Project Canterbury

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir

By E.A. Towle

Edited by Edward Francis Russell.

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

Chapter XV. 1883-1887.

St. Peter's, London Docks--Fresh prosecution--Advice of friends--Resignation of St. Peter's--Failure in health--Visits to Ballachulish--Life at Wantage--Final sacrifices

It was from a sense of duty that Mr. Mackonochie had accepted the charge of St. Peter's, London Docks; and it was in the same spirit that he set himself to carry on the work there, but the highest motives are not always the most effectual.

The transition from St. Alban's had been abrupt; and his first experiences of an unfamiliar, though well-trodden, field of labour could hardly fail to be dispiriting.

St. George's-in-the-East had indeed undergone surprising changes during the last twenty years. Unbridled mob violence was at an end, and open hostility to the Church had died a natural death. On every side there were signs of improvement and of progress. Churches, missions, and schools abounded, and every agency of religion and philanthropy had been brought to bear upon the neighbourhood and population. And yet there was but little relief from the uniform picture of poverty, too often worsted in the struggle to rise above the grinding necessities of a bare existence, or destitute of hope to make the attempt, and indifferent to the possibility of a higher life, here or hereafter.

It is easy for an onlooker to examine statistics, and to contemplate with satisfaction the general improvement in the condition of things to which they bear witness, to point triumphantly to the reform of old abuses and to the diminution of crime. It is not so easy to live month after month in the depressing moral and physical atmosphere, and, as in a long and almost unbroken procession each individual case of misery passes before your eyes, to call to mind the counterbalancing good, and thankfully recognise the unmistakable signs of real and lasting progress. Of those to whom these evils are matters of daily experience, it has been well said that 'in the arithmetic of woe they can only add and multiply; they cannot subtract or divide.' Within the bounds of St. Alban's parish there were great evils to contend with, but they had been to a large extent overcome. Destitution and overcrowding, with their almost inevitable attendants of intemperance and vice, were still to be found there; but there was not the dull dead level of unredeemed poverty with which the district round St. George's-in-the-East 'stagnates with a squalor peculiar to itself.'

Moreover, though Mr. Mackonochie had now for two years been entirely dependent upon voluntary offerings, the stream of liberality had never ebbed, and it had always been found sufficient to relieve the necessities of the deserving poor. In 1881, for instance, the Sisters alone made themselves responsible for over 1,200l. to carry on mission work in the parish, the offertories were large and evidenced the sympathy of a comparatively rich congregation; and the sole burthen of pecuniary anxieties had never rested upon the Vicar.

With failing health and spirits, he was now to separate himself from the close companions of twenty years; from his tried fellow-workers, and all those who had, as it were, grown up about him. Amongst comparative strangers, he was again to enter upon a hand-to-hand struggle from which no great or cheering results could be confidently anticipated by a man whose expectations would necessarily be based upon past experience.

There was a great deal of more or less mechanical work to be done; accounts, parochial relief, &c, to be attended to; work to which, for a long time, he had been personally unaccustomed. There was, indeed, in the midst of the surrounding dreariness, the well-appointed church of St. Peter's, with its faithful worshippers and daily Eucharists; but it could not, in the nature of things, altogether take the place of the church of which he had built up the spiritual fabric, and of which the very stones were dear to him. He was physically and mentally in a condition to have successfully carried on his work upon the old lines and in the familiar places, but the spring of youth was gone, his belief in himself had withdrawn like a retreating wave upon the shore, it would never touch the same high level of confidence again. The year which he spent at St. Peter's was probably the saddest year of his life.

Nor was he long to be left in peace there. Already, in July 1883, another prosecution had culminated in a sentence of deprivation which clearly would not be allowed to be a dead letter. If his object had been to take sanctuary at St. Peter's, that object was manifestly defeated. But, in truth, accustomed as he was to personal sacrifices, the threatened deprivation was a matter rather affecting the parish than himself. The endowment of 300l. a year could be hardly spared. The conflict with the civil authority, even if successful, would have disastrous effects upon a poor congregation, gathered and held together by a long-accustomed form of worship, and by the unrelaxed efforts of those who ministered to them; whilst there was the yet more alarming prospect of the patronage eventually lapsing into unfriendly hands.

All these various difficulties were evident enough; the aspect of the immediate future could hardly fail to be gloomy. It had become a matter for serious consideration whether Mr. Mackonochie might not best further the interests of the church and parish by sending in his resignation to the Bishop.

Once again in the face of conflicting duties it had become necessary to take a decision vitally affecting the interests, not only of the people under his own charge, but of the Church at large.

In this instance he was not perplexed by divergent counsels. His friends were almost unanimous. Their verdict was based not only upon the legal and parochial aspect of the case, but upon various considerations which were peculiar to himself. The general opinion was to a certain extent embodied in a letter from the Honourable Charles Wood, now Lord Halifax.

It is now (he wrote on December 10, 1883) some six months ago when Mr. Walker mentioned to me that he was sure St. Peter's was too much for you for the moment, that he felt you were killing yourself, however little you might think so, or be ready to admit the fact yourself ... it was evident to all who love you that you wanted a complete change and rest in order to avoid a breakdown.

. . . On the top of all this comes the action of Lord Penzance, which, putting it roughly, deprives you and St. Peter's of some 300l. a year. ... If there was the strain before, how much greater the strain in the future! . . . I am sure you can fill up the outline of some of the possible troubles I see ahead without my amplifying upon them. . . . On the other hand, if you gave up St. Peter's now--which I feel sure on other grounds you ought to do--you can save the church from being thus compromised, patrons and parish from another conflict which must certainly be disastrous to them, release the 300l. a year for the purposes of the parish of which it is now deprived, and, except for the fact that they will have succeeded in persecuting you personally, emphasise the real defeat of the enemy.

Mr. Mackonochie was quite ready to take advice in a matter which was rather one of expediency than of principle. He had undoubtedly felt the strain of which Lord Halifax spoke, and if he had had any strong personal predilections he would have been, as usual, ready to put them aside; but in point of fact the time was past when any change of place or sphere of labour could materially affect him. The one great blow had left him more or less insensible to pain; and when he quitted St. Alban's all that was over. Others felt far more strongly for him than he felt for himself. From every side there came notes of indignation, re-echoed even from the opposite camp, when it became apparent that even now he was not to be left in peace.

Upon the first intimation of the renewed prosecution Mr. Davidson had written that he (the Archbishop) deeply regrets to hear that an endeavour is being made to impugn the action taken with such good intention respecting your resignation of St. Alban's a few months ago. He prays that you may be given a right judgment in all things, and may be guided and blessed by God in your work.

And the Bishop of Bedford [Walsham How] wrote, on September 28, 1883:

Dear Mr. Mackonochie,--I am grieved to see an announcement in to-day's paper as to the sequestration of your benefice. I have never had any knowledge of matters connected with you except what is public in the papers. Will you kindly tell me how this step affects your position? Am I right in thinking it touches only the endowment and is no endorsement of the sentence of Lord Penzance's court by the Bishop? I trust it is not this, as I believed he would never take such a step.

And Dr. Liddon wrote:

January 1, 1884.

My dear Mackonochie,--It is impossible for any of your friends to read the announcement of your resignation in this morning's papers without a heart-ache. I have no doubt that you will have acted rightly, and I pray God that you may yet have many years of usefulness before you in some way which does not yet appear. Your immediate duty ought to be to recruit your health. ... As to all that you have gone through there is so much to be said, that it would be difficult to begin or to end anywhere; only my earnest hope and prayer is that, as hitherto so to the end, all may promote increasingly your sanctification and peace.

Ever affectionately yours,

H. P. Liddon.

Such sympathy was doubly valued for the sake of those who proffered it, and was very general, and nevertheless it was certain that at this crisis many of those whose battles he had so long been fighting were more concerned for the success of their arms than for the person of their leader. It would have been easy enough to indulge in somewhat bitter reflections and unavailing regrets. If the exchange to St. Peter's had been, as it now appeared, an error, it had been a noble one, and it was hard that Mr. Mackonochie alone should be called upon to expiate it. Yet there was some foundation for the fear that he was endangering the position which he held by remaining at his post. He had himself come to the same conclusion, and on December 23, close upon the anniversary of his resignation of St. Alban's, he wrote to the Bishop:

. . . Your Lordship will remember that about this time last year you consented, in consequence of the dying request of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, and after his death, to institute me to this cure of souls. You have, I know, regretted the perseverance with which some other persons have striven to disturb the state of things which was then accepted. It seems that there is little hope of this opposition--now become simply personal against myself--being abandoned by them. Therefore I must ask your Lordship to allow me to withdraw from this cure. This withdrawal I make unreservedly. At the same time it will be a great satisfaction (if your Lordship thinks fit) to be allowed to hold a general licence in the diocese till something else presents itself.

In writing to his brother in reference to this, Mr. Mackonochie characteristically remarks: 'I must say as little as possible;' but he encloses a copy of the Bishop's answer, which was as follows:

My dear Mr. Mackonochie,--I shall willingly give you a general permission to officiate in the London diocese; but I offer it for your consideration whether it might not be well, in the interests of peace and for your comfort and mine, not to take duty at present at St. Peter's or St. Alban's, say for a couple of months.

To this suggestion Mr. Mackonochie at once acceded, and sent the following letter to the daily papers:

Sir,--I shall be obliged by your insertion of the following statement in your next issue. I have been forced by the logic of facts to see that I ought not any longer to impoverish a parish too impoverished already by its own circumstances, by keeping from it the income which is due to it from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. I have therefore asked the Bishop of London to allow me to withdraw from this benefice, and his Lordship has very kindly consented to my request.

The act was accomplished, very simply and unostentatiously; in his own words 'he said as little as possible.' But though the sense of injustice might not be allowed to rankle, no man could be indifferent to what he justly stigmatised as personal animosity. He rarely referred to the circumstances of this second resignation; it was the final stroke which separated him from the fair promises and hopes of his earlier years.

He had no thought of again taking a parochial charge. St. Alban's claimed him as a free lance. He had his own rooms in the Clergy. House; and in the old familiar places, in the church thronged with memories, surrounded by the affection of those whose love was of such long date, he was once more 'at home.' No jealousies of the old regime or of the new came to disturb the harmony of so unusual an arrangement. It was often observed that when any fresh parochial plans were to be carried out Mr. Mackonochie was the first to wish them success.

For some time he undertook a good deal of clerical work, both here and at other places. In 1885 he wrote to ask the new Bishop of London (Temple) for a renewal of his licence, asking at the same time for a confirmation at St. Alban's (there had been but two before in all the twenty years since the consecration of the church), and he notes with great satisfaction that both his requests were at once granted. We find him constant in his visits to St. Saviour's Priory; and in 1884 he preached the Three Hours on Good Friday when staying with the Bishop of Argyll. In the autumn of the same year he gave a retreat at Cumbrae, but it was clearly an effort. He writes of 'having got through it with satisfaction to the retreatants, but thought it advisable to beg off another for December, as the pressure was sufficient to make me feel that I must not do more in the way of clerical retreats for some time.' In reference to these two occasions the Bishop of Argyll remarks that there was a certain amount of hesitation and perhaps a little confusion at times, but what he said was always helpful and edifying.

From this time, however, it was apparent to those who watched him with the close observation of keen-sighted affection, that he was unequal to any sustained mental effort. His interest in all that went on around him was as great as ever; his mind in one sense as clear, but he could not always put his ideas into words; nor weave into a single strand the disconnected threads of thought. There was no jar or discord in the instrument, but something had mysteriously affected its delicate mechanism and silenced a note here and there.

It is curious to note the attitude of his mind at this period. For the first time his keen observation was directed to himself. As slowly and yet surely his illness increased upon him, he was the first to notice each warning sign of its insidious approach. With all his old resolution he set himself to ward off its attacks; patiently adopting every precaution and remedy which medical skill could devise; at first believing the failure to be merely temporary and not perceiving that the battle was one in which, in spite of his high courage, he must be ultimately worsted.

I have fought against my stupidity (he wrote in February 1884), but stupidity has beaten me for the time. After all, I must own that since 1858 I have had little except strife--so that I may be thankful to have survived it all. Perhaps after a time I may be allowed to do more work.

And again, in the following year, he wrote:

Dr. Carfrae advises my going off to Ballachulish to feed upon Scott's novels and Seaside Studies, hut will not let me do anything harder than that till I get quite sound. I am quite well bodily. Almost every priest of any standing seems to have had to get through the same difficulties.

And again, in July 1886:

I am still not able to do much writing or anything else. This is very much due to my folly in trying (from about November 1884 to about this time last year) to do some work. Since this I have been unable to do any intellectual work. It is to be hoped, if it is God's Will, that I may be allowed to be once more in the vineyard, and I think there are symptoms of recovery. In the body I am quite well, but cannot think to any purpose or speak what I want to say, even in a common conversation. I sometimes see what I want to say, and the moment I begin to speak the sentence has flown from me. However, God has let me do something, and if it is right He will let me do more.

In later letters he speaks of hoping to get 'out of the fog,' and again, as late as 1887:

I am still out in the bush intellectually . . . You are right in supposing that I am out of town and unfit yet for work. Doctors say that I am advancing, and indeed I feel it myself, but it is still slow work, and work that must not be forced.

His habitual reticence and the self-control which was the habit of a lifetime stood him in good stead. It is only now and then that he speaks of himself. The quick response to a word of sympathy or affection was as ready as ever, the strong clasp of his hand as warm, his friends could still speak of him to one another as 'happy and content.' The secret struggle, the anguish of a foreknowledge more crushing than bereavement and bitterer than death, was known only to himself and his God.

And in truth there was much to lighten the tragedy of these last years. Mists might shroud the immediate future, but the line of light was brightening upon the wide horizon, and his eyes were fixed upon it. His spirit rose strong and serene from the grave of earthly hopes and joys, and the thought of the other world was as near and almost as familiar as that of the one in which he lingered.

He was often at Ballachulish, Oban, the loved and honoured guest of his friend the Bishop of Argyll. He had been with him in 1883, on the occasion of his consecration, and the Bishop, who had then leant upon his counsel and sought his spiritual help, was (now that the position was, as it were, reversed) only glad and anxious to minister to him, and to welcome what he spoke of as the 'sanctifying influence of his presence' in the house.

The free life, with its background of quiet domestic happiness, was eminently congenial, whilst the fresh mountain air brought healing to the malady which no earthly physician could cure.

It was from Ballachulish that in 1885 he wrote to the members of the Haggerston Guild over whom he had watched so long:

I am writing just before going to bed, with the mighty bellows pouring out their hurricanes from the recesses of Glencoe and Glen-Etive. They have been in more or less activity for some days. This very house, built of solid granite, shakes at their voice. Imagine from the secret places of the numberless crevices in these mountains, some 4,000 feet high, and some more, God calling the winds, so destructive, if it seem good to Him; or, on the other hand, so laden with health and power, to great and small, to do His Will, . . . held, guided, laden with freshness, free as air, we say, giving out all that is necessary for our lives; and yet, perhaps, while ministering life to the living, also what we call death to others. . . . Perhaps such a place as this wakens up such thoughts more than anything else . . .

and then he adds:

I suppose the soul will have through some fierce energy to go forth into the storm; beyond which is the bosom of the Holy Ghost for those who will trust themselves to Him.

Here in these mountain solitudes Nature was, as it were, making herself more intimately known to him, opening out her treasures and revealing her secrets, until fears were stilled and pain itself forgotten in the pure pleasure of her close companionship.

But though he was often at Ballachulish or at St. Alban's, and occasionally absent from England, paying short visits, which he never failed to enjoy, to the continent, his chief home and resting-place was in his brother's house at Wantage. He had always loved the place, where in early days he had spent so much of youthful hope and energy. It was associated with holiday times, when he had left the dust and din of London life behind him, and come down to spend the long summer days in the garden with his brother's children. Here once more there was a promise of spring in the young lives so closely connected with him; here, amidst the darkened days of declining years, hopes sprang up and blossomed.

His tall figure was once more a familiar sight as he passed along the streets of the little town, or bent his head at a cottage doorway with his friendly, courteous greeting; and knelt morning after morning in his accustomed place in the old church. He spent a great deal of his time out of doors, wandering over the downs, sometimes missing his way, but always returning with the instinct of affection to his old haunts, the little hamlet of Charlton, the cluster of almshouses, the well-known cottages where he would enter and sit with his old friends by their firesides; a gentle familiar spirit, the shadow of himself.

He who had ever been in the fore-front of the battle, and for so long in a position of command, was now content to take the humblest place in the ranks; what did it matter, if only his remaining strength might be spent in the same service?

I am a kind of lay curate here (he wrote to the Bishop of Argyll). I offered to take two sets of almshouses, about twenty houses in the town and sixteen on the down. I am afraid I have not been very industrious, but can carry about magazines, &c.

The words, in their absolute simplicity, speak for themselves. With severe self-abnegation, upon the first intimation of failing powers he had relinquished the duties to which he might possibly be unequal, and after a time, those highest privileges of his office which had been the very life of his life. He rarely preached after 1885, and, though he occasionally heard a confession, he would not trust himself to celebrate except upon very special occasions. It was the supreme sacrifice of his life, and into that inner sanctuary of pain it does not befit us to enter.

Dear Christ, when Thy new vintage fills the cup
His hand shall shake no more nor Thy Wine spill.

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