Frere: ecumenist, feminist, socialist

26 March 2008

The Church should mark the contribution of the monk-bishop Walter Frere, says Alan Wilkinson

Cultured and austere, direct but baffling: Walter Frere CR

Cultured and austere, direct but baffling: Walter Frere CR

WE SHOULD be grateful for Walter Frere, who died at Mirfield 70 years ago next week, on 2 April 1938. He re-founded the Community of the Resurrection, and espoused Christian Socialism and the women’s movement.

Frere set the Anglican liturgical agenda for the first half of the 20th century. When Anglo-Catholics were fixated on Rome, he remained an unashamed Anglican, directing their attention to both Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. As a bishop, he adopted a simplicity of life that was unknown then in episcopal palaces.

Frere was born in Cambridge on 23 November 1863, where his father was a don. At Cambridge, he read classics and theology, but was also a keen musician; he sang, composed, and learnt several European languages. His vocation to priesthood ripened quietly. Though a patrician, he was drawn to socialism. Made deacon in 1887, priested in 1889, he served in Stepney, where he established probably the first parish communion in England.

In Oxford, Pusey House was an exciting place under its Principal, Charles Gore. In 1889, Gore launched the manifesto of liberal Catholicism, Lux Mundi. He helped to create the Christian Social Union to promote Anglican social action. He also gathered some priests to explore the formation of an Oratorian community. In February 1892, Frere arrived to join them. He thought the possession of money “intolerable”, and believed his will needed mortification. As a historian, he knew the value of communities.

On 25 July 1892, Gore and five other priests, including Frere, made their professions. So the Community of the Resurrection (CR) began. A year later, Frere was dismayed by Gore’s decision to move CR to Radley. Rather, Frere and others felt called to the industrial north. After two breakdowns, Gore accepted a canonry at Westminster Abbey. In 1898, CR moved its mother house to Mirfield in the West Riding. In 1901, Gore accepted the see of Worcester. This rescued him from the dilemma of having created a community to which he was unable to give himself completely.

Frere was his natural successor as Superior. He initiated significant developments. CR arrived in Johannesburg. More than a century’s work followed: in the townships (made famous by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston), and in training Africans for priesthood — including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Frere was concerned about society and the place of women. In 1906 and 1907, he presided over conferences at Mirfield. Keir Hardie and Emmeline Pankhurst participated. He joined the Archbishop’s Committee on women and the ministry in 1917, but lamented that no one appeared before it to argue for the ordination of women.

In 1923, Frere was invited to become the Bishop of Truro. He immediately refused because he felt called to community life. Later, he agreed to combine the two by making his residence a CR house. So he became the first monk since the Reformation to be a Church of England bishop.

His austere life challenged Church and society. He wore his old Mirfield cassock. Guests were astonished to be served and cleared at table by the Bishop. His musical and liturgical skills enriched the cathedral. But some found him remote — a monk surrounded by monks.

Frere appeared to be a mixture of saintliness and foxiness. As a preacher, he could be simple and direct. But, in the councils of the Church, he baffled others by using arguments that everyone knew were not his own to commend his views. As a skilled liturgist, he made the single most important contribution to the Revised Prayer Book; then rejected it; then authorised it and used it daily himself.

His generation believed that the Church should elevate people’s taste. Open days at Mirfield were feasts of Renaissance music and poetic drama. August in Truro was devoted to a musical house-party. He would sit down at the piano and sing — at well-to-do houses in Mirfield, at Lambeth between meetings, or on board ship in a storm. “Who is that man with a face like St Bruno, singing passionate Breton love songs?” asked a visitor to one house.

Frere and Gore were unashamed Anglicans, though both deplored Anglican shortcomings. They criticised Anglican papalists for their selective attitudes to Roman authority. To papalists, Gore and Frere were not proper (that is, not Latinate) Catholics. A Nashdom monk grumbled: “That rogue Bishop Frere defiled our high altar by using English at it.”

Through four visits to Russia, Frere developed a warm regard for Orthodoxy. It was an authentically Catholic alternative to Rome. He also participated in the Anglican-Roman Catholic conversations at Malines (1921-1926). He told his community that they should be asking: “What sort of pope would we welcome?” He admired Anglo-Catholics leavened by Evangelicalism, and celebrated the great Methodist contribution to Cornwall.

Frere’s addresses distilled into profound simplicity the fruits of his scholarship. His impersonality at the altar arose from his dread of drawing people to himself, not to God.

The exciting doors opened by Vatican II have diverted Anglican attention away from the riches of the East, to which Frere pointed. Frere’s hopes for an Evangelical Catholicism have been dashed by the growth of militant wings.

Frere had a lifelong passion for the revival of community life. He would be saddened by its current decline, and by the failure of bishops and clergy to commend it. Having himself lost influence through over-subtle diplomacy, Frere would urge those attending the Lambeth Conference to remember that only loving truthfulness carries conviction.

Canon Alan Wilkinson is an honorary priest at Portsmouth Cathedral, and a contributor to the symposium Walter Frere to be published by the SCM Press next year.

Welcome to the Church Times

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

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)