Project Canterbury

A Life in Order: The Memoirs of Brother Francis SSF

Brisbane: The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

[36] Chapter Five: Ecumenism

It is understandable that the founders of S.S.F. should have a keen interest in ecumenism. Brother Douglas' father was a Methodist minister, though rather too liberal for them. Algy's mother was a Congregationalist. Brother Michael had worked a good deal with the Student Christian Movement and Algy and I had both been on the staff of the S.C.M. Both Douglas and Algy had become Anglicans at their public schools. Algy had been the travelling secretary to the theological colleges for some years and I think it was perhaps both he and my tutor Kenneth Kirk, my tutor at Oxford, once a travelling secretary for S.C.M, who had suggested me for the job of travelling secretary in the Yorkshire area. I had been running an S.C.M study circle at Trinity and a prayer group there. But it was not a very easy experience for me. My predecessor had been rather liberal and a keen socialist and I had only recently become a convert to Anglo-Catholicism. However I think I did learn a lot from the good fellowship of the S.C.M. central staff meetings, several of whom became leaders in the great ecumenical conferences and in the World Council of Churches which was being formed at this time. At Leeds I had the support of the Community of Resurrection's hostel for theological students studying at the university. I was stationed at Devonshire Hall, a university hostel. I was rather shocked the first Sunday I was there, no one seemed to go out to the neighbouring church for Communion. I gradually collected together a small group of students and started a study group. We took for study a somewhat stiff book by W.G. Peck on Christian socialism based on Catholic doctrine. Bernard Markham, who was later to become a bishop of Bermuda, was in that group. He and I both joined the Devonshire Hall Rugby football team. Later I got W.G. Peck to address a meeting in the university. It was well attended.

I also ran a study group on St. Mark's Gospel. When I told of it to the Vice-chancellor, he asked "Do they know Greek?" Besides the university, where I took a course in Social Economics, I had to visit the Training College and the Ari School at Leeds, and colleges in York and Bradford. But some of the students at Leeds were not happy about my work and complained to the Rev. Tissington Tatlow about my work, [36/37] perhaps because of my Anglo-Catholicism, and so I was asked to leave after two years instead of the three originally asked for.

Although my Anglo-Catholicism encouraged an enthusiasm for Catholic Unity, I did not have a good experience during the war, when we were at Peckham. There was a Roman Franciscan Friary near us there. The Father Guardian used to write scurrilous articles about us in his magazine, saying that we were "ersatz" Catholics! However, if we sometimes met them when a bomb dropped in the district, they were friendly enough. Sometimes when I was at Glasshampton I was able to go abroad. In July 1949, Denis McWilliam, a theological student at Cuddesdon, took me on a tour through France in a motorbike with a sidecar. Unfortunately the sidecar was on the wrong side for the French right-hand driving, which made it difficult for him to see the oncoming traffic. We drove from Boulogne to the Benedictine monastery at Bee which originally supplied two archbishops of Canterbury to the English church. Then we went on via Vezelay to Taizé, where the community was just beginning. There were four or five brothers living in the old Catholic vicarage and using their church, although they were French reformed Christians. I was asked to celebrate Mass for them in their house chapel. Brothers Roger Shultz and Max Thurian attended the Mass! The first person, who opened the door for us there was Reginald Box, who was an S.S.F oblate then, becoming a brother later. From there we went on to Lyons to visit the Abbé Couturier. He was very kind to us. Although he was obviously a sick man, he walked a long way with us to show us a camping ground in a school where we could pitch our tent On Sunday he took us to the Cathedral, where a late morning low mass was being celebrated to the accompaniment of magnificent organ playing. Then we went to lunch with the Franciscans on the hill above Lyons. I sat next to the Minister Provincial and he asked many questions about us. On our leaving Lyons, the Abbé asked me to write a prayer for Christian unity which he could put on his altar with many others when he said Mass. I did so and then asked him for a similar one for myself, which I here record in an English translation.

Lord Jesus have pity on your church.
Lord Jesus gather all your children in your love.
[38] Distressed by our divisions, which our consciences do not allow us to surmount.
We all ask for pardon for our sins at the foot of the cross,
Sins which have caused, continued, maintained our terrible divisions.
We humbly acknowledge that we are all to blame.
Lord forgive.
Make us to agonize in prayer for Christian unity,
With all our heart Lord, we ask for it.
We know that nothing can resist that prayer which echoes your prayer.
Give to my Anglican brothers here an ever increasing sanctity.
Lord Jesus, may your spirit enlighten them and draw them into your way,
which leads to unity,
that unity which in your agony you prayed for in the garden.
May they pray passionately for the Roman Church, that she may be purified and
sanctified; that she may tread the hard road of renewal;
that she maintain her proper balance;
that she reveal your true face,
that she may be renewed in the expression and in the presentation of her mind
that, thanks to their prayer, that great day may come when she will be ready to experience the great joy of the gathering together of all Christians sanctified and renewed in your bosom. Lord forgive us.
Lord sanctify us.
Lord may your spirit infuse us all with his love and with his light; to the greater glory of the Holy Trinity and his eternal unity.

He spoke to us too of his invisible monastery of those who dedicated themselves to prayer for unity and invited us to join it.

The Abbé also took us to see the austere church of Ars, where John Vianney had been curè and we saw the great pulpit from which he preached. Couturier urged us to spread the prayer of Jesus for unity among the Roman Catholics in England, and suggested my getting into [38/39] touch with Dom Bede Winslow of Ramsgate Abbey, the editor of the Eastern Churches Quarterly. On the way back to England Denis and I visited the Abbaye des Dombes at Couturier's suggestion. This was a community especially devoted to Christian unity. They held conferences every year with reformed ministers. They made me an associate and I still correspond with them occasionally. They had close relations with the Taizé community, which we also visited. The Taizé brothers belonged to the Swiss Reformed Church, but were very ecumenical. There were only four or five brothers there at that time, living in the vicarage and using an abandoned Roman Catholic Church.

On my return to England I visited Ramsgate Abbey and went a walk with Dom Bede Winslow to visit some nearby nuns. I was able to give a talk to the monks there, though Winslow advised me not to talk about unity but rather about our Franciscan society. He recommended me to visit Abbot Butler of Downside who had been an Anglican once. I did so, and I had an interesting discussion with him about the nature of church unity. He maintained that it was like a college, when it becomes divided it becomes two separate communities each having its own constitution and its own governing body. I maintained that the church was more like a family which becomes divided but still a family, ontologically. I also visited the Abbey of Prinknash, near Gloucester. The Abbot there was rather suspicious of Couturier's way of prayer, but was not unsympathetic. While I was there, I had a good talk with Fr. Aelred, who had been the Abbot of Caldy but who was now living at Prinknash as an oblate. He told me he still loved the Anglican Psalter and used it daily! Later Br. Stephen and I, while on holiday in Wales, visited the Benedictines on an island off the north coast who were originally Anglicans, and from which the Anglican Benedictines had their origin.

The Nashdom Anglican Benedictines, the Mirfield fathers of the Community of the Resurrection and the Society of the Sacred Mission also had contacts with the Abbé Couturier and visited him. He also visited them as well as the SSJE fathers at Oxford and us at Hilfield. I took him round some of the country churches. After his visits, a meeting was arranged between the superiors of all these communities to discuss the promotion of Couturier's way of prayer for Christian unity, [39/40] and to promote the Week of prayer for Christian unity in January with the help of the English Church Union, (now called the Church Union). Algy and I attended this meeting, representing the Society of St Francis. I was asked to visit the Catholic Missionary Society headquarters in West London, where Fr. Heenan, who was to become Cardinal of Westminster, was in charge. I had lunch with the staff, a joyful crew, very Irish. Heenan came later to one of the meetings of the Anglican Superiors, but he was a little suspicious of the Couturier prayer for unity as smacking of quietism! However, he afterwards agreed to speak at a meeting arranged during the Week of Prayer for Unity in the Central Hall Westminster. The Kensitites, a very protestant organization, tried to interrupt the meeting, but Heenan treated them very good humouredly.

It would seem strange after hearing of the enthusiasm of the superiors of the religious communities for week of prayer for Christian unity that they should be taking such a negative position as regards the South India scheme for church union. In January 1943 a deputation led by Lord Quickswood, which included scholars like N.P. Williams, Canon Demant, and Edward Talbot, Superior of the Community of the Resurrection, were received by Archbishop Temple of Canterbury. They claimed that the South India scheme for union might produce a schism owing to its treatment of the ministry and sacraments, of its failure to include the Nicene Creed in its liturgy, and that a non-episcopal ministry would still seem to exist alongside of the episcopal. Dr. Edwin Palmer, formerly the Bishop of Bombay replied to them and Temple said he would refrain from a decisive judgement until he had made a thorough investigation of the opinions brought forward. During the same month there had been a meeting of the superiors and others of Anglican men's communities at Mirfield. Algy and I attended this meeting and the South India scheme was the chief subject of discussion. It was decided to send a deputation to the Archbishop to explain our reservations about the scheme. Later, Algy and I went to a meeting of the superiors of all the men's communities except for the SSM. Dom Gregory Dix and the others were there. The meeting was at St. Edward's House, Westminster, and, after the meeting, we all walked across Westminster Bridge in our habits to meet the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace. He was very courteous. Dom Gregory had previously written a [40/41] letter to him which, he said, he was going to publish, about the danger of a schism. The Archbishop asked him to withdraw this plan, but Gregory refused. However we did feel that the Archbishop showed some sympathy and understanding of our point of view.

I think it should be said that an attitude of extreme liberalism had been common before the war in the universities. The doctrines of the incarnation and redemption were considerably soft-pedalled. In view of the rise of Nazism and Fascism against Communism, the younger theologians felt the need of a firmer grasp of the traditional doctrine and practice of the church. Bishop Gore had written his trilogy reasserting the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Holy Spirit. A volume called Essays Catholic and Critical reclaimed the validity of the Catholic Faith. While accepting some modern critical approaches, Kenneth Kirk, my tutor at Oxford, edited a massive volume on the ministry of the church, asserting the importance of episcopacy in preserving the apostolic faith and practice of the apostolic church. The supporters of the South India reunion scheme, such as Leslie Newbiggin and even Brother Bill Lash, emphasized the point that the Apostolic Faith was preserved not only by the episcopate (sometimes rather poorly), but by the Holy Spirit, working also through true believers among the laity, who also share in the priesthood of the church. This means that the work of the Holy Spirit should be recognized in churches that have rejected the Apostolic Succession, sometimes because the Bishops themselves had failed to be true to the apostolic gospel.

In 1949 an American Anglican lady, Barbara Simmons, began her first ecumenical pilgrimage to Rome. Brother Stephen went on it. She was assisted by Dom Benedict Heron who belonged to the Olivetan Benedictines, and a group from Lille led by Fr. Meuta. The next year she held a meeting at Ramsgate in Kent to arrange another pilgrimage, which Brother Reginald and I attended. She had a firm idea that unmarried women had a great message for ecumenists by their relationship with men. She saw this in the way Saint Hilda of Whitby helped to make a reconciliation between the Roman and the Celtic churches at the Synod of Whitby. In the same way women could be called on to break down the barriers between the Roman and Anglican Communions. The men of the pilgrimage stayed at the Gregorian [41/42] University. My godmother aunt had died recently and left me some money which I was allowed to spend with Brother Reginald on this second pilgrimage. We travelled via La Verna and Assisi. We had to walk up the bush road from the railway station at Bibiena to the Verna Friary because we had missed the last bus. We arrived at about 11 o'clock and had to sleep in the cloisters until the Friars arose at midnight to make their nightly visit in procession to the chapel where St Francis received the stigmata. We were able to join them in this. In Assisi the Benedictine bishop greeted us warmly and encouraged us to wear our brown habits. We stayed in the guest house of the San Quirico Clares. Then we went on to Rome, where the men on the pilgrimage were lodged at the Gregorian University. The plan was to make a journey through the history of the church and city, beginning with the Colosseum, which reminded us of the time when Christians were being slaughtered by beasts. Then we went to the catacombs where the Christian martyrs were buried. Next day we went on through the high Rome of the Popes, the reformation period, and the Jesuit Rome, ending up at the Church of St Paul outside the walls and the missionary period. It took ten days, and it gave us the sense of the common history of our divided church. Reginald and I were able to meet some of the Roman priests engaged in ecumenical work such as Fr. Boyer, the editor of an ecumenical quarterly. Among our pilgrims we had Fr. Emile Meura and Madame Coutard with us, who were running an ecumenical group in Lille with two American Anglican nuns, a young Presbyterian, and, of course, Barbara Simmons herself. Martin Boyd, the Australian novelist was now living in Rome, and had become a Roman Catholic. He joined us one afternoon when were given a preview of the palace of the emperors, recently excavated under the church of St. John Lateran. We were very grateful to Willi van Dongam, a Tertiary, who made all the arrangements for the pilgrimage.

One of the members of Couturier's "invisible monastery" was that remarkable woman Marjorie Milne. In August 1951 there was a group of women who were seeking the contemplative life, meeting in a chapel at Chidingfold, under the guidance of Fr. Somerset Ward, author of the Way books. Marjorie Milne made an oblation there of her whole life for Christian unity, hoping one day for a community which she would name the Servants of Unity. While on retreat with the Bethany sisters at [42/43] Bournemouth led by Fr. Somerset Ward, she met Mother Margaret, the founder of the Whitby sisters, who asked her sternly, "When do you mean to burn your boats?" This was to Marjorie a 'stick of dynamite'. God seemed to say to her "Why do you not burn the boat of your fears, fears of your own self-will? Do not doubt about what I have clearly told you to do - to go to Christchurch cathedral at Oxford, and keep three hours of prayer a day at St. Frideswide's shrine?" So, in February 1954, in Christchurch Cathedral, she dedicated her life to unity before a group of people. Dr. Cross, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Oxford arranged the service, and gave her a room in his Priory house at Christchurch. From now on she could be seen every day kneeling upright in the Cathedral and praying in the manner of the Abbé Couturier for that unity which Christ prayed for in the garden of his passion. Soon others joined for short periods. Large meetings began to be held in the Balliol College hall in the week of prayer for Christian unity, when she would meet people like Nicholas Zernov, the Russian, A.M. Allchin, and Ronald Lee, the Chaplain of the University Methodist students. I was privileged to visit her that year with Fr. Emile Meura and Madame Coutard who had come on a visit to England. We joined Marjorie in her prayer in the cathedral. The effect on me was that I felt the call to do something of the same kind in Worcester Cathedral. Later she moved to Coventry Cathedral, then to Durham and finally to Glastonbury where she died on August 27th 1977. Marjory had the idea that the cathedrals, being the centres of Christian life in the cities, should become places where prayer should be offered regularly for Christian unity. Already there was such a group at St. David's Cathedral in Wales. I talked to the Dean of Worcester and he asked me to attend a chapter meeting of the Cathedral. They seemed favourable to the idea, so a small group of ladies began to meet with me for part of the time between 12 noon and 3 o'clock in the Cathedral on Wednesdays. One of our Tertiaries, Mrs Mildred Apps, used to come all the way from Malvern to join our prayers. She knew Brother Douglas well when she was in Cornwall and helped him a lot in getting the Cornish home for wayfarers going. Of course, inter-church meetings were held in Worcester during the weeks of prayer for Christian Unity in January, arranged by a small committee. Fr. Emile Meura and Madame Coutard came over several times to join in the week of prayer for unity in London and in Oxford. They came to stay for a few days at Hilfield [43/44] when I was there and I kept up a correspondence with Fr. Meura until his death in 1993.

Brother Stephen and I visited them at Lille on another trip abroad. On the way we called in at a community of Oliveten Benedictine monks to which Dom Heron, who had been on the first Roman pilgrimage, belonged. We were happy to hear them reading my biography of Brother Douglas S.S.F at meals. At Lille we were able to join in a Mass celebrated by a priest worker, all of us standing round his kitchen table. I was able to give a talk about S.S.F to some nuns. Fr. Meura was their chaplain. On this trip I was able to visit the monks at Chevetogne, a Roman community which had close relations with the Orthodox Church. They had two chapels, one where the Roman liturgy was celebrated and the other for the orthodox liturgy of St. Chrysostom. The Abbé Couturier had become an oblate of this community. One of their monks, Dom Bouduin, had attended the Malines conversations and had proposed that the Anglican Church should be "united but not absorbed" by the Roman Church, but this was not received well in Rome. In August 1960 I was invited to go to a World Council of Churches consultation on prayer for Christian unity at Bossey on Lake Geneva at their conference house. There I met many interesting leaders of the unity movement. Pere Michalon, who was carrying on Pere Couturier's week of prayer movement at Lyons, was there. I got him to write an article on unity for our quarterly - the Franciscan. In the late summer of 1961 I joined a group of Anglican priests attending a course at the training college for young worker priests at Bossey on St. Paul's Epistles. I gave them a rather hesitant talk in French about our Society. From there we went on to a Catholic Workers' conference at Bruges in Belgium. The chaplains there all said their daily masses on separate desks in a schoolroom, but there was a united Sunday Mass in the school chapel which the Bishop of Bruges celebrated. For the first time I heard tapes of Teihard de Chardin's writings. Then a very kindly French priest helped me with my train fare to go down to Dinard in Brittany to join a group to discuss the prayer for unity.

Barbara Simmonds, the leader of ecumenical pilgrimages, Marjorie Milne, the Abbé Meuira and others were present. Marjorie specially [44/45] wanted to discuss interdenominational retreats to promote unity. I stayed a couple of days with the Capuchin Friars who lived nearby.

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