Project Canterbury

Thomas Alexander Lacey

Text from Lead, Kindly Light: Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement, by Desmond Morse-Boycott. (New York: Macmillan, 1933).

INCLUDE him amongst my heroes, not because he was a great scholar who could, with the blessed faculty of a born journalist, open his store of learning to the wayfaring man (though a fool)—he used to write as "Viator" in the Church Times, which, after many years, to the regret of its readers and the loss of the Church, closed its columns to him—not because he was an unrivalled expert in medieval Latin and Canon Law—not because be did a wonderful work among girls in Penitentiaries ; certainly not because he was a born controversialist, with remarkable powers in debate; but because he did outstanding work in the cause of Reunion, and that in despite of ugly rumours that the ignorant wove around him. It was a piece of work which forms an important chapter in the history of the Anglican Communion. Amongst all Lacey's activities the visit to Rome and all that preceded and followed it was what made his reputation.

He was born in Nottingham on December 20 1853, In his childhood he owed much to a remarkable mother who, at the age of twenty-one, was left penniless with two young children, Mary and Thomas, both under the age of three. She could have had help from his grandfather, but that would have imposed upon her the painful discipline of sending her son into an unsatisfactory environment.

Taking her courage in both hands she began a School. Her noble and charming character exercised a great influence upon the girls who came under her care.

Thomas and his sister were necessarily left much alone. They were clever children, and soon made the most of the few books that came their way in early childhood. They devoured the Bible, The Pilgrim's Progress and Goldsmith's History of England. In her spare moments Mrs. Lacey laid the foundation of her son's remarkable familiarity with the Latin tongue, little guessing that he was one day to sway Pope Leo XIII by it. He was soon given a free place in the Grammar School in Stoney Street, Nottingham, where he became at length the head boy, working for a scholarship at Cambridge. His Latin papers in the Oxford Senior Local Examination brought him an offer, however, of an exhibition at Balliol, which was to influence his whole life. He went up a shy, raw, conceited boy of seventeen, making friends at once with another "fresher" named Charles Gore. Many times in his writings and by other means he spoke of Gore's influence upon him, and of his devotion to his tutor, J. H. Green. Amongst his contemporaries were Asquith, Milner and A. L. Smith, afterwards Master of Balliol. He left Oxford to work at Wakefield Grammar School, and was ordained deacon to St. Michael's in 1876 by the Bishop of Ripon, continuing his scholastic work.

Early in life he had become a Catholic, in spite of the overwhelmingly Protestant surroundings of his childhood. He was led into Catholicism in this way. At a history lesson his headmaster, a priest named Cusins, whom he loved and revered to the end of his life, asked the class for a definition of Transubstantiation. One boy of very Protestant upbringing said: "The idea that the bread and wine in Communion is changed into the body and blood of Christ." The master replied: "No, that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ." His master's definition seemed so clear to the bright young scholar, and indeed the only possible explanation, that he accepted it without hesitation, and never thereafter questioned it, and all the other elements of the Catholic Faith, as he came in contact with them, fitted in of themselves. At Oxford he had secretly endured many hardships, in his anxiety to burden his mother as little as possible. At Wakefield he had to suffer for his convictions. The Bishop of Ripon refused to ordain him to the priesthood unless he would promise never to wear vestments. He refused, and it was over two years before he was priested. In the end a compromise was made, he resigned his curacy at St. Michael's, and the Bishop consented to ordain him priest so that he could take work in another diocese. It was an absurd compromise, but he was glad to help the Bishop out of an awkward position. Father Benson of Cowley was shocked at it. A few days after his ordination he said his first Mass at Horbury.

Then he went to St. Benedict's, Ardwick, in the Manchester diocese. Typhus was prevalent, and he came into contact with it day by day. There were no compulsory powers of removal, and he used to go into houses to persuade the stricken inmates to allow him to carry them into ambulances. His personal influence was often the deciding factor.

He successively became assistant master of Denstone College and was made a Fellow of the College of St. Mary and St. John, Lichfield; vicar of St. Edmund, Northampton, and vicar of Madingley, Cambridge. In 1903 he resigned the last-named benefice, as his journalistic and other activities, consequent upon his famous work in Rome (a description of which I reserve for my "curtain ") was taking up so much time that he felt he could not do his duty to his parishioners adequately. In addition, his family (for he had now three daughters and two sons) was growing too large for the vicarage. He went to live at Highgate, becoming chaplain of the House of Mercy there. On the death of the Rev. Edgar Smith he became Warden and began a remarkable work among fallen women which endures to this day as a memorial of his saintly life. He remained at this task until made Canon of Worcester in 1919.

Whilst he was living in Highgate he did a great deal of open-air speaking on Parliament Hill and in Finsbury Park, with great success, being always ready with answers to hecklers. In 1905 he worked for many days (and nights!) in the production of the English Hymnal, translating ancient Office Hymns into magnificent English, and writing some original ones, of which the best known is "O Faith of England," three verses of which he wrote on the top of a bus to the patter of the horses' hoofs. Are they not audible throughout these lines?

O Faith of England, taught of old
By faithful shepherds of the fold,
The hallowing of our nation;
Thou wast through many a wealthy year,
Through many a darkened day of fear
The rock of our salvation.

Arise, arise, good Christian men,
Your glorious standard raise again,
The Cross of Christ who calls you
Who bids you live and bids you die
For his great cause, and stands on high
To witness what befalls you.

He overworked himself so seriously that he broke down, and through the kindness of friends, of whom Lord Halifax was one, he was invited by the Brocklebanks to go as their guest for the round voyage to Calcutta on one of their fine new cargo ships. He said good-bye to his family, expecting to be put over the ship's side before she should reach Calcutta, but at the close of the cruise his health was restored, and he began to send to the Church Times his "Bishop's Letters," which many consider his cleverest and most brilliant productions.

After he became Canon of Worcester (in 1918) he had no opportunity for several years to use his vast experience in Rescue Work. He was never even put on to the Diocesan Council for Rescue and Preventive Work, but that ignoring of his great talents was only in keeping with the way in which the Church wasted him. He ought, by virtue of his vast ecclesiastical knowledge and general learning, to have been raised to the episcopate. Had he been a "careerist" he would no doubt have tempered his brilliant wit, his rapier-like debating powers, the satirical skill which could make matchwood of the most apparently learned and carefully presented case. But he was himself always, and perhaps better served his generation by remaining a free-lance. The Church does not know how to use free-lances. It was surprising that he was made so much as a Canon. It brought him real happiness, therefore, to be invited to become chaplain of the Diocesan Rescue Home known as Field House, which is worked by the Sisters of the Holy Name, Malvern. In spite of advancing years and infirmity he would rise at 6-30 on three Mornings of the week to say Mass there. He loved his work, and everybody at Field House loved him. One very tough girl once said that somehow Dr. Lacey always made them understand things. The women sweeping their door-fronts all along the road came to know and love him, as he strode along morning after morning, unconsciously saying his prayers aloud all the way, and stopping on his return to stroke all the cats that used to come out to greet him. (He had a great love for cats, and there was one in Field House that seemed to know at once when he arrived to say Mass, and was with difficulty excluded from chapel.) Then he would turn into the cathedral to hear the Mass there.

He always enjoyed a joke against himself. For example, he never could be taught to sing in tune, but was most assiduous in singing the Preface and other parts of the Mass. At the annual cathedral choir supper he used to entertain the lay clerks and old choristers with stories about his singing. One that never failed was that of a priest who said to him: "I do love to hear you sing the Mass, Lacey, it wafts me across the seas to those delectable lands where they have never heard of the detestable Anglican tradition of singing in tune."

He had the clearest views on all the acutely controversial subjects, and often at clerical meetings, when all were at cross-purposes, would restore order by a deft analysis of what each had been trying to say. Here, for example, is a letter about gambling which is far too shrewd to be lost. As usual, it is undated, perhaps because he lived mentally in so many different ages:

The conclusive answer to your argument is this, that to bet for the sake of getting money is not gambling, at all. It comes under a different category. It is excluded by the Bishop of Southwell's admirable definition which I find the more satisfactory as I look closer into it. Everyone sees the absurdity of calling a book-maker, or the proprietor of Monte Carlo, a gambler. They do it as a business—to get money. Again, if a regular gambler is attacked on the ground of the costliness of his amusement, his favourite—and truthful—answer is that if the play be fair and the chances even losses and gains are bound to balance on the average. Hence it is absurd to look for gain in gambling. Again, I find on investigation that in gambling circles a man who is suspected of playing for (?) . . . stakes is fought almost as shy of as a Man who is suspected of cheating. They don't like to play with him. All these facts and many others are inconsistent with any definition but that of the Bishop of Southwell, i.e. that gambling is betting, for the sake of the excitement. I have occasion in the earlier part of my paper to show that if a man bets for the sake of living without working he is incontestably sinning. I show this not on socialistic principles, which I have quite ceased to believe in, but purely on theological grounds, and if, as is usually the case, he is counting on "luck," he adds the sin of profanity. I afterwards show that no such betting ought to be called "gambling."' No doubt illogical men Will go on condemning "gambling" without stopping to think what the word means, and meaning themselves something quite different, but there is no reason why logical people should follow their example.

It was in the year 1894 that T A. Lacey began to stride into European fame by his composition in perfect Latin of a dissertation on English ordinations. To do his task well he had bravely wrenched himself mentally from his Anglican setting, and thought with the mind of Rome. The document was composed with a view to its being read by the Pope and His College of Cardinals. He says, "To throw oneself into a hostile position, to argue upon the assumptions there treated as indisputable, and to wrest from them an affirmative conclusion, was a new employment from which one might naturally shrink. But the work seemed to be needed." Things moved apace in the next year, as some eminent French ecclesiastics took up the Anglican case. The Pope determined to investigate the whole question, and Lacey, with Father Puller, was "briefed," as it were, by Duchesne and Portal to elucidate the Anglican contention. They conducted affairs with extraordinary wisdom, holding no official position as touching their own Church, but supported by the confidence and approval of the Archbishop of York, Mr. Gladstone, and Lord Halifax. They laboured in vain, for, as all the world knows, Anglican Orders were declared invalid, a decision which disappointed him deeply, but had been skilfully guarded against by his and Father Pullet's independent attitude. Never once had either of them appeared in the role of supplicants.

He often said that he never worked so hard in his life, and the occasional reference in his diary to "a nightingale singing all night" shows how toil restricted his hours of sleep. After several months, he wrote home saying that his brain was reduced to pulp. He suffered much from home sickness, longing to be back with his wife and bairns; but it was a period full of interest and novel experience. He had the privilege of being present, on one occasion, at the Pope's private Mass, which he said daily. Ms Holiness's custom was to hear Mass said by a chaplain immediately his own was finished. Leo XIII said his Mass with a tremulous piety that deeply awed Lacey. The chaplain who followed said his in the worst Italian style, and the Abbe Portal, who was with Lacey, was shocked and said: "Si je disai la Messe comme ca devant mon superieur!" Lacey never forgot that Mass of Leo XIII, and no doubt his own very devout way of celebrating was partly influenced by it.

It is a curious fact, indeed, that he should have been called to play such a momentous part in the history of Christendom, while in his own Communion he was never made more than a Canon. But now that he has gone many recognize that a prophet has fallen in Israel.

A few weeks before he died he sent me a letter of assent to a suggestion that he should contribute a volume on "The Meaning of Pain " in a series I was to edit. He said that it was a subject upon which he thought he could write helpfully. Alas! suffering itself wrote "finis" to a plan which might have enriched the Church with another of his masterpieces. But that he would have wished, for, although he was a great author, a great journalist, a great fighter, he was above all else a great priest. Ecce sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus suis placuit Deo, et inventus est justus.

He died on December 6, 1931, conscious to the last, fortified by the Blessed Sacrament, commending his soul to God.

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