Project Canterbury

Charles John Corfe
Naval Chaplain--Bishop

By H.H. Montgomery

[London:] Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1927.

Chapter VI. The Years 1897 to 1904. Relations with S.P.G., His Music, Benefactions, and Some Character Sketches

During the first seven years Corfe "well and truly" laid foundations. Then appropriately he was present at a Lambeth Conference of Bishops. But this gallant soul must have returned to his diocese in 1898 with misgivings. In that year the supply or men from Kelly's Community ceased, and quite naturally. That society was a fully organised entity with strong disciplinary rules. The Corean Mission was also organised with minute attention to details. A glance at the rules and regulations of the diocese makes plain how Corfe had entered into the spirit (if I may say so) of the Navy in the minuteness and clearness of the orders he formulated for every part of Church-life--all meticulously drawn out. And these two highly organised bodies lived far apart. Moreover, what should be the connexion between S.P.G. the paymaster, and the S.S.M.? He returned with two burdens on his mind. The language difficulty remained, namely, the impossibility for him of grappling with the colloquial Corean speech--and after seven years. Moreover he failed in his attempt to staff his Mission. I think I can understand it. It was a celibate Mission: and I think Corfe naturally accentuated the severity and simplicity of its life, giving the impression to men that the rule was of undeviating strictness. Meanwhile, scores of dioceses overseas were offering men perhaps a more ordinary life and certainly a more adaptable rule. It gives one a sore heart to watch this lovable, deeply spiritual and beautiful person searching almost in vain for help in the romantic venture which he undertook and for which he gave up his beloved Navy.

So, for lack of doctors, hospitals were closed during these years at Seoul, and for a time at Chemulpo. Dr. Landis died. The Manchurian jurisdiction weighed more and more heavily till Bishop Scott resumed charge in 1901. But there are some very bright gleams. Work among the Japanese prospered. The Kanghwa centre especially flourished and spread to On-su-tong--ten miles away--and in 1900 there were baptisms--18 in Kanghwa and the same number in Seoul. In 1901 the beautiful church built in Corean style, at Kanghwa, was dedicated. In 1904 the baptized numbered 200, three-fourths in Kanghwa and On-su-tong.

The mention of these two places recalls to me one of the days which stands out among my own missionary travels as beautiful as well as of deep interest. In December, 1910, I left Chemulpo in a sampan in the morning, clad in Dr. Weir's fur coat, with hot water bottles dispersed about my person, temperature 17° below zero. We landed and walked in the afternoon to On-su-tong and were immersed next morning in glorious Corean services, till the hour came to walk the ten miles to Kanghwa itself. This was the day that abides in memory. Snow on the hills, bright sunshine, a company of missionaries with me, great obeisances from Coreans saying farewell. Then as we walked towards our Zion every side-path brought to us groups of Christians welcoming us with low prostrations and then falling in behind us on our way--at times a cluster of men in white, again bands of women in red, green or white. The long procession grew as we wound among the hills, till three miles from Kangwha we were met by a host of the faithful come to give us welcome; and so we ascended to the spacious Church. Nothing more picturesque, more arresting to eye and mind can be imagined. And dear Corfe laid the foundations of that Christian life.

But I must return to earth. In 1901, Corfe lost Trollope from the Mission. He returned to England on furlough, being detained by his father's ill-health. He took up Dolling's work at St. Saviour's, Poplar. We, meanwhile, in S.P.G. House were often brought up against Corfe's meticulous care for keeping to rules. I can remember times when we suggested some modification of an ordinance in order to help him out of a difficulty, and how we were met with "No, no, no," uttered in his silvery voice. It revealed in part his difficulties in obtaining helpers. Let us call it the defect of one of his noblest qualities, the desire to obey without regard to consequences. One who is an excellent judge of men writes: "I doubt if he quite realised the fundamental complexities of what besets a Bishop, a missionary, a training college." It seemed impossible for him to be content with exceptions to a rule once laid down.

He had had some bad moments, chiefly owing to the delicate questions how far the funds of the Corean Special Fund ought to weigh with those who determine the amount of the S.P.G. Grant.

He writes generously: "No societies are perfect. If Mr. Tucker is autocratic he is so in a constitutional way. I regard him as one of the most faithful as well as most able of Churchmen. If, as his enemies say, Mr. Tucker is the S.P.G., then considering what quiet, thoroughgoing work the Society does in all parts of the world, Mr. Tucker must be a wonderful man indeed."

The following words will testify to Corfe's feelings towards S.P.G. In a letter to the Mission Staff, written in 1900, he says: "I will ask you to bear one or two things in mind. By many of our most generous supporters this Mission has always been known as Bishop Corfe's Mission to Corea. By many others it is known as the S.P.G. Mission to Corea. How true, m a sense, this latter name is I need not say. I have often called the Society 'the Mother of Churches,' and she has been a true mother to us. But what the Society aims at in its work is what each one of us is aiming at--namely the establishment of a branch of the Catholic Church in Corea, complete in its organization and, from the first, learning so to develop its energies, spiritual and temporal, as to present to all men a concrete body--a seedling at first, but a seedling whose 'life is in itself.' I do not know that I shall live to see it formed, but I feel I must strain every nerve before I die to get the Church at home to recognize the Mission, not under my name nor under the honoured name of the Society, but as one of her own children--'a very member incorporate in the Mystical Body of Christ.'"

One of Corfe's recreations consisted in musical composition. His brother Robert possesses six volumes of his hymn tunes and other musical efforts, and the hymn tunes alone number 240, out of which one has been chosen for this volume. He often used to print his tunes as Christmas cards, and he seems to have been specially busy whilst at the Peking Legation as chaplain after his retirement. In 1906 he sends Mrs. Staley his tune for Ken's Evening Hymn, and writes: "The idea is that of a mother singing the melody as she rocks her baby's cradle, a piano in an adjoining room, a harmonium playing softly. I have been a good deal lately at my old school, St. Michael's, Tenbury. There was much music there, and Tallis' canon (than which no better tunes can be found) was associated with my earliest years. Ever since then, Bishop Ken's hymn has been my habitual 'night cap.' I try to fall asleep somewhere between the first and last verse!"

He apologises in another letter for attempting a new tune when there was a very good one already, but he adds, "it is delightful to-address God sometimes in one's own words, or in words which one believes to be one's own."

In 1907 he writes to the same from Peking, "I have been rather ambitious during the Christmas season. Nos. 27, 624, 597, 590, 568, 44, 315, and 'Up in Heaven' have all been 'bagged,' I hope not in more senses than one."

So in 1901, referring to Paymaster-in-Chief J. W. Lishman, Mrs. Staley's father, and writing from Yokohama, "He was learning the flute, and though I knew no more how to play the flute than to play the banjo, I would teach him the notes and, above all, keep time."

Many have related how his best recreation when tired out was to lie on his back and read the scores of Beethoven and Wagner; and the Rev. Wilfrid Gurney adds a delicious touch: "My mother once showed him a Christmas song I had written when only seven years old. It was very poor, but its childlike simplicity pleased him, and he wrote a delightful tune for it, styled, 'Youth and Age,' words by W. M. Gurney, æt: seven, music by C. J. Corfe, æt: 70."

Now for a few more human touches. Wilfrid Gurney, who joined him in 1903, says "Corfe lived very plainly in Corea and never broke his fast before noon. He carried about single plays of Shakespeare, which he delighted to read at odd moments, and he had a somewhat perverse humour, delighting in contrasts and opposites. A most lovable man, shy in some ways and a great stickler for etiquette. He had a mind trained and disciplined by the exact routine of the Royal Navy, generous to a degree and very simple in business matters. Any form of ostentation was horrible to him. When staying with my people in Leamington a horrified housemaid informed my mother in the morning that he had not slept in his bed, he had simply lain on the floor. Thoughtful for others, he carried the fear of giving trouble to excess and daily ate rice pudding when living in rooms in London, though he disliked it intensely. His chief limitation consisted in a fear of making mistakes which kept things back in Corea longer than was necessary."

The Rev. F. H. Sprent tells some delightful stories. "On my second visit to Corea I fetched up in Seoul after a night journey in an open boat from Chemulpo, quite voiceless and with a painful throat. He gave up his one little bedroom in his 'Palace' and slept many nights on the floor in the tiny kitchen, sending his Chinese cook to sleep out. Though living a hard life himself he was an expert in nursing--as so many old sailors are. Travellers and globe-trotters gave him much amusement. Mrs. Isabella Bishop wanted a live Corean ox; the Bishop bought one and shipped it home. He seldom bought anything for himself, and made his clothes last a long time: an overcoat that he had worn off and on for 25 years he took home to Wippell. Wippells were so pleased that they gave him a new one in exchange, exhibiting the old one as worn by a Naval Chaplain in many strange parts of the world for a quarter of a century.' On one of his visits to England via Siberia, he stayed with us at Newchwang, and he asked Mrs. Sprent to buy him some pommeloes. They were purchased and placed in the rack above his sleeping berth. On arrival in London he wrote what he termed 'a bread and butter letter,' and related how upon his arrival he had immediately walked to Marlborough House and left 'with the man at the door' four of the pommeloes 'for the Queen's supper.'"

I append Dr. Weir's reminiscences also. When I was at Chemulpo in 1910, Weir pointed out Corfe's house and told how anxious they were that the Bishop should not starve himself. He was so desirous to live the simplest life, and humour always bubbled. "The Bishop used to desire to establish two societies, one of which was to be joined by those who were never to speak ill of the weather, the other for the purpose of eating mince pies!--both ideas characteristic of him." "When he lived at Chemulpo he used to spend much of his time sitting on the little verandah of his house with his telescope, watching for a British man-o'-war. As soon as one appeared he rushed off down town to buy lemons and made lemonade to be ready to entertain any sailor of any rank who might come ashore." Weir also tells how his room was so low that a pair of socks were nailed against a certain corner to deaden the blow.

"Being weak in colloquial Corean (more than weak--they say his pronunciation was "abominable") he naturally had great trouble with his servants, who imposed upon him knowing his kindness. Stories were told about the attempts he made to get fresh toast, and his failures to get it. Allusion also has been made already to his hatred of ostentation. In consequence of this he specially dreaded the Chinese New Year, when it is customary for Coreans to come and make obeisance to their superiors. Corfe did all he could to avoid such scenes--not always with success. On one occasion a servant pursued him into a lady's house, found him in the drawing-room, begged him to be seated and proceeded to knock his (the servant's) head on the floor before him."

There never was a more generous man. On his own part he lived always on the smallest possible sum. He gave away magnificently, and there is a nobility of attitude about his ideals which will help all who read these pages. The following letters explain themselves:--

The Hospital Naval Fund, 1890: "There should be a permanent notice in the magazine to the effect that all money sent by officers and men belonging to the Navy will be devoted to the H.N.F., unless otherwise specified. . . We must not in any way mix ourselves up with this Naval hospital work: help them as much as possible to realise their responsibility in subscribing to such a fund, which I want to get them to think is their fund--not mine. I mean them to take a pride in it when I am dead and buried." _

The destination of his own gifts.--Chefoo, June 26, 1892.--"There was a sentence in your speech which, owing to the reporter's condensations, I did not clearly understand. You seemed to be apologising for me for sending money home, Corea not needing it so much as others. . . . You are so good a friend to me that I should like to say to you privately what I can never say in public. I have a pension from the Navy of £100 a year, but having left the service 14 years before the age limit, and having left it in spite of the remonstrances of those whom I know and love best, I determined that as long as I was able I would every year return to the Navy in some form or other, the money which I had earned in it, and so it goes in various Naval Charities. Then I resolved, as long as I was in a position to do so, to contribute out of my own pocket to the General Fund of the S.P.G. the amount per annum which I spend out of the grant to Corea on myself. I send it to the General Fund rather than to Corea, because the grant for our first six years is more than ample, and because it is the most practical way of carrying out the rules of our Association, for I have no doubt my money sent annually to S.P.G. finds its way into all parts of the world.

The same subject.--Chemulpo, April 10, 1893. "To me it is a hateful thing to have to speak to my right hand of what my left hand does. But I am more than ever--or, at least I desire to be more than ever--the servant of the Church, and it would be ungracious indeed were I to withhold from my kind heads of departments the means of setting the Mission right when anything threatens to go wrong. You can always say that the bishopric has no endowment, and that the present occupant of the diocese strives ever to dispense with the Mission funds for his own maintenance, so that he may be chargeable to no one; that with regard to the money he is able to give away in 'charities' he no more considers it his duty at present to spend it all on Corea than the good people at home consider it their duty to spend their superfluous cash wholly on some particular Mission or charity. . . . The £100 I give yearly to S.P.G. for other purposes than Corea, I so give as a member of the Association to which all Foreign Missions are equally dear. But in return for this I claim--as 'the labourer is worthy of his hire'--to place myself (equally with the rest of the labourers who are on the S.P.G. list in Corea) on the same footing as my brethren of the priesthood and laity--all of whose personal expenses fall far short of £100 a year.'

I think it will come as a surprise to many to be informed that it was Bishop Corfe who endowed anonymously the bishopric of Shantung. It will be remembered that he worked for eighteen months in what became, largely through his action, the Diocese of Shantung, being a slice taken off from the Diocese of North China in 1901, and in order to relieve the pressure upon Bishop Scott. The following facts barely stated, are taken from the Journals of "the Colonial Bishoprics Fund." On December 23, 1897, Bishop Corfe had informed the Council of that fund that he was desirous to raise £5000 in order to provide a small endowment for the bishopric of the Church of England in Corea and Manchuria. Four years passed, and it appears that Corfe had come to the conclusion that it would be better to get Shantung endowed, more especially if by so doing he might be able to detach Manchuria from Corea and hand it over to North China. On May 14, 1901, Bishop Corfe's solicitors wrote to the above fund saying that "a client" would transfer Stock to them of the face value of £5,750 as a contribution towards the endowment of the Shantung bishopric. This without any conditions. But further, the same client would transfer a second sum of the face value of £4,655 on the understanding that the effect of the creation of the new diocese would be to transfer to the diocese of North China the Province of Manchuria, thus relieving Corea. The terms were accepted. There is no doubt that it was Corfe who had given more than £10,000 for the above purpose.

I had better record here also what Corfe effected by his Will drawn up on February 4, 1900 for Corea. He bequeathed a capital sum sufficient at 3 1/2 per cent, to make the permanent income of the Bishop in Corea up to the sum of £400. The sum thus handed over to the C.B.F. was £2,092 10s. 0d.

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