Project Canterbury

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir

By E.A. Towle

Edited by Edward Francis Russell.

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

Chapter VII. 1862-1867.

Growth of spiritual work at St. Alban's--Influence of the church and clergy--Doctrinal teaching--First prosecution---Direction--Sermons.

The five years from 1862 to 1867 were years of uninterrupted progress. The congregations were large and increasing. It was soon no longer a question of a knot of people gathered about the pulpit on Sunday evenings, whilst in the background ragged children ran in and out and played among the benches. Classes had been formed for instruction, schools were in working order, and every effort was made to raise the tone of the neighbourhood. There was, even in these early days, one means to this end which especially occupied Mr. Mackonochie's attention. Confronted with the difficult problem how best to awaken those so long sunk in apathy and degradation to a sense of universal sonship, conferring undoubted rights to the good things of a spiritual kingdom, one of his first desires was to deprive the outward circumstances of death and burial of those ghastly and expensive adjuncts which were still so much matters of course, and at the same time to dignify and Christianise the careless and slovenly funerals of the poor. Remembering the place of his own burial, it is interesting to find, an entry in his handwriting in the parish book kept at Wantage when he was a curate there.

We have had in the parish since Saturday one of the Baverstocks. His father was formerly an inhabitant of the town. We had much talk with him on different subjects, especially on the efforts now making by the Guild of St. Alban (of which he is a member) in the district of St. Barnabas, Pimlico, to Christianise the burials of the poor, and one would hope through them those of their betters. Among other things he told me that the Woking Cemetery Company had offered to set apart for their use a part of the Cemetery and let them erect in it a churchyard cross. At present some difficulty has prevented their accepting the offer.

This subject was even then constantly in his thoughts, and he often erected, at his own expense, a simple oak cross to the memory of some of those to whom he ministered. When he went to London, the Burial Guild which he started at St. Alban's, the mortuary chapel attached to the church, and the ground secured at Woking for the last resting-place of members of the congregation, all bore witness to his strong feeling upon the subject. It was one which especially appealed to working people. The care and reverence shown to their dead were often the means of awakening the deeper and tenderer feelings which had long laid dormant; and in times of sorrow the bonds which united clergy and people were more closely drawn.

In some respects it was almost more difficult to deal with those who were outside the parish than with parishioners, and the attendance of strangers at the church was large, though fluctuating. Already, in 1863, Mr. Mackonochie issued an address to the 'strangers attending the services.'

Those services were in all essentials what they afterwards became, though there were differences of detail. But from the very first two fundamental doctrines were not only taught but practically brought into prominence:

(1) The position of the Holy Eucharist as the only divinely appointed act of worship; and (2) the right of every soul which felt its need to seek in the Sacrament of Penance the absolution and remission of sins.

From the first there was, in addition to the early services on every Sunday and holy day, a celebration of the Holy Communion, with accessories of music and ceremonial. In 1863 Mr. Mackonochie writes: 'I most earnestly entreat you all to remain from beginning to end of the service for Holy Communion.' Whilst the communicants were as earnestly requested to make their communions fasting at one of the early celebrations.

When it became necessary to arrange the services for this church so as to suit the wants of parishioners (wrote Mr. Mackonochie) I saw two things which had to be thought of. One was to have many services, none of them of too great length; the other was to respect the integrity of the Church's Offices. ... As the morning service is one and has no break, so the service for Holy Communion is also one and has no break . . . There is not one word in our Prayer Books about those withdrawing who do not intend to communicate. This becomes the more remarkable, because in the First Prayer Book of Edward VI. those who did not intend to communicate were desired to leave the choir (not the church, let us observe), but this order was withdrawn at the first revision of the book. The Church has therefore deliberately taken away the word of discouragement from those who, though they do not communicate at that service, yet desire to be present and worship their Lord.

It was particularly difficult to train a congregation where a great many of those composing it came from outside the parish and could therefore only be reached by sermons, unless brought into personal contact with the clergy, and for some years they were slow to put into practice the teaching which they received; even in 1866 we find that nearly half the communicants communicated on great festivals at late celebrations, but by degrees the character of the congregation underwent a change. Those who came merely from curiosity or love of novelty dropped off, and those who remained accepted the doctrine and discipline of the church. To those who came from a distance, Mr. Mackonochie added a few words at the conclusion of his address for that year.

London is full of churches with early celebrations of Holy Communion. Surely at some of these the Holy Communion might be received early according to the unvaried rule of the Church; then if you like to worship here later in the day well and good.

The words incidentally show how little he valued numbers; how averse he was to attract to his church those who could elsewhere more consistently carry out his teaching.

From the first he sought to make his people regard penance as an ordinary means of grace, to which they had an undoubted right. He was most anxious to take from those who frequented it all sense of singularity, and his straightforward teaching as to its blessings and obligations at once pressed home a duty and satisfied a need. The practice of confession thus made plain was adopted by an ever-increasing number of those who came under his influence; whilst many who had never heard or seen him came from long distances--from remote country parishes, and other parts of London--to make their confessions at St. Alban's.

It was the practical result of the teaching of the old Tractarians, in those days more or less of a novelty, even to those who shared their convictions. Mr. Mackonochie's temper of mind would naturally have inclined him to press upon his people the life of penitence and self-denial as the only possible preparation for the fulness of Christian joy, and his own force of character and definite beliefs were strength and consolation to the weak-hearted or doubtful. His views upon this subject, which never wavered, are fully expressed in a private letter, dated 1870.

The only way is to put the matter simply as Holy Scripture does. We are ambassadors for God, and as such have a message of forgiveness for sinners. Come and receive it. No one doubts that to come to confession without true contrition is sacrilege, but so too it is sacrilege to make a bad communion. In both cases God ultimately throws the responsibility on each conscience, but in both cases He expects His priests to tell their people clearly of the privilege and of the responsibility. This done simply makes the act of confession a straightforward, brave, and manly act. . . . For the last twelve years I have had experience over an area extending more and more widely every year, and now, supported as it is by that of my brother priests, here and in other parishes, a very wide one. What is the result? Souls by the scores, not to say hundreds, thanking God for the plain outspoken teaching of God's mercy to sinful souls--souls in ordinary states of sin, having no health in them, as we say daily--and grieving that the partial and hesitating utterances of those who have told them only of absolution for exceptional cases should have kept them back so long from a means of grace which has made God's command 'be ye holy' a word of possibility to them, clearing away the entangling past, smoothing the path of the future, and giving strength for the present contest.

This plain and explicit teaching, illustrated as it was by the character of the services, was not long in arousing opposition. It was known that the founder of the church was dissatisfied, and would not be likely to take up its defence; indeed, the differences between him and Mr. Mackonochie had assumed so grave a character that Mr. Mackonochie had already offered to resign. The proposal, however, fell to the ground; and after some preliminary threats and warnings, the first prosecution was instituted in the spring of 1867.

I am very thankful to say (wrote Mr. Mackonochie, in his parochial address of this year) that it proceeds neither from the Bishop nor from the parishioners. The nominal prosecutor is, as you know, a gentleman [Mr. Martin] who has an official connection with school premises in Baldwin's Gardens, and thereby is legally a parishioner, but who lives out of the parish and has allowed his name to be substituted for that of another who had taken steps to begin the suit on the general ground of his belonging to a party in the Church adverse to the views of her teaching which I believe to be the truth. The real prosecutor is said to be an irresponsible Society, formed with the object of forcing upon the Church of England one particular form of opinion, not easily reconciled with her own Prayer Book.

Upon this there follows some explanation of his own position and line of defence, but we do not propose to enter in this place into the account of the prosecutions, which will be dealt with in a separate chapter, and it is the less necessary as they interfered very little cither with the daily routine or the aim and scope of his ministerial work, which was every week becoming more and more of an individual character.

It is difficult to select from the many recollections furnished by those who made practical experience of his ministrations. There is a singular unanimity in their testimony. Never in a hurry, always willing to listen; and then prompt, decided, gently immovable; so that you felt when once his judgment had been formed and his advice was given, that any expostulations or remonstrances would be absolutely useless. In his opinion, if you voluntarily sought his guidance you must be prepared to follow it. He was ready to teach and to explain, but not to argue; indeed, controversy in any form or shape was distasteful; he never lightly fenced with weapons in order to prove them, or for the sake of practice in the art. One who was for many years a Nonconformist writes:

About the time I made his acquaintance I was terribly harassed by doubts as to the Faith. I wanted to believe, I tried to believe, but believe I could not. I was, I suppose, what is nowadays called an honest doubter. In this state of mind I consulted him. . . . He never expressed surprise at my doubts, he never treated them as sins, but he never reasoned about them, he never argued. All he said was, 'Use the light you have and do your duty. Leave your doubts to God, He will solve them.' I must confess that at first I was considerably taken aback. My doubts were important factors in my life; they had caused and were causing me real grief and pain, and now they were to be passed over in this fashion. The remedy 'use the light you have' was a great deal too simple to be palatable. I was ready for any amount of mental analysis and study and discussion. How could I use light at all so long as any part of the horizon remained dark; and so, like Naaman, I was about to go away in a rage, when it flashed upon me that I had heard somewhere the same advice before; and following up the thought link by link I lighted upon this, 'If any man will do His Will, he shall know of the doctrine.' So I thought Mr. Mackonochie is not so far wrong after all,--first the doing of the Will, then the doctrine. I resolved then and there to take Christ at His Word; and I will only say that the Master honoured the servant by confirming the message--yea, abundantly. I soon found, moreover, that Father Mackonochie's apparent lack of sympathy did not spring from any want of feeling for me in my trouble. It arose from the fact that to himself doubts were simply non-existent, mere negations, phantoms with which personally he could not fight. Before his strong positive faith they vanished as do the shadows in a firelit room before a clearer light . . . His way of dealing with these questions used to suggest to me in those days a rather curious parallel. Before I knew him one of the great motive powers in my life had been Thomas Carlyle. Probably no two men were ever more dissimilar than Father Mackonochie and Carlyle. . . . Nevertheless, their teaching, wide apart as were their opinions, was in one respect similar. To the soul that is 'groping painfully in darkness and inexpressibly languishing to work,' Carlyle says: 'Do the duty which lies nearest to thee which thou knowest to be a duty;' and to the soul beset with doubts and liable to exhaust itself in combating them, Father Mackonochie says: 'Use the light which thou hast which thou knowest to be light, and--do thy duty.' Thus the remedy of both was action, work, duty. The difference of the teaching of the two, to my mind, lies in the fact that Carlyle's counsel was single, 'do the duty;' Father Mackonochie's was two-fold, 'Use the light and do the duty.'

The fact was that Mr. Mackonochie's own life, though, in one sense of the word, an uneventful one, was pre-eminently a life of action. Speculative thought, or the imaginative day-dreams of a prophet or a poet, held no place in it. His strong grasp of eternal truths was never relaxed, because to him they were absolute realities; the only immutable substances in a changing, dying world. As a natural consequence, his obedience to what he believed to be God's Will was as simple as a child's. His 'happy conscience,' as one of his friends calls it, was untroubled by misgivings as to motives or consequences. Fais ce que tu dois, advienne que pourra was the keynote of his teaching, and his confidence that to see the right was of necessity to do it, was very happily contagious. His irrepressible hopefulness, all the more remarkable because unsupported by natural buoyancy of spirit, awakened new hopes in the faint-hearted, and morbid scruples, doubts, and fears vanished in a healthy and invigorating moral atmosphere.

Yet his rule was by no means a lax one. Both in the outward and the inner life there should be method and order. From the first, as we have seen, he was scrupulously exact and punctual in all the duties of his office; and in church more especially anxious that everything possible should be done to render the service both reverent and edifying. In a letter of advice to a young curate in 1867 he writes:

I have been wanting to write to you about the Bishop's letter, Now I have lost sight of it and I can only remember this, that it exactly puts in better words what I wanted to say to you when we last parted. I did not say it because I did not quite know how to express it. The Bishop calls it 'hardness.' I think this fairly expresses the idea; perhaps I should have said sharpness, the ring of steel instead of silver. I noticed it in your reading of lessons, saying of offices, celebrations, perhaps in preaching. The manner, I mean, is one exactly to make things disliked which would be liked if done by some one else. I do not like to write this because it seems merely to lead to self-contemplation, but I do not know how to say it otherwise. The Bishop thinks it co-exists with a mind unable to tolerate the difficulties of unbelievers. I could fancy that it would be incompatible with a keen perception that a Presbyterian was bought with the same Precious Blood as ourselves. I fear I must leave this in its own bald state, simply because I do not know how to put it better. I know you well enough to know that you do wish to cultivate both inwardly and outwardly the Love of Jesus for souls, and therefore I am sure that if the Bishop and I are right, and you can at all make out what the evil is, you will be glad to know- in order to correct it. Your most affectionate Brother in Our Blessed Lord,

Alex. H. Mackonochie.

The letter is very like himself, eminently practical, and yet searching at once into the root of the matter. It was not a question of mere edification, though that too was of importance; there was another consideration of yet greater moment; did not the 'ring of steel instead of silver' indicate that the natural self-assertion and aggressiveness of youth had not been thrust out of sight by the humbling responsibilities of the Christian ministry; so that the Gospel message in his mouth sounded like a declaration of war, unbefitting the sworn ambassador of the Prince of Peace? And thus he makes his protest with affectionate directness, and without any sort of suspicion that it is likely to give offence.

His feeling of awe for his office is well expressed in a letter about this same date (1866) to a candidate for Holy Orders.

I promised to write you a few lines about your approaching entrance into the priesthood. I feel that it is utterly superfluous, as you will doubtless in your preparation have every thought which I can suggest pressed home to you with a power which I am wholly unable to give to it. Still (since you ask it) I will say a few words committing them to God.

1. I suppose that the first thought with which one would try to approach the subject would be the great goodness of God in accepting one to be His Priest. And this in regard both of the greatness of the office--whether as teaching with authority, or dealing individually with souls, or above all in ascending to Heaven upon the Son of Man, in offering the Divine Sacrifice, and descending with Him in our hands to give to His people; and also in regard of our own unworthiness generally as man, particularly as such a man. The whole past conies up before our eyes, as we can conceive its coming before the eyes of the redeemed at the hearing of the great acceptance in the last day. The heart exclaims: 'that 1, being what I am, should obtain such an inheritance! '

2. The difficulty and danger of the priest's life; such that if the disciples might exclaim, 'Who then can be saved?' we may still more exclaim what priest can be saved, and more still, 'how can I be saved in so dangerous an office?' The many bad among those who have been called especially near to God, from Lucifer to those sad scandals which so often turn up among ourselves, fallen priests; scandals to the faithful, warning beacons to us. Then will come your own special temptations, whatever your confessions have revealed to you; perhaps levity and keenness of perception of other people's faults; leading to a resolution of indifference to circumstances of work, &c.

3. I think this will lead to a more and more earnest prayer for perseverance, that the fear and the resolution with which you accept the office may never fail you. That on your death-bed you may be able to return to God the office of the earthly priest with the remembrance of purposes fulfilled, reverence deepened, and love more burning for each year of your ministry.

You see I have fallen rather into the line of heads for meditation. I think, perhaps, you will be able to gather from this, better than from anything else, such material as you want.

God bless you. In Him, your affectionate Alex. Heriot Mackonochie.

The very same idea is brought out in a letter written to Bishop Smythies upon his consecration in 1883. Nearly twenty years had elapsed, but the habits of a lifetime had but served to deepen the almost melancholy sense of high responsibilities which no human sympathy can lighten.

The office of bishop (he writes) is not one to be desired in this world, and therefore I cannot in the common sense congratulate you; but as you will, by the Grace of God, administer it, it will no doubt, by its burdensome anxieties, be the choicest treasure you can possess on this side of the grave.

If in St. Chrysostom's time it was so fearful a responsibility, as he saw it to be, what must it be now, when the fierce strife is so exaggerated in proportion, by the progress of knowledge most unevenly balanced with faith, and so embittered in all its most evil characteristics, as it is now? Your own case will be the harder by its removing you from all your immediate associations, and by your having to throw yourself into a new sphere, with all its new angles.

In regard to all this you are much to be envied. Of course the joy of Christian life is to suffer, as the very title tells. Instead of flying like St. Chrysostom from the burden, it will in your case be only the burden which makes it bearable to you. All the Saint's apprehensions fled when fairly in his work, and God has given to men of successive ages gifts of strength and perseverance from the blessed Spring out of the Pierced Side, the only source of victorious strength through suffering.

You will have many before you watching you--dear F. O'Neill, the great Bishop Milman, the Mackenzies, and hosts more, not only of the Episcopate, but also of our own order and the laity. However scattered, it will be our own faults if, by grace, the Kingdom of Christ be not deepened in the hearts of men; and men like yourself will make ample use of the gifts which will be yours in a few hours. The Hands from Heaven will have touched you, as did the live coal the prophet's lips, and in the full panoply of Christ's armour you will be one of His Generals. 'Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the Crown of Life.'

Asking earnestly your blessing, believe me yours affectionately,

Alex. Heriot Mackonochie.

The two letters to the young deacon and the Bishop curiously illustrate the unity of his character. In both there is the same strain of strongly expressed awe and reverent hope; it marked his dealings with individuals, his public ministrations, his spiritual letters, and his sermons, with the deep impress of his own nature.

'Was he a great preacher?' The question is one not easy to answer. He was undoubtedly not a great orator. He had no rhetorical power, nor striking felicities of expression. His sentences in the pulpit were short, and his language unstudied and perfectly simple; it was the vehicle of his thoughts and nothing more. His delivery at once arrested attention; his voice was not especially powerful, though clear and penetrating; and his gestures were, though emphatic, abrupt and almost ungainly; but as he stood with his searching eyes upon the congregation he had a curious power of making each separate individual feel that he was speaking to him. He not only taught the great truths of religion in explicit language, but he pressed them home to the individual conscience with a force bv which they became the very foundation-stones of the Christian life. And so it is that from the rustics in his first curacy to his educated hearers at St. Alban's; from the poor and from the men of the world, there comes the same witness. 'I remember the sermon he preached years ago. I have never forgotten it.'

After a lapse of many years, with a vivid recollection of his impressions, one of his hearers writes:

I went on eight successive Good Fridays to St. Alban's. I was a layman then. The last time I went was in 1878. I remember what most impressed me in all those wonderful addresses, which he always took himself, was his tenderness and keen sympathy when speaking on the word of pardon to the dying robber. He used to linger on it, and I used to watch his features with the bright eyes, and the strong yet trembling hand as it seemed to be pushing through the veils of earth; and how his eyes kindled with a look of inspiration and eagerness and steadiness of gaze as he spoke of Paradise, until I was (and I think we all were) lifted out of ourselves and St. Alban's and were at the foot of the cross outside Jerusalem.

One feature of his preaching was clearness both of thought and expression. He had a definite plan, and he had given time and trouble to the work of preparation. Not, of course, as years went by, the laborious preparation which was only too apparent in his early sermons at Westbury, but a patient and thoughtful consideration of his subject resulting from old habits of conscientious application and the strong sense of ministerial responsibility. If eloquence is, as a French writer has expressed it, 'l'art de bien dire quelque chose à quelqu'un', he was eloquent, but it was not the eloquence of fluent language, nor, except upon rare occasions, that of the inspiration of the moment. His delivery was rather rapid than slow, yet his words came out in order as befitted the representatives of a truthful nature.

With so many really holy and saintly men that one knows or has known (writes one of his friends), one cannot hut feel that, especially at certain times and seasons, they are acting a part--a beautiful and edifying part, a part that costs them a great deal, but still a part; their goodness is not yet quite the same as them-selves; but you never felt this with Mackonochie. He was always himself; his tenacity, his stiffness, his reserve, his tenderness, his sympathy, his modesty, his deference to others, his manliness, his temperance, were all real manifestations of the man himself. You could not help trusting so true a man as this.

And then he goes on to speak of his 'perfect naturalness.'

This last quality was perhaps even more noticeable in the pulpit than elsewhere. Words and manner, expressions and gestures were alike free from the slightest touch of self-consciousness. It was not that his hearers were forgotten; on the contrary, he was intensely conscious of their presence, and spoke directly to them with a vivid realisation of their personality and their needs, but he thought of them only in relation to the message he had to deliver, not in relation to himself; their judgment was of but little account; he asked neither for their criticism nor their praise; he only knew that he had something to say to which they were bound to listen; and so it was that, though he never drew a bow at a venture, many a shaft sank in deeply where it might least have been expected.

There are not many of his sermons in print. Latterly--indeed almost always after entering upon his London ministry--he preached extempore; and his sermons were always of a kind to lose much of their life and force when written clown. One of the few published verbatim was a sermon preached before the University of Oxford in December 1867, from which we have already given an extract. He appears to have had some hesitation as to accepting the offer to preach upon this occasion, and Dr. Liddon wrote to him:

Accept the turn by all means. I am sure you might do an immense deal of good which nobody else could do, and certainly not the select preachers. ... I should think you would best serve the Church's cause by taking a subject on which you would speak with the authority of an experience that none could gainsay. I mean the blessedness of hearty work for souls. This would very naturally commend itself with the Advent, as being on the one hand an extension of the Divine Incarnation, and on the other a preparation for the last judgment.

And then again he writes after reading over the manuscript:

I have made the few corrections which seem possible, without altering the character of the sermon. I am so afraid of making patchwork of it. I hope that the few little words I have altered will meet with your approval. The sermon was a great blessing to a great many souls, and a rude hand might easily damage its beautiful self-consistency. May God strengthen and support you ever. In all love, your most affectionate

H. P. L.

And then again, upon receipt of the printed copy, he writes:

I am rejoiced to possess a copy from its author. It will do a great deal of good of the best kind, and I never was more sure of being right than in begging you first to preach and then to publish it.

These words, as well as those already quoted with reference to Mackonochie's earlier sermons at Wantage, are of especial value coming from so high an authority. The verdict was not merely that of a friend, but of a critic touching upon a subject peculiarly his own. It was an opinion, moreover, delivered in cold blood apart from the accidents of delivery.

It was valued; for the three little notes had been carefully docketed and put away; and it was no doubt all the more appreciated because Mackonochie's estimate of his own preaching was not a high one. In his earlier letters we find occasional references to his sermons as not worth sending home; he considered the ordination sermon, by which Dr. Butler was impressed, a failure; and though he was by no means given to undue self-depreciation, and as time went by could not but be aware of increasing powers both of thought and diction, he never studied preaching as an art. By sheer force of directness and simplicity he said things very well; and an old truth came with fresh force and freshness from the lips of a man to whom it was the very anchor of the soul.

During these first five years at St. Alban's he preached chiefly in his own church. He often touched upon dogma, but seldom upon controversial subjects; and his practical sermons on the everyday duties of his hearers, when, as a newspaper remarked, 'he talked very pleasantly,' were both encouraging and instructive; his counsels were those of a man who had found life eminently worth living, to whom, though the conflict might be long, the victory was sure. Though less subject to moods than most people, like every other extempore preacher he varied a good deal both as to matter and to delivery; and no doubt his sermons suffered at times from almost inevitably hurried preparation, or from preceding over-exertion. Already in 1868 (a year when, it is true, he had been harassed by prosecutions) we find the Bishop of Brechin (Forbes) writing to him:

My dearest Friend,--The love and respect I entertain for you forces me to use my Episcopal authority in the way of urging you to economise your strength more. You are working yourself fast out. Both the sermons I heard, especially the evening one, exhibited the effects of a worn body telling on the brain. You will not go on three years at the present rate, experto crede; on the other hand, by delegation of duty where possible, and by other management your valuable life will be long spared to do your Master's work.

Bishop Forbes's apprehensions were not justified by the result; but they point to a temporary failure of strength which was only to be expected when the pressure and the responsibility of the work is taken into account. Into the details of that parochial work we intend to enter later on; but that it did not ordinarily affect his sermons is proved by the fact that he would carry on as many as six courses of sermons at the same time; all clear and well-reasoned expositions of his subject preached with fresh energy and vigour day after day; and the strain of a mission week left him as full of spirit and strength at its close as at its beginning. Perhaps it was because his whole life was the preparation for what he had to say, and no single sermon was, as it were, an isolated effort. As some one said who knew him well:

He carried everywhere with him a good savour of Christ, and I should feel quite sure that if I called him away from the middle of a dinner-table to hear my confession, I should find him in as spiritual a frame of mind as if I had come upon him at his prayers.

It was the result of a close correspondence between the inner and the outward life; between thoughts and words, ideas and actions, as they were together brought into conformity with the high ideal of the Christian life;--it was the consequence of that unity of motive and singleness of aim which constitutes the impregnable strength of the Christian character.

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