Project Canterbury

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir

By E.A. Towle

Edited by Edward Francis Russell.

London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1890.

Chapter VI.

Personal characteristics--Fellow-workers--Life in the Clergy House--Family affections--Character of the services and congregations at St. Alban's--Mission held by Father Lowder in 1863--The devotion of the Three Hours first started at St. Alban's--Mr. Mackonochie's attitude toward those who differed from him--His care for individuals

It would be easy to write the parochial history of St. Alban's during the following years. Its records have been kept with scrupulous exactitude. So far as statistics can be said to be proofs of success in mission work, that success was fully established.

But before we enter into the details of the various agencies employed, let us look once more at the central figure in the picture.

We have already seen how at Westbury and Wantage nothing was too trivial to engage his attention if it in the smallest measure concerned the interests of those under his care. Here in the midst of this teeming London population there was the same sense of responsibility towards each single soul, the same painstaking care for individuals. He did not only work for the church, his parish, his congregation, but he watched with unremitting vigilance over each man, woman, or child with whom he came in contact.

The Clergy House is a conspicuous building at the end of Brooke Street, built on to the church, divided into two portions by the entrance gate and passage to the church; the clergy occupying one portion and the servants the other. It contains a bedroom and sitting-room for four clergy, a spare room of very modest dimensions, an oratory, and a common dining-room. Mr. Mackonochie's sitting-room was on the first floor.

The style of living (writes one of the staff) was of a very simple kind, and the arrangements excellent for the soul, not quite this for the body. The order of the day included all the small Hours, Prime to Compline, which were said in the oratory. This arrangement it was found impossible to maintain when the work increased and it became necessary to be accessible to those who needed our help. The great trial was the difficulty of keeping the house clean. At one time it fairly deserved the character given, I think by Dr. Littledale, to another spot, 'it was like an entomological museum without the pins.' This was especially trying in the parish when celebrating for the sick.

Here, then, close to his church, in the midst of his people, and in daily, almost hourly, companionship with his fellow-workers, Mr. Mackonochie entered upon the twenty years of ministerial life which he was to spend at St. Alban's.

Perhaps one of its most striking features at the outset was his ready response to each separate demand upon his time and attention. When each five minutes was of value, and when with all his efforts the stress of work must last from early morning until late at night, he would bear with repeated and often unnecessary interruptions without the slightest manifestation of impatience. One of his constant fellow-workers declares that he was never so much as outwardly hurried. It was the great secret of his influence. For the time being only three persons existed for him, God, himself, and the soul with which he had to deal. Parochial interviews, necessary visits, services, accounts, school teaching, sermons, confessions--all the various spiritual and official duties met one by one with the same undivided attention, though there was often hardly breathing space between, and the short time marked out in his daily rule for recreation was almost always encroached upon and frequently altogether crowded out. Perhaps it is true that if he had been given a couple of hours in which to refresh or amuse himself he would have been at a loss to know what to do with them. The fact no doubt points to a deficiency in his character. From the very first 'play' had been left out of his life, he was not likely to murmur because he had no play-time, though he thoroughly enjoyed any little distraction which came in his way. Indeed, his pleasure in any parochial entertainment or excursion was as simple as that of the youngest school-child. But he never sought recreation for his own sake, and even his reading had almost always a practical bearing upon his work. One cannot help thinking with a smile and a sigh of the poor lad who, even before he went up to Oxford, was to spend his spare time in the holidays in the study of theology. Now that his life had become that of a teacher, he was more than ever anxious to be thoroughly grounded in the science. He had a conscientious reluctance to go one step beyond what he had learned; until he had grasped a truth for himself he would never have presented it to others, any more than from motives of expediency he would have withheld it from them. So it came to pass that the chief characteristics of his preaching were clearness and simplicity. As one of his habitual hearers observed, 'He always taught us something.' Truth had its rights as well as its obligations, it could be no part of his duty to soften or conceal it. The praise of men, the respect of those opposed to him, even the sympathy of friends, had not so much as been weighed in the balance with the aim of his life, to choose the right as he saw it, and let the truth make him free; free from fear of misconstruction, free from vain regrets, and the perplexity of side issues and the snare of a widespread popularity.

His teaching was the necessary outcome of his belief. The phrasing of one of his addresses to his parishioners is characteristic of the whole attitude of his mind. 'I believe and therefore have taught,' he begins; and in the same address a little further on, 'I believe and therefore have always taught you.' The truth had from the first been stated with uncompromising clearness, without a thought of the consequences to himself. It was the sacred heritage, the inalienable right of Christian people. As he saw it, as he knew it, so he must proclaim it to others.

It was the same when dealing with individuals. Reproof when called for was direct, telling, absolutely sincere. Though he would not give unnecessary pain he certainly never shrank from probing the wound he was intent to heal.

'Was he a severe man?' was the question put to one of those who knew him best. 'Never to those who most deserved it,' was the quick, spontaneous answer. Hard upon himself, he was also stern in his dealings with those who had adopted the same high standard. He expected a great deal from them; the demands he made were an honour, and their response required no praise; he never forgot that they were to work, not for him but for God. His trust was without reserve, and his confidence once given was not likely to be withdrawn. It was his unshaken loyalty to his workers which, amongst all the trials which beset the work, gave it substance and cohesion; and within certain well-defined limits he allowed them absolute freedom.

It has been my one great joy during my ministry in this place (he wrote) that my brother priests and I were one; there was not one single hair's-breadth of difference between us. I can always drop the I and say we. I said to them when we first came here, our strength will be in our unity. There must be a centre in a corporate body; there may be occasions in which that centre must moderate with his own opinion the opinion of others; and when his opinion differs from the opinions of the others, he may have to overrule the opinions of those who work with him. But we are all priests; one may be leader, but we have the same orders, and therefore our strength should be in unity. Whatever then is done at St. Alban's is not done by one or the other, but emanates from all; one may act in the body, we all act in the spirit.

There is a strong practical testimony to the truth of this assertion in the fact that there are still two men at St. Alban's who worked with Mr. Mackonochie almost from the first--the Rev. A. H. Stanton, and the Rev. E. F. Russell who joined him five years later; whilst Mr. Walker, who went there at the time of his appointment, only left in 1872. There were, of course, from time to time changes in the clerical staff, yet we think it would be true to say that no one severed their connection with it without regret. It seems necessary to touch upon this point, because it forcibly illustrates the subordination of natural characteristics to the singleness of his purpose. Confident and determined; very sure of himself and of his conclusions, with a taste for method and organisation, and a great sense of the importance of details, one might have expected that his parochial rule would have been a beneficent despotism, and that it would have been hard to cooperate with him upon terms of equality. But such was not the case. The purity of his motives freed him from any touch of jealousy, and when once assured of a bond of union deep and enduring as a common creed and a personal devotion, he was ready to allow free play to individual instincts and capabilities. The liberty of action and speech which he claimed for himself he freely allowed to those who were working with him, recognising that in so wide a field there must of necessity be a varied and experimental husbandry. At Oxford, to the surprise of bystanders who thought him narrow or bigoted, he had chosen his friends chiefly from amongst those who dissented from his religious opinions; and now his closest companions were men whose views upon political and social questions differed in some respects widely from his own. It was enough that through all the varied texture and crossed threads of life there ran the one strong cord of a practical and unhesitating allegiance to the absolute claims of fundamental truth.

It was the more remarkable since his very single-minded-ness made it difficult for him to see both sides of a question, and his scrupulous conscientiousness had, at least in his earlier years, engendered a certain stiffness in the attitude of his mind. 'Save me from my virtues, I can save myself from my vices,' might well have been his petition, lest hatred of evil should degenerate into harshness and resolution into obstinacy.

He stood in the position of one of the leaders of a new movement, but he had been forced into it by circumstances; the post he held had been unsought for, undesired. There was enthusiasm indeed, but of so severe a kind as to be most generally unperceived. The force of the torrent was, as it were, veiled by a thin coating of ice. Its strong current flowed steadily and in silence.

When you spoke lo him of your interests and your troubles (writes one of his friends) you felt that for the time being you really were his one object of thought and attention, and that his whole mind was bent on understanding your story. Many professional men are successful in assuming this attitude towards those who consult them, but one feels instinctively that the interest is after all only professional and conventional. But with him you felt that all was real and genuine, and you felt it all the more because of the amount of reserve which never left him. . . . His small clear hazel eye looked straight at you, not with the searching, enquiring gaze that one meets with in some who have power over souls, but rather with the fearless, candid look of a child, who has nothing to conceal and takes it for granted you have nothing to conceal either.

Such testimony does not stand alone; from every side and from the most opposite quarters there come examples of his power over individuals; but it would seem as if he needed a distinct personality upon which to exercise his influence. There was no sense of inspiration from a crowded congregation; no eloquence kindling into passion in quick response to the sympathy of the multitude; his curious absence of self-consciousness made him too indifferent to be greatly moved by a public verdict; too self-confident to need the support of public approval. He can hardly be said to have looked at himself from the outside at all, not even with other people's eyes. He had that element of fanaticism which resolves itself into an unconscious aloofness from other men's minds; and we see one result of this in the fact that he had more intimate relations with those to whom he looked up, or with the persons of all classes whom he guided and helped, than with those with whom he consorted upon terms of equality. It was with them that he was most reserved; perhaps with an instinctive feeling that confidence in their case must needs be reciprocal, and with a natural repugnance to accept that for which he was unable to offer an equivalent.

He had few near relations, but perhaps for that very reason the tie of kinship had a peculiarly strong hold upon him. Some part of his short holidays were invariably spent in his brother's home, and the children were always objects of his care and interest. Until the spring of 1S65, when she died, his mother was living in London; and whenever he could gain a little breathing time from the troubles of St. George's-in-the-East, or the responsibilities of St. Alban's, it was spent with her. Upon his birthday in the August of the year of her death he wrote to his brother:

It is quite true that the great earthly loss which it has pleased God that we should experience this year comes back with an especial force on this day. In one way especially to me you are now the one only close earthly tie that I have or ever shall have . . . Of course I make friends--friends whom I value and even love, but this is very different from what we have known as the love of our little home.

These affections which had struck their roots so deeply into the past were undoubtedly in some measure fostered by that almost necessary separation from the engrossing and yet transitory interests of other men which comes upon one to whom earthly gains and losses are of little or no account, and for whom the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount have a literal signification. He lived as a poor man all his life, not only upon principle, but because he had in truth but little value for the personal gratifications which money can purchase. His income, never large, and during some part of his life what most men would have considered barely sufficient for his own needs, was freely shared with others; not only with the members of his own family, and with those in his own parish, but with many others whose straitened means and secret privations had become known to him; the simplicity of his character often enabling him to give friendly and timely help where mere charity would have been at once rejected.

Such were to ordinary observers the most prominent characteristics of the man who, after thirteen years of diligent ministerial work, had been chosen as the first Vicar of St. Alban's, Holborn. When the church was opened in 1863 he had already been for nine months at work amongst his people. They had learnt to know him. As yet he had been brought into no undue prominence, no one could have foretold how, under the pressure of circumstances, his influence would hereafter be extended far beyond the bounds of his own parish. Here for the present he had ample scope for all his energies as day by day he laboured to bring the Gospel message to bear upon hard hearts and wasted lives. The church had been purposely erected in a rough neighbourhood.

Wild girls and lads after work hours (writes the Rev. E. F. Russell) engaged in the roughest horse-play. Fights were very common, especially amongst women, and Saturday nights on into Sunday mornings were most often times of hideous uproar and sometimes criminal violence. Where Brooke Street widens at the church end of it there stood formerly a large iron pump with a capacious iron trough. Much happened at this point. It was a favourite fighting ground, conveniently furnishing water to wash away the stains of battle. Cases of sprain or bleeding in the neighbourhood came here to be pumped on, and here on certain days costermongers were wont to wash the carrots and turnips that they sold. One day we found the iron trough full of human skulls and bones. The enterprising youth had discovered them in the excavations of the Varringdon Street Station and had brought them up to sell at the rag and bone shop. Later on, when the inhabitants began to take an interest (in their way) in what was being done at the church, the pump was made to serve as a pulpit, mock sermons were preached by the wild girls (the girls were always the worst), mock confessions were made, and, alas! mock baptisms of eats. The number of dead cats surprised us. They were a very favourite local weapon and very unpleasant.

But the months in the Greville Street Mission had not been spent in vain. When the church was opened there were many of the poor of the parish who had already come to look upon it as their own. Speaking of the day of the consecration, one of the daily papers says:

The church was kept open all clay that the inhabitants of the district might see for the first time the interior of the building designed for their use, and very many availed themselves of the opportunity . . . At the Evensong of the same day it was literally thronged with a congregation such as one, judging from past experience, would hardly have expected or hoped to see in so stately a pile. Not merely those fairly well-to-do were there and the less struggling class of poor, but those whom want of means and insufficient apparel too often keeps away. The bonnetless and shoeless were in numbers amongst them, and as there are no pew rents and no appropriations they were enabled to feel that they had as good a right to their church as any one else. The demeanour of the congregation was reverent and attentive . . . The work is likely for a long time to be of a distinctly missionary character.

It was true; but the preceding sentences prove that the foundations of that work had been already laid. There are no statistics before 1863; but in that year we find that 295 persons, many of them adults, were baptized, whilst in 1S64 the Easter communicants already numbered 291; in the following year they had increased to 453. Of course these numbers included many persons outside the parish. The work as soon as the church was opened became not only parochial but congregational. Union within brought as a natural consequence hearty co-operation from without, whilst the very dissimilar characteristics of the clergy attracted different classes of people. The poorer worshippers were supplemented by a large body of middle-class young men (for whom the church has always had a great attraction), of tradesmen and their families, and of young women in business, whilst it was also frequented by many from other parts of London who were drawn to it by the preaching or the services. Yet those amongst whom Mr. Mackonochie had been working in Baldwin's Gardens and the adjacent courts and alleys were by no means wanting. As he justly remarks in a letter to the 'Times' dated August 1866:

A poor man or woman does not come to church for many Sundays in bad clothing. He gives up buying gin and gets good clothes. I ought to thank you for your testimony as to the manner and heartiness of the congregation--made up, let me observe, after allowing for a few rich and a good many poor, of shopmen, warehousemen, tradesmen, professional men, students of medicine, &c.; the very men whom the Church generally finds it so hard to hold together.

As we shall see further on, nothing was done for the sake of popularity. From the first the services (so far as means allowed) had emphasised and, as it were, illustrated the doctrine taught. Some special offerings had been made to the church, two altar cloths, red and violet; and the linen vestments which were the gift of the founder. They had been used from the beginning, together with the lights and ceremonies, which, now in so many places matters of course, were as yet comparatively unaccustomed. The St. George's Mission hymn-book was used, and many of the hymns were very popular in character, but the office hymn and the chief part of the music was Gregorian.

The work of Dr. Pusey, and of the great men who with him were instrumental under God in the latest of the many reformations of the Church of England, was mainly the restatement of forgotten or half-forgotten truths; . . . but it was the work of a younger generation of clergy and laity to apply these truths to the hearts and consciences of the people, ... to teach men to use the penitential system of the Church as Christ's means of restoring and assisting the sinful; and to awaken men not only to the duty of Communion, but also to the duty of Eucharistic worship. For these ends, with simple common sense, devotion, and reality, Father Mackonochie lived and worked.

Such was Canon Knox Little's testimony in a sermon preached soon after Mr. Mackonochie's death, and at the very outset of his incumbency the words were as true as they were at its conclusion. Pie valued ritual as the exponent of his belief; it was no empty symbol, but the outward and rightful expression of the faith which he held and taught. There was in him a complete absence of the artistic sense of beauty, 'Sweet is the lore which nature brings,' and as one of her children in field and hedgerow and plot of garden-ground he had not failed to learn her secrets, but of form, colour, architecture, and music he had but little appreciation. It was the fitness and not the beauty of ceremonial which commended itself to him.

People have taken to call us ritualists (he wrote in 1867, in an address to his parishioners). Knowing how small a share in my own thoughts (and I believe in yours) the mere question of ritual occupies, I confess to thinking the name a somewhat unsuitable one . . . You very well know that the value we attach to these things (he continues, speaking of the ceremonies of the Eucharistic service) is not for their own sakes, it is because of the special service in which they are used ... It ought to mean something. It does mean something.

Matters which were mere matters of taste or opinion he was ready to relinquish, but throughout the long and wearisome battle he held to his flag (his rebel flag, as his enemies called it) with undismayed tenacity. In all simplicity he might have given the same answer as the drummer-boy when ordered to sound the retreat, 'I have never learned it.'

Without any love of novelty he was yet anxious to use all means to reach those to whom he had been sent, and had no sort of respect for old prejudices and conventional barriers. Already, in 1863, Father Lowdcr had preached a successful mission at St. Alban's, and it was also the first church in London where the devotion of the Three Hours was started, on the Good Friday of 1865, two years after the consecration. It called forth many and various comments from the public and the secular press, being regarded as a startling and somewhat dangerous innovation upon the ordinary services of the day, which could only have been attempted in a church already noted for its ritual and frequented by an extreme section of the Anglican Communion. It is a curious instance of the change which time has wrought to note the numberless churches in which this service is now a matter of course; and when contrasted with the timid or condemnatory judgments from some high quarters to which it gave rise in 1865, the fact that in this present year (1890) the Bishop of London has preached the Three Hours at St. Paul's Cathedral is not without its significance.

The verdict of an irresponsible public had never much weight with Mr. Mackonochie; but secure in his own position, he could afford to be just to those who differed from him. Over and over again we find words of exhortation to charity.

You will need patience (he writes in 1869, when judgment had just been given against him); patience with your opponents lest you lose love; patience with your friends lest you break up your forces; patience above all with yourselves lest you lose heart-You must be patient at home and patient in society, patient in discussion and patient under abuse.

And with an extraordinary power of self-control, he carried out his own precept. Whilst the stormiest discussions were going on around him at the most tumultuous meeting, he would remain apparently unmoved; if he spoke his words were few, sometimes abrupt, but never discourteous; the fire of his speech never lighted upon a personal enemy, nor was kindled at the smouldering remembrance of a personal wrong.

When misrepresentations were most rife and ignorant prejudices were apparently gaining ground; when every attempt was being made to counteract the influence of his self-denying life; when the walls in his parish were placarded with outrageous accusations and warnings, 'Beware the wily demoralising priest, the cunning emissary of Rome. He is a traitor to his Church, a disgrace to England which gave him birth,' &c. When Dr. Cumming in Covent Garden and the Rev. F. Laing at the Italian Church close by were from their different standpoints lecturing against him, he himself rarely spoke upon controversial subjects except in self-defence. As has been well said, 'Prosecutions, persecutions, admonitions, abuse, ridicule, calumny--all ran off this robust constitution like water off a duck's back.' He was keenly sensitive to the adverse verdict of a friend, but he gave no heed to the scornful or condemnatory judgment of ill-informed critics; it was not his business to justify himself to them.

Yet with the difficulties or prejudices of those who had a claim upon him he had an infinite patience; and in this manner many an overt enemy or indifferent bystander was won over to espouse his cause with a zeal which only needed to be directed or kept in check. There is an instance of this going forth to meet an enemy only to find a friend, in the case of one of the churchwardens brought in as the spokesman of the Protestant party in order to counteract his influence and head the opposition at a time when the strife was fiercest and party feeling at its height. He came to the church prepared to do his best or his worst, the doctrine taught was abhorrent and the ritual distasteful, but he was met with friendly courtesy, invited into the Clergy House, and time after time reasoned with and directed, until in no long while Mr. Mackonochie had the satisfaction of preparing him for confirmation, and he became one of his staunchest adherents and a faithful communicant at the church.

It was only one instance among many. Grave and self-contained, with a touch of austerity both in his looks and manners, there was the real personal love for souls which breaks down all conventional barriers. He never for an instant supposed that 'the sphere of Christian duty was to be narrowed to suit the lukewarmness of Christian feeling;' and so, not only in the abject and in the fallen, but in the crudeness and self-confidence of youth and in the self-sufficiency of respectable middle age, through all the poor disguises which the world puts on, he saw the marred reflection of the Divine Image, and time and strength and effort were ungrudgingly spent in the work of its restoration.

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