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Birkbeck, William John (1859–1916), ecumenist, was born at High House, Thorpe, Norfolk, on 13 February 1859, the son of William Birkbeck (1832–1897), banker, and his first wife, Elizabeth Margaret (1842–1859), née Cator, daughter of Albemarle Cator and Elizabeth Blakeney. His mother died less than a month after his birth; his father's subsequent marriage, in 1862, to Susan Maria Hamond, produced Birkbeck's only sibling, a sister, Antonia. Known to his family as Johnny, Birkbeck was educated at Misses Ringer's school, Lowestoft, and Mr Darch's school, Brighton, before enrolment at Eton College in 1872. His ‘misfortune to be born with grown up tastes’ (R. Adderley in Bibbee, 79) did not prevent his being popular at school; although not good at games, his abilities in drawing and languages won them over. He matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1877, where he read modern history and graduated BA in 1881 and MA in 1884. His religious background was evangelical (his father was a Quaker convert to Anglicanism), but during his time at Eton and Oxford his affinities turned to Anglo-Catholicism. He erected a small oratory in his room, complete with candles, coloured altar hangings, and flowers where he said the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer.

After Oxford, Birkbeck went on to study at the Royal College of Music under Sir Walter Parratt from 1883 until 1888. On 4 October 1883 he married Rose Katherine (1860–1947), daughter of Sir Somerville Arthur Gurney KCVO, of North Runcton Hall, Norfolk, a director of the banking firm Barclay & Co. There were two sons and one daughter of the marriage.

Birkbeck's interest in religious matters remained purely personal until 1888, when Sir Arthur Hardinge, a lifelong friend and second secretary to the embassy at St Petersburg, and John Athelstan Riley suggested Birkbeck as the official representative of the Church of England to the 900th anniversary celebrations of the conversion of St Vladimir to Christianity. The celebrations were intended to gain access for Hardinge to the upper reaches of the pan-Slavist circles of the Russian court and garner favour with Konstantine Pobedonostov, the chief procurator of the Russian holy synod. Hardinge accompanied Birkbeck as he presented a congratulatory letter from the archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. While the letter was well received and pleased Pobedonostov, the pan-Slavist faction and Pobedonostov in particular were on the decline at the court of Tsar Nicholas II, thus thwarting Hardinge's diplomatic initiative. Birkbeck's interest in Russian Orthodoxy, however, was aroused.

From 1888 until his death Birkbeck made it his life's mission to understand the Russian people and their church and to promote reunion with the Church of England. His approach to reunion differed greatly from that of his predecessors as he sought to bring about Christian unity by promoting cultural, social, political, and religious understanding instead of purely focusing on the theological differences between the two churches. Birkbeck attempted to recast Russia and her church in a positive light to overturn the negative perceptions of Russia among the majority of the English public. His efforts resulted in numerous publications that addressed themes previously unimportant in ecumenical writings, including social and political controversies in tsarist Russia. He wrote seventeen major pieces on Russia and Russian Orthodoxy, including speeches for the English Church Union and various Church Congresses; additionally he published in The Guardian and The Times. He also edited a collection of the letters and essays of William Palmer and Aleksyei Khomyakov entitled Russia and the English Church During the Last Fifty Years. The bulk of Birkbeck's writings were published in 1917 by Athelstan Riley as Birkbeck and the Russian Church. A collection of Birkbeck's letters was edited by his wife in 1922 as Birkbeck and the Russian Church.

Basing his speeches and publications on his personal experiences in Russia, Birkbeck moved in the highest political and ecclesiastical circles and even held private meetings with Tsar Nicholas II. Birkbeck utilized his clerical and political connections to provide access and information to high-ranking bishops in the English and American churches and to host Russian church leaders in Britain. He served as guide, facilitator, and translator on visits to Russia by leading Anglican clerics, such as Bishop Creighton and Archbishop Maclagan of York. He also hosted Bishop Antonius of Finland during Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897, during which the queen afforded him a personal audience to discuss his efforts at Christian unity. In 1912, under the leadership of Bernard Pares, he led a clerical group as part of a parliamentary delegation to visit the new Russian Duma.

Birkbeck's efforts at Christian unity were not limited to the Russian Orthodox church. He worked closely with Charles Lindley Wood, second Viscount Halifax, on reunion with the Roman Catholic church and travelled with Halifax to Rome in 1896 to meet personally with Pope Leo XIII. He was an editor of the English Hymnal (1906).

Birkbeck travelled to Russia for Easter 1916, and shortly after his return died of pneumonia at his Norfolk estate, Stratton Strawless Hall, on 9 June 1916. He was buried on the 11th at Stratton Strawless. The St Petersburg correspondent for The Times commented that ‘few Englishmen know this country, its people, and language so well’ (The Times, 12 June 1916). His eulogizers praised his devotion to the cause of ecumenism. Birkbeck was indispensable to the Church of England as an adviser and to the Russians as a conduit for the pan-Slavist interpretation of the truth about Orthodoxy. But it was his ecumenical philosophy of promoting mutual understanding, instead of debating theological distinctions, and his personality, that were his most important contributions to the cause of Christian unity.

Jeffrey R. Bibbee

Sources  

Birkbeck papers, LPL · R. K. Birkbeck, Life and letters of W. J. Birkbeck (1922) · W. J. Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church during the last fifty years (1895) · A. Riley, ed., Birkbeck and the Russian church (1917) · M. Hughes, ‘The English Slavophile: W. J. Birkbeck and Russia’, Slavonic and Eastern European Review, 82/3 (2004) · G. Dixon, ‘William Birkbeck: an Englishman's impressions of the Russian church and its music’, Sourozh, 67 (1997) · J. R. Bibbee, ‘The Church of England and Russian Orthodoxy: politics and the ecumenical dialogue, 1888–1917’, PhD diss., King's L., 2007 · The Times (12 June 1916) · C. L. Wood, Leo XIII and Anglican orders (1912) · L. von Glehn Creighton, Life and letters of Mandell Creighton, 2 vols. (1904) · Davidson papers, LPL, fols. 467, 472, 473, 475 · Pares papers, UCL, school of Slavonic and east European studies · M. Hughes, ‘Bernard Pares, Russian studies and the promotion of Anglo-Russian friendship, 1907–14’, Slavonic and East European Review, 78 (2000) · D. Galton, ‘The Anglo-Russian Literary Society’, Slavonic and East European Review, 48 (1970) · M. Hughes, Diplomacy before the Russian Revolution: Britain, Russia, and the old diplomacy, 1894–1917 (1999) · M. Hughes, ‘Diplomacy or drudgery: British consuls in Russia in the early twentieth century’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 6 (1995) · V. T. Istavaridis, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, trans. C. Davey (1966) · C. C. Grafton, A journey Godward (1910) · A. H. Hardinge, A diplomatist in Europe (1927) · F. D. How, Archbishop Maclagan: being a memoir of William Dalrymple Maclagan DD, Archbishop of York (1911) · H. Szamuely, ‘British attitudes to Russia, 1880–1918’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1982

Archives  

LPL, corresp. and manuscripts of speeches and articles [uncatalogued] |  LPL, Davidson papers, letters to Randall Davidson · LPL, Douglas papers, letters to J. A. Douglas · UCL, school of slavonic and east European studies, Pares papers, letters to Bernard Pares


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Birkbeck, Life and letters

Wealth at death  

£204,366 1s. 11d.: probate, 9 Oct 1916, CGPLA Eng. & Wales