Leaven in the Anglican lump

by
29 April 2008

Thomas Bray founded the SPCK and the SPG. On the 350th anniversary of his baptism, Dan O’Connor tells his story

The SPG charter

The SPG charter

TWO Church of England societies get together today for a celebration. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (now part of USPG: Anglicans in World Mission) mark the 350th anniversary of the baptism of their common founder, Thomas Bray.

They are doing so at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, in London, where Bray arrived as Rector 300 years ago this spring. He worked there until his death in 1730. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, is to celebrate and preach. In Bray’s time, his predecessor was responsible for the Church of England’s overseas interests, in which Bray’s two societies were to play a significant part.

The only known portrait of Thomas Bray, in late-17th-century clerical attire, is plain and unexciting. It could be said to do less than justice to the founding genius of the British missionary movement. Yet it is fitting for a man who seems to have been free of personal ambition and self-seeking, and to have lived a modest and sacrificial life.

Born on a small farm among the wooded hillsides and stony fields of the Long Mountain on the Shropshire-Montgomeryshire border, Bray started his education at the village school near by in the parish of Chirbury. The priest at Chirbury had a remarkable library, the first inspiration perhaps for one of Bray’s passions.

After attending the Grammar School at Oswestry, Bray went up to All Souls, Oxford, in 1675, characteristically as a puer pauper, graduating with a BA in 1678. Some school-teaching, a curacy, chaplaincy to a Warwickshire gentleman, and a first parish led to his incumbency of Sheldon —Birmingham airport is beside it now — which he was to hold for nearly 40 years, the latter 20 or so overlapping with his tenure of St Botolph’s.

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It was at Sheldon that one of Bray’s distinctive enthusiasms was awakened. Responding to a need voiced by Archbishop Tenison for a renewal of catechising in the Church of England, Bray published in 1696 his Catechetical Lectures, the first of an intended four volumes (he never had time for the other three). The orientation is missionary. He stresses the catechising of children and young people because they are more open to teaching than older people, and thus potentially “a choice Society of . . . young Disciples, . . . a little Leaven . . . to season the whole Lump”.

For Bray, catechising the young is a way of re-evangelising the Church. The catechised are to be the leaders in a revitalised worship. He recommends that they use “Psalms out of the New Version of Mr Brady and Mr Tate”, published that year; so he was right up-to-date. The proposals in the Lectures found their way later into Bray’s advice for the Church’s missionary task in America, but — of more immediate importance — they sold well, several thousand copies, and thus drew public attention to Bray himself. This led him on to a wider stage.

Providentially, he caught the attention of the Bishop of London, who was exercised with the need to provide the colonies in America, a century after the first British settlers arrived, with a Church. Bray was appointed Commissary for Maryland (one had already been appointed for Virginia). Though he made only one visit of two months to America, he had an instant inexhaustible commitment to the development of the Church’s mission there, and had thereafter a “singular Affection” for the people of Maryland.

His first task was to recruit clergy. Over the next few years, he used shrewd pamphleteering (one of his pamphlets might run to many thousands of copies, the style invariably incisive and spirited), to recruit more than 100 clergy for America and the Caribbean. Most of the clergy appointed, however, were very poor — the better-off preferred their prospects at home, as Bray noted — and so a great concern was to supply each with a box of books.

His first task was to recruit clergy. Over the next few years, he used shrewd pamphleteering (one of his pamphlets might run to many thousands of copies, the style invariably incisive and spirited), to recruit more than 100 clergy for America and the Caribbean. Most of the clergy appointed, however, were very poor — the better-off preferred their prospects at home, as Bray noted — and so a great concern was to supply each with a box of books.

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The appeal for funds for these was, likewise, supported by floods of pamphlets, and the buttonholing of the well-to-do. In a sermon at the commissioning of a group of clergy for America in the newly reopened St Paul’s Cathedral in 1697, Bray spoke of the clergy’s special part in “the Instructing, Inlightening and Informing of the World”.

Books and libraries, in consequence, were a key part of his vision, not only in America, but at home also, throughout England and Wales, where he estimated that some 400 of the clergy were far too poor to buy books, and schools were ill-equipped. He did not restrict the project to theology. The clergy both here and there needed to be resourced for “a very inquisitive age”.

To meet the scale of the challenge in a systematic and continuing way, Bray got together a group of influential laymen in London. In 1698, the SPCK came into being. By 1699, he was able to report that 30 of his libraries were functioning across the Atlantic, and another 70 had been started. Non-Anglican institutions such as Harvard were among the beneficiaries.

The impact on American society was massive, as has long been appreciated in the United States, if not in Britain. The impact in Britain over the ensuing centuries has been little less significant.

BRAY realised, however, that the long-term mission of the Church in America and elsewhere needed stronger constitutional provision than the SPCK could give. It was entirely through his own vision and drafting and negotiating skills that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) came into being in 1701, with a royal charter to secure the “Perpetuall Succession” of its evangelistic energies.

People rather than books were the priority. Henceforward, the Church of England had a means of turning into — in due time — an Anglican Communion. Almost a century before any other significant missionary outreach from Britain began — by the sainted William Carey and others — SPG had enabled the English (and Irish, Welsh, and Scottish) Churches to send more than 400 priests and 100 lay agents into widening spheres of mission, not merely to serve British colonists, but with a strong emphasis also on indigenous people and slaves.

People rather than books were the priority. Henceforward, the Church of England had a means of turning into — in due time — an Anglican Communion. Almost a century before any other significant missionary outreach from Britain began — by the sainted William Carey and others — SPG had enabled the English (and Irish, Welsh, and Scottish) Churches to send more than 400 priests and 100 lay agents into widening spheres of mission, not merely to serve British colonists, but with a strong emphasis also on indigenous people and slaves.

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Although he continued to be active in the more informal SPCK for many years to come, Bray soon took a back seat in SPG. The two societies shared a highly accomplished secretary, and SPG became essentially an organ of the Church of England: the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired the monthly meetings for most of the next century, and diocesan representatives were soon in place. That was part of Bray’s achievement, but his stepping aside is also a reason to celebrate him as the founding genius of the British missionary movement.

The entire project was, of course, very much of its age. This was an ancien régime Church moving into mission, and the church-state symbiosis had distinct disadvantages as well as strengths: that no bishop was permitted by the British Government for America throughout the colonial period was one of numerous weaknesses.

For Bray, the church-state tie-up was a given, and his concern was to maximise the strengths, in the form, for example, of royal support and influence. Given, too, was unwavering hostility to Roman Catholic mission, largely for political reasons (though Bray was open to recommending RC mission practice, and commending the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide as a model for his own two societies).

He took for granted the ancient European view of non-Europeans as barbarians, and the civilising vocation of Europe and, above all, of England. The subsequent emergence of missions touched by the Evangelical Revival (which were even more negative about non-Europeans) towards the end of the 18th century has tended to cast into the shade the remarkable achievements initiated by Bray.

Although the few years around the beginning of the 18th century were so decisive for the Church of England and its mission, the subsequent 30 years of Bray’s life and ministry continued to be marked by his bubbling creative energy. He had a continuing concern for the poor, for those incarcerated in the ghastly prisons of London, for slaves, and for debtors.

A charity he set up as “Dr Bray’s Associates” addressed these issues, with, for example, education for slaves and their admission to the Sacrament, and help for the establishment of Georgia as a settlement for “honest poor Distressed Famelies”.

A charity he set up as “Dr Bray’s Associates” addressed these issues, with, for example, education for slaves and their admission to the Sacrament, and help for the establishment of Georgia as a settlement for “honest poor Distressed Famelies”.

The two societies that are currently remembering Bray as their founder have had ups and downs over the past three centuries, but are still in business, and are creative and innovative, as Bray was throughout his life. Perhaps they have never been more needed than in our present miseries — to be “a little Leaven . . . to season the whole Lump”.

Canon Dr Daniel O’Connor, former Principal of the College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, edited the tercentennial history of the SPG.

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