Hugh Evelyn Jackson Lister.2

Farrer would deal most fully with Lister's career in his Remembrance Day sermon of 1963, a sermon that is still widely known: "So many millions-my mind is numbed by the huge arithmetic of death. To gather and concentrate my thoughts, and yours, maybe I will tell the story of one man, than whom I never knew a better."3 This time he mentioned Lister by name, and connected the sketch he furnished of his friend's life with two themes that were consistently at the center of his own theology: sainthood and the will of God.

The centenary of Lister's birth provides a fitting moment for later generations to remember the man that Austin Farrer considered the one saint of his own day.4 Along with such redoubtable characters as the pacifists Dick Sheppard and Vera Brittain, the writers Dorothy L. Sayers and Charles Williams, and the bishops William Temple and George Bell, Hugh Lister is one of the truly remarkable figures in Anglican history in the period leading up to and including the second World War. A prototype of the workerpriest, he lived a life that continues to prompt reflection on the meaning of priesthood and self-sacrifice.


Recent histories of English Christianity have not failed to include descriptions of the first phase of Hugh Lister's uncommon service as a Church of England cleric, during which he worked as a trade union leader in Hackney Wick.5 He arrived at this destination in the East End after a trying personal journey.

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on 15 May 1901, Lister was the son of a general practitioner and his wife and the grandnephew of Joseph Lister (1827-1912), the father of modern antiseptic surgery. His mother was the daughter of the chief clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Reginald Palgrave, and the niece of the poet and anthologist Francis Turner Palgrave. After graduating from Lancing College (an English public school), Hugh earned a B.A. in engineering from Cambridge University, where he achieved an outstanding reputation as an oar for Trinity College.

As a member of the staff of the Great Western Railway, he worked in Swindon, Cardiff, and London, and lived for a time in the workmen's dormitories at Cardiff. Attaining a deeper awareness of the lives of these industrial workers transformed him. According to one of his biographers, his experience prompted him to enter "a period of extreme mental and spiritual conflict, which made him restless...and sent him headlong on long tramps" to think about what he should do with his life.6

Eventually he realized that he should dedicate himself to Christian service on behalf of the less-well-off members of British society, especially those individuals whose condition only increased their sense of alienation from the church. What he wanted to do was, as Farrer put it, to "devote his life to breaking the barrier between these men and their Redeemer."7 Other Anglicans before him-including priests such as Basil Jellicoe, whose improvement society bought and repaired dilapidated housing in the worst of the London slums-had carried on active social ministries in industrial centers; Lister would have been familiar with much of this activity as well as with the sacramental and practical theology that undergirded it.

With few exceptions, the most socially minded clergy were anglo-catholics, whose theology stressed not so much personal salvation and individual initiative as the corporate life of the Christian and collective responsibility. The historian Adrian Hastings ticks off the chief concerns of anglo-catholics in the 1920s and '3Os: "Incarnation, sacraments, church and a revival of what was seen as the medieval socialist protection of the poor against the capitalist: that more and more was the heart of the Anglo-Catholic message in this its most lively and most influential period. …

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