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.


Alteration of the old church--Consecration by Bishop Philpotts-- The Bishop and Miss Sellon's Community--Foundation of a permanent house--Dr. Pusey on the success of the Sisterhood-- Protestant agitation against the Community--Charges made by the Rev. J. Spurrell--Prynne's reply.

DURING 1849 and 1850 the alterations necessary to make Eldad Chapel a more suitable building for the Church's services were completed, and on October 5th of the latter year it was consecrated by Dr. Philpotts. When, thirty years later, this building gave way to the present noble edifice, its chancel was retained; the sanctuary of to-day thus forms a link between old St. Peter's and the new, and is an actual part of that old building in which Prynne began his memorable ministry so many years ago. The date of its consecration, too, October 5th, is still observed as the dedication festival of St. Peter's. The alterations effected in the old chapel before its consecration, including the removal of unsightly galleries and hideous three-decker, provoked the disapproval of the remnants of Mr. Hawker's congregation and their sympathizers. Fanned by a hostile Press, the agitation broke out afresh. The journal already mentioned devoted many columns to a hostile description of "the events that transpired at St. Peter's on the day of its consecration," alleging that "with the Ritualists it was a grand field-day;" and it further adds: "Amongst the clergy that were brought together was the Rev. Dr. Pusey, but his presence was kept a great secret, so that few persons knew that he was in the church at the time of the consecration." So inflamed was local opinion against the recognized leader of the detested movement, that the police authorities at Plymouth refused to be responsible for his safety if Dr. Pusey's identity was generally known. During his brief visit, therefore, he was referred to as "Dr. Grey," and at the consecration he simply occupied a place among the congregation. Some explanation of this incident may be found when we remember that the autumn of 1850 was a moment of intense uneasiness and distrust throughout England. On September 24, 1850, Pius IX. issued his Bull, "Ad perpetuam rei memoriam," constituting England an ecclesiastical province of the Roman Catholic Communion, with an archbishop and twelve suffragans. This "Papal aggression," coupled with the secessions to Rome which were constantly occurring, roused the public mind to a fever of excitement, and made even cool-headed people almost fanatical. The public indignation was fed by very varying materials; besides appeals to the memories of the fires of Smithfield, of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and of the Gunpowder Plot, it was stimulated by incitements to popular prejudice against the Tractarians. The Tractarians were 'down' and were 'fair game' for any public man desiring to make political capital out of religious prejudices. . . . That Pusey should bear the brunt of so much of this outbreak of popular feeling as was directed against the Oxford party was inevitable. . . . Wherever he went, as he told Keble, he had evidence of the feelings with which he was regarded." In Plymouth, moreover, local Protestantism was specially aroused and excited by the creation, in 1850, of a Roman Catholic See in that town, and the enthronement with much pomp of a bishop of that communion.

The meeting of two such men as Dr. Pusey and Bishop Philpotts at this moment was undoubtedly fraught with considerable importance. Dr. Philpotts, the "noble but solitary exception" to his timid brethren of the episcopate, did his best to encourage and defend one whom he recognized as loyally working for the Church of England; withdrew the restraint he had imposed on Pusey as to preaching in his diocese; and pressed him to come to his house freely. The courage of such a line of action on the part of the Bishop needs no comment.

The consecration service, in spite of threats, passed off without any unpleasant incidents, Prebendary Oxenham preaching from the words, "Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders, but thou shalt call thy walls salvation and thy gates praise" (Isa. Ix. 18). Among the fifty clergy who supported the Vicar of St. Peter's by their presence on this occasion was that sturdy champion of the Tractarian movement in the west, Archdeacon Denison, who just then was strenuously resisting "the schismatical act of the Church of Rome," to which reference has been made, "standing fast"on the doctrine of Holy Baptism, and conducting a vigorous public and private correspondence with his opponents.

Directly after the consecration of St. Peter's Church, Bishop Philpotts laid the foundation-stone of a new house for Miss Sellon's community, thus giving the stamp of his episcopal approval to that revival of the religious life in our midst, which in those early days provoked the most unreasoning and violent hostility of the "man in the street." On March 26, 1845, this movement, which was destined to exercise such tremendous results on the life of the Church in England, was inaugurated at Park Village West, Regent's Park, London, where a Sisterhood was established under Dr. Pusey's guidance. Three years later a similar enterprise was begun at Devonport by Miss Sellon. This lady, the daughter of Commander Sellon, R.N., was on the point of leaving her home in Devonshire and going abroad for her health, when she saw the Bishop of Exeter's urgent appeal of New Year's Day, 1848, for help to relieve the spiritual and moral destitution of the Three Towns. The necessity of increased provision for teaching the children of this great seaport formed a strong point in the Bishop's appeal, and Miss Sellon, with her father's consent, determined to offer herself for such work. This lady had already visited the Sisterhood at Regent's Park, and learnt something of the Religious life there. Dr. Pusey, with whom Miss Sellon was acquainted, sent her with a letter of introduction to Mr. Kilpack, the first incumbent of St. James's, Devonport, one of the new districts created under the Peel Act of 1843. Educational work, begun here by Miss Sellon and a friend, soon developed into something larger and deeper, as was inevitable in a district devoid of Church or other means of organization, where the clergy could scarcely touch the spiritual needs of the five thousand souls committed to their care. When Miss Sellon had been at work in this district less than a year, Pusey, writing after a visit to this place, says: "The works of mercy opened at Devonport . . . embrace the whole range of which our Blessed Lord speaks relatively to the day of judgment." This was in January, 1849, when the manifest success of the work called for organization and co-operation on a very definite religious basis.

The Bishop of Exeter came to Devonport at this time for a Confirmation, and, after examining the work, sanctioned the establishment of the Sisterhood--which was generally known as the Devonport Society--and became its official visitor. Pusey, though he had with much wisdom discouraged the multiplication of small local Sisterhoods, was deeply impressed and greatly encouraged by the success which had attended Miss Sellon's work at Devonport:

"One can only say again and again, what one has said often these fifteen years, 'This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.' It is a common saying, 'Morice Town in November is quite different from Morice Town in April.' The same bad words are not heard in the streets; the very value of houses is increased, because they are more respectable. ... It does make one's eyes fill with tears of thankfulness to think how good and loving God has been in this great work of love for their souls, and how many besides may yet be rescued out of this wasting mass. I cannot think or speak of it without tears coming to my eyes."

In 1849, on the outbreak of the cholera epidemic, Miss Sellon, as we have already related, offered the services of herself and the Sisters to Mr. Prynne, by whom they were accepted. Thus the work of the Devonport Society began at St. Peter's. For the first year or so the community rented several houses in Wyndham Square, close to the church, where they carried on their great work for the salvation of souls with every sign of blessing. Eventually a field near St. Peter's, in which a temporary hospital had been erected during the cholera, was purchased by the community, and here the foundation-stone of a permanent house was laid by the Bishop immediately after the consecration of the church. The community house was designed by Mr. Butterfield, and now forms a stately pile of buildings on the border of Plymouth and Devonport. It is generally called "The Abbey," and is the property of the Society of the Holy Trinity, generally known as the Ascot Sisterhood, which community is the survival of the Devonport Society. The ceremony of laying the foundation-stone of the community house came in for much hostile attention from the local Press, whose rude and vulgar references to the good Sisters indicated a complete forgetfulness of their noble and self-denying work during the time of Plymouth's visitation.

Prynne's connexion with Miss Sellon's community, and his identification with them as priest of the parish in which the work of the Society chiefly lay, brought him more prominently than ever before public notice, and gave his Protestant opponents occasion for renewed persecution. Papal aggression had for a time occupied the attention of the Vicar of St. Andrew's and his coadjutors of "the British Society for the Promotion of the Principles of the Reformation." Already (early in 1849), at the instigation of the gentleman named, the Sisters had been charged with the horrible offences of saying "lauds" in their oratory; calling Fridays and Wednesdays "festival days" (!) and doing no work on them; wearing crosses; calling Dr. Pusey "Father," and permitting him to administer "the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper every day in the chapel when he was at the Home, and once in a small dormitory where a Sister was ill." These charges, and others like unto them, the Bishop had gravely inquired into at Devonport, declaring in the result that "Miss Sellon might leave that room with the gratitude and approbation of all those whose good opinion she would value." Thus defeated, but not silenced, these doughty champions of Protestantism only awaited some pretext for a new and more bitter attack. This they found in a pamphlet put forth in 1852 by the Rev. James Spurrell, M.A., Vicar of Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, which purported to be "an exposure of the Constitution, Rules, Religious Views, and practical working" of the Devonport Society, "obtained through a 'Sister,' who has recently seceded." Considering the inflamed state of public feeling at the time of its publication, and the avidity with which anything prejudicial to the Tractarian movement and its followers was seized upon, it is not surprising to find that this scurrilous pamphlet had a tremendous circulation, and that the "disclosures" it purported to make aroused the utmost excitement. The pamphlet, written by Mr. Spurrell, "from a sense of duty to the Master, whose servant he is," was worthy of high place in the annals of Protestant sensational literature. In its pages, among other serious charges brought against Miss Sellon, was that of having in the oratory of the chapel "a paper inscribed with the names of persons who desired the prayers of the Sisterhood." "What," asked the reverend writer, "would the excellent Hall, sometime Bishop of Exeter, say to all this, if he could pay a visit to his former diocese?" Be this as it may, the specific charges contained in the work, and in another of similar character by a local clergyman, the Rev. H. Seymour, were sufficiently serious to draw forth an indignant denial from the accused lady's father, Commander Sellon, R.N., who in blunt and sailor-like fashion easily demolished "the barefaced and wicked lies" that had been circulated about his daughter by these priests of the Church.

His intimate association with the Devonport Society, and the general feeling of hostility prevalent against him in the Three Towns, rendered it impossible that the Vicar of St. Peter's should not speedily be placed in the same pillory as Miss Sellon. In an address elicited by the issue of a second edition of Mr. Spurrell's pamphlet, wherein Mr. Prynne was attacked by name, and in a letter to the Rev. Hobart Seymour, who had levelled the most serious charges against him in connexion with his chaplaincy of the community, the Vicar of St. Peter's thus made clear his own position:--

"God knows I am no Jesuit--no Papist at heart. I do not want to reintroduce the Romish errors which the Church of England has, I think, on sufficient grounds condemned. I desire, by God's grace, to spend and be spent for the Church of England, to live and die in her communion; but it must be for the real Church of England--for the Church of England in her entirety, as she appears in her Book of Common Prayer, and not as she is represented by those who desire to alter and mutilate that book, and who would fain blot out every Catholic and primitive feature it contains, by those who deny the grace of her sacraments, speak slightingly of the Apostolical succession of her ministry, and utterly neglect the observance of those holy days which she has ordained, as well as the offering up of her daily morning and evening prayers; a duty which she has so expressly laid upon every priest and deacon. Might we not justly reply to those ministers of the Church who thus accuse us (Tractarians as they call us) of unfaithfulness, 'Cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye'?"

The writer then goes on to justify, in the clearest terms, the Church's Sacrament of Penance, against which, it is plain to see, the whole bitterness and force of this attack was in reality directed. To his own words on this doctrine he adds a catena of authorities, many of which he quotes from Prebendary Gresley's little book on "The Ordinance of Confession." Bishop Philpotts, in his Charge of the year 1851, had laid down the Church's teaching in regard to confession and absolution with courage and clearness, affirming that "ministers who in these days receive the confession of penitents and pronounce absolution thereupon, act in full accordance, not only with the Church's law, but also with the constant practice of the most faithful of its rulers and teachers." Utterances like these, however, only served to deepen the fury of Protestant fanatics, the result of whose wrath speedily focussed in allegations of the most serious sort against the Vicar of St. Peter's regarding his treatment of penitents.

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