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

London: SPCK, 1939.


ON the Festival of St. Simon and St. Jude, 1847, in St. Andrew's Church, Aberdeen, Alexander Penrose Forbes was consecrated Bishop of Brechin, and Alexander Ewing Bishop of Argyll, by the Primus (Dr. William Skinner), assisted by Bishop Russell of Glasgow and Bishop Terrot of Edinburgh, the sermon being preached by Charles Wordsworth, Warden of Trinity College, Glenalmond. It is a curious fact that the three survivors of that solemn service, Ewing, Terrot, and Wordsworth, took a leading part in the prolonged heresy hunt which resulted in the censure of Bishop Forbes in 1860 and was not far from driving him out of the ministry.

But in 1847 the young Bishop of Brechin was as sure of the Catholicity of the Scottish Church as he was of his own existence, and the first stage of his episcopate, from 1847 till 1850, was perhaps the happiest period of his life.

It would, however, be a mistake to picture Forbes as primarily a bishop in these early years: he was much more priest and pastor of a congregation. Immediately after his consecration he was elected incumbent, or, as the phrase went, "minister of St. Paul's Chapel in Dundee". There was nothing unusual in this. Most of the Scottish bishops were in the same position; they were presbyter-bishops for the sufficient reason that otherwise a stipend would have been impossible. Bishop Forbes' chapel was the upper floor of a bank in Castle Street, a large room filled with green-baize pews, as mean a place of worship as could be imagined. The Holy Table at the east end was covered with red velvet and fenced with a kneeling-rail a few feet in front of it; on Communion Sundays it was enveloped in a white linen cloth. The sole ornament on the altar was an alms basin, set there, as the light-headed believed, to prepare them for the collection. The most prominent feature of the building was the pulpit, with a prayer-desk attached, which almost obscured the altar.

The congregation of St. Paul's consisted of some of the leading families in the neighbourhood, a number of English residents in the town, a proportion of hereditary Episcopalians of the lower middle class, and a large number of poor people, among them a good many Irish, of Orange antecedents, who seldom set foot within the chapel. In the whole town of 70,000 inhabitants there were not more than 300 communicant members of the church, including those from country houses in the neighbourhood. There were two services on Sunday, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and Communion was administered only on the great festivals and a few Sundays in the year. In the congregation was affluence at one end and dire poverty at the other and, in between, comfort on a sliding scale from the villas of professional people to the small houses of artisans and the "lands" or flats of the poor. The Bishop made it his first business to visit every member of his congregation, one day driving out to a country house and the next calling at a villa or climbing the stairs which took him into the dwelling-places of the labouring class.

With the land-owning class personal contact was easy; Forbes was one of themselves, and his knowledge of the world, his varied interests, and brilliant conversational powers opened the doors of those who liked to see in their drawing-rooms one of finer breeding than themselves. Though he was as human as any of them, the Bishop was no mere social celebrity. He could be firm with the feather-headed as well as sympathetic with the serious. On one occasion at a small dinner-party a lady, whose husband was seriously ill, was chattering in a high-pitched voice as if there were nothing in the world for which she had a thought but a ball she had attended the previous week. Suddenly the Bishop's voice broke in, "Now, Margaret, I am anxious to hear how John is keeping."

To look at Forbes was almost to see spiritual realities mirrored in the face of serene composure, which was crowned by a massive head of thick, dark curls. Even the whiskers of the type known as "mutton chops", which carried the dark hair below the ear, added to the dignity of the face; the round chin at thirty still retained its dimple, while the curved lips met in a compression which suggested at once sympathy and firmness; the nose, straight and prominent, gave a masculine touch to the pleading, penetrating eyes and to the gentleness of the lower part of the face. Laymen of culture like the Earl of Strathmore, Mr. W. E. Gladstone, the Earl of Mar and Kellie, Mr. Beresford Hope, Sir John Coleridge, Lord Kinnaird, and Professor Joseph Robertson, the antiquary, were his personal friends, all of them men of the world and earnest churchmen, but each of them with special interests (politics, art, law, philanthropy, history), all of which were nearly as much his as theirs.

Association with men and women of this class was a pleasant and beneficial change to one whose special interest was God's poor, and in Dundee poverty was a grim and brutal reality almost unimaginable in modern times. It was not that work was lacking; jute factories had been established for over ten years, and as a result the population of the town was rapidly increasing. Dundee was also a busy seaport, and shipbuilding and engineering were important industries. Wages, however, were as low as whisky was cheap. Housing conditions were unspeakably bad. Blocks of high tenements were divided into "lands" or floors which accommodated several families, each with two rooms, or not infrequently one. Washing was done in the kitchen and the clothes were hung out to dry on lines tied to a couple of projecting poles from which they fluttered in the breeze; when it rained they were dried in the kitchen. In such conditions the decencies of human life were scarcely possible, and the only alternative was the public-house, a sordid place frequented only by regular tipplers or hard drinkers of the labouring class. On Saturday nights the streets in the poorer parts of the town were crowded with drunken men and women, and brawls and fights were common and regular occurrences. An observant contemporary sums up her recollections of Dundee in these words: "Everywhere stagnant water, decaying vegetables, unpleasant smells and sickness, such sickness." The town was seldom free from one epidemic or another; fevers of every sort, smallpox, and cholera were almost as frequent as the common cold to-day.

From his modest house near the chapel the young Bishop sallied out on his daily round of visits, and his tall figure could be seen at any hour of the day or night emerging from the closes or entries by means of which access to the "lands" was gained; usually one pocket of his coat bulged with a medicine bottle or a small bottle of wine, and the other with his Prayer-book and visiting-diary. His visits were confined in the first instance to his own people, but once within their homes he would hear of some poor creature in affliction next door, and one visit would be multiplied by three or four.

There was no proselytizing; Forbes had neither time nor inclination for that. It was simply that Divine charity was the governing principle of his life, so that to love the unlovable was as natural to him as to give a cheerful "Good morning" to a friend. With error or sin he never parleyed; his eye would flash and his voice rise to condemn both, but for the erring and the sinner the final word was, "Who are we to condemn anyone?" Of course he was often imposed upon. No one knew this better than himself, but he had little patience with the current phrase "indiscriminate charity"; charity, he held, never discriminated; it recognized no Poor Inspector's test. Forbes, however, knew well that personal sympathy was inadequate by itself to bring about improved social conditions. He had only to recall the practical measures of his father and grandfather in Edinburgh to be sure that carefully considered schemes must go hand in hand with Christian charity if anything permanently effective was to be achieved. In 1847 the State did little more for the poor than offer them the workhouse or, as it was called, "the Poors' House". "Self-help," "competition is the life of trade," "buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest markets," were the incontrovertible catch-words of the time. It was not easy to be a social reformer in 1847, but Forbes was already serving an apprenticeship in social service when he was climbing dirty stairs to the doors of the poor, entering common lodging-houses filled with the "down and outs" of Society, or visiting the victims of small, pox, typhus, and cholera, diseases caused by foul water and choked drains. He had, however, to make his way in the town before his voice could receive a public hearing on social questions, and the episcopal office was at that time no passport to the confidence of a Presbyterian community. Even in the kindlier eighties, a well-known Presbyterian divine described Forbes as a representative of "extreme High-Church policy, a man of rare antiquarian scholarship, who skilfully dry-nursed the various items of mediaeval superstition."

The drab chapel was a heartache to one who had spent six years in the churches of Oxford and the chapels of its University; but there was spiritual life in its congregation, and patiently and tenderly Forbes strove Sunday by Sunday to sustain and quicken the personal religion of his people by strengthening their grasp of the ministrations of the Church. He had to slow down his own pace to keep step with his flock; rapid changes were never his way; souls were more important than things. Yet the Church was pledged to the Christian Year as the Catholic means of understanding the fundamentals of the faith and translating the Christian Creed into worship and conduct. So the chapel was open for the observance of Holy Days; Communions became more frequent, and every day when at home Forbes was in his dreary chapel to recite the services of the Prayer-book, though no congregation was present to assist. Before the year was out he was convinced that the worship of the Church in this chapel could never be conducted "decently and in order", though it might conform in some degree to three of the canons laid down by St. Paul, intelligence, edification, and spirituality.


His episcopal duties occupied no more than a quarter of his time, for there were only eleven congregations, including his own, in the whole diocese. The institution of one or two clergy, attendance at two episcopal synods and one diocesan synod, and ten confirmations in the twelve months were but a small addition to his parochial work as incumbent of St. Paul's. Yet the Bishop's long day from seven in the morning till eleven at night seldom had a vacant hour in it. How was it filled? The first claim upon his day was devotion. To him neither prayer nor meditation came easily; to pray was in his case literally to labour. He had learned from Pusey that pains and time were as necessary for communion with God as were concentration and method for theological study. So in the freshness of the early morning an hour was given to the sacred work of prayer and meditation, in addition to the daily recitation of Mattins and Evensong; before lunch, which consisted of bread, cheese, and beer, a form of the old office of sext was said, and the night closed with the bedtime compline, an English version of which his brother George was at this time hoping to publish with the help of Charles Marriott of Oxford. The devotions practised by himself he sought to encourage in his people, and his first attempt at the written word came from this desire. This year (1847) he published A Short Commentary on the Seven Penitential Psalms, compiled chiefly from ancient sources. It was characteristic of the Bishop that his first publication should be both spiritual and patristic. Personal religion in the sense of communion with God was the one aim and end of all his study, and he found this expressed more worthily in ancient writers than in modern, though there were few modern devotional books in English, French, and Italian with which he was not familiar. The little volume, which is dedicated to the Marchioness of Lothian, the friend and admirer of Dr. Hook as well as of all the leading Tractarians, consists of an introduction of forty-four pages on the spiritual value of the Psalms in general and on the Penitential Psalms in particular, and of seventy-two pages of devotional commentary on the latter. Its standpoint is indicated in the opening sentences: "A due value and corresponding use of the Book of Psalms has ever been the mark of the Catholic mind. Heretics have substituted for them the compositions of fallible men, and low religionism has not endured them in their natural form but translated them into the metres of the conventicle." Speaking of the Psalms in their relation to Christ, Forbes insists that our Lord's manhood is the proper subject of meditation. "Few can realize such an abstract idea as that of the Divinity. Christ's manhood is the foundation of all true Christian worship, though the soul after mastering this will rise to the thought of the Godhead." It would take some courage to write like that in days when vast numbers believed that to emphasize our Lord's manhood was the next step to rejecting His divinity. But Forbes sets forth five reasons for holding that "both as regards Christian faith and also as regards Christian practice our Lord's manhood should be steadfastly dwelt upon". In this little book one sees the theologian on his knees before the Cross which is "the measure of the affection of man's nature, the most touching and occupying object that the memory can crave, the strongest power to regulate the motions of the will. Does the intellect demand food for its wondrous powers, what nobler subject than this theology, this science of a suffering God, which faith reveals to us!"

During this first year of his episcopate he was also engaged in writing a little Catechism for very young children on the lines of the Penny Cathechism used in the Roman Catholic Church. It was meant for children who were too young to learn the Church Catechism, and for simplicity, fullness, and brevity is a model of what definite instruction for children of five or six years of age should be. The method is by simple question and answer. Here are a few sentences from this Catechism:--

Q. Who made me? A. God.

Q. What is God? A. God is a spirit.

Q. Where is God? A. He fills Heaven and earth.

Q. How many Gods are there? A. There is one God.

Q. Are there more Persons than one in God? A. Yes, there are three Persons.

Q. Which are they? A. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.

The following from Section XIII may give the reader some idea of the method by which Forbes taught little children about the meaning and value of the Holy Communion.

Q. What is the other Sacrament? A. The Sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood.

Q. Why did our Lord ordain it? A. To remind us of His death.

Q. For what other purpose? A. To convey to us the merits of His death.

Q. What is the outward part of the Lord's Supper? A. Bread and Wine.

Q. What is the inward part? A. The Body and Blood of Christ.

Q. Is this Holy Rite anything else besides a Sacrament? A. Yes, it is the Christian Sacrifice.

Q. What is a sacrifice? A. A thing offered to God.

Q. What is the special grace of the Sacrament? A. It is the food of the soul.

It will be seen that no explanations are given; the method is question and answer in the fewest possible words. Many to-day, with kindergarten methods in their minds, would object that the theology of the Catechism is beyond the reach of young children. To such critics Forbes would have replied that the young child is a born theologian who can, with his profound questions, reduce to confusion both father and mother. And, he would have added, any teacher, with even little knowledge, could fill out and explain the brief answers given to great questions.

In the same year appeared a Manual for Communicants entitled A Companion to the Altar, containing the Scottish Liturgy with appropriate devotions and directions. This was intended primarily for his own people of Dundee, but its use soon spread to other congregations, and by the year 1856 the Companion was in a fourth edition, much enlarged from its original form. Here again appear wise cautions against "stimulating in any emotional way feelings of devotion, which produces reaction and is bad on every account". The communicant "should aim at the best devotion he is able but all in a calm way. If he is cold, let him pray to God for fervour; if he is dry, let him entreat the grace of compunction; but even if these be not accorded to him, let him not be distressed too much; above all, let him not abstain from communicating on that account; if the communicant does his best with his preparation, beseeching the Lord to fill up his shortcomings and pardon his imperfections, all will be well." Apparently the Bishop expected non-communicants to withdraw, for he provides in the Manual private devotions to be used while these were leaving the church. In his introduction he regrets that " the sad decay of primitive practice among us has made the cases of weekly communion among us bright exceptions rather than the general rule ", and therefore he provided "a week's preparation for those who do not communicate so frequently"; in this edition he added "A Devout Exhortation to the Holy Communion" from Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ.

Next year (1848) he received from his University the degree of D.C.L., an appropriate degree for one who had distinguished himself in civil law; no university, however, offered him the doctorate in Divinity for his later contributions to theology; honours of that kind were confined to the "orthodox", and Tractarians were "heterodox". A visit to Canterbury for the opening of St. Augustine's College on St. Peter's Day was an event which he took pains to remember. There lies before me as I write a slim volume bound in red morocco from a design by Butterfield, the architect of the College. It was presented to a few of the guests by Mr. Beresford-Hope, M.P., who not only bought the site, but also provided money to rebuild the small chapel of the ancient monastery and contributed a considerable sum as an endowment. The book contains the form for consecrating the chapel and a dozen clean pages on which might be written the owner's impressions of the consecration and the cathedral service which followed it. The Bishop filled these pages with a detailed account of the two days, from the dinner at the Deanery "with its two handsome drawing-rooms, to say the least not very ascetic", to his last conversation with the Bishop of London, who pressed him to come to see him at Fulham. Many supporters of the Catholic movement were present: Keble, Neale, Maskell, Marriott, Justice Coleridge, and Chamberlain of St. Thomas's, Oxford. A Royal concert the night before to hear Jenny Lind sing had caused the Archbishop and the Bishop of Oxford to travel by a special train from London. "The Consecration service began about 8 a.m. and was not finished till nearly 11." The cathedral service was "a heart-stirring occasion, the densely crowded church, the good old Archbishop (Howley) pleading the cause of missions in his own cathedral, a glorious service of music, rich tho' very Anglican". From the metropolitan centre of the Anglican Communion the Bishop returned to his meagre chapel in Dundee refreshed and inspired for an urgent undertaking which had filled his mind ever since his consecration.


The minute-book of the vestry of St. Paul's shows that as early as January 1848 the Bishop was taking practical steps to erect a new church in place of the unsightly chapel which had served as a place of worship since 1812. At this time the taste in church architecture was almost unbelievably low in Scotland, and Forbes, whose artistic sense had been educated by his residence in Oxford as well as by visits to the Continent, knew that it was hopeless to look for a competent architect in his native land. Hearing of the rising reputation of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Gilbert Scott, one of the leading spirits of the Gothic revival, he secured the consent of the vestry to his appointment. But, aware of the mistakes which the architectural profession had made in the erection of churches, he was not prepared to accept any design which even Mr. Scott might offer. He interviewed the architect more than once and unfolded his dream of what the new church ought to be. Worship, and not preaching, should be its primary purpose; the altar, and not the pulpit, must be the point on which the gaze of the worshippers should be fixed; the style, Early Pointed, would lend height and dignity to the building and suggest to the worshippers something of the majesty of God. Externally, with its spire and flight of spacious steps, the church ought to impress passers-by as witness to the homage of the creature to the Creator.

When, however, the vestry saw the sketch plans and heard that the estimated cost was £9000 for part of the building and £14,000 for the whole, their admiration of the design was lost in despair at the price. But Forbes was sure the money would be found, and the secretary of the vestry, Mr. John Sturrock, who had managed the funds of St. Paul's for over forty years, was no less confident; he was the Bishop's right-hand man from beginning to end of an arduous work which took for its completion nearly fifteen years. Soon after this meeting with his vestry the Bishop preached a stirring sermon to his people urging them on to "the great holy work of building to the glory of God a stately church" which should be "a builded prayer in stone and lime, a standing creed professing by its very form of architecture that we believe in the Triune God and in the Crucified Saviour, a house of which the stones cry, Hallelujah". The vestry begged the Bishop to publish this sermon, which was circulated in the congregation and sent to many of his friends in England and Scotland. So successful was the Bishop's appeal that by the autumn a considerable sum was in hand, and the Bishop felt justified in cautiously sounding some of his people as to the possibility of introducing the Scottish Office on alternate Sundays when the new church was built. But at this time, and even as late as the nineties, the strange notion was widespread that the Scottish Communion Office was Popish and the English Protestant, though the reverse was nearer the truth. At the same time a scheme for building a mission for the poor was urgent, and it was a question whether it was advisable to concentrate on the one scheme or go in boldly for two. The following letter to his brother reveals his perplexities on this matter, his humility in dealing with a "difficult" member of his congregation, and his forbearing patience in the face of prejudice. The closing sentence reflects no mere passing mood. In it speaks the authentic Forbes, to whom the Cross of Christ was not only a dogma, but also a duty, and the martyr spirit as much the privilege of the sinner as the distinction of the saint. That spirit shone through his whole life.

Nov. 10th, 1849.


Thanks many for your nice letter. My people here seem likely to grasp at the offer I propose to make to them of getting them £1000 or £1500 if they will alternate the Communion offices; but I really don't know whether I am wise in doing so. ist Will a blessing follow such a transaction?

2nd It will prevent or at any rate indefinitely postpone (from the fact that to get it I must put out all my strength of begging or borrowing) any attempt at a poor's chapel, with Sisters etc. etc.

3rd There will always be a puritan, grumbling element among us, which in our case happens to be pretty strong, there being certain Irish halfpays and people like that who make a good deal of noise occasionally.

4th I have come to the conviction that I shall never get the very poor to the "high chapel" as they call the present one. I must have two eventually. On the other hand:--

Ist I don't think the new chapel will go on in the splendour it ought unless something is done to get more money.

2nd It would be questionable whether in the poor's chapel I should have the Scotch Office alone, from the tremendous prejudices of the Ulster Irishmen.

3rd It is always something to have the Scottish Office in a great church as ours will be.

4th I could work with more heart for the new chapel if I had the Office.

If I merely sought my own comfort the two separate establishments would be better, but there is always a great danger and difficulty in splitting a small community like ours.

I find day by day that good Mr. T. A. keeps me back. I know that it is very much my own fault that I have mismanaged him. What is to be done? I am sorry to say he is much disliked in the congregation, but being of an easy nature he does not care. I have no doubt it is very good for me that he should be here, but still it seems a great drawback. O dear George, these are troublous times for the Church. God knows what will come of it. I have had a letter from Dean Torry this morning describing scenes taking place in St. Andrew's, Aberdeen, that remind one of the sacrilegious indecencies of the days of the Arians.

Con [his sister Constance] has sent me down a sweet little print of the 70 martyrs who were slain in Tonkin, China about 12 years ago. It makes one's heart burn within one to think of that bright crown being accorded to any in our own day. May he raise up the spirit among us to suffer for His Sake!

Your letters are an unspeakable comfort to me.

Your loving FRATER.

In the following year he abandoned the hope of even a partial use of the Scottish Office in the new church, and never attempted to revive it. Souls in his judgment must come first and even so good a thing as the Scottish Liturgy, second; no one but himself knew what this act of self-abnegation meant to him.



The scheme of having both Offices here is I fear blown upon. At our meeting to-day about the new church a little Irish captain got up and made a fuss about it, being armed with books to prove its Popery etc. etc. I staved off the discussion, but it is to come on at the meeting in March by a regular motion. Now I cannot help dreading above all things an irreverent discussion on this Holy Mystery, and, knowing my materials, it will be a most irreverent one.

It was a good deal in deference to your opinion that I thought of the combination but I really think now that it would be better to have a separate thing rather than have one's feelings injured and the cause of truth put back by the ignorant language of the laity. I had hoped better things of them but I see that they are not to be depended upon. What would you advise?

Where shall I find the ETERNAL GENERATION succinctly treated? I am working away at a little Commentary in which that comes in.

The little Commentary to which he here refers became three years later his work on The Nicene Creed.

The Bishop felt no compunction in asking his relatives in Scotland and his numerous friends in England to contribute to the building of the new church, probably because in his own practice almsgiving was a duty second only to prayer. His private means at this time did not amount to much more than £500 a year, but he so rigidly limited his personal expenses that he was able to give for many years large sums to the building fund of St. Paul's and to other struggling churches in the diocese. So successful were his efforts in raising money that in 1853 it was deemed safe to begin the erection of the church, and two years later it was dedicated and opened for worship, though a large sum had still to be found to meet the expenditure. Even as late as 1864, when the congregation had become wealthy, there was still a debt. The church, which is now the cathedral church of the diocese of Brechin, belongs to the Early Middle Pointed style of architecture, and consists of a spacious nave of four bays, north and south aisles, and a chancel terminating in an octagonal apse. Its lofty arches create an atmosphere of dignity and reverence within, while its elevation on rising ground of Castle-hill, with an imposing flight of steps to the west door, gives to the exterior of the building a certain majesty that impresses even the casual passer-by.

In 1849, when episcopacy was still struggling for its existence in Dundee, it was a bold step to erect a church capable of accommodating 800 people, when one half that size would have served the purpose, but Forbes was a man of vision as well as of faith and courage, and the future of St. Paul's justified his foresight, for the church was often crowded, and not infrequently overcrowded, especially during the last ten years of the Bishop's life.

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