Project Canterbury

John Stote Lotherington Burn

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

IT is barely eight years since the passing of Father Burn of Middlesbrough, the 'Stanton of the North.' That very fact makes it difficult for one who never had the privilege of knowing him personally to attempt to summarize his life and work. It is in many ways easier to write such a story when the subject can be viewed against the background of other days and other conditions. But lacking both historical perspective and personal knowledge, the most one can attempt is a sincere appreciation of a great priest, and a great Christian. Through the eyes of those who knew him can one alone see his personal characteristics, but of his work and its results anyone can judge who has eyes to see and cares to visit Middlesbrough. A very brief study of the way that work was done, and what it involved, is all that is needed to lead one to place Father Burn on the roll of the Heroes of the English Catholic Revival. His life, covering as it did seventy of the first ninety years of that Revival, is a picture in one man's experience of the progress of the Revival at its best: not a parable, but a summary. But let the reader judge.

John Stote Lotherington Burn was born in 1853, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4. There has been traced more than a coincidence in that fact: his happy, humorous nature, his love of all his fellows, and especially of children, his devotion to the Passion, are all strongly reminiscent of the Little Poor Man of Assisi. His father, William Lewis Burn, was a manufacturer who, in poor health, had retired to a house called South Moor, in what was then the pleasant country district near Sunderland. The boy was self-willed but affectionate, and wise training kept him from becoming merely headstrong. As a youngster he was delicate: and the shock of a sister's death while she was still at school retarded his progress. So he was fourteen before he was able to go from a small private school to the Elizabethan foundation at Richmond--the original Richmond in Yorkshire, 'the most romantic town in the North of England.' Here he remained for four years: and here, probably, he first conceived a vocation to the priesthood. The tone of the school, under Dr. Stokoe, who had built it up to vigour and excellence, from a condition well-nigh moribund, was favourable to such a development. A schoolfellow has left on record his recollection of Burn's 'pale face, and large eyes which opened very wide and looked very steadily when anything roused his indignation.' This trait persisted all through his life, and few could bear that look unmoved. He did not take kindly either to rules or games (except fives): but he was devoted to his animal pets, he was uniformly good-tempered, never underhand or mean, and was always on the side of the 'under-dog.' Gradually his early exuberance abated, to be succeeded by a devotion to steady work, especially in the classics. He had many contemporaries at Richmond who afterwards became distinguished in various walks of life: and their companionship strengthened John Burn's resolve to make up for the time he had lost in his earlier schooling.

He went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, earlier than his parents had intended, because his father was in failing health, and was recommended to move farther south. The home was moved to Cambridge, therefore, in 1871. In John's first long vacation, in 1872, his father died: and it was probably because he lived at home and devoted much of his time to his mother that the general college life saw little of him. But he rowed in the May races, and gained scholarships after his first year. He read, indeed, very hard, in order to try to make up lost ground: possibly he overdid it, and grew stale. In any case, he failed to get a Class in the Classical Tripos, obtaining only a pass degree; but his love of the classics, and especially of his Greek Testament, lasted all through his life.


All this time John Burn remained a convinced Evangelical, untouched, apparently, by the teaching of the Catholic Revival. But of his real devotion, and of the conscientious spirit in which he looked forward to ordination, there was never any doubt. On St. Thomas' Day, 1876, he was ordained deacon in York Minster by Archbishop Thomson; for the next eight years he held his only curacy, relinquishing it for his only living, that of All Saints', Middlesbrough. 'One curacy, one living,' was his advice to young priests, and he practised what he preached. He worked at Scarborough under Archdeacon Blunt, a broad Evangelical, who had gained from the Tractarian Revival the spirit of seemliness and order in worship, and a keen sense of the need for pastoral activity. He lived for his work, and his work alone: and John Burn needed little incentive to do the same. The mother parish, with its population of 18,000, gave them ample scope; the Archdeacon had swept clear of eighteenth-century disfigurements the ancient parish church, and made even of the hideous Christ Church (built 1820) a seemly place of worship.

The new deacon was soon immersed, spiritually and socially, in a vigorous and happy parochial life. He had a remarkable gift for adapting himself to his society: but he never relaxed so far as to lose his dignity, or to make people feel they could not go to him for serious advice. He started St. Paul's Mission in the poorer quarter of the town; and there with a cocoa-tavern and class-rooms on the ground-floor, and a church-hall above, he taught religion and temperate Christian fellowship. At that time he was keen on the work of the Church of England Temperance Society: later in life, with the growth of a Catholic outlook, he was apt to distrust sectional enthusiasm.

Early in 1880, Burn went abroad to recover from a breakdown and haemorrhage of the lungs; it was the first of many such journeys, which gradually resulted in his acquiring vigorous health. He returned to Scarborough in June of that year, but felt it would be unfair to return to his old work and disturb it afresh, even though the Archdeacon desired it. For a time he helped his vicar's brother at Chester-le-Street therefore: but he went to the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau in that year, an experience of which he spoke without, apparently, either approval or disapproval. Once more a sea voyage became necessary: he set out for Australia, but changed his plans. He visited India (where he had a serious illness at Darjeeling), then travelled to China, and on to Japan only twenty-two years after the latter country had been opened to the West. By September, 1881, he was back in Scarborough, hard at work this time at the Parish Church. Tireless, zealous, impetuous, he was universally admired and respected: even if he seemed to possess the defects of his qualities (e.g., a certain brusquerie of manner), no one could maintain any offence at what he said or did, because of his undoubted devotion to his work and his largeness of heart. It is difficult to say exactly how or when there came about the change which made 'Father Burn of Middlesbrough,' champion of Catholic Faith and practice, out of 'Burn of Scarborough Parish Church,' where Evening Communion was still the rule. It was not the influence of his Broad Church vicar, nor (so far as can be traced) of any Catholic-minded friends. It was not through his reading as a whole: he read much, but an attraction to Martineau and a dislike of the Higher Criticism could not be factors of themselves in the growth of a Catholic outlook. It is probable, however, that he learned a good deal of the ideal of the Catholic Church from F. D. Maurice's Kingdom of Christ: he had an immense admiration for Maurice and his teaching.

In 1883, he became engaged to Lucy, daughter of the Rev. Arthur Bolland, formerly vicar of St. Thomas's, Leeds, but then living in retirement in Scarborough. She was still only twenty years old when they were married nearly two years later. Meanwhile, in 1884, he accepted the living of All Saints', Middlesbrough. He had, as we have seen, never sought or desired preferment, but he considered it a duty to go where he was called, and welcomed it for that reason. Archdeacon Blunt seems to have felt, too, that even then Burn was moving beyond the level of his own churchmanship.

On the Feast of SS. Philip and James (May 1, 1884), he was instituted to his benefice by Archbishop Thomson (who had ordained him deacon and priest) in a waiting-room at York railway station! He was in his thirty-first year, and all his life up to that time had really been only by way of preparation for his great work. Busy and devoted as he had always been, it was only as the years at Middlesbrough went by that his gifts developed, his personality shone forth, and his influence waxed far beyond anything that the earlier years could have foretold.


Middlesbrough is a conspicuous example of a mushroom product of the Industrial Revolution. Built practically on a swamp, it is dominated by iron-works, swept by bitter north-east winds, and coloured by its close proximity to the Durham coal-fields. The population of All Saints' parish was then, as it has always been, entirely industrial: but for some time after Father Burn's advent, many carriages of the well-to-do could be seen outside All Saints' on a Sunday. Gradually, these ceased to appear: their owners in many cases moved out into the country, in others transferred their allegiance elsewhere because they disagreed with Father Burn's ' advances ' in Church teaching and practice. This teaching was accompanied by an ever-growing championship of the poor, involving not infrequently an equally fiery denunciation of the rich. But if the well-to-do tended to drift away, the poor replaced them: and many were attracted from other quarters of the town by the Catholic and social teaching of All Saints'. There was no parish magazine, and so no consistent parochial record, for the first seven years of Father Burn's incumbency. But the ' Occasional Papers' which he issued (e.g., in 1884, with a stirring call to keep Advent, and in 1885 to the observance of Lent) were sufficient indication of his definite Church teaching. They show, as a contemporary put it, that he was already ' almost a Puseyite.' Many extra services, especially during the sacred seasons, were a mark of his insistence on the need for worship: and many sermons and lectures showed his anxiety to provide adequate teaching. The Three Hours' Service on Good Friday was an early introduction; and it is noteworthy as an indication of Father Burn's consistency in keeping to one line, that the Mass which was said on Good Friday in his first year at All Saints' remained his customary observance of the day to the end of his life. It was never replaced, as long as he lived, by Ante-Communion or the Mass of the Presanctified. For some considerable time the chief service on Sunday was Mattins at 10.30, followed on great festivals by a choral Eucharist. He had the help, almost from the beginning, of two assistant priests: the first were the Revs. E. J. Wilson and W. P. Oakley. Thus he was able to leave the parish for a time when, in 1885, he married Lucy Bolland at Scarborough Parish Church, and took his bride to Switzerland for the wedding tour.

After his return, the Occasional Papers showed a marked development in definite Catholic teaching, as well as in Evangelical zeal. In November, 1885, he wrote strongly on the Catholic character of the Church, the necessity of the Apostolic succession, and the obligaton of Mass attendance on Sundays. He also treated of the coming of Christ, not only to judgment, but as the hope of the world: he was always something of a Millenarist. During these early years, he found his own way, and then gradually led his people, to the sacrament of Penance. Always with Father Burn, to believe was to practise: and practice was the path to convert others also. But the Faith came before its outward expression, and Penance was established long before All Saints' had the Mass vestments. By 1893, Father Burn had decided that he could never again present a candidate for Confirmation unconfessed: he was thought by many high-handed, and some parents withdrew their children, but to the end he never receded from that position, and had, moreover, singular success in leading people to penance from his own sheer consistency and his great devotion to the Passion. As with Penance so with the Blessed Eucharist: within two years of his institution, Burn was writing in his Advent paper an exhortation to his people to ' contemplate Christ on his judgment-seat, and Christ Incarnate on his Altar-throne, offering himself for us.' The germ of devotion had always been there: it was now coming to fruition. In 1888 he was enjoining the fast before communion: but the daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice and the Mass as the chief service of every Sunday, did not become established until 1891. He then issued promise-forms for people to sign, undertaking to be at Mass certain days every week, and thus from its institution the daily Mass was a real part of the life of the congregation.

Externals followed slowly, but it must not be thought that these developments in teaching and practice passed unnoticed or unchallenged. Archbishop Thomson even went so far, at one time, as to tell Burn he ought to resign. The latter declined respectfully: and shortly afterwards the Archbishop sent him £25 for one of his funds. On another occasion he snubbed Burn in public, but sent him £5 afterwards for his work. That, it may be noted in passing, has been for the most part a characteristic feature of the relations between All Saints', Middlesbrough, and diocesan authority: official disapproval and even 'discipline,' but sympathy and understanding as between bishop and priest on personal grounds. O si sic omnes!

The ceremonial progress under Father Burn's regime can be recounted briefly: two lights were introduced at Advent, 1890: later, two standards were added, and eventually six on the altar. Vestments were first given and used at Septuagesima, 1893: the way had been paved by their use at the mission church of St. Columba by Father Samuel Healy. By Lent, 1893, a change in the Sunday service was made which has been acclaimed of recent years as the heaven-sent inspiration of this generation. The Missa Cantata after late Mattins was dropped, and a Parish Sung Mass with Communion substituted at 9 o'clock. This has been the rule ever since: by 1897, this third Mass (for there were, and have always been since, earlier Masses at 7 and 8) had become a High Mass, with the acquisition of a regular staff of three priests: an ever-dwindling Mattins at 10.30 survived till 1911.

The present writer has had the privilege of ministering at All Saints' on an ordinary Sunday: some 40 communicants at 7 a.m., a further 60 at 8 o'clock, and Solemn High Mass and sermon at 9 a.m., with a nearly full church and a further 100 communicants, followed by a parochial breakfast for those who needed it. There are not many parishes which can show a ferial Sunday like it: and when priests or laity urge in these days the desirability of an early parish Mass with Communion as one solution of our present problems of worship, let them remember that Father Burn led the way to this solution, with conspicuous success* nearly forty years ago. It is an arrangement not possible everywhere: but where it is possible it is wholly admirable.

Palms were distributed for the first time on Farm Sunday, 1894, and incense followed on All Saints' Day, in the same year. This year, too, saw the application of the title 'Father' to the parish priests in the Parish Magazine: and once more Father Burn's consistency became manifest. For always afterwards he addressed every priest as 'Father' even on the Ruridecanal Chapter! This, with the introduction of copes in 1895, and the establishment of High Mass in 1897, completed Father Burn's regeneration of Anglican worship in his own sphere: there was no material change for the remaining twenty-eight years of his life. For he was intensely conservative: conviction and method once fixed, he never changed. There was one important development in practice, however, as distinct from ceremonial: in 1900 he began reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and that has been continuous ever since. He felt himself conscientiously unable to obey the Archbishop's 'Lambeth Opinions' on Reservation and Incense, but Archbishop Maclagan had already placed All Saints' under a ban. He would not license curates nor visit the church: but he never refused a formal ' permission to officiate ' to the assistant priests, nor to countersign application for grants, in order that the pastoral work might not be hindered. Burn was much grieved at the necessity, as he believed, for disobeying an individual bishop because his conscience owed allegiance to the wider Catholic authority of the Church and her precedents. He was further urged by the pressing needs of a large population--e.g., in the matter of Communion. It is the position of many priests to-day: but they do not always meet with the personal sympathy and understanding from their bishop which then, as before and afterwards, was Father Burn's lot. Father Burn, on the other hand, never advanced to the extra-liturgical cultus of the Sacrament: he never gave Benediction or conducted corporate devotions. But he encouraged private devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Eucharist, and his own love for the Holy Sacrament was real and intense, as witness his joy when, in 1900, his people gave him a chalice and paten, or the intense spirituality of his Eucharistic addresses.


The practical application of his beliefs and the propagation of the Faith went hand in hand with Father Burn's revival of the specifically spiritual things. A Parish Hall was built, at a cost of £3,000, by 1891: but the exertion caused a temporary breakdown in the Vicar's health, and he went with his wife for a voyage to South America. In March, 1893, his daughter Mary was born: a son had died at birth in 1886. In 1894, Mrs. Burn died at the early age of twenty-nine, greatly mourned by everyone who knew her for her goodness and unfailing sympathy. Later in the year came a further heavy blow, when Father Burn's only brother died after two short years as Bishop of Qu'Appelle. His personal griefs threw Burn, with all the greater intensity, into his work: the acquisition of a discarded chapel as a Mission Church, for which an entirely new building was eventually substituted, was followed ultimately by the separation of the new church, and the cutting off of 7,000 of All Saints' population to form the new parish of St. Columba. Meanwhile, he was a dominating figure in town affairs, and though many regarded him as contentious, his seeming aggressiveness was the result of intense conviction, and it was very soon understood that he never bore malice, never remembered slights: he rejoiced in united efforts, but never hesitated to stand alone.

In his parish he was indefatigable in teaching. The Monday evening lectures (general instructions in the Christian Faith) and the Sunday night mission were an early introduction: that on Mondays still continues. Confirmation candidates were always under instruction: in 1923 these numbered 224, and a further 127 were presented in 1924. These numbers are not only a remarkable indication of unwearying teaching, but show how little All Saints has been affected by post-war slackness. As distinct from these normal parochial activities, parish missions were regular and frequent. Such missions (generally conducted by the Mirfield Fathers) were held in 1903, 1905, and 1907, but the first was held by Father Ignatius in 1896. Missions to communicants were for several consecutive years held in Advent; and the general Middlesbrough Mission proposed for November, 1914, was eventually held at All Saints' only, the other parishes abandoning the project owing to the war. Father Burn himself conducted many missions in other places subsequently to 1909, and few were better qualified to do so.

Always his teaching carried the more weight because in material things also he was the friend of the poor. For the last twenty-five years of his life he called himself, and was regarded as, a Socialist: all the monies collected at the early Masses were given to the Sick and Poor Fund, and his championship of the poor often made people feel that he was unfair to the well-to-do. They had only to see him amongst his people to lose all resentment. During times of industrial distress he wrote hundreds of begging letters had collections taken in blankets at football matches, and worked for hours every day at the most menial tasks, such as cutting up vegetables and carrying soup. Hundreds of the hungry (his 'CSU guests' as he called them) were not only fed bodily, but mentally and spiritually enheartened by his practical Christian fellowship and service. In many cases people were directly won for the Church through this means. So near was this work to his heart that he was almost pathetically anxious during his last illness that his successor should be not only a true Catholic but a friend of the poor His prayer was answered. His only and dearly-loved daughter had married one of his assistant priests, the Rev. P. W. Hill, and he was the Elisha upon whom Father Burn s mantle fell; trained in Father Burn's own school, fired by the same ideals under him, the work goes on to-day as it did before. In the vicarage, which was built in 1898, and has always been a clergyhouse also, there is the same happy community life, the same Christian hospitality, as when Father Burn was its head.


In 1910 Father Burn was elected by his fellow-clergy a Proctor in Convocation: he valued immensely the tribute thus paid him, more for the respect it showed for the cause he represented than in any personal sense. From time to time he was re-elected, and served up to the time of his death. Against Prayer Book Revision, and in defence of the Athanasian Creed or Reservation, he was to be heard fearless, forcible, eloquent, in every debate: and everyone admired him for his sincerity, respected his convictions, and liked him for his largeness of heart and sense of humour, despite his pugnacity. His election was nevertheless a personal tribute, for he was then (and remained till 1924) under episcopal discipline. The original ground of that discipline was the use of incense: but his maintenance of Reservation had latterly become the crux, and it was an immense joy to him when, in 1924, an agreement over Reservation was reached with Archbishop Lang (now of Canterbury), the ban was lifted, the curates were licensed, and the first Confirmation for twenty-five years was held in All Saints'. On Father Burn's seventieth birthday (in 1923) the Archbishop had written:

'Differences may have occurred between him and me on certain important matters, but they have never interfered with my personal affection and admiration of his forty years' unfailing and devoted service, in which he has poured out his heart and life to his parish.'

The feeling and admiration were equally strong on Burn's side for the Archbishop.

This seventieth birthday was made a great occasion, one incident of which was the presentation to Father Burn of £350, from subscribers all over England. It was a widespread tribute to one who was known as a forcibly eloquent preacher, a champion of the Faith and of the poor, and a parish priest in many ways unique. Under him All Saints', Middlesbrough, had become a rallying-point, a Catholic centre, an inspiration, and Catholics everywhere were grateful and thankful for it.

Illness, in 1924, interfered with his preparation for an eagerly anticipated Anglo-Catholic Congress at Middlesbrough in 1925: it was an illness which proved to be his last. Despite every effort to gain relief by rest and treatment, an operation became necessary, and was performed at Newcastle just after Easter, 1925. On May 23 pneumonia supervened: he rallied, but had a relapse, and was brought home unconscious, dying amongst his own people on May 28. At his passing, after a thronged church for night-watch, dirge and requiems, thousands of the poor to whom he had ministered lined the streets: they were mourners, not sightseers, for they had each and everyone lost a friend and teacher whose like they would not see again.

This is in some sort a record of facts, and it is difficult to make history live. But in it one may see the odyssey of a great soul. 'He was,' writes one who knew and loved him well, 'a born poet, with the poet's quick sympathy: that is why he preached so effectively. He was also something of a statesman priest, with a presence that immediately gave atmosphere to a drawing-room, a slum kitchen, Convocation, or the deck of a tourist ship.' Of his humour mention has already been made: but the most striking thing about him was the spirit of glad and willing sacrifice which not merely marked his life, but was his life itself. Born in the country, with a great love of sea and moors, quick of wit and of unusual intellectual acumen and culture, fond of society and shining in it, he spent the forty best years of his life in an industrial slum, without flowers or even stars, without congenial society, without intellectual opportunity save what he could snatch from his own reading, and did it gladly for his Divine Lord and the people he loved. We have seen the reason of his greatness, we have, in this all too brief sketch, watched that greatness grow: it was 'his love of the everlasting Gospel' and his passion for being the instrument of bringing its grace to bear on human lives.

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