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Barry, (Frank) Russell (1890–1976), bishop of Southwell and popular writer on religion, was born at Ellerslie, Maidstone Road, Rochester, Kent, on 28 January 1890, the elder son of the Revd George Duncan Barry (1864–1945), curate of St Peter's, Rochester, and later of St Mark's, Surbiton, and his wife, Edith Geraldine, née Reid (1859–1898). When he was eight, his mother died while giving birth to his younger brother, . This had calamitous consequences for Russell and his family. His father blamed Gerald for his mother's death. Russell Barry became his father's confidant, but was distressed by his decision, in 1904, to remarry. ‘I think I have never entirely recovered from being left in childhood without a mother,’ he later remarked (Barry, 22).

Barry went as a scholar to Bradfield College, which he found philistine and barbaric, preferring to escape into the woodland that surrounded the school. In 1908 he won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, where he took firsts in classical moderations and literae humaniores. He was elected a fellow of Oriel in 1913, and on his ordination, in 1914, following a year at Wells theological college, became deputy chaplain of the college. In 1915 he volunteered for service as an army chaplain, and was sent to Egypt with the rifle brigade in January 1916. Here he established a canteen at Ismailia, and soon became renowned for the rapport he had with his men. He described his role as ‘postman, architect, drayman, philosopher and society entertainer, amanuensis for the illiterate, banker, coffee-stall keeper, lecturer, matrimonial agent, counsel for the defence, and—parson’ (West, 19).

In June 1916 Barry was posted to France as a regimental chaplain, and swiftly plunged into the battle of the Somme. About half of his brigade was killed in the assault on Mouquet Farm; Barry was appointed DSO and mentioned in dispatches. His DSO citation related that ‘he tended and dressed the wounded under very heavy fire with the greatest courage and determination. He set a splendid example throughout the operation’ (West, 20). Barry's own description of what happened was more modest. ‘I had never seen a dead man before, much less bloody bits and pieces of men, and as near as nothing I turned and ran’, he claimed (Barry, 54). He also served at the battle of Cambrai, but to his frustration successive promotions took him away from the front line. By the end of the war he was assistant chaplain-general, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Barry had already intervened in public debate early on in the war, writing to The Guardian (an Anglican weekly) in July 1915 to object to the bellicose language being used by Arthur Winnington-Ingram, bishop of London. In 1917 he was one of seventeen Anglican army chaplains who contributed to a book called The Church in the Furnace (1917). He was critical of those clergy who discerned a religious revival in wartime. The traditional idea of God was ‘lamentably inadequate’ in the context of war, he said, while the church seemed too much like ‘the private preserve of one social class’. He argued that traditional Christianity had little hold on troops, but did discern in them what he called ‘a very large amount of true religion’ (F. R. Barry, ‘Faith in the light of war,’ pp. 36–54).

At the end of the war Barry became principal of the Ordination Test School, an innovative training school for former servicemen who wished to be ordained. The project was the brainchild of his friend Tubby Clayton, founder of Toc H, and Barry was assisted by Clayton and another friend, Mervyn Haigh. Initially housed in a machine-gun camp in Le Touquet, the school later moved to a disused prison in Knutsford, Cheshire. Of 675 candidates who passed through the school 435 were later ordained, significantly boosting the manpower of the post-war church. Barry and Haigh were also among the authors of A New Prayer Book (1923), better known as the Grey Book, a contribution to the debate about prayer book revision. Barry became a member of the archbishops' commission on doctrine in 1923.

In 1923 Barry returned to Egypt for a few months as archdeacon of Egypt and chaplain of All Saints', Cairo, before becoming professor of New Testament interpretation at King's College, London, a post he held until 1928. But he was not especially suited to academic research, and his skills in the popular exposition of Christianity were better employed when he became vicar of St Mary's, the university church in Oxford, in 1928. He managed to revive the fortunes of the university church, restoring the building, attracting large undergraduate congregations, and presiding over a celebrated mission to students led by Archbishop William Temple in 1931. In the same year Barry published his most famous book, The Relevance of Christianity, an attempt to demonstrate the applicability of Christianity to contemporary moral problems. The book took a progressive position on a number of issues, including support for birth control within marriage. Barry was amused when another of his works on birth control was banned by the Mothers' Union.

Because the living of St Mary's did not carry an adequate stipend, Barry also became chaplain and tutor at Balliol College. Here he reverted to the life of the bachelor don that he had briefly enjoyed before the First World War. But this situation did not last long; seeking a typist for his daily correspondence, he engaged the services of Lilian Janet Gray (1903–1986), daughter of the late Buchanan Gray, professor of Hebrew at Mansfield College, Oxford, and herself a former student at Girton College, Cambridge. As secretary to H. A. L. Fisher she had typed his History of Europe. Her daily visits to Barry's rooms led, in 1929, to their marriage, which was to be long and happy. They had one daughter.

In 1933 Barry was made a canon of Westminster Abbey, and rector of St John's, Smith Square. Here, as in Oxford, his preaching drew large congregations. He enjoyed being at the centre of national life, especially when he carried the Bible in the procession of regalia at George VI's coronation. (An enthusiastic monarchist, he was also a chaplain to the king from 1930 to 1941.) He later recalled that ‘these years were the happiest in our lives’ (Barry, 126). Barry's experiences in the First World War led him to pacifism for much of the 1930s, though he changed his mind after Munich. When George Bell brought German Christians who had fallen foul of Nazi racial laws to Britain, Barry put them up in his church hall. As war neared, he was also responsible for air raid precautions in Westminster Abbey; he had the coronation chair removed to the crypt of a provincial cathedral for safe keeping, and had a large communal shelter installed in the abbey garden for clergy, staff, and their families. While he was fire-watching on the roof of the abbey on 10 May 1941, his house and all its contents were destroyed by a bomb. His quick thinking in telephoning Winston Churchill at 3 a.m. to intercede for reinforcement firemen probably saved the abbey from further damage.

Homeless and without possessions, Barry was rescued later in 1941 by Churchill's offer of the bishopric of Southwell. His family were generously provided with furniture and money by well-wishers so that they could furnish the enormous bishop's house. Barry was assiduous in visiting the Nottinghamshire clergy, doing so on foot or by bicycle to conserve his petrol ration (he was in any case an erratic driver, and was particularly unsafe in the wartime blackout). When asked what was the most important job of a bishop, he said, only half joking, ‘having tea in the vicarages’ (Barry, 166). Incongruously for someone by his own admission a ‘late Victorian’ (p. 15), he took the diocese's clergy and their families on an annual holiday to Butlin's in Skegness in the years after the war.

But Barry did not find other aspects of episcopal life especially congenial. He avoided meetings and delegated administration. One of his archdeacons noted that he became ‘increasingly addicted to grumbling about domestic conditions of trivial significance which he was apt to treat as major disasters’ (West, 54). Some of his difficulties stemmed from increasing deafness. His hearing, poor since early adulthood, had been further damaged by the blitz. He found that he could no longer chair meetings. His mistaken belief that his own barbed asides could not be heard led him to commit multiple faux pas. He was also afflicted by bouts of depression. By the time he retired in 1963, he cut a somewhat sad and isolated figure on the bench of bishops. But in spite of his age his opinions on moral issues remained progressive; he supported the establishment of the Wolfenden report to explore homosexual law reform, and was more sympathetic than many of his colleagues to divorced Christians who wished to be remarried in church.

Barry had dreaded retirement, but free of diocesan responsibilities, he enjoyed something of an Indian summer. Dividing time between a flat in Westminster and a house at Manesty in the Lake District, he published a number of books, including a biography of his friend and fellow bishop Mervyn Haigh (1964), Christian Ethics in a Secular Society (1966), and an autobiography, Period of My Life (1970).

Barry was a prominent example of the liberal tendency that dominated the upper echelons of the Church of England for much of the twentieth century, but his particular achievement was in expounding liberal Anglicanism to a popular audience. Like his brother, Gerald, editor of the News Chronicle and impresario of the Festival of Britain, Russell Barry understood the power of publicity. ‘Always be polite to the press, they always have the last word’, he would say (West, 58). For years he wrote regular articles on religion for The Times. It was his gifts as a popularizer of Christianity, rather than as a scholar or administrator, that made him a significant figure in twentieth-century Anglicanism.

After suffering a coronary in June 1976 Barry died at his Westminster home on 24 October that year. As a former bishop he had the right to be interred at Southwell Minster, but instead chose his beloved Borrowdale churchyard as his final resting place.

Matthew Grimley


F. R. Barry, Period of my life (1970) · F. West, ‘FRB’: a portrait of Bishop Russell Barry (1980) · The Times (25 Oct 1976), 15 · A. Hastings, A history of English Christianity, 1920–1990, 3rd edn (1991) · b. cert.


Elliott & Fry, quarter–plate glass negatives, 1948, NPG, London · Elliott & Fry, vintage print, 1948, NPG, London · photographs, repro. in Barry, Period of my life · photographs, repro. in West, ‘FRB’

Wealth at death  

£7595: probate, 23 Feb 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales