Project Canterbury

George Rundle Prynne
An Early Chapter in the History of the Catholic Revival
by A. Clifton Kelway

London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905. 248 pp.


Generous benefactors of St. Peter's--The new church--Explanatory document--Consecration of St. Peter's (1882)--Some of Prynne's characteristics--Presentation and address (1884)--Proctorship to Convocation--Transference of parochial patronage to Keble College--The incumbency of All Saints'--Prynne's theological position on disputed points.

TURNING from the spiritual to the material development of St. Peter's Church, it was not until 1882 that the old chapel, after having served as a church for more than thirty years, was replaced by a new and more beautiful building, the erection of which Prynne had so long and eagerly anticipated. It was chiefly by the liberality of members of the Middleton family, and notably of two sisters, Mary Ann and Eliza Middleton, that the church was built. The two ladies named gave a sum of £6000 during 1878 for the rebuilding of the nave, the brother and surviving sister contributing a further memorial gift of £1,000 in the following year. Not only in the connection here noted did the assistance of the Misses Middleton mean much to St. Peter's. These good women, and notably Miss Mary Middleton, generously aided every work for the good of the parish, contributing lavishly of their money, and, as long as health permitted, labouring personally and unceasingly in countless ways. The increased endowment of St. Peter's was largely provided by these ladies; and of Miss Mary Middleton, whose death at the age of eighty occurred during the present year, Prynne has himself said that, humanly speaking, but for her it would have been quite impossible for him to have carried on the work of the parish with anything like the same result. The completed Church of St. Peter's, largely due to her continuing generosity, will to some extent form a visible memorial of this good woman's long and valuable association with the parish.

Plans for the new church were drawn by the Vicar's second son, Mr. George Fellowes Prynne, F.R.I.B.A., who has since become famous in his profession, designing many churches and restoring others in London and the provinces. The foundation-stone of the new building was laid on the Thursday in Easter Week, April 1, 1880, by the Earl of Devon, in the presence of a large number of the clergy of the neighbourhood and members of the congregation. The following paper, explanatory of the history of the building, was placed under the stone:--

"To the Holy, Eternal, and Undivided Trinity; this Foundation Stone was laid by William Reginald Courtenay, eleventh Earl of Devon, on April 1st, 1880, in the thirty-second year of the Incumbency of the Rev. George Rundle Prynne, M.A., Vicar, Thomas Merrett Vicary and Samuel Tallin being Churchwardens. The Architect was George Fellowes Prynne, second son of the Vicar, and the Builder, Alfred Guy, of London. The present church stands on the site of an older building, which was begun A.D. 1828, and Consecrated on October 5, 1850. In A.D. 1878 a sum of £6000 was given by Mary Ann Ochterlony Middleton and Eliza Mary Middleton for rebuilding the nave of the church, and in A.D. 1879 a further sum of £1000 was given by the Rev. Henry Ochterlony Middleton and Mary Ann Ochterlony Middleton for the erection of a Memorial Chapel in the south aisle to their Sister, Eliza Mary Middleton, who died on the 31st of December, A.D. 1878. The remaining portion of the money necessary for building the church was given by many contributors of small amounts.

"The Daily Celebration of the Holy Eucharist was restored in this church on Ash Wednesday, A.D. 1851, and has been continued in this parish to the date of laying this stone.

"It is the earnest prayer of those who have offered of their substance for the building of this church that the Holy Oblation instituted by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be daily offered here for generations to come, to God's greater glory and the good of His people."

This document, recording as it does the greatest restoration of the Catholic Revival, namely, that of the Daily Eucharist, is, we suppose, unique in character, which fact justifies its reproduction in these pages.

The new church--lacking its tower, funds for which were not available--was consecrated on February 1, 1882, the occasion being one of the most notable in the whole of Prynne's long ministry. The whole building was new, with the exception of the sacrarium and vestries, the former of which was the chancel of the old St. Peter's, and had been designed by Mr. George Street in 1850. The new church, at the date of its consecration, had cost about £12,000, and in it Mr. G. Fellowes Prynne has provided a dignified and beautiful addition to the churches of the Three Towns. Dr. Temple, then Bishop of Exeter, consecrated the church, and preached a sermon which, as Prynne afterwards observed, "was fully in accord with what I have been teaching in St. Peter's Church for so many years past." "Abide in Me and I in you" was the Bishop's text, and upon these words he founded such definite instruction regarding sacramental union with Christ in His Church as harmonized well with the preaching and teaching for which St. Peter's has always stood. At the choral celebration on this occasion, Archdeacon Wilkinson, Vicar of St. Andrew's, Plymouth, read the Epistle, and Archdeacon Earle--subsequently Bishop of Marlborough, and now Dean of Exeter--read the Gospel. The service was followed by a luncheon, at which the Bishop, many of his brother clergy, and notable laymen, vied with each other in demonstrating their love and respect for Prynne in this moment of supreme happiness. The Bishop, in proposing "The health of the Vicar of St. Peter's," observed that if the vicar had not been what he was, St. Peter's would not have been there that day. It Would be for ever a visible testimony to the way in Which Mr. Prynne had won the hearts of a great many of his people, by a kind of labour which could not be made visible to the eye in any other way--a very large part of it must be quite incapable of being measured by any human measure, and was in reality visible to God alone--but a labour of love which had gone on for many years, and which, he made bold to say, would accompany the vicar as long as he was known. In responding to the Bishop's words, Prynne spoke of the "great sunshine" of that day with joy, and added that, whatever feeling might have been engendered from opposing principles in that place of Plymouth, he did not know that in all the world he had one personal enemy.

This statement, as to the accuracy of which there can be no doubt, sufficiently indicates the change that had taken place during the thirty-four years of Prynne's incumbency. Things which in those earlier days, with which much of this biography has been concerned, would have provoked riots and uproar, were now taken as a matter of course. Already it was hard to believe the story of the storms that had been raised by preaching in a surplice, wearing a coloured stole, using a coloured altar frontal, or collecting the offerings of the people in an alms bag. The fighting was not all over--as subsequent events have proved--but pioneers like Prynne had borne the first and fiercest onslaught of attack, and had successfully vindicated the Church's right to her own possession in matters of doctrine and ceremonial. And in all the fighting, Prynne had lived a life of unobtrusive piety and goodness, never in the most heated days of controversy permitting himself to use an unkind word or cherish an unkind thought in regard to any one of those who ranged themselves in opposition to him. This power of complete self-control was ever one of the most striking of Prynne's characteristics. Those who knew him slightly were sometimes hardly able to realize the intensity of feeling which lay beneath his placidity of manner and gentleness of speech. These latter characteristics were the result of tremendous self-discipline and control, exercised without wavering throughout the whole of his long life, and often in moments of severest trial. As one who was much with him has remarked, "Many a time I have seen him turn pale with suppressed emotion or indignation; yet he never uttered an angry word, and when he did speak it was generally quite calmly."
The consecration of the new St. Peter's was the crowning-point and the outcome of Prynne's ministry in Plymouth. From that time, and throughout the remainder of his life in their midst, his townsmen united in honouring him, and by every means in their power testifying to the regard and esteem in which they held him. The feelings to which we allude found warm and practical expression in October, 1884, when Prynne was presented with an address and a cheque for four hundred guineas, in recognition of his devotion and self-sacrifice as Vicar of St. Peter's parish for thirty-six years. The Earl of Devon, Lord Halifax, Canon Body, and many other well-known Churchmen were associated with the presentation, which, as Mr. John Shelly observed in making it, was intended to show that the deep appreciation of Prynne's work, and deep personal affection for him, were by no means confined to his own congregation and parish, but extended throughout the Church of England. The address presented on this occasion recalled the difficulties with which Prynne's early work in Plymouth had been surrounded, and went on to recognize the blessings with which that work had been attended, recording such results as "the erection of churches, schools and mission-rooms, the formation of a new parish, the establishment of numerous guilds and societies, the provision of frequent services, and, above all, of a daily celebration of the Holy Communion, and the gathering in of a large and earnest body of communicants." Much, it was remarked, that is generally accepted as part of the ordinary machinery of a well-organized parish was first originated and carried on by Prynne in the midst of difficulty and opposition, and for this, as well as for the writings with which he had advocated Church principles, Churchmen in every part of the country were grateful. In expressing his thanks on this occasion, Prynne made interesting reference to his work, stating incidentally that, in one way or another, he had raised £32,000, and spent it upon the parish during his incumbency, this amount being exclusive of the money received from the Additional Curates' Society, or the collections in church. Speaking of the institution of the Daily Eucharist, he said he did not set it up because he thought it was a nice thing to do. It was forced upon him by the providence of God. In 1849, when the cholera was raging so violently in Plymouth, the Sisters who went in and out amongst the sick, asked him whether, as they held their lives in their hands from day to day, he would give them an opportunity of communicating daily before they went forth to their work. He felt he could not refuse, and that was the beginning of the setting up of the Daily Eucharist.

A great blessing had thereby resulted from what appeared to be a terrible scourge, and St. Peter's was the first church in the land, so far as he knew, to set up the Daily Eucharist.

Prynne, like Lowder, Keble, Neale, and many another good and holy man, never received honour or reward from the authorities of the Church. It is a little strange that this should have been the case to the end of his days, for in his latter years, at any rate, it is evident that by successive Diocesans of Exeter he was highly esteemed. Again and again he received from his bishops expressions of affection and warm admiration, and these he treasured deeply. But though the reward of title and place was withheld from him by the ecclesiastical authorities, Prynne received from his brother clergy in the diocese perhaps the highest mark of confidence and esteem they could give him. This was in 1885, when, in a contested election, he was returned to Convocation as Proctor for the parochial clergy of the diocese, in conjunction with the late Rev. Prebendary Sadler. Three candidates were nominated, each representative of one of the three schools of thought in the Church; in the result Prynne received a larger number of votes (165) than the Moderate and Low Church candidates combined. He held his position until the dissolution of 1892, and never ceased to regard with pardonable pride the signal honour which, as he conceived, his clerical brethren had done him. Writing to the author of this biography in 1899, seven years after his retirement from Convocation, he says--

"I cannot feel, as people often say, that I have never been honoured by the Church, even above my deserts. I do not think any private priest could receive a greater honour than to be elected, as I was in 1885, in a contested election, by an overwhelming majority, to represent the parochial clergy of the diocese in Convocation."

The humility and self-effacement of the writer are conspicuous in the above words. While dealing with this matter, we may add that some seven years before his death Prynne received the offer of a small country living in Cornwall from the Bishop of Truro, Dr. Gott. Although advancing age precluded his acceptance of the offer, Prynne was deeply touched with the feeling that led to its being made, and the loving expression of admiration and esteem with which it was accompanied.

As his incumbency of St. Peter's grew longer, Prynne began to consider how the future of the parish could best be safeguarded, and the continuity of the teaching for which it so conspicuously stood be preserved. In its earliest days, as a district under the Peel Act, the appointment to St. Peter's was vested in Crown and Bishop alternately. By increasing the slender endowment of the parish, Prynne had secured the appointment of a body of trustees, including Dr. Liddon, Canon T. T. Carter, the Hon. C. L. Wood (Lord Halifax), the Rev. A. H. Mackonochie, and Colonel Roberts. The trust deed under which these gentlemen were empowered to appoint laid down several conditions, e.g. that any future incumbent should be a celibate; that he should wear the Eucharistic Vestments, use the Eucharistic Lights, etc. After the establishment of Keble College, however, Prynne desired that the advowson of St. Peter's should be placed in the hands of the Keble trustees, and the consent of the private trustees was eventually given to this plan, though not without some very apparent misgivings on the part of Father Mackonochie, who could see no sort of guarantee that Keble "would necessarily remain Catholic for, say, fifty years," by which time he hoped disestablishment would do away with "patronage" altogether. As was pointed out by more than one of the trustees, everything depended upon the constitution of Keble College Council for the time being, and this, of course, was bound to be a variable quality. The transference to Keble College was accomplished in 1884. The special conditions of which we have spoken were at that date removed from the trust deed, as being impossible of enforcement, though there seems to have been an understanding that the purport of them should in future be regarded as the wishes of those who secured the patronage for the Catholic party.

More than once during the closing years of his life, Prynne experienced considerable anxiety as to the future of St. Peter's and of the daughter church of All Saints'. The patronage of the latter parish was, and is, vested in trustees, the Vicar of St. Peter's having surrendered his right to the appointment at the wish of Dr. Temple, who was Bishop of Exeter when All Saints' was created. Upon the resignation of the Rev. C. R. Chase in 1898, special anxiety was felt as to the appointment of his successor in the Vicarage of All Saints', and at this moment his co-trustees turned with concern to Prynne, who, in a letter to one of them, thus summarized his views. Writing on October 7, 1898, he observed:--

"I will say, in the first place, that I would never support any one for a cure of souls who was not loyal to the faith and principles of the Church of England, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer."

He then proceeds to speak of some special points that had been raised in connection with the appointment:--

"1.--I regard special confession to a priest as quite a voluntary act on the part of the laity, and, therefore, not absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of sins. I have never made it a necessary condition, either for Confirmation or Holy Communion, or sanctioned its being made so. It is free to all, but its use is to be governed by each one's own convictions of its helpfulness to his spiritual life.

"2.--I have never held or taught that the out-and visible Eucharistic elements are to be adored, but He alone Who is spiritually and invisibly present under these outward veils, or, as one of the Homilies expresses it, 'under the forms of bread and wine.'

"3.--Reservation for the sick is without any doubt a primitive practice, and has been allowed by some of our bishops, in times of great prevailing sickness--e.g. when cholera was raging in London. In a parish such as mine, consisting of 12,000 people, most of whom are in extreme poverty, emergent cases are constantly arising; and people taken suddenly ill who have desired Communion have from time to time died without it, because there was not time to make arrangements for celebrating Holy Communion in their rooms. Then the rooms themselves are commonly so very unfit for such a sacred purpose--possibly only a mattress on the floor, on which the patient is lying, and a few broken chairs and bits of furniture about the room. We have frequently to communicate three or four sick persons in one day. Our practice is to reserve from our daily Celebration at the church enough to communicate such persons, which appears to us far more reverent than to celebrate afresh in each case in such places.

"3.--Adoration is due to God alone. Though I am anxious to give to the Blessed Virgin Mary all due honour as the Mother of our Lord, yet I quite disapprove of the extravagant terms in which she is addressed in Romish books of devotion.

"4.--Fasting Communion. Though a rule of the Church, derived from the earliest ages, and recommended as an act of reverence by some of our greatest English bishops, yet it is not a matter of absolute necessity, and may be dispensed with on sufficient grounds. For example, though my own rule is to receive fasting, yet, when I was very ill, I did not hesitate to receive in the morning, after taking food through the night. I should certainly never be more strict with others in a matter of this kind than with myself.

"We are all, I suppose, influenced to a greater degree than we think by the persons and circumstances with which we have been brought into contact in our early lives. From a very early part of my ministerial career I was brought into contact with some of the great leaders of the so-called Oxford Movement, and embraced the main principles which they taught."

The writer concludes with an expression of the strong personal feeling he entertains in connection with an appointment to a parish taken out of his own, and the patronage of which he only surrendered at his Bishop's request. The letter, from which we have quoted at length, establishes with considerable clearness Prynne's position less than five years before his death in regard to several disputed points. Those who knew him most intimately will best know the scrupulous care with which, even in his mortal illness, he endeavoured to keep the Church's rule in regard to fasting before Communion. The testimony of one of his closest friends, who was also his medical adviser, Mr. Paul Swain, F.R.C.S., of Plymouth, is given elsewhere upon this point. Speaking to the members of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament at their annual gathering in June, 1903, Mr. Swain in touching words told how when Prynne was on his death-bed, only a few days before he died, he felt it best, as his medical adviser, to tell the aged priest that he might not be spared to see the morning. When it was suggested that he should without delay make his last Communion, his distress at having to make an exception from his life-long practice was very evident. "My dear Swain," he said, "I have had my food, I cannot receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ." So strong was his sense of the Church's law on this point, that even in these last days of pain and weakness he hesitated to break the rule he had so long and faithfully observed. As to the Reserva-tion of the Blessed Sacrament for the sick and dying, the experience of his own parish, especially toward the end of his ministry, impressed the necessity of such provision upon his mind very deeply; indeed before Reservation was adopted at St. Peter's, the clergy of that parish had very frequently to obtain the Blessed Sacrament from the neighbouring church of All Saints', where Reservation obtained some years earlier than in the church of the mother parish. Of the other points mentioned by Prynne in his communication to a co-trustee, his position in regard to the Sacrament of Penance was made clear in an earlier chapter of this book; and his teaching concerning the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist will be more fully considered later on.

The Vicarage of All Saints', Plymouth, was eventually, in October, 1898, offered to the Rev. H. H. Leeper, who at that time had been working at St. Peter's as one of the assistant clergy for more than eleven years. On its being declined by Mr. Leeper, the living was filled by the appointment of the Rev. Owen Anwyll, a former curate of All Saints', and subsequently priest-in-charge of St. Alban's, Ventnor. In justice to Mr. Leeper, for whom a sphere like that of the All Saints' district had many special attractions, it should be clearly stated that his refusal of the incumbency was, in some measure, prompted by a desire to spare his aged Vicar the unavoidable worry and distress which his withdrawal from St. Peter's at that moment would have caused. Prynne shared this desire, and reciprocated the feeling of affection which prompted it; indeed at this time he expressed the wish that Mr. Leeper might eventually succeed him in the incumbency of the church and parish upon which he had bestowed his valuable services for so many years. This wish Prynne made known to those most nearly concerned, and, considering the special circumstances of the case, there can be little doubt that its fulfilment would have been attained, had not the ecclesiastical events of 1899, and the part that Prynne felt bound to take in regard to them, led to Mr. Leeper's resignation and final withdrawal from St. Peter's parish.


Project Canterbury