An ordinary saint

02 November 2006

Adrian Leak praises an 18th-century bringer of books

"Bray is a striking instance of what a man may effect without any extraordinary genius, and without special influence. It would be difficult to point to anyone who has done more real and enduring service to the Church." Thus wrote the church historian J. H. Overton in The Dictionary of National Biography.

What Thomas Bray did possess, however, was a burning conviction in the Church’s universal mission, a clear vision of how to implement it, and an unshakeable trust in the Lord. While so many church leaders had lamented the intellectual poverty of the clergy — Bishop Thomas Ken had written gloomily on the subject in his Ichabod, or the Five Groans of the Church — it was left to this relatively unknown parish priest to do something about it.

Books, said Bray: that’s what clerics need. Books. Without learning, they cannot preach. Without study, they cannot learn. Without books, they cannot study. "Books must be had," he wrote, "or religion must fall to the ground."

He persuaded bishops and leading laymen to support his plan for setting up parish libraries, both here and in the American colonies. Two archbishops and five bishops were among those who "contributed cheerfully towards these parochial libraries". Princess (later Queen) Anne gave "a noble benefaction". By the end of his life, he had set up 80 libraries in England and Wales, and 39 in America, some holding more than 1000 volumes each.

As a parish priest, he strove to improve the standard of worship. He set about training 20 or 30 youngsters to give a lead in the singing. He taught them "to modulate the tone of their voice to the greatest gravity . . . to avoid the extremities of screaming on the one hand, and a grumbling on the other".

These young leaders, he wrote, should be "well instructed . . . for this little leaven would soon season the whole lump". They were trained to be the nucleus of a body of monthly communicants. By their example would be removed the "scandalous blemish" of dull and irreverent congregations.

He pioneered the revival of the rural-deanery chapter as a way of encouraging the parish clergy and as a forum for theological debate. To assist in this, he drew up lists of titles for deanery libraries.

For many years, he was incumbent of St Botolph’s, Aldgate. His conscientious ministry among his parishioners, especially the young, shone in a corrupt city. According to a survey of London church life in 1714, Bray led morning and evening prayer daily in his church, and preached twice on Sundays. He catechised the charity children weekly. In addition, he preached near 30 "donation sermons" and other lectures and "fast sermons" on appointed weekdays throughout the year. He performed all these duties without assistance, except in his last years.

While in his 70s, Bray undertook relief work in the London prisons, persuading his friends to provide beef, beer, and broth, and sending trainee missionaries on prison visits. He also contributed to the agitation that produced a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the state of the jails.

In a visitation charge to the clergy of Maryland, Bray wrote: "I conjure you by all the love which the Son of God bore the sons of men, to feed his lambs." He spoke with the authority of one who practised what he preached.

The Revd Adrian Leak is Honorary Assistant Curate in Worplesdon, in the diocese of Guildford.




Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)