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Strict disciple of discipline

19 June 2015

Two hundred years after the Battle of Waterloo, Donald Gray commemorates a Lancashire incumbent who was 'on the field of battle' that day


La Macarena: Our Lady of Hope, from the Basilica of the Macarena, Seville

La Macarena: Our Lady of Hope, from the Basilica of the Macarena, Seville

JAMES IRVINE presided over the parish of Leigh, in Lancashire, with an iron discipline from 1839 to 1874. There he introduced those high-church pastoral principles that were initially confined to Oxford, London, and the south-east.

Never straying from the rubrics of the Prayer Book, he nevertheless interpreted them strictly. Like Pusey, Keble, and Newman (in the latter's Anglican days), he never wore eucharistic vestments. His services contained no additions from Rome or other sources. It is true that he gave encouragement to those whose ritualistic practices brought them into collision with the authorities, both ecclesiastical and civil. But he went no further.

In the week after his death, the church newspaper The Guardian wrote: "The practical side of Church Principles was to him the strongest attraction. He saw in it a powerful instrument for the correction of abuses. Amongst the very first in the province of York, he began daily prayers, weekly celebrations, and exact conformity to the rubrics in other respect, and preaching in the surplice."

Then the obituary added a little verse:


Uplifted high in heart and hope are we,
Until we doubt not that for one so true
There must be other nobler work to do
Than when he fought at Waterloo
And victor he shall ever be.


Fought at Waterloo? Yes, he had served at the Battle of Waterloo in one of the Scots regiments (possibly the Gordon Highlanders), most probably as an ordinary soldier. Afterwards, he went on to study at Marischal College, Aberdeen (where there was a tradition of Episcopalianism), before ordination in the Norwich diocese.

Irvine's vision of the Church was certainly "militant". He expected military-like discipline from both himself and his fellow clergy. In a published sermon, he said: "I cannot see much of that spirit which in other times has made other men confessors and martyrs. I see a great disposition to accommodate themselves to the circumstances of the times, and exercise their ministry with as little trouble as possible to themselves, and as little offence as may be to their ungodly or worldly-minded parishioners."

Preaching in Leigh Parish Church on the day before Irvine's death, Bishop Fraser (of Manchester) commented that Irvine was "an old soldier - a Waterloo man", noting that they were generally reputed to be somewhat strict disciplinarians. "How was a regiment to be managed if strict discipline was not pursued in its government?" Fraser asked.

In Leigh, Irvine had introduced practices that gave his parishioners some idea of discipline. The Bishop described him as "undoubtedly a loyal minister" of the C of E.

Indeed he was. In 1867, one of his curates "went to Rome"; on hearing of this "perversion", Irvine's uncompromising observation was that a man deserting the Church to which he had taken an oath of allegiance might as soon expect to be shot as a deserter from the army!

Diligent research has produced the only known photograph of Irvine, in the Wigan Record Office; it depicts him proudly wearing his Waterloo medal: "Victor he shall ever be."


The Revd Dr Gray, Canon Emeritus of Westminster, was a curate at Leigh Parish Church, 1956-60.

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