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Alexander Penrose Forbes:
Bishop of Brechin, the Scottish Pusey
by William Perry

London: SPCK, 1939.


ON Trinity Sunday, 1844, Forbes, now twenty-seven years of age, was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Oxford (Dr. Bagot) in Christ Church Cathedral. His title was to Aston Rowant, a charming parish with a population of about 800, consisting of two villages, Aston Rowant and Kingston Blount, at the foot of the beech-covered Chilterns some ten miles from Oxford and a mile off the High Wycombe--London road. The choice of a parish in the country was doubtless dictated by the state of Forbes' health, which was still uncertain. Its proximity to Oxford was a further advantage, for a couple of hours on horseback would take him to his University friends. But there was plenty of work to do, for the vicar was ill, and Forbes was in sole charge; in the few letters which belong to this period he remarks more than once that he is prevented "by parish duties" from visiting Oxford. The parish church at Aston Rowant belongs to the Decorated Period of architecture, but has two small Norman windows in the nave, a battlemented tower and an interesting, if not beautiful, font, The parish registers show that he began his ministry on the first Sunday after Trinity (June 9), and on that day administered the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, signing the Register "A. P. Forbes, Curate". Between that date and October 10 he baptised sixteen children, most of them from Blount, the larger of the two villages; in each case the register is signed in the same way. One other baptism appears after December 7, with the designation "officiating minister"; he must have been in a hurry on that occasion, for he lapses from righteousness by omitting the date. Deacon though he was, he solemnized holy matrimony for the first time on July 27, signing the register on this and on later dates as "Curate", but to the last entry on November 24 he appends the title "officiating minister". It seems, therefore, that he resigned his curacy early in October, but placed himself at the disposal of the parish for occasional duty until the end of the year. Four months of Aston Rowant convinced him that the country was no place for him. In a letter to his brother dated September he laments his lot as "friendless, bookless and guideless", and begs George, then on a visit to Oxford, to come out and cheer his solitude; but George is a cripple on a pair of crutches, and all he can do is to make daily journeys to the Bodleian in search of material for his work on St. Gregory of Nyssa; Alexander must come to him. George has met a certain Jack Morris, a friend of Alexander and an ardent follower of Newman, who was then living in retirement at Littlemore and moving every day nearer Rome. Morris in fun has told George that his brother cannot introduce him to Newman because he (George) is "low church". The libel is reported to the curate of Aston Rowant who repudiates it in a note which he describes as "Bellerophontic", and which George is directed to hand to the libeller. In point of fact Alexander had already written to Newman to say that his brother was in Oxford. "I shouldn't wonder", the letter continues, "if my note brought J. H. N. in to see you. You can open Newman's note to me if it comes before I arrive and make your arrangements accordingly. On Thursday we will take a fly and go out and see him. I think you ought to see their Chapel and the way the Gregorians are chanted. I mean of course the Littlemore Chapel, and not that within the mortuary. No more till we meet."

Another letter headed (in a later hand) 1844 is interesting not only for its reference to W. G. Ward, whose book on The Ideal Church had just come out, but also as showing the breadth of Forbes' reading and his keen interest in ecclesiastical affairs in Scotland:--


It is all the hours of the night but as I must go tomorrow into Oxford I will embrace the opportunity of sending you 3 lines to tell you I am in the body and that I will row the Priors well about the Doctor. I never heard so abominable a thing. Perhaps he asked for Mr. Forbes and they were used to me; however we shall see demain.

I got a sad "clight" from my horse a few days ago and am very stiff. Has Helen written to you about Ewing? He has been intriguing to be made Bishop and having a little fortune will erect himself on Fyvie's ruins. I suspect that Mr. Cheyne [the Rev. Patrick Cheyne of Aberdeen] would not have influence enough among the rascally Morayshire laity and that Edward Ramsay would all things considered be the best appointment.

One of my men is dead! the other going fast but most tenacious of life. He has been bleeding at the nose, with occasional cessation of a few hours, for 3 days; but, poor creature, he has death written on his face now and a very few hours will I think seal his fate.

I hope you have got two evening mails; let me know when you go home and I will send them regularly home. I met with such a mathematical proof of the real presence (with a diagram too) in Cornelius a Lapide today! I really must keep it for Ward who says that pure mathematics and dogmatic theology are the two highest and most legitimate occupations of the intellect. Have you come upon anything about the Madonna in St. Gregory Nyssa? By the way in the Lesson de Sanctis of St. Austin, are all or any of them genuine? Answer me, please.

Believe me, yours ever affectionately,

A. P. F.

A third letter about the same time supplies a little picture of a country curate's day:--


How are you getting on, and how do the penny-a-liners? My heart warms as I think of you with your great coat over your knees, and your plaid. Sing tooralooralooo! I wish you had been down here to-day, the weather was so fine. You would have enjoyed it so much; as it is, I suppose you never see Blessed Phoebus except thro' a mist as thick as the froth on a pot of porter. I went over to-day to a neighbouring parish to see a school but I find nothing satisfactory. I am most anxious about a school mistress as very much will depend on that. After all it is most thankless work and vera penitentia.

What do you think of Pusey's views on post-baptismal sin? Do you not think that penance and the Eucharist together may be said to destroy the guilt of sins? At least I don't think the Anglican divines take so strong a view of the indelibility of the guilt. I had a nice letter from May and from Louisa this morning; they are all much taken up about you.

Why do the Puseyites dislike pews so much in churches? Do you give it up? Because they are so much attached to forms. I send you the Churchman. I can't help thinking I have seen the things in this number before, I suppose when I was at Oxford.

On Saturday I was down at the end of my parish by 9, then I married a couple three miles off, then I married my own turtledoves and after finishing my sermon made a round of my homesteading. I sat down last night to the Agamemnon and was delighted with it but, oh, how hard it is. I can't help wishing that you were at work upon a new palimpsest of Aeschylus. How grand to find another trilogy! Bathurst, I think I told you, I had seen in Oxford the day I saw you.

I have no news save love and affection which I hope is none.

Your loving FRATELLO.

His mother's illness brought him to Edinburgh at the end of October, when he told his father that he "could never stand another country curacy". Early in November he returned to Oxford to find Dr. Pusey with a proposal which would keep him near the University and provide a sphere of work very different from the peaceful seclusion of Aston Rowant.


In 1842 the College of Christ Church, patron of the living of St. Thomas the Martyr, appointed, with a stipend of £80, one of its own students as vicar, the Rev. Thomas Chamberlain, perhaps the first of the Tractarians to work out the principles and practices of the Oxford Movement in a parish and to do for working people what Newman, Pusey, and Keble had been doing for the intellectual classes. At Dr. Pusey's request Mr. Chamberlain readily consented to meet Forbes. The interview proved that the two had much in common. Both were men of wide culture and scholarly inclinations, and both were animated by a devotion to the Christian faith which left no place for self-advancement or personal comfort. Forbes thankfully accepted the invitation to serve as a curate in this parish of over 2000 souls. Within its boundaries were some of the worst slums in Oxford. The canal runs through the parish, and a considerable number of men were employed on the wharves and barges. A barge on the canal had been turned into a chapel, and it was Forbes' special duty to conduct a service on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings for the boatmen and their families.

The boat-chapel, however, was only an incident in the week's work. The vicar was as strict with his curates as he was with himself. St. Thomas's was one of the first parish churches in England to revive the daily services as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, and the vicar expected his two curates to attend, whether officiating or not; the Saints' Days, Holy Days, and Fasts of the Church were strictly observed. A firm believer in the value of house-to-house visiting, Mr. Chamberlain saw to it that his curates took their share in this important work. Forbes, in a letter of this period, admits that he found the rule of obedience hard, but his vicar never exacted more from his subordinates than he did from himself. The insanitary condition of some streets and houses in the parish was as shocking as the poverty of many of the people. The work of the Church was a daily battle against evil, and the bitterness of the conflict was aggravated by the unceasing activities of Protestant opposition, not to the vicar's ritual, of which there was very little, but to his Catholic teaching. Forbes learned at St. Thomas's how to stand firm in the face of unpopularity exhibited in every imaginable form, from private abuse to public rowdyism, and even riots on a small scale; he little knew that at no distant date he would be exposed to similar treatment in Scotland. Between Chamberlain and Forbes there sprang up a lifelong friendship, and in later days, when troubles fell thick upon him, he sometimes said: "Oh, to be Chamberlain's curate again!"

Any leisure that was left to him was consumed by work for George, who was constantly bombarding him with scholastic inquiries which could be answered only by visits to the Bodleian Library: "Dear George," he writes in June, "I send you what I have done of the collations. I have been much worried in the parish lately and must apologise for not having sent them sooner. Some are satisfactory, some not so." And again to his father, "I have begun George's work for him, Gullielmus Aberdoniensis [William Forbes of Aberdeen, whose works George was editing and translating] occurs in one part of the Bodleian catalogue, but it is not to be found. I will send him down the reference when I have filled it up."

By the month of July he was a tired man. In that month he writes: "Oxford full of swarms but I have no time to see much of them, as my confirmation is approaching and the St. Thomas's young ladies take a deal of drilling." When he confesses that "his physique does not admit of much work", the "much" is not that of an eight hours day. His father is solicitous of his future, and suggests a change to a lighter post, but he says, "I am very happy where I am. I shall remain here till I get something. As for county members of Parliament, they have enough to do in paying for votes; to help strangers like me is out of the question." Lord Medwyn asks what he does in the way of teaching sponsors their duty, and he replies, "I do not do much in the sponsor drilling line, first because my people are such heathens that they are not fit for it, secondly because as Chamberlain's curate I shift the whole responsibility on him and exchange my due obedience. I mention things to him and if he does it, good and well--if not, my conscience acquits."

Though Newman was not received into the Roman Communion till October 8, 1845, Forbes anticipates the event three months before. He writes to George, "I am not so low as I was about Newman. I think it will turn to good after all. We are evidently most anomalous at present and to bring things to a pass may do good."

To add to his distress, grave reports reached him about his mother's health. "You must cheer up", he writes to George, "about our dear mother. She was prayed for in church on Saturday and I offered up the Sacrifice on Tuesday for her. I shall do so again this week." "Just send me three lines", he writes to his brother William, " to say what your impression of the dear mother is. I hope now that there is no danger of her slipping through the doctor's fingers, though I must say I got a very discouraging letter from Davidson. But he is, and always was, a first-rate croaker." Again to the family in Edinburgh: "Dearest People, no letters for two days and me very anxious to hear the continued good state of the blessed mother. This fine season, hot though it be, will, I am sure, tend to resuscitate her." But it was not to be; she died on July 11, a heartbreaking grief to him and a blow to his father from which he never recovered. With the permission of his vicar he stayed on with his father, after the funeral, in Edinburgh and at Medwyn.

He had never lost touch with the condition of the Church in Scotland, and in a letter to George only a few weeks earlier he declares his intention of helping to avert the eclipse of the Scottish liturgy. "The Scottish Office faute de mieux is the best thing can be done for Scotland. I shall see Martin Routh about it and I shall communicate through a friend with Justice Coleridge. What says James Hope? We must expect a counter scheme but have the advantage of a positive view which the opposition have not. The impression here is that it will push things to a crisis and the only fear is that the Church will suffer in the struggle." It was, however, one thing to hear of Scottish affairs in Oxford, but a very different one to see and study them at close quarters in Edinburgh. Bishop Terrot was incumbent of the church which his father attended, and E. B. Ramsay (who became Dean of Edinburgh in the following year and in the course of his long life declined three bishoprics) was at the height of his powers in St. John's, Princes Street, and both were intimate friends of the family; his father's connection with the Scottish Episcopal Fund made the Forbes family familiar with the names of the Scottish bishops. It was therefore no wonder that the curate of St. Thomas's during his two months' stay in Edinburgh began to feel the ties that bound him to Oxford gradually slacken under the steady pull of the manifest needs of the Scottish Church. Why should he not sacrifice whatever career might lie before him in the Church of England and serve the Church of his fathers in its need? Moreover, Lord Medwyn, who to his son was always "My dearest Father", was now nearing the three-score years and ten of the Psalmist. Absorbed in the "busy parochialism", as he called it, of his Oxford parish, Forbes could be of no use either to him or to his family, for his elder brother had married and made a home for himself. He therefore resolved at least to keep himself free for a time, and at once informed his vicar of this intention. When he returned to Oxford is not certain, but his name appears in the parish register of St. Thomas for the last time on February 8, 1846. In the previous year Mr. Chamberlain had decided to make extensive alterations in the church, including the erection of a north aisle and the building of a new chancel arch. "It is known", says the author of Historical Notes concerning the Parish of St. Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, "that the cost was chiefly borne by the generosity of his curate, the Rev. Alexander Penrose Forbes, who subsequently became Bishop of Brechin." It was a princely gift; but before the work was finished, the donor's official connection with the church was ended. His influence, however, continued, for his cousin, Felicia Mary Frances Skene, who did more for St. Thomas's and the people of Oxford than any two curates, came to the parish four years later to work with superhuman devotion for nearly fifty years for the Church and God's poor amidst cholera, crime, and ignorance.


It is a far cry in more senses than one from Oxford, its spires and colleges, its intellectual atmosphere and cultured society, to the little Scottish town of Stonehaven on the Kincardineshire coast, in which the majority of the population were fisherfolk, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers, while " society " was limited to a few respectable families and, inland, two or three lairds. A proportion of the fishermen could neither read nor write. They were a class by themselves, hardly ever speaking to another soul save when they went to a shop to buy food or clothes. Their houses for the most part consisted of a "but" and a "ben"; the former with an earthen floor, which, when swept, was sprinkled with sand from the shore, and served for bedroom, sitting-room, and kitchen; the latter, usually provided also with a bed, was seldom occupied save on Sundays and special occasions. Where the family was large, additional sleeping accommodation was found in a low attic under the roof, reached by a ladder and lighted by a skylight. In this part of the town every house smelt of fish; outside the door the ground was covered with small heaps of fishy garbage and litter, which stank more odiously than the small rooms inside. No wonder that Forbes, in a letter home, was obliged to style the town "sordid" and the people "ignorant". "Don't be afraid," he tells his father, "I am not likely to overwork myself, but alas! I have enough to distress me. The lower part of the town contains many who never look near a church, who are worse than heathen and who won't go to school. I really know not what to do about it. There is no use building a school for them, for they won't go; every account I get only distresses me more and more." Nevertheless, there were a considerable number of loyal churchpeople in Stonehaven, for the congregation had maintained its continuity unbroken since the disestablishment of the Scottish Church in 1689.

A year or two before the arrival of Forbes the church fell on evil days owing to the incompetence, and worse, of the incumbent. In 1846 the charge was declared vacant, and the Bishop of Brechin had no one to fill his place. Hearing of his difficulty, Forbes offered to take charge of the congregation for a short time, and the Bishop was thankful to transfer to him the responsibility of restoring order and peace to the congregation.

June 10th, 1846.


Since I wrote to you on the 19th of May last, I have been making inquiries, but have not been able to find a Clergyman qualified and willing to take charge of Stonehaven, which has been vacant since the 22nd of January last. I will therefore thankfully accept your Pastoral Services, if it be agreeable to you to go to Stonehaven. I am sorry to say that I cannot assure you of a suitable remuneration. Various circumstances have concurred to diminish the means of providing for the Clergyman's Income. I fear that £6o is all that the Congregation can at present raise, and that they must apply to the Church Society to make up the Incumbent's Income to the minimum, that is £80.

It appears to me that the regular and best way will be to give you a licence to perform all the duties competent to a Priest, in the congregation at Stonehaven. As you can give me your services only for a limited time I feel it will be my duty to continue my endeavours to find a permanent Pastor. If I be successful in finding one, of which I have little expectation at present, I hope you understand that it might be desirable that he should be instituted without waiting for the expiry of the time you have mentioned.

The number of souls in the Congregation is between 300 and 400. There are several respectable Families in the town and its vicinity belonging to the Congregation. The fishing village of Cowie, in the immediate neighbourhood, is inhabited almost exclusively by members of the Congregation. There is a great field for the labours of an active and prudent Clergyman.

I have provided for the performance of Divine Service on the two next Sundays.

I am, Revd. and dear Sir,

Faithfully yours,


Forbes reached Stonehaven towards the end of June, and in a fortnight discovered, as many clergymen before and since have done, how easy it is for a worthless priest to arouse the sympathy of a section of a suffering congregation. "The opposition to me", he wrote on July 7, "is more organized. Barclay, his mother, Mrs. Gurney, Lord Torrance, and Mr. Duff of Feteresso all support the ejected man. I really think it would be well to write to Mr. Duff and tell him that the man was ejected for contumacy and neglecting to attend when summoned, and that he has in fact by habit and repute been a drunkard for years." The church building was a poor, dilapidated affair, which, it is said, the Duke of Cumberland's troopers had turned into a stable when they visited the town at the Rebellion a century before.

It is a remarkable fact that Forbes began his ministerial work in Scotland in this mean building, and that his last official act as Bishop was also performed there, when he consecrated the present beautiful church thirty years later.

The special practice and spirit of Scottish Episcopacy in those days were not unlike those of the Oxford Movement; the people, with more or less intelligence, held to such Catholic truths as the threefold ministry, the Eucharistic Offering, the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and to the liturgical services of the Prayer Book. On the other hand, they had little or no appreciation of the externals of worship. The church buildings were devoid of any Christian symbol, the surplice was unknown, though its cautious introduction had been officially recommended in 1811, the Psalms and Canticles were said and not chanted, private confession was seldom if ever practised or even heard of. The people had a horror of Rome combined with an unconcealed dislike for Presbyterianism. Forbes, fresh from the home of the Oxford Movement, of which his flock had no knowledge whatever, had to walk warily, especially when the Lairds were encouraging schism; but his genius for understanding minds different from his own won him the respect and affection of his flock. He found special pleasure in listening to the stories, still current in the congregation, of the persecution of the Church after the Rising of '45, and he embodied some of these in the only attempt at a novel he ever made, The Prisoners of Craigmacaire: a Story of the '46 Founded on Fact [1] which he published in 1852. His learning and charm of manner easily gained for him a leading place in the small band of diocesan clergy, and with one of these, the Rev. D. K. Thorn (whom he afterwards appointed Dean of the Diocese), he began a friendship which remained unbroken till his death. The registers and minute-books provide little or no information as to his work in Stonehaven, save that Forbes was paid £40 for his nine months' work, that he presented twenty candidates for confirmation, and that "tokens" of admission to Holy Communion were used, a practice continued by Forbes till the end of his life and justified by him "as a last relic of Church discipline".


He was suddenly called from the north to Leeds by Dr. Pusey, to go to the rescue of St. Saviour's, a new church erected at the expense of the Oxford Professor for the purpose of putting into practice the Prayer-book teaching of the Tractarians. The church had been consecrated only two years before. But in that short period three of its clergy followed the example of Newman and seceded to Rome. Forbes at the time was considering the offer of work at St. Augustine's, Canterbury, a post which would have provided the opportunities for study and writing which he desired; nothing, however, came of the proposal. St. Saviour's attracted him for two reasons: in the first place, the unhappy condition of the parish appealed to his self-sacrifice, which, next to humility, was in his eyes the highest of the Christian virtues; in the second place, he was eager to relieve Dr. Pusey of a heavy burden of anxiety, a privilege and opportunity which outweighed all other considerations.

He left Stonehaven for the south on May 15, spent a week with his people in Edinburgh, and reached Leeds to begin his ministry as vicar of St. Saviour's on Trinity Sunday, May 31, 1847. From Pusey and others he had heard something about the misfortunes which had befallen the church and parish during the two years which had passed since its consecration; but he had no idea how devastating had been the results. In that short period not only had three of the clergy seceded to Rome, but the previous vicar also and his curate, the Rev. W. G. Case, a College friend of Forbes, had been compelled to resign. St. Saviour's was widely regarded as a hot-bed of Romanism, to be avoided as such. Moreover, cholera was raging in Leeds, and the hospitals were full of sick and dying people. The new vicar was single-handed, for no curate could be persuaded to minister in a parish which was under the ban of the Bishop and the displeasure of Dr. Hook, the Vicar of Leeds. Forbes lived a frugal life in the vicarage, sharing the house with the schoolmaster and his wife, who looked after him. It is clear that Dr. Pusey's judgment had been gravely at fault in his recommendation of clergy for St. Saviour's, but this time he made no mistake. Forbes, however, had come to the parish too late. The work required three clergy, not one. Nevertheless he struggled on single-handed, preaching Sunday by Sunday in church, teaching in the schools, visiting the homes of his people and the hospitals for the poor, and carrying on, as best he could, the daily services; all the time seeking to create week by week a new atmosphere of peace and confidence in the parish. Twenty-five years later, when on a visit to St. Saviour's, he said that he had never forgotten "the tender regard and kindness with which I was treated by the parishioners". The vicar, however, was a sick man before the summer ended, and would soon have been a dead one, had not Providence, which in strange ways cares for those who take no care of themselves, intervened on his behalf. Suddenly, on September 23, came a letter with the startling news that he had been elected, all but unanimously, Bishop of Brechin! Could he dare to leave his parish so soon? Certainly not without consulting the one man who had been instrumental in bringing him to Leeds; in this important decision Dr. Pusey's must be the final human word. He went to Oxford, sought out his spiritual father at the familiar corner of the Quadrangle of Christ Church, and left Pusey's lodgings not only with his blessing, but also with his assurance that episcopal office in the Scottish Church had a stronger claim upon him than the parish of St. Saviour's. It was doubtless sufficient compensation for Pusey's disappointment at the loss of his young friend from Leeds that the Oxford Movement had at any rate gained its first bishop. The election of Forbes to the bishopric of Brechin was the result of what appeared to be an accident. It so happened that Mr. W. E. Gladstone towards the end of August 1847 was on a visit to his brother, Sir Thomas Gladstone, of Fasque in Kincardineshire. Bishop Moir had died only a week or two before, and the vacancy of the See was the talk of the county. There appeared to be no likely candidate in the diocese. One day, in the course of conversation with the house-party at Fasque, Mr. Gladstone suggested the name of " young Forbes ". The clergy of the diocese knew something of his spiritual and mental gifts; he had reached the canonical age of thirty, and he was a Scotsman and a scholar bearing one of the best-known names in Scotland. A visit was paid to the neighbouring clergyman at Drumlithie, the Rev. D. K. Thorn, who took up the proposal with enthusiasm, and at the meeting on September 21 he found no difficulty in persuading the electors to accept Alexander Penrose Forbes as Bishop of Brechin.

[1] Gaelic for Stonehaven.

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