Catholic, not churchy

by
06 April 2010

Fr Basil Jellicoe fought against an outward sign of an inward disgrace, says Diarmaid MacCulloch

THE Anglo-Catholic tradition has more than its fair share of characters: clergy remembered with affection many years after going to their rest.

In Canning Town, Fr Goose remains a much-loved figure; in Wapping, Fr Lowder is still venerated for his work amid the cholera epi­demic. And, 75 years after his untimely death, aged just 36, Fr Basil Jellicoe continues to inspire the affection of his former parishioners — the legacy of his unique blend of passion, good humour, and charisma.

That the children of his parish should have premièred Jellicoe: The musical as recently as 2003 is one small indication of his extra­ordinary and enduring character and impact.

Basil Lee Jellicoe was born in Chailey, West Sussex, in 1899. The Jellicoes were a well-connected family: Basil’s father, the Revd Thomas Jellicoe, was cousin of John Rushworth Jellicoe, Admiral of the Fleet during the Battle of Jutland in the First World War, later ennobled as Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa.

Basil’s early years contained the same mix of privilege and service: educated at Magdalen College, he left Oxford in 1917 to serve in the Mediterranean as a Royal Naval Volunteer. He then followed in his father’s footsteps, training for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, before his appointment in 1922 as Magdalen’s missioner to the slums of Somers Town, near Euston Station.

Jellicoe regarded the state of his parishoners’ housing as a scandal. He preached against it as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace”; for it revealed the callous indifference of those with power and influence.

Fr Jellicoe was determined to use his privileged connections very differently, enlisting the support of the Prince of Wales, the Arch­bishop of Canterbury, and the Housing Min­ister in his St Pancras House Improvement Society.

The obituary in The Times gives some flavour of his extraordinary energy and enterprise: Fr Jellicoe “resolved that he would not rest till his people had homes fit to live in, and the re­housing schemes started by his society have already provided many excellent flats, with gardens, trees, ponds, swings for the children, and other amenities. Although the rents charged are not more than what the tenants paid for the old slums, the loan stock receives two per cent and the ordinary shares three per cent.”

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Half a century before the development of London’s docklands, Fr Jellicoe had pioneered an economically viable and morally inspiring form of “regeneration”.

More recent initiatives have all too often alienated and displaced the original residents. Fr Jellicoe’s version of neighbourhood renewal took local people seriously, and ensured that their needs were given pride of place.

More recent initiatives have all too often alienated and displaced the original residents. Fr Jellicoe’s version of neighbourhood renewal took local people seriously, and ensured that their needs were given pride of place.

Fr Jellicoe’s work proceeded from his con­viction that every human being bore the image of Christ. In the thanksgiving service for the renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury recounted a char­acteristic incident: “Fr Basil was challenged by some of his more narrow-minded High Church friends about why he would come to celebrate and preach in a parish church like [St Martin-in-the-Fields] where the Blessed Sacrament was not reserved. Fr Jellicoe said he had no problem at all in coming to preach in a church part of which was reserved for the service of Christ in the form of his poor.”

Fr Jellicoe’s beliefs led him to seek homes with beauty as well as utility. The design of the new homes was inspired by his alma mater — he was determined that good architecture and space for art and contemplation should not remain the preserve of the élite. If you walk round Somers Town today, you will see the homes Fr Jellicoe won for his parishioners. Dig a little deeper, and you will see the warmth with which he is still remembered. What stands out most is his compassion and charisma: playing the accordion and riding an early motorbike; challenging the prejudices of his time with the adoption of a black child; as much at home riding in a coal-merchant’s cart as in the cloisters of Magdalen.

Jellicoe: The musical was a fitting tribute; for Fr Jellicoe was something of a dramatist, setting alight huge papier-mâché effigies of rats on the day the slums began to be demolished.

Jellicoe: The musical was a fitting tribute; for Fr Jellicoe was something of a dramatist, setting alight huge papier-mâché effigies of rats on the day the slums began to be demolished.

Fr Jellicoe’s impact crossed continents as well as generations. One hundred and ten years after his birth, the Jellicoe Community was founded to bring students to live, work, and pray in London’s poorest neighbourhoods.

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This new movement began at Fr Jellicoe’s old college. In its first two years, it has grown to include students from across the University of Oxford, as well as the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. Inspired by his witness, the Jellicoe Community is bringing real change to those who struggle for affordable housing and a living wage today.

Too often in our time, Anglo-Catholicism is equated with the narrow-minded idolatry of tradition. Fr Jellicoe stands as a reminder that the true Catholic spirit is not obsessed with “churchy” matters. Rather, it believes that the whole of human life is to be re-shaped by the gift which we receive at the altar.

This truly Catholic sacramentalism sees the transformation wrought in the sanctuary and in the slums as a single, grace-filled action, in which the good things of creation become the means by which we taste and see the life of God.

The Revd Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford. The Revd Rob Wickham, a former Vicar of St Mary’s, Somers Town, assisted in the preparation of this article.

The Bishop of London will preach at a special Choral Evensong on Sunday 25 July at 5 p.m. at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, to give thanks for the ministry of Fr Basil Jellicoe and the Jellicoe Community

Side by side into battle

The Jellicoe Community was formed two years ago. Simon Cuff was one of the first to join

Side by side into battle

The Jellicoe Community was formed two years ago. Simon Cuff was one of the first to join

THE England of Fr Jellicoe’s days is gone. The wider divisions he challenged, however, still run deep.

Fr Jellicoe’s ministry was distinctive because it went beyond noblesse oblige. The people he served were given a genuine voice in the transformation of their communities. It is this aspect of his work — the recognition of the dig­nity of the poor, and a commitment to their ability to shape the future of their neighbour­hoods — from which the Jellicoe Com­munity takes its inspiration.

Drawn from the Universities of Oxford, East London, and Notre Dame, Jellicoe interns live and worship in some of London’s poorest neigh­bourhoods. Some are on full-time sum­mer internships, others on longer place­ments that are combined with study or paid work.

In each case, students live in community, with a daily rhythm of prayer, and regular fel­low­ship and reflection. Interns can relate their placements to undergraduate and Master’s-level studies in theology, politics, and law.

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The function of the interns is to help inner-city congregations, of various denominations, that are involved in community organising. This is a way of working across traditions and faiths for social change. The movement began in the United States, and is now most famous for training the young Barack Obama.

On both sides of the Atlantic, churches are the mainstay of the movement. The London alliance London Citizens was founded after the Docklands redevelopment displaced many thousands of inner-city residents. It has been able to secure a living wage for those who clean and guard the towers of Canary Wharf: part of the £25 million it has won for some of London’s poorest households.

On both sides of the Atlantic, churches are the mainstay of the movement. The London alliance London Citizens was founded after the Docklands redevelopment displaced many thousands of inner-city residents. It has been able to secure a living wage for those who clean and guard the towers of Canary Wharf: part of the £25 million it has won for some of London’s poorest households.

Today’s interns are not simply latter-day Jellicoes, either in terms of their own origins or their work. The diversity within the Jellicoe Community, in both social class and in ethnicity, suggests some progress in the battles against injustice.

The interns are not there to win battles for local people, but with them, organising across divides of faith and culture to build a powerful and lasting alliance. Interns help inner-city churches identify their own leaders and priorities, to build relationships with other local institutions, and to campaign together.

The Jellicoe Community was founded in 2008 by the Revd Angus Ritchie, director of the Con­textual Theology Centre. It is now an important part of the work of the centre, which was set up to promote and reflect on Christian engagement in community organising.

Inspired by my own Anglo-Catholic heritage, I was one of the first of the Jellicoe interns, and have seen first-hand its capacity to develop leadership, build relationships of depth across faiths and cultures, and secure changes in people’s lives and neighbourhoods.

Both the students and their host congregations come from a wide range of traditions: Pentecostal, Salvationist, Meth­odist, and Roman Catholic, as well as the many and varied kinds of Anglican.

Seventy-five years after Fr Jellicoe’s untimely death, his vision remains as compelling and as urgent as ever: that this same humanity that God took to himself in the person of Jesus Christ must never be allowed to suffer the indignity of social injustice.

It is our prayer that the Jellicoe Community can help to make that vision a reality.

Simon Cuff is a member of the Jellicoe Com­munity and Chapel Clerk at Keble College, Oxford. More information about the Jellicoe Com­munity — including a short film featuring Pro­fessor MacCulloch and this year’s interns — is online at www.theology-centre.org.

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