Project Canterbury

A Life in Order: The Memoirs of Brother Francis SSF

Brisbane: The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

[1] Chapter One: The Early Years

These memoirs have been written at the request of the Australian and New Zealand Provincial Chapter of the Society of St. Francis, which is I believe the fastest growing religious order in the Anglican Communion. I was asked because I have known the Society for over seventy years and watched its growth with interest. It now has four provinces, in Britain and Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. It is interesting to discover something of the background influences, which encourage people to follow a vocation to join a certain movement, so I will not apologise for doing so in my case.

I come from a clerical background. My maternal grandfather was a squire-parson of Clifford Chambers just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon - Shakespeare's home. My father's brother, Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe was a CMS missionary in Kashmir for 50 years. At that time it was illegal for anyone to convert to Christianity in Kashmir, so my uncle had to be content to teach the boys the elements of the Christian way of life. In his end of term reports he gave them marks for body, mind and behaviour. Only one young man was converted, and he had to flee to the Punjab after being threatened with death.

My father trained as an engineer and then, after marrying Isabel Annesley and helping my uncle in Srinagar Kashmir for some years, he returned to England to take his degree in theology at Trinity College Oxford. I was born while he was there and was baptised at St. Margaret's church by Dr Kidd of Keble College, a noted historian and his tutor. In 1906 we went out to India, where my father became Principal for eight years of the CMS Baring High school at Batala in the Punjab, where all the boys were Christians. In the hot summer months we used to go to one of the hill stations in the Himalayan foothills. And one summer I stayed with my uncle in Srinagar, Kashmir.

I remember being impressed by the wonderful snowy Himalayan peaks, when my father used to take me for rides on the back of his bicycle. I think it was my first experience of a 'sense of the divine'. But it was not [1/2] easy to fit this experience in with the sentiments of the little hymn my mother taught me "Jesu, gentle Son of God most high".

After eight years we returned to England, and my father was ordained at Oxford. He served first at Bradfield in Berkshire, where his old school was, and then at St Jude's, Southsea, during the first war. All of my family were of a somewhat liberal evangelical colour except for one aunt, who was an ardent Anglo-Catholic.

My brother also became a priest, and was at one time chaplain to the Bishop of Rangoon in Burma. After the Japanese invasion during the second war, he and his wife Rachel gave themselves up to the work of the Moral Rearmament Movement in London for a few years. Then as a parish priest, he and Rachel became influenced by the charismatic movement. They practiced exorcism on retirement, at Frinton-on-Sea. They ran two prayer groups a week in their house and became linked with the Julian of Norwich movement.

I had a priest godfather of high-church persuasion, who used to send me books on my birthdays such as 'Letters to a Godson' by Fr. Bickersteth C.R. But my Aunt Alice Gillam, who was my godmother, was a fervent evangelical and sent me little devotional books when I was at Marlborough College.

When I was four, my brother John was born at Gulmarg in Kashmir. I was on my own a good deal as I had no children to play with. In Batala, there had been a girl of my age, who lived some distance away. I used to play by myself among the lovely blossomed trees in the rather wild garden of the school. My girl cousin Dorothy came out from England to help my mother in teaching me. I became very fond of reading, mathematics and piano playing. My cousin made me learn Psalms 23 and 121 by heart and I began to read the Bible regularly from the newly published Revised Version given to me at my baptism.

On our return to England in 1913 my father became ordained and began to serve in the parish of Bradfield in Berkshire where he had been at school. I was boarded out to a private school, the Old Malthouse near Swanage in Dorset. Here boys were expected to have Bibles and to say [2/3] their prayers every night before getting into bed. I remember being intrigued by one boy, who used to spend quite a long time at his prayers. I myself started a small group of boys reading regularly the passages put out by the Scripture Union organization. We used to follow the course of the First World War in a weekly, illustrated magazine which left a permanent impression of the horrors of warfare on my young mind.

In 1915 we moved to Southsea, where my father became curate at the large church of St. Jude. We boys used to sit in the gallery for the sung Morning Prayer. It was evangelical in tone but I enjoyed the music of the choir. However, as we were living some distance from St. Jude's, my brother and I were allowed to go 'church-crawling' on Sundays. We actually lived in the parish of St. Matthew's Southsea.

One Sunday we slipped into the eleven o'clock service, where High Mass was in progress. After watching the elaborate service, the coloured vestments, the incense, the genuflections, etc. I became convinced that it was some kind of heathen service, and so I said to my brother 'let's walk out!' However our cook pointed out to me that Roman Catholics had suffered as much as Protestants had under the Catholic Queen Mary. Thus seeds were sown in my boy's mind, to be more tolerant towards Catholicism.

It was while we were at Southsea that my uncle Cecil came on leave from Kashmir. He took me and his son Eric for a two-day cycle ride round the Isle of Wight while he visited some of his supporters. We stayed the night with my uncle Arthur, his brother, who was in charge of a Territorial unit in a camp on the island. In 1917 my father became rector of Bishop's Caundle, a country parish in Dorset. I was sent to Marlborough College and for the first year I was in a junior house, where there was a certain amount of bullying by the 14 year old boys. Three of us slept in a small dormitory and we used to pray about this situation. It changed when the older boys left and younger ones took over.

We had daily services in the fine school chapel. We youngsters had to sit in the gallery, where the discipline left much to be desired. We were supervised by a master, Henry De Candole, who later became the bishop [3/4] of Knaresborough. He was a great friend of Fr Algy Robertson and the Christa Prema Seva Sangha and was one of the leaders of the Parish and People movement. He taught us youngsters to play Rugby.

However, when I was allowed to join the boys in the chapel below I came to love the services, especially the hearty singing of the psalms by 700 voices. A new hymn book was introduced which included many of the more modern hymns. Dr. Joseph Ivimey the musical director, and organist, held vigorous hymn practices on Saturday mornings. He also gave me piano and organ lessons, resulting in my winning the school piano prize. I used to practice an hour each day in my spare time. When the weather was too bad for the usual games, I used to go for long distance runs in Savernake forest. I learned to love the silence and beauty especially in the autumn and in the winter when the snow was on the ground.

One event that contributed greatly to my appreciation of religious music was when Dr. Ivimey took a coach-load of us boys to hear the Oxford Bach Choir singing the Bach Mass in B minor. Although I did not realise it at the time, Bach himself was a Lutheran. The Mass paved the way for my appreciation of Eucharistic music.

You may ask me, "did I have any girl friends?" The truth was I did not have much chance. Living in a remote country village and having no transport except a bike to go visiting. There was a weekly Saturday dance at Sherborne School, which my parents took my brother and I to occasionally. To the annoyance of some people we used to dance together instead of with the girls. Today I might have been called homosexual though we knew nothing of such a term in those days. The only girl I knew well was the daughter of the Rector of a nearby parish. She was a little older than I, but we had a common interest in music. We both played the piano. Eventually she got married and asked me to play the organ at her wedding!

Although in my last year at Marlborough I was studying the sciences, a sermon was preached in our chapel by Bishop Winington Ingram of London about the need for priests in the tough East End. He used the text Isaiah 6:8, "Who will go for me?" and I felt sure the call was for [4/5] me. Immediately after the service I wrote to my father for his approval of my decision. He wrote to me that he was not surprised! This decision would mean that I would have to change the subjects I was to take at university. I was allowed to spend the rest of my last year at Marlborough mugging up Latin and Greek. I was influenced before this by lectures on the life of Jesus by my housemaster C.B. Canning, who also prepared me for my confirmation, and in my last year by Henry De Candole, who led us in a study of a book on the Incarnation.

Another important stage in my development were two camps led by Oswald Flecker, the brother of the playwright and later headmaster of the Bluecoat School, and Henry de Candole. It was for boys whose fathers worked at the Great Western Railway works at Horsham near Swindon. They spent two weeks at Marlborough to experience something of the life of a public school. It was also for the Marlborough boys to meet boys of a different background. One of them asked me to stay with his family after the camp. I discovered that he was a server at one of the churches of Swindon. At the second camp, after I went to Oxford, I was asked to give a devotional talk at compline one evening. I chose to talk on the compline psalm verse, "Stand in awe and sin not, commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Offer the sacrifice of righteousness and put your trust in the Lord".

In October 1922 1 went up to Trinity College, Oxford to read theology under the tutorship of Fr Kenneth Kirk, later Bishop of Oxford. It was while he was my tutor that he spent many hours in the Bodleian Library writing his great book The Vision of God. Encouraged by a previous meeting with the Rev. Tubby Clayton, the founder of Toc H, (the signalese for To Conquer Hate), I joined the flourishing Oxford branch. The members pledged themselves to serve the community in some way in their free time.

In Holy week a group of us Toc H members were invited to go to London to join Tubby Clayton to watch the Oxford and Cambridge boat race in a motor-boat. Tubby had just moved in to some rooms in the All Hallows Barking Street Church and I helped him get his library in order. For the first time on Good Friday I went to a Three Hours Devotion taken by him. In the evening of Easter day I was taken to a Benediction [5/6] service at All Saints Margaret Street by a Toc H man, which fascinated me. In the Toc H Hostel where I was staying I found in the chapel a little devotional book that gave instructions as to how to spend half an hour of meditation, and I began to practice daily.

It was in the Toc H magazine that I first read about a community of men in Dorset, who were looking after vagrants from off the roads and who spent three hours a day in prayer. They were followers of St. Francis of Assisi, whose biography by Sabatier I had recently read. I had also been reading the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Sikh Indian evangelist. He, having been converted from Sikhism as a boy by a vision of Jesus, became a travelling evangelist on foot through the Punjab and Tibet. He disappeared on his last journey and was never found. I was specially intrigued by the close relation he had with Jesus in his prayer life. When I read about the men at Hilfield I decided to visit them. They were only eight miles away from Bishop's Caundle in Dorset, where my father was now rector. A friend, Ernest Field, who had been with me at Marlborough and was now at Merton College, Oxford, was staying with me. We decided to bike over to see what was going on there. We had been reading "The Little Flowers of St. Francis".

At Merton there was group of men who were attracted to religious life in some way. There was Gregory Dix, the liturgiologist. At a farewell the last dinner with his rowing crew, he announced, to their astonishment, that he was going to become a monk. Among these also were Max Petitpierre who became Brother Robert, when he joined the Benedictines at Nashdom and became an expert on exorcism, and Verrier Elwin, who was President of the Oxford Evangelical Union. Having become interested in the Carmelite mystics he later joined the Indian brotherhood of Fr Jack Winslow at Poona. I remember him spending a long time at the Swanwick conference of the Student Christian Movement in prayer in a little hut that was put aside for prayer. At Pembroke College was Bede Grifiths, though I did not know him. He was not yet a Christian, but later became a Benedictine monk at Prinknash. He later went to India to study Indian religion and its relationship with Christianity

[7] At that time Earnest Field, my Oxford friend, and I began joining regularly in the daily college offices and services and we meditated daily. I made my first confession to Fr Carpenter Gamier of Pusey house. He later became Bishop of Colombo. I constructed a little chapel in my luggage room at college to use for my devotions. I satisfied my love of music by hiring a piano and joining the Oxford Musical Society and the Bach choir. When at home in our large rectory I used to meditate on the roof of the house. Here I experienced a wonderful sense of the divine presence in the beauty of the Dorset countryside. I was greatly inspired by Trahern's writings.

When Ernest Field came to stay with me, in Dorset, we decided to cycle over to Hilfield to see what was going on there. When we got there we found that the original founder, Brother Giles, had left. A priest called Douglas Downes had taken charge at the request of Lord Sandwich, who owned the property. Brother Giles had tested his vocation with the Franciscan Society of the Divine Compassion (S.D.C) at Plaistow, whose members used to go 'dosing' on the roads. They would stay in the rough lodging houses provided for wayfarers by the nineteenth century Poor Law. On leaving the S.D.C he continued to go on the roads until the First World War, when he was called up and served in France and East Africa. After the war, unemployment grew worse, reaching three million. Many young men who had survived the war had taken to the roads, not being able to find work.

One day Br. Giles received a letter from Lord Sandwich offering him Flowers Farm at Hilfield as a home for men on the roads. He and Douglas were engaged in a mission to the Kent hop pickers, and Douglas encouraged him to accept. Douglas was at that time Chaplain at Worcester College, Oxford, and was helping Dr Stansfield, Rector of St Ebb's, in a self-building scheme for wayfarers outside Oxford. Charles Preston of Christ Church was also there helping the building. He was later to join SSF. A committee was formed in Cambridge to help the Hilfield home financially. Giles, with two other men, went to Hilfield and started to live a strict religious life of prayer and work. Giles said 'No work is pleasing to God without prayer.' They had a rigid time-table of offices and prayer.

[8] Unfortunately, in 1922, an accusation of a sexual nature was made against him by a young wayfarer, and the Cambridge committee dismissed him without a trial. They asked Douglas Downes to come and take charge of the Home. Martin Boyd, the Australian novelist, who had met the young wayfarer later, wrote in a book that he did not think Giles' misdemeanour was very serious. Martin had come to stay as a detached boarder, thinking that it would be a comfortable guest house to pursue his literary work. He discovered that he was expected to work with the wayfarers in the garden and he found the food abominable, served up on enamel plates. He was even asked to be the cook there for three weeks.

When Ernest Field and I arrived at the Friary we were given hard beds with only blankets and no sheets. Douglas no longer said the full monastic office but used a shorter office, drawn up by Fr Milner-White, called the Cambridge Office Book. Brother Douglas believed in a humanistic evangelism, hoping to win souls by showing that God cares for their material needs as much as for their spiritual ones. Douglas held a strong belief that God would answer prayers if they were in accordance with his will. One day when they ran short of bread they prayed and someone arrived with some loaves for them. They needed a new car and one was driven into their courtyard by the chauffeur of an anonymous donor. They had turned an old cowshed into a chapel and needed a window for it. They prayed for one and, in a second hand shop, they found what they wanted. It was given to them free. In his humility he wanted every one to be called 'Brother', even Lord Sandwich, who owned the property. Over the recreation room's small door was written "Abandon rank all you who enter here". This was a caption used by Tubby Clayton in his rest centre in Belgium, behind the lines during the first war. There, officers and men could meet together on an equal footing.

When I returned there in 1925 there were two more brothers. One was Arthur de Winton. He had been working in a bank and, after retiring, joined the Universities Mission to Central Africa and worked as a treasurer in Masasi. He was a keen Anglo-Catholic. I was especially interested in him, having recently become an Anglo-Catholic myself. Brother Douglas was humble enough to learn from him how to say Mass [8/9] in a catholic manner. The other brother was Kenneth, who had been a printer. He often went with Brother Douglas on the roads, and ran a small printing press given by a local estate owner St. John Hornby.

Douglas wanted a similar home for wayfarers in every county of England. Several were started by local committees. Eight of them were under the direct control of the brotherhood. He formed what he called the Vagrant Reform Society, which aimed at improving conditions in the casual wards. There were never more than three members as far as I knew - Brother Douglas, Major Lloyd, who with his family was living in one of the houses in the Home and helping with the finances, and Mother Mary Higgs, who worked among women in prison and wayfaring women. They had an interview with the Home Secretary and certain improvements were made in the wards.

Brother Douglas was now thinking in terms of some kind of preaching order on Franciscan lines. However, the wayfarers' work was taking too much time for him to be able to give time to training men for mission preaching. Earnest Field and I were keen on the idea as was Charles Preston. Martin Boyd was thinking of joining the brothers, in spite of his criticism of Brother Douglas. He said, "I longed to straighten out the muddle". We all felt that the life was too under-structured.

At the end of my last term at Oxford, Martin took me for a month's walking tour in Brittany. He made it clear that he wanted something more free and nondenominational than we were looking for. He went off to visit the SDC (Society of the Divine Compassion) at Plaistow and the Benedictines at Pershore, to get some support for his ideas but without success.

We decided to have a day of prayer at Pusey house at Oxford to discover God's will, with some of our friends at Oxford interested in a preaching order. Martin produced a sort of manifesto for discussion. This was held on 23rd February 1924 under the chairmanship of Fr Carpenter Gamier, who later became the Bishop of Colombo. He emphasized the importance of learning from the past, especially of the importance of breaking down the will by obedience to a superior. Brother Douglas was present and stressed the need for practical work concerned with people's bodies as well as their souls.

[10] My own idea was of something less monastic than other religious orders like the Society of St John the Evangelist or the Community of the Resurrection, but more trained intellectually than the Church Army. Martin was suspicious of the idea of subordinating the will in the vow of obedience. However it was decided to have a retreat of a few days to help us decide on the next step. The retreat was to be held at the Beaconsfield retreat house, and Father Hugh Trotter, a friend of Ernest Field and myself, was asked to conduct it for us. He had been a Roman Catholic Cistercian and was now a curate at St Thomas' Anglican church, Oxford. He interested us by his talk about the mystical tradition. At the retreat the traditional daily offices were said and Gilbert Shaw, still a layman, read stories at meals about the desert fathers, which upset Martin. He later wrote in his book, The Day of My Delight, that the retreat addresses were as "relevant to his aspirations as would have been an address on fetish worship in the Belgian Congo"! The meeting after the retreat was not very helpful. Martin believed that Fr. Trotter had brought in one or two young Anglo-Catholics to sidetrack the movement, among whom was Robert Petitpierre of Merton College. However we did draw up a simple rule of life for companions of St Francis, which included saying the Cambridge Offices and Orisons used at Hilfield.

Martin and I returned to Hilfield on bicycles. Martin became more and more critical of the regime there. At the end of my last term at Oxford he invited me to go for a walking tour along the Brittany coast. I'm afraid I was rather argumentative. Although Martin seemed to have a certain sentimental attraction for Anglo-Catholic ritual and ceremony as a kind of hangover from ancient classical dancing, he did not seem to have much use for the dogmatic side of Catholicism. In Brittany we became involved in a 'Pardon' ceremony at Gangamp, which lasted all night. Having just received my theological degree at Oxford I was naturally inclined to display my learning. I only got a third class degree in Theology. Kirk thought that I had been let down by my Greek. They gave me the text Romans 1.29-31 to translate with its list of sins. My tutors at Oxford were mostly of the liberal theology represented by the Essays Catholic and Critical published soon after that time. Bishop Charles Gore, the founder of the Community of the Resurrection, was [10/11] bringing out his great trilogy on the Holy Trinity. Kenneth Kirk my tutor was writing his book The Vision of God. It was not so much the ritual side of Anglo-Catholicism that attracted me, rather its ability to deal with my sinful nature. I also had a strong belief that the church had been guided in its doctrinal development down the ages by the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of the promise of Jesus Christ that the church will be built on the rock of Peter's faith (Mathew 16: 17-18), never to be overcome by the powers of evil. This was my reaction to the liberal theology prevalent in some quarters.

Some of us at Oxford who had been in touch with the brothers at Hilfield were very concerned about the number of men in Oxford who were preying upon the generosity of the undergraduates. Ernest Field and I got together a committee under the chairmanship of the Provost of Oriel, which decided to get some Church Army meal tickets, together with some collecting boxes, which could be put in the junior common rooms of the colleges for the students to give to those who begged from them. This reduced considerably the number of beggars in Oxford at that time.

It was through the Student Christian Movement at Oxford that I first met "Algy" Robertson. He was then the travelling secretary for the S.C.M. to theological colleges. He came to tea with me, and it must have been through his recommendation, together with that of Kenneth Kirk my tutor I imagine, that I was asked to become the travelling secretary for the S.C.M. in the Yorkshire area. I was to be stationed at the University Hostel of Devonshire Hall in Leeds. One of my first jobs was to take some students to a campaign at Wigan run by the Industrial Christian Fellowship. Ambrose Reeves, later Archbishop of Johannesburg, was on the team and so was Algy Robertson. It was the year before the general strike, and I was very shocked at the derelict and dirty aspect of that mining town. However, we were very well received by the miners. I was also in a student team at Manchester, commending the World Call for Missions, issued by the church at that time.

At the S.C.M Swanwick conference in July 1926 one, Jack Winslow, was an impressive figure. He had a black beard, unusual at that time, and was habited in a white habit, girdled with a saffron cord, the colour [11/12] worn by Indian holy men. He had started a brotherhood in India, which was expected to have white and black men living together in an Indian style. He wanted to find some young Englishmen to join him. Besides Algy Robertson there were two other men drawn towards such a community at the conference. Verrier Elwin had been President of the Evangelical Union at Oxford, but having studied some of the great Carmelite mystics was now at the conference spending long times of prayer in the boathouse on the pond there. Also there was Oliver Fielding Clarke, then the inter-collegiate secretary of the S.C.M., later the translator of several of the Russian books by Berdyaev. I also felt drawn to Fr. Jack's idea of a community of English brothers living together with Indians in a simple Indian style. At first it was not specifically called a Franciscan community and was dedicated to St Barnabas. However there was at first to be no distinction between the celibate and married members. The coming of the English brothers altered this, and a third Order was formed for people who were not able to take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. St Francis became the second patron saint alongside St Barnabas. There were now eight English brothers, four priests and four laymen. In 1928 the Poona Ashram was blessed by Bishop Palmer of Bombay. Jack Winslow took his first profession vows, saying that he would try it out for three years, but was not really happy about the new developments. Nor were some of the Indian brothers. One of the troubles was that, although racial differences were largely overcome, there were educational differences, with the result that the two groups became involved in different spheres of work. Fr Algy who was clothed as a novice on August 6th 1929 started a hostel for students of different religions where they learnt to eat together. Elwin and some of the other English brothers were making contacts with the university people in Poona. A crisis arose when the Indian brothers voted against Brother Bernard being professed.

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