Cloud of Witnesses: Cuthbert Aikman Simpson

“What would you do if Henry VIII stepped out of that frame?” asked King Edward VII of his friend Herbert Vaughan, S.J., in the royal picture gallery. Father Vaughan paused not: “I would ask the ladies to leave the room.” A portrait of Cuthbert Aikman Simpson by Graham Sutherland, with his mortarboard and inseparable cigarette, now hangs next to Henry VIII in the Christ Church dining hall in Oxford, where Simpson was the Very Reverend dean from 1959 to 1969. He was not a Jesuit like Vaughan, and he was a Catholic only as an Anglican might suppose himself to be. Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” in 1563 depicted a Protestant Cuthbert Simpson being racked in the tower, and the parish records of Egton in York list a Cuthbert Simpson as a Catholic recusant under Charles I. While my Cuthbert inherited that braided tradition, he could not easily have passed as rackable by Queen Mary. He authored with a friend of mine a manual on the proper ceremonials of the Mass that was almost Tridentine. Once he complimented another friend of mine on his aesthetic ringing of the Sanctus bell.

For years he had brilliantly taught Hebrew in New York. To have an American, that is one born in Canada on Prince Edward Island, appointed to the vaunted office of dean of Christ Church was a radical thing at the time. This physical composite of Spencer Tracy and Basil Rathbone had a magnificent temper, once having tossed a student down his front steps in a conversation about Senator McCarthy. A Manhattan conductor evicted him from a public bus for bad language. When an Oxford freshman asked him if he knew Hebrew, he shouted, “I am the *@*%#! Regius Professor of Hebrew!” Simpson’s books on revelation in the Old Testament and the pre-Deuteronomic narrative of the Hexateuch leave anything similar in the dust. In the revolutionary years of the late Sixties, his successful method for quelling student demonstrators was to invite any budding Bolshevik in for a stiff martini. On Sundays, his verger carrying a silver mace led him along the Tom Quad to his waiting cocktail, Simpson in his scarlet academic robes, silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes.

When the cathedral organist gave him a long melody to intone the Gloria, his voice rang throughout the choir: “Does that man think I am a *%#[email protected]! canary?” In 1965, William Walton dedicated his anthem “The Twelve” to the dean, and on the day that he landed on the college grounds by helicopter, the attendant choirboys sang, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” the words of which were written by an alumnus, Charles Wesley. At the shallow age of 22, I had the temerity to ask him if he had considered moving the altar and celebrating facing the people. This was during a luncheon, just the two of us alone, in the deanery dining room where King Charles I had lived during the Civil War. The dean growled in prophetic tones, “Tell me why liturgists are the only modern creatures who consider the word ‘primitive’ to be something good?” The bones of St. Frideswide by the altar shook and the ghost of King Charles hummed in assent.

His son had been killed in the Second World War, and each year when he lectured on David’s lament for his fallen son, the tears of a great man flowed down his craggy face as he intoned, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!” (2 Samuel 19:33). It requires liberties to suggest that he would have become a Catholic of the Petrine obedience had he lived longer, but he surely would have uttered the outcries of the Judges of Israel had he lived to see the shambles and perversity of the ecclesiastical institution he served. The rising starlet Hans Kung told the cosmic meteor Cuthbert that Vatican II had ushered in a new regard for Scriptures that would heal the Protestant wounds. The dean replied as if casually flicking dandruff, “Good luck to you! We Protestants have been arguing for 400 years as to what are the agreed results of the Holy Ghost.”

Not bereft of humor, he assigned me to accompany a grand lady in her bright yellow Daimler on a search for a Georgian silver salt cellar. And not bereft of humility, he fell to his knees at a garden party to show me the little blue door in his garden wall that was Lewis Carroll’s entrance to Wonderland. He lies buried on the other side of the door. His elegant portrait remains hard by pompous Henry VIII, and I have often thought that were the king to step out of his frame, like a Gilbert and Sullivan ghost in “Ruddigore,” the dean would tell the king to go back.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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