Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea
FR BENSON AND THE SOCIETY OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
The founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson, was born on July 6, 1824.(35) His mother seems to have been the main influence of her son's early life. She had been brought up in Clapham and her family's church life was centered on the Rector of Clapham, John Venn, and his circle. This circle, which came to be known as the Clapham Sect, included William Wilberforce, a politician of great influence who was the parliamentary architect of the abolition of slavery and the sending of missionaries to India. seen, perhaps the most obvious his ardent desire to go out to India as a Missionary.
In the Autumn of 1844 Richard entered Christ Church College at Oxford. Here he came under the influence of the Oxford Movement and its leader, E B Pusey. After a successful University career, Fr Benson received his Bachelor's degree in 1847 and his MA in 1848. He was ordained deacon in 1848 and priest in 1849. He then took an assistant curacy at Surbiton, and in 1850 accepted the curacy of St James's Church, Cowley, a suburb of Oxford. Fr Benson's parish of Cowley grew steadily during the 50's, so that it became necessary in 1959 to divide the parish, and a new church nearer Oxford was built. This parish was called Cowley St John and the church dedicated to St John the Evangelist.
Along with this church growth, a vocation had been growing within Fr Benson, a call to go out to India as a missionary. In India it was his intention to found a "Collegiate Association" with some men in a "devotional college" living in poverty on their own funds and not as the agents of any missionary group. This college was to have daily offices of prayer and frequent Eucharists. "It would in the eyes of the world be insignificant...but the habitual prayer would make it acceptable before God, and he will draw us to those whom he wishes to train for himself."(37) He had obtained two years leave from his Bishop and was ready. But it was not to be. Early in 1860, a plan was announced to convert Cowley Common, an open space in his parish, into an extensive town. His Bishop then asked him not to leave in the face of this new work, and he relinquished his plan.
In the early 60's Fr Benson became a preacher of missions and retreats, and had published several books of devotion. He had been a student of Pusey at Christ Church and was very much a man of the Oxford Movement. Now he was becoming well known in Tractarian circles. He seems to have been a sober and moderate figure. He was never to be a Ritualist; indeed, until the end of his life, he opposed Ritualism. What he had was the integration of Evangelical fervor with the Catholic sense of sacraments and the Church, which was the essence of the Oxford movement, to which Ritualism was but a later corollary.
He will, then, have been conversant with the rise of religious communities for women in the Church of England. In 1848, Pusey and Mrs Sellon had founded the Society of the Most Holy Trinity, and in 1855 the Society of St Margaret had been founded at East Grinstead. Fr Benson was also deeply involved in the movement of preaching missions to the unchurched in urban areas. In fact, he led one of the first of these in Lent of 1862. This mission was the model of those to come, especially the great London Missions of the 1870's. The call for this first mission had come from Pusey, who called in addition for "organized bodies of clergy living among (the poor) to grapple with our manufacturing system as the Apostles did with the slave system of the ancient world." (38)
Fr Benson must have heard in this call for "organized bodies of clergy" the echo of his hope for India, which had been dashed. But there were further calls. In 1863 John Keble, preaching at Wantage, where the Community of St Mary the Virgin was, asked "Why may we not hope that even within this generation Christian Brotherhoods as well as Sisterhoods of mercy may be found taking their place in the work of Christ among us?"(39) One of those present would have been Simeon Wilberforce O'Neill, an assistant in the parish. O'Neill, in a series of articles for a church periodical in 1864 and 1865, wrote of the need for missionary Brotherhoods. In the last, in March 1865, he issued a request that any interested in forming such a Brotherhood should write him. He also mentioned Fr Benson as a likely leader and presented an outline of what was to become the SSJE.
A meeting of those interested was held soon thereafter in London chaired by Pusey. Later meetings were to be chaired by Fr Benson. Eventually the group shook down to a core, and Fr Benson offered a house which he owned in Oxford, and he and O'Neill moved in, joined by an American priest, Charles C Grafton. They started living together in the late summer of 1866. On December 27, 1866, which was St John's Day, the three took vows to each other for life. This was the official foundation of the SSJE, the first Anglican religious order for men to perpetuate itself.
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