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The man they liked to call ‘Dad’

22 March 2013

Fr Stanton, who died a century ago this month, could be described as the Billy Graham of Victorian and Edwardian Anglo-Catholicism. Malcolm Johnson celebrates his ministry

From son to Father: the elderly Fr Stanton

From son to Father: the elderly Fr Stanton

NOT many assistant curates are millionaires today; so it is a surprise to learn that the Revd Arthur Stanton, the centenary of whose death falls on 28 March, left an estate of more than £2 million in today's values.

Living simply, in two rooms, meant that the capital sum that he inherited from his father was hardly touched in his lifetime, and, at his death, it was left to his family. Another surprise is that he was a curate for 50 years at St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, in London, and, despite his fame (or perhaps because of it), was given no preferment or recognition by the hierarchy. Indeed, bishops inhibited him from preaching in their dioceses because of his links with St Alban's.

Ironically, three weeks before he died, he declined the offer of a prebendal stall in St Paul's from the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram.

Born in 1839, Stanton was the youngest of the 12 children of a wealthy cloth manufacturer in Stroud, Gloucestershire. At school, his housemaster said that he was "one of the most stupid boys who ever left Rugby". Nor did he distinguish himself at Trinity College, Oxford; but, influenced by the celebrated preacher Canon Henry Liddon, he decided to become a priest, and went to Cuddesdon.

In December 1862, Stanton was made deacon, and arrived at Holborn to serve his curacy under the Revd Alexander Mackonochie, whom Bishop Archibald Tait licensed as Perpetual Curate the following month. Although he was a sombre Scot, Mackonochie was respected by his assistants, who lived with him in the new clergy house - there were, and still are, 16 rooms on five floors.

Mackonochie's virtues were expressed in a way that made him admirable rather than likeable: he was ascetic, reserved, undemonstrative, and heroically stubborn (some would say, pig-headed). None the less, he and the devout, amusing young Stanton liked and respected each other, and, because the new curate was wealthy, his stipend was fixed at a nominal five shillings a year.

THE parish was rough and tough, and had a largely working-class population. It had only just been carved out of the huge parish of St Andrew's, Holborn, and measured about 500 by 200 yards. In it were crammed 8000 inhabitants, who lived in squalid conditions, together with a brewery, several brothels, factories, and workshops. The department store Gamages and the Prudential Assurance building had not yet arrived.

A new church with a wide nave was designed by William Butterfield, and consecrated on 21 February 1863. The situation was explosive, because the patron and churchwarden, John Hubbard, had no love for ceremonial, and had given £55,000 (more than £5 million today) to build the church.

Michael Reynolds in his biography of Mackonochie, Martyr of Ritualism, says that the clergy "were like a unit of picked assault troops", whose meal-times were used to share startling views - religious, political, social, and scientific - all laced with laughter. Stanton was full of fun and fight, and must have been a real handful, but Mackonochie was never jealous of his talented staff, and never used his position to quash their ideas, or their merriment. The loss of such clergy houses 40 years ago was a sad one for the Church of England.

Stanton was strikingly handsome: "a tall, slight, dark young man, with large eyes at once penetrating and dreamy". He had an olive skin and black hair. An able preacher, he never wrote down his sermons, and used drama to pour scorn on injustice and hypocrisy. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce heard him preach a practical, useful sermon on fasting, and considered that he was imitating Henry Liddon, which Stanton took as a compliment. Later, his sermons became more homely; he had a real dramatic gift.

WITHIN three years, he had attracted many boys and men to his clubs. There was no gymnasium or boxing class, as at Oxford House, Bethnal Green, but there was plenty of cricket and rounders in Hyde Park, outings by steamer to Margate, and visits to pantomimes. He reported that his confirmation class included "a scavenger, banjo-player, and coal boy (very black)". In the parish, he was known to many simply as "Dad". He always wore a black cassock and a biretta.

Worship at Holborn was focused on the mass, and Stanton heard confessions, and taught people to "love the Mass", but, somewhat surprisingly, other services became popular. St Alban's was one of the first churches in London to have a harvest festival, and, on New Year's Eve, a watchnight service was held, which, originally, Mackonochie thought was "unliturgical".

On the first occasion, just after the building was consecrated, a large crowd assembled in Brooke Street, asking that the new year be blessed. The clergy were in bed, but Stanton got up, and opened the church, which was soon full. It became "my service", he told a friend.

Why did he never leave? Two years after ordination, he wrote to Edward Bouverie Pusey about the parish of St Saviour, Leeds, but was told that he was too young and inexperienced. So he stayed, and obviously enjoyed the companionship and good food in the clergy house.

He liked and respected his vicar, but there was an occasional falling-out. He discovered that the parish Sisters (from Clewer) had handed out contaminated food; so he went round distributing sovereigns to those affected. Mackonochie reprimanded him, and he resigned - only to change his mind, when his fellow curates intervened.

THE Church Association, founded in 1865 to fight Ritualism by litigation, began to take an interest in the parish, and, two years later, persuaded John Martin, a solicitor, to lead the attack. Four successive time-consuming and expensive court cases were brought against Mackonochie, on such matters as using lighted candles on the altar, the elevation of the chalice and paten at the consecration, the use of incense, and mixing water with wine in the chalice.

Judgments were sent to appeal, and, because the association was wealthy, proceedings dragged on, and most of the higher courts in the land were involved. At one point, Mackonochie was suspended for three months; so he went on holiday. Stanton, the loyal lieutenant, continued the work, and decided to hold the services in the nearby St Vedast's, Foster Lane.

He wrote to his mother in 1866: "I am a Catholic, and have been so for years. . . I have and do pray the good God to dispel Protestantism." He was not attracted to Rome, however: "My chief objection to the Roman Church is its untruthfulness and worldliness. . . it is the worldliness of Romanism that I hate, not its doctrines."

Punch mocked him as "Stanton with hyacinthine locks, carrying a portable confession box". And a Protestant broadsheet invited parishioners to see the "Winking Virgin and the Bleeding Saints on show at St Alban's, Holborn".

From 1867 to 1886, Mackonochie, and a number of clergymen in various parts of England, were prosecuted for introducing Catholic ceremonial at the eucharist, and five were imprisoned for disobedience to the decisions of the law courts. Meanwhile, others, under the pressure, resigned their livings, or yielded to the storm. The strain on them must have been intolerable. In each case, the bishop of the diocese allowed the prosecution, and treated the offending clergyman as a disloyal minister of the Establishment. No wonder Stanton supported disestablishment.

THE Revd Robert Suckling took over from Mackonochie in January 1883, and, for the next 30 years, Stanton's work at St Alban's went on and prospered. The two men worked well together, and for four years Mackonochie, having left St Peter's, London Docks, after only a year, lived with them until he died.

Episcopal approval was grudgingly given to the services, and Frederick Temple, enthroned as Bishop of London in 1885, held a confirmation there. Joseph Clayton, in his 1913 memoir, said that in the clergy house after the service, Temple spoke in his gruff manner, saying: "I like your work here, but I don't like your incense," and that Stanton replied: "Well, my lord, it's the best we can get at eight shillings a pound."

Stanton went to the United States for a holiday in the summer of 1885, and he wrote to his friends from the Rocky Mountains: "You won't recognise me; real swagger, large-brimmed, white felt hat, with rattlesnake skin round it, flannel shirt laced with twine, leather straps on knees, hair on chin, and knowing twinkle in eye."

It may be that at this time he was offered a living (the only such offer he received). It was in Chicago, and was worth £1000 a year, with a house, and expenses. He refused, saying that he was too old, "for you cannot transplant a tree when it is of many years' growth . . . and also I have made such a mess of it in the Anglican Church that I could not go and make the same trouble in the American Church."

Much is known about the priest, but little about the man - except that he was often preoccupied by his, or other people's, health, prescribing Carter's Little Liver Pills, Lamplough Pyretic Saline, or other potions. His two rooms in the clergy house were crammed with paintings and books, with a statue of the Virgin next to a small piano (he could not read a note of music, but played by ear, with gusto). A barometer was consulted several times a day, and he issued regular weather forecasts.

AFTER criticism of Stanton in the 1906 report of the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline, more than 3600 men - acknowledging their indebtedness to his teaching and influence - signed an address expressing their affection, gratitude, and support. Dad was still popular and influential.

On 24 November 1912, Stanton preached his last sermon in St Alban's, Holborn; he had been ill for most of the year. He died in Stroud, on 28 March 1913, and immediately his body was brought back to London. People at this time relished a good funeral, and they were not disappointed on 1 April.

Admission was by ticket only, and the congregation was huge. One member was the minister of the nearby City Temple, R. J. Campbell, who regularly preached on a Sunday to thousands of worshippers. He was greatly moved, and reported: "I saw a poor woman - very poor looking indeed - step into the aisle and throw a tiny bunch of rather ragged-looking flowers in front of the coffin.

"I would rather live and die like Fr Stanton than wear the proudest diadem that earth could offer; and if I could feel that even one such tribute could be paid to my memory as the casting of those few flowers before his coffin, I should consider it a greater honour than to have been buried with all the pomp and pageantry the world could furnish."

One hundred robed clergy led the huge procession to Waterloo, where 800 people boarded the special train that conveyed them to Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, where St Alban's has a large burial plot. Stanton was laid near Mackonochie's grave.

The life and ministry of Fr Stanton will be celebrated at St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, on the church's patronal festival, on Thursday 20 June. www.stalbansholborn.org


An extract from a sermon delivered by Fr Stanton at St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, on 31 December 1911:

TONIGHT, you know, this church will be full - choke-full - of all the people we ought to have with us always, the people of the parish. What do they come for? Do they come because they worship or serve God? Oh! No! Don't make any mistake about that. They come because they like to see the New Year in, in church. They have a superstition that it is lucky to see the New Year in, in church. That is all!

And then they turn on us and say, "Do you influence the masses?" "What have you done to influence the masses?" "Are the masses influenced?" "What have you done?" And what can we say? Shall we call to the hills to cover us? Shall we say, "You must wait. You must not be in a hurry. You must wait."

The cannon ball goes straight to its point, and brings destruction in a moment; but the river runs slowly, slowly, and brings blessings on its way towards the deep. That is it. And did it not take a thousand years, thousands and ten thousands, before the rocks were raised in all their beauty? Learn a lesson of the rocks, and do not be too hard upon us when progress in spiritual things seems so slow.

When will it come, the age when to their den
Rapine and lust and murder shall be scared?
Is the dream vain, that in some far-off year,
In its own saintly lustre panoplied,
Goodness shall walk this world without a fear?

What have you done? And yet we cannot take our solace from the rocks and their ages. Rocks do not go to hell, Eternity may be piled on them, but they cannot suffer, and man may be lost!

You have thought these things. They have been in your mind. And tonight, as you sit over the embers, waiting for the old year to go out, it all comes into your mind, when you think, and think, and think - and you cannot help a man thinking tonight, can you?


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