Project Canterbury

Charles John Corfe
Naval Chaplain--Bishop

By H.H. Montgomery

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



Bishop Montgomery's intimation that he had been asked to bring out a memoir of my old chief, Bishop Corfe, only reached me shortly before I left Corea this spring on sick leave, and I found myself unable, therefore, at the moment, to accept his invitation to contribute anything to the work he had in hand. I should, however, have been very unhappy if this memoir of one to whom I and the Church in Corea owe so much, had appeared without some acknowledgment of that debt from my pen. Now I gladly avail myself of Bishop Montgomery's kind permission, at the eleventh hour, to supply an introduction.

I was only a stripling of twenty-seven summers, still in the "first fine rapture" of my first curacy, and constantly haunted with the idea that I ought some day to be a missionary, when Bishop Corfe first crossed my path, with the result that the idea was rapidly translated into action. I had, of course, known of him vaguely as a famous Naval Chaplain and an "Anglo-Catholic" stalwart in the stormy 'seventies and 'eighties of the last century. [Charles John Corfe was one of the 450 priests--popularly stigmatized as the 450 "prophets of Baal"--who in 1873, rather to the dismay of Dr. Pusey and the older Tractarians, presented a memorial to the Convocation of Canterbury, claiming official sanction for nearly everything that Anglo-Catholics have been fighting for ever since, and ending with the astounding proposal (for 1873!) that priests should be definitely trained and licensed for their work as confessors. The reply of the "powers that be" took the form of the P.W.R. Act of 1874! It is interesting to record that Bishop Corfe's last night in England before sailing for Corea, was spent with Mr. Bell-Cox, the last priest imprisoned under that Act.] But the first thing that brought me closely into contact with him was the characteristic letter which he wrote to the Guardian, just after his consecration on All Saints' Day, 1889. The letter was very brief and to the effect that the Archbishop of Canterbury had asked him to give up his work in the Navy and to go to Corea, an invitation which he had felt bound to accept; that S.P.G. had promised him £600 a year, and that he wanted five priests to come and share it with him! Magnificent--if, perhaps, rather quixotic! Anyhow, I felt that here was the missionary bishop for me--a conclusion in which I was confirmed so soon as I had met him face to face and fallen under the spell of his personality. Hard-pressed, however, as he was for men, I soon found that he was by no means prepared to accept all and sundry who offered themselves, without assuring himself that, on the main points of what would now be called "Catholic faith and practice," they were prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. And surely here he was right. For whatever may be said in favour of the "glorious comprehensiveness" of the Church of England in England, or even in English-speaking colonies, missionaries in a non-Christian land are plainly very seriously handicapped unless they can agree to a substantially unanimous presentment of the faith which is in them. This, of course, coming on the top of his insistence that those who threw in their lot with him must be content to work for a bare living wage and without hope of marriage, naturally added largely to his difficulties in securing a staff of clergy--difficulties which were enhanced by the prevailing ignorance about Corea and by a curious misconception of the nature and purpose of the Mission, current in precisely those circles to which he would most naturally have looked for help. But the standard which he set, and the demands which he made, certainly impressed a very definite character on the Mission, which has happily persisted to this day. And one cannot but feel that what the Mission may have lost thereby in force of numbers, it gained in intensive power. And so at the present time, while the five or six thousand native Christians, who compose the following of the English Church Mission, may appear but a handful by the side of the vast amorphous masses who have gathered round the heavily-financed and well advertised American Protestant Missions, most people would agree that there is a definiteness of outlook and solidity of conviction about the former which is an asset of incalculable value. [Missionaries of the American Methodist and American Presbyterian Churches had arrived in Corea three or four years before Bishop Corfe, but had hardly then made an effective beginning of that work which was later to grow to such large dimensions. They had, however, already (more Americano) organized a "Permanent Executive Bible Committee for Corea," and wrote to inform Bishop Corfe that as the responsible head of a 'fully chartered Protestant Evangelical Church' he was entitled to be represented on this. The Bishop replied that this was new to him as a description of the Church of England, which he felt unable to compromise by accepting the invitation as it stood. He was, however, willing to allow one of his missionaries to sit and work unofficially with the Board of Translators appointed by the Committee, who gladly fell in with this arrangement.] And if the modest boast made at the end of his fifteen years' episcopate, to the effect that" the ordering of our churches and their ritual are such as to enable any of our Christians (English, Corean, or Japanese) travelling from one station to another to feel instantly at home"--if this boast still holds good, as it does, it is to Bishop Corfe's foresight that this sense of diocesan unity, and of loyalty to the diocese as a substantial unit within the greater unity of the Catholic Church, is primarily due. And the gain of this is so obvious that it hardly needs even the excuse which he made for such attention to detail, by quoting from the statutes drawn up for the Cathedral of Truro by its first bishop (Archbishop Benson): "All which is here set down that none may trouble themselves or others of small matters, when they would be about great things."

I am glad that Bishop Montgomery has brought out the fact that, although he never attained to any freedom in the colloquial use of the Corean language, he did acquire, by dint of hard work with his Corean teacher, a very considerable knowledge of the book language--so much so that he was able to take a really substantial part in our translation work. Nothing went out without his imprimatur, which was not lightly given. But his inability to converse with--or address--his Corean neophytes in their own tongue was a sore burden to one who had spent all his earlier life on terms of such intimacy with his sailor flocks. And it was this which weighed largely with him in deciding to lay down in 1904 the burden which he had borne so bravely for fifteen years.

He felt also very keenly the perennial difficulty of keeping his young and growing diocese adequately staffed with clergy, though he was always generosity itself in recognizing the difficulties of others, when circumstances brought them to a "parting of the ways." I experienced this generosity in no small measure when, in 1902, after over ten years' work in the Mission, I asked him, for reasons which seemed to me urgent, to allow me to suspend my return to Corea indefinitely, and shortly after accepted the Vicarage of S. Saviour's, Poplar, in succession to his old friend, Fr. Dolling. All the more, therefore, was it a real delight to me to see the great pleasure my appointment to the Bishopric in 1911 gave him. I think he felt that after all he had not been my "sea-daddy" in vain. God rest his soul!

(Chaplain to Bp. Corfe & Snr. Priest of the Corean Mission, 1890-1902)

Nov. 14, 1926

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