Peter Green (18711961), by Lafayette, c.1920
Green, Peter (18711961), Church of England clergyman and Christian apologist, was born at Portland Terrace, Southampton, Hampshire, on 18 January 1871, the fourth of five children of Henry George Green, solicitor, and his wife, Elizabeth Sophia, née Saintsbury. His mother was the sister of the writer George Saintsbury. As a boy Green witnessed a sailor being stabbed to death in the street in Southampton, which may have contributed to his lifelong belief in human sinfulness. He was educated at Cranleigh School and St John's College, Cambridge, where he took a first-class degree in part 2 of the moral sciences tripos in 1893, the same year that he was president of the Cambridge Union.
On ordination Green worked at his college mission in Walworth, Southwark, before moving to Leeds parish church in 1898. In 1902 he became rector of Sacred Trinity Church, Salford. In 1911 he became vicar of St Philip's, Salford, and a residentiary canon of Manchester Cathedral. He spent the remainder of his career there, famously refusing the bishoprics of Lincoln, Birmingham, Blackburn, and New Guinea. In 1920, when Archbishop Davidson questioned why he had refused Lincoln, Green replied that he felt that the large incomes of bishops were a stumbling-block for the church. When the canonries of Manchester were separated from the incumbencies of nearby parishes in 1926, Green refused to give up his duties at St Philip's, threatening to resign if this separation was made compulsory. Had I nine lives as a cat, he used to say, I should have been a parish priest every time (Sheen, 23).
During his half-century in Salford, Green became widely renowned as the greatest parish priest in the Church of England (Sheen, 119). He described his pastoral work, with its emphasis on visiting the poor at home, in The Town Parson (1919). His particular interest was in youth work, and in How to Deal with Lads (1910) he advocated lads' clubs as a way of drawing young boys into the church. A follow-up, How to Deal with Men (1911), described his work with men's Bible classes. He also published a series of fictionalized vignettes of parish life, first in the Manchester Guardian, and then as Our Kid (1920).
Green was sometimes described as a tractarian evangelical; his mother had been brought up in the evangelical Clapham Sect before coming under the influence of the Oxford Movement, and like her he bore the stamp of both traditions. Central to his devotional life was the communion service, which he celebrated daily in St Philip's; he also advocated confession before communion. But his evangelical formation meant that the fall of man and his need for conversion also loomed large in his theology.
Having learnt about parochial missions in South Africa in 1904, Green became an enthusiast for them, running the annual beach mission in Blackpool from 1905, and countless other missions across Britain. He also served on the organizing committee for the National Mission of Repentance and Hope (1916), though he wasrightly, as it turned outsceptical that a mission to the whole nation could work.
A ceaseless campaigner against the dangers of gambling, Green became known as the terror of the bookies (The Guardian, 18 Jan 1961.) Incongruously for a nephew of the famous oenophile Saintsbury, he was also a strong advocate of temperance. But he enjoyed other aspects of working-class social life, once remarking that he loved Blackpool on a Bank Holiday (ibid.), andin spite of his aversion to gamblingenjoying the racing novels of Nat Gould.
Although opposed to theological liberalism, Green was politically a lifelong Liberal. He supported women's suffrage, and campaigned for housing reform in Salford. Though he supported the First World War, he repeatedly counselled against vengeance towards Germany, and criticized clerical jingoism. He was deeply distressed by the execution of Edith Cavell (his former parishioner), but was also keen to expose bogus German atrocity stories. He campaigned assiduously for Violet Douglas-Pennant after she was dismissed from the air force in 1918.
Green claimed to have printer's ink in his veins (a reference to his celebrated uncle), and produced thirty-eight books. These mostly included devotional works and ethical textbooks such as The Problem of Right Conduct (1931). His interest in ethics derived partly from his own belief in human sinfulness, but also from Henry Sidgwick, his tutor at Cambridge. Less predictably for someone who was colour-blind and famously lacked much aesthetic sense, he wrote The Problem of Art (1937). He also penned a Manchester Guardian column (as Artifex) for forty-four years. Although his writing was seldom intellectually sophisticated, he was able to put a point across with remarkable clarity and simplicity.
Green's productivity was a result of his ferocious self-discipline; he would rise early to write, and worked with total concentration, pausing only to remove his steel-rimmed spectacles and peruse what he had written by holding it close to his eyes. A tall man with a gaunt face, his tastes were spartan, and he was a vegetarian as well as a teetotaller. It was said of his diet that he would have two cups of coffee and the Manchester Guardian for breakfast, a poached egg for lunch, and a banana at a Rotarians' feast (Coggan, 3). His austerity and occasional asperity (he had a quick temper, and admitted that he did not suffer fools gladly) were not to all tastes, and his curates reputedly either loved or detested him (The Guardian, 23 Nov 1961). When a boorish businessman made him the butt of a joke at a dinner, Green remorselessly turned the tables on him. The businessman later wrote complaining that he had made him look a fool, to which Green replied, Dear Sir, You are mistaken, I merely called attention to the fact (Sheen, 5051).
Green's devotion to his parochial work was the more remarkable because it was only one of his two jobs. He was punctilious in performing his other role as a canon of Manchester Cathedral, acting as bursar and subdean, and helped to make the cathedral renowned for its preaching and social concern. He was in great demand nationally as a preacher, serving as a chaplain to George V and George VI, and as a select preacher five times in Cambridge, and twice in Oxford.
Despite his repeated refusals of preferment, Green did accept some honours. He received an honorary DD degree from Manchester University in 1936, and became a freeman of the city of Salford in 1944. A block of flats was named Canon Green Court by Salford corporation in his honour in 1957.
Though already in his seventies, Green continued to minister throughout the bombing raids that destroyed large parts of central Manchester and Salford in 194041. On the morning after Manchester Cathedral was partly destroyed by a bomb in December 1940, the dean, Garfield Williams, found him exuberant … like a man walking to the pavilion carrying his bat after knocking up a century (Williams, 45). But Green was deeply affected by the death of his curate in a bombing raid a few months later.
After resigning as rector of St Philip's at the age of eighty in 1951 Green continued to live in his parish and hold his canonry, but a stroke left him confined to Salford Royal Hospital (where he had long served as chaplain) for two years, and he was eventually persuaded to resign from the cathedral in 1956. He finally left Salford that year, moving to Manormead, a home for retired clergy in Hindhead, Surrey, where he died on 17 November 1961. He had destroyed most of his papers before his death. His ashes were interred in All Saints' Chapel in St Philip's Church, Salford.
F. Sargeant, Canon Peter Green, 18711961: priest, evangelist and writer (2010) · H. A. Sheen, Canon Peter Green: a biography of a great parish priest (1965) · The Guardian (18 Nov 1961); (23 Nov 1961) · The Times (18 Nov 1961) · D. Coggan, These were his gifts: a trio of Christian leaders (1974) · Green papers, Manchester Cathedral Archives · A. Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War (1978) · G. Williams, The cathedral and its future, Our blitz: red skies over Manchester, 1st edn, 1945 (1995), 45
Manchester Cathedral Archives | JRL, The Guardian archives, letters to the Manchester Guardian
Lafayette, photograph, c.1920, The AngloCatholic History Society, London; repro. in www.achs.org.uk [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£6246 13s. 2d.: probate, 22 Feb 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales