Project Canterbury

After the Tractarians
by Marcus Donovan
From the Recollections of Athelstan Riley

no place: Philip Allan, 1933.

VIII. Preaching and Preachers

DESPITE THE POPULAR BELIEF TO THE CONTRARY, the Catholic Movement has been closely identified with preaching. No one whose recollection can carry him back to the early post-Tractarian period will dispute the statement that the sermons delivered were usually a by-word for prolixity and wearisome futility. Some were rhetorical and controversial, chiefly concerned with denouncing the Pope and the errors of Rome. Others were unctuous and full of the catch-phrases popular at the time. All were long! The short sermon, as hard to compose as the short story, is very distinctively a mark of the post-Tractarians. The growth of ceremonial and the elaboration of the music cut down the time allotted to the sermon, and it is to the credit of the Anglo-Catholics that they evolved, in response to these conditions, what we may call the 'businesslike' sermon. It was rather unkindly satirized by Dr. A. C. Benson in one of his essays, but it was exactly what the age needed. Parliamentary oratory is no longer garnished with classical allusions and florid periods: it is severely businesslike. So is the sermon, in the hands of a priest who knows his craft, and if it is permitted to cite a contemporary example, Prebendary Mackay exemplifies the type we are considering, possessing a gift for getting into fifteen minutes what most men would require an hour to expound. But they were not always so considerate, as the following incident shows. Archdeacon Denison had come to preach at Frome during the Patronal Octave, and informed the Vicar that he would be rather longer in the pulpit than the Vicar desired on a hot July evening. A little before nine the Archdeacon ascended the pulpit, produced a pamphlet from which he proceeded to read, and went on till the clock struck eleven! A lady thereupon fainted, and the Archdeacon stopped as the result of the commotion, remarking "I have not finished my sermon, but it is printed and you can buy it to-morrow morning from the bookseller's." The Vicar, sitting in cope awaiting the procession and Te Deum which was to follow, declared that he had experienced many persecutions in his life, but had not expected the most severe at the hands of his friends!

Turning back to earlier days, there can be little doubt that the greatest English preacher of the age was one who threw the weight of his learning and eloquence on the side of the Revival. Henry Parry Liddon had every advantage which the preacher can hope to enjoy. Striking in appearance, restrained, yet animated in gesture, gifted with a melodious and wonderfully clear voice, he attracted great crowds to St. Paul's, and when he preached at St. James', Piccadilly, at the somnolent hour of 4 p.m. on Sundays, the great building was always packed. Liddon was not afraid of length and often spoke for an hour. Liddon was a delicate man. His preaching was a severe physical effort, and at the end he was often bathed in perspiration. He was intensely sensitive, and felt very deeply the breach with the Tractarian tradition which was made by Lux mundi. It is believed that it hastened his end: he had already worn himself out by the enormous labour he had lavished on his great biography of Pusey in two volumes, and his own convictions were not dissimilar from those of Pusey, who had distrusted Newman's Theory of Development as opposed to the Vincentian principle 'quod semper'. Liddon saw in Lux mundi a further extension of this dangerous tendency, and felt very deeply that those to whom he looked to carry on the Tractarian tradition had failed him. His published sermons are still well worth reading and are widely studied as models of closely packed thought and eloquent diction. Like the great American, Phillips Brooks, Liddon was prodigal of ideas; one of his discourses would furnish most preachers with material enough for a course. But he himself laid down the principle that a sermon should not contain more than one leading idea, and should enforce it from various points of view. It can safely be said that no one could have come away from a sermon by this master-preacher without having learnt something, and few would fail to be moved as well as instructed.

An equally wide influence was exercised by Dean Church. His sermons were not as eloquent as Liddon's, but their influence reached the world through the printed page, and to-day his Gifts of Civilisation and other writings are treasured. His style is simple and lucid, and, like Newman, he seems to have cultivated restraint in a manner which presented the most marked contrast with the O'Blareways and the Honey-thunders of a previous generation. It was an enormous gain to the Catholic Movement that it enjoyed the championship of two such remarkable men at St. Paul's.

Among post-Tractarian preachers, Bishop Wilkinson must find a place. He influenced all types of men and women from his pulpit, at St. Peter's, Eaton Square: duchesses and domestic servants, business men and shop assistants, all found in him a spiritual guide and teacher. Yet his sermons do not read well. Nor was his voice or delivery attractive: Mr. G. W. E. Russell once described it as 'something between a whine and a roar'! His personal dealing with souls was the secret of his pulpit power: he spoke to his hearers about actual difficulties, not about theoretical problems, combining the Catholic outlook with Evangelical fervour and fearless teaching on Sin and Salvation. His congregation learnt to keep Lent with a strictness far from usual in those days--or in these.

In 1863 Arthur Henry Stanton began his long career at St. Alban's, Holborn. At once he made his mark as a preacher and for half a century his voice was heard expounding what he loved to call 'the old Gospel' from St. Alban's pulpit. Towards the end of his career, he became recognized as one of the foremost preachers of the day, and his name only had to be announced for a church to be filled. Yet he could not be called a 'great' preacher, judged by any standards of technical perfection or oratorical skill. Perhaps his method may best be indicated by the Frenchman's directions for making a good salad. "Let the oil be added by a spendthrift, the vinegar by a miser. A sage should put in the salt, and a firebrand should stir the whole up"! The 'unction', the humour and the earnest driving force needed were all present in Stan-ton's sermons, and when his long ministry closed in 1911, there were many who asked "Shall we ever see his like again?"

Allusion has already been made to the scholarly preachers of the 'eighties--Aubrey Moore, Illingworth and the brilliant band of tutors associated with them. Illingworth had a heavy, droning voice, and was tiring to listen to, but his Sermons in a College Chapel are unsurpassed in their clearness, spirituality and poetic feeling. It is in their succession that we should place two modern 'intellectual' preachers, Dr. Figgis, whose fame as a student of history added weight to his brilliant and often ·epigrammatic sermons, and Dr. Waggett, happily still with us, who achieved scientific distinction before he attained eminence in the theological sphere. Both academically distinguished, and both members of religious communities, these two preachers were poles apart in style: Dr. Figgis cultivated clarity at the expense of every other consideration, remorselessly eschewing all purple patches. Fr. Waggett's style might best be described as Carlylean, but he left the hearer in no doubt of his meaning. Both were alike in appealing to the 'intelligentsia' and accomplished a valuable work in this direction.

To the opposite type of audience, Canon Body's sermons were an inspiration. He was seldom heard in London (though his Lent courses at St. Mary Abbott's are still remembered), his main work being done among the pitmen of Durham, where he organized and superintended Mission work on a large scale. He was an old-fashioned and somewhat emotional type of preacher, but with his evangelistic zeal went a gift for imparting sacramental teaching, which made him a power throughout his long life.

Less enduring was the appeal of the fervid orator, Knox Little. When vicar of St. Alban's, Cheetwood, Manchester, he was the most talked of preacher in the Church of England. His sermons at St. Thomas', Regent Street, drew crowds of 'society' listeners, and he and Fr. Maturin (then of the Cowley Fathers) exerted an unrivalled attraction in Oxford when they preached in term time at St. Barnabas'. They were in the authentic tradition of the great French preachers, and, like them, scarcely receive justice in print. Manner and magnetism evaporate and--certainly in the case of Knox Little--his published sermons scarcely account for the interest their delivery aroused. However, the episcopal jibe 'Knox et praeterea Little' is scarcely deserved, as there is no lack of solid teaching in the sermons.

Two names stand out in recent years as exponents of the Faith, whose work and influence were wholeheartedly on the side of the Catholic Revival: Charles Gore and Henry Scott Holland. Of the former's influence as teacher, writer, friend and guide, much has been said by those best qualified to say it. It is not too much to say that Dr. Gore was for years "the most outstanding figure in the Church of England." Like Stanton, he seemed to come into his own in a remarkable way during his latter years. As a preacher Gore frankly disdained all adventitious aids. His sentences were often long, lumbering and ill-constructed (there is one of 126 words in his Reconstruction of Belief]. Rugged and ungraceful, there was not the slightest tinge of posing about him: never in any circumstances could he play to the gallery. Depth, conviction, prophetic earnestness and absolute honesty made him a compelling force wherever he went. His message varied very little: he said he was not afraid of repeating himself and his utterances were always consistent with the philosophy which had animated him from early days. In his later years, he sometimes said he was too much of a pessimist to be a leader, but despite a determination to face the unpleasant or unpopular side of things, he was at heart an optimist, and his sermons were invigorating, challenging and inspiring up to the last. Bishop Gore popularized a method of preaching which deserves to be more widely followed--the expository method. In his commentaries on Romans and Ephesians, originally given as lectures, he takes the books verse by verse and gets at the heart of their meaning, instead of taking a text and using it as a peg upon which to hang the preacher's reflexions.

Dr. Scott Holland at St. Paul's was a preacher of a type only to be expected once in a century. He was a master of words, and his very facility in drawing upon the resources of an extraordinarily rich vocabulary was apt to blind people to the fertility and originality of his ideas. English people are apt to distrust 'a man full of words' and to infer that there is little of solid worth behind a too obvious facility in expression. "He never uses one word if six will do" was the familiar remark when Holland's sermons were discussed. Attentive study of his writings shows that he did not pile up words unnecessarily, but each one emphasized some aspect of the message he wanted to give. Nearly always his sermons were written out in full and read from manuscript, but such was the vivacity and vigour of his delivery that they sounded fresh, spontaneous, full of vitality and irresistibly compelling. No one could be inattentive under that torrent of eloquence. Even those "leaden-eyed ladies" of whom he wrote "at some comfortable Matins where the congregation sit with a stolid, 'Dearly beloved brethren' look on their cold faces, solid and plump in their cushioned pomp" could not fail to be thrilled. And the spell of Scott Holland's eloquence did not vanish when the sermons appeared in cold print. They are literature. It has been said that Holland would have been a front-rank journalist had he not been an ecclesiastic. But his sermons and writings were more than journalism. He is inimitable. The adjective, for once, is accurate, for numbers of preachers tried to copy but only succeeded in parodying his manner. For those to whom he is but a memory, a sample of his style may convey something of the unusual character of his sermons. He is describing what happens when "a smooth and sliding river meets some sudden shallows, down which its deep waters sweep over barring rocks and jagged edges. All is changed in a moment. Up above is the sweet and quiet peace of silent waters gliding in massive stillness, with only a dreaming eddy here and there to mark the unbroken motion: and below is the wild chaos of the rapids, shaken into seething foam, floods that roar and screech as they hurl themselves along to join the fury of the fall. And yet every drop of those flying, crashing waters is shot hissing into the abyss by the steady, un-deviating action of those very laws which held them silent and repressed as they slid without a sound down the grooved channels between the even banks."

For a quarter of a century at St. Paul's, and in the subsequent years at Oxford (not 'declining' years, for Scott Holland resolutely 'declined to decline') the great preacher poured out sermons, addresses, articles, speeches with amazing prodigality, and of all of them it may be said that their burden was loyalty to the Catholic Faith. Meeting scholars on their own ground, Holland could enter into the problems of study and criticism with knowledge and insight: but he was equally at home with the more pressing problems of work and wages, of Trade Boards and Housing or sweated industries or unemployment. And like his friend, Bishop Gore, Holland was humble in his estimate of his own powers and would cheerfully journey to obscure slum churches to address small congregations, and was willing to drudge away at technical details on dull committees. There is a story of another celebrated preacher who used to send a typewritten reply to requests for a sermon, desiring that the church to which he was invited should guarantee an attendance of at least 500. One incumbent had the temerity to answer "Your Master was content to address one woman at the well of Samaria. As you are apparently unwilling to waste your eloquence on'less than 500, please consider the invitation cancelled!" The great preachers of the Church Revival have always been prepared to take their message to the poorest and least attractive quarters. Few preachers exerted such a strange attraction as the Rev. Joseph Leycester Lyne, more familiarly known as 'Father Ignatius'. Born in the year of Queen Victoria's accession, Fr. Ignatius had a strong strain of Celtic and of Southern blood in his veins, his father belonging to an old Welsh family and his grandmother being Italian, the daughter of the Italian ambassador to Portugal. Throughout his long life, he exhibited qualities which seemed singular and eccentric to staid and conventional Victorian England, and undoubtedly authority found him 'difficult' and intractable. Yet there can be no doubt that he was utterly sincere and genuinely devoted to the cause of religion, and the motto which he adopted for his monastery and his life's work 'Jesus only' was the guiding principle of his life. Possessed of a marvellous voice and a striking appearance, he was gifted with an inborn oratorical talent which manifested itself at an early age. An actor once said of him "Look at his hands! Just look at the emotion in them! What would not some of us actors give to possess hands like those!" Fr. Ignatius was ordained deacon in 1860, and a deacon he remained, so far as the English Church was concerned, to the end of his days. He began his career at St. Peter's, Plymouth, under the saintly George Rundle Prynne, and after two years' training there, plunged into mission work in St. George's-in-the-East, where Fr. Lowder was building up the great work for ever associated with his name. Later, he began the work of founding a monastic order, the early history of which is connected with East Anglia. First in a Suffolk village, then in Norwich, the community established itself, and in 1864 we find the brothers observing Corpus Christi with an outdoor procession of the Host, and Benediction given from an altar set up in St. Andrew's Plain. This was too much for the Protestantism of East Anglia and was the signal for the dispersal of the 'monastery' at Elm Hill. For a time, Fr. Ignatius conducted missions in various London churches, notably St. Ethelburga's, Bishopsgate and St. Bartholomew's, Moor Lane (since demolished) and it was at this period that his reputation as a preacher began to spread. In 1869 he succeeded in acquiring the site for his monastery at Llanthony which thenceforward became his centre of operations.

Catholic-minded clergy were not encouraging: they could not understand the attitude of Fr. Ignatius towards authority, and consequently many of the missions conducted by him were undertaken in secular buildings, such as the Westminster Town Hall or the Portman Rooms in Baker Street. It was from Broad Churchmen like the Rev. H. R. Haweis that invitations to preach were received, and it is on record that the Salvation Army extended an invitation to the monk to conduct a mission at their citadel, in a town where the churches were closed to him. Indeed the content of his message, as well as the manner of its delivery, were not dissimilar from that of the Salvation Army. Fr. Ignatius would in these days be described as a 'Fundamentalist', and newspaper cuttings often show that his diatribes against preachers suspected of 'modernism' created 'a painful sensation'. The reverend father fully believed in his mission as a prophet, and also in the duty of the prophet to pronounce curses on those whose teaching seemed to run counter to what he believed. His habit of recalling the successful 'curses' he had launched, and their sensational results often utterly neutralized the spiritual value of his message. His was a tragic career: despite wonderful eloquence and enthusiastic conviction, it achieved little for the revival of religion, and perhaps the blame should be apportioned fairly between the undisciplined evangelist and the unsympathetic authorities.

Ignatius developed in later life a strong Calvinistic bias. This largely accounted for the distrust of the High Church clergy. But he was a consummate orator. He often preached in town halls and public rooms, and his figure remains in the memory, an ascetic-looking monk in the Benedictine habit, walking up and down a platform, on which was placed a table, a crucifix upon it, and a harmonium. An observer recalls him in 1879, preaching on the snares of the Devil, in the Town Hall at Oxford. Suddenly he stopped, and pointing with his arm over the heads of the audience, said in a low and solemn voice "I see him now!" At least half the people in the hall turned round to look. It was a feat of oratory one may have read about but which few have actually witnessed. Many more names crowd in upon recollection as the course of the Catholic Revival unfolds itself: missioners like Dolling or, in earlier days, Canon Bodington of Wolverhampton: Fr. Maturin, perhaps the greatest of them all who left us for Rome at the height of his powers. Fr. Benson of Cowley, whose preaching powers in early days were of a remarkable order: Dr. Linklater, who was considered by Gladstone to be one of the finest mission-preachers of the day, and many another helped to spread the long-forgotten knowledge of Catholic faith and practice amongst English people. The movement has not only been rich in great names: it has seen a general rise in the average standard. Before the Church Revival, it would not have been far from the truth to say, as Bishop Latimer did three centuries earlier, "How few there be throughout this realm that give meat to their flock! Too few, the more the pity, and never so few as now: we have had so many unpreaching prelates, lording loiterers, and idle ministers." Now, perhaps, we have gone to the opposite extreme and there are too many sermons and talks and addresses. But where there is the definite message to give and the conviction and courage to give it, the progress of Catholic truth will not flag, and where evangelical zeal is blended with Catholic devotion there will not be wanting listeners. This chapter may well conclude with the mention of one whose oratory exerted an indescribable influence upon those who heard it--Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, perhaps the most arresting preacher of recent days.

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