AMONG the red-letter days of the Church of England, St John, Apostle and Evangelist (27 December), is all too easily overlooked while priests and people recover after all those special services and events in Advent, and on Christmas Day. And yet both the Evangelist and his Gospel are precious, enigmatic, and worthy of our special attention.
By tradition, St John the Evangelist is the apostle of love, the beloved disciple, the only one of the 12 to die in old age, and thus to witness the suffering of the martyrs for many years.
The authorship and authenticity of the Fourth Gospel have been questioned and exhaustively discussed over the past 200 years. And yet the primacy of “John” as a poetic, even mystical account of Jesus’s life and divinity is reflected in the fact that it provides the Gospel readings for
most of the major feast days of the Church.
This year, the saint’s day marks the 150th anniversary of the first stable male monastic community to have been formed in England since the Reformation. It was in 1866 that the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) was established by Richard Meux Benson, Charles Chapman Grafton, and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill, with the permission of the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce.
Cowley, now a busy suburb, was then a village separated from Oxford by fields, and Benson was both a Father Superior and a model Tractarian vicar who ministered to his flock in the immediate locality, where the “shrill bell” of the monastery chapel rang out every day.
For Benson and his Cowley Fathers, as they were affectionately known, however, overseas mission was central to life, and, by 1900, they had established mission houses and churches in Bombay and Poona, in Cape Town, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They had also been active in Canada since the 1880s.
In one of his addresses to his fellow Oratorians, who had taken a vow of celibacy, John Henry Newman described John the Evangelist as “the virgin Apostle, who on that account was so dear to our Lord”.
Monasticism — Roman Catholic and Anglican — was regarded with deep suspicion in mid-19th century England. Nevertheless, Fr Benson was regarded by Bishop Wilberforce as a safe pair of hands, not least because of his parish ministry in Cowley. Having gained “the passion for holiness” from Pusey, this product of a wealthy Evangelical family of brewers (hence his middle name) dedicated himself and the community to a daily celebration of the eucharist, a seven-fold Office, and long periods of private prayer.
Bishop Geoffrey Rowell commented on Benson’s centenary (Features, 16 January 2015) that his discipline led some to describe him as made of catgut and iron. Although this side of Benson made him a strong leader, it also caused difficulties within the Cowley community.
George Congreve, a member from 1873, proved to be the only man, as Assistant Superior, who could confront Benson when his austerity had a negative effect on those in his charge.
Congreve regarded Benson’s deadness to human relations as crippling to the Fathers: brotherly love, he believed, should replace the “mortification of relationships”, and the “social side” of the soul “must not be suppressed”. The tough, long-suffering side of St John the Evangelist needed to be balanced by his message of love and the kind of close friendship which is celebrated in his Gospel.
By 1900, the Cowley Fathers were well regarded in the Church of England, and were remarkably influential, considering their size. Having been carried on the coat-tails of Empire, however, they found that decline was inevitable after 1947, and, by the 1960s, the SSJE seemed to have less relevance in a rapidly changing Anglican scene at home.
The SSJE left the mother house in Oxford in 1980 (turning it over to the theological college St Stephen’s House), and the remaining Fathers moved to their house in London. In 2012, the last three monks living at St Edward’s House, Westminster, left to continue the religious life as solitaries.
This trajectory is reflected in the life and work of Gordon Shrive, whose serious injuries at the Battle of the Somme did not prevent his serving the Xhosa people in the Transkei for many years, under the cure of two great SSJE missionaries, Fr Gerald Ley and the mystic Fr Godrey Callaway, who sported a clerical collar and a solar topee, on horseback, and who inspired Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, among others.
Fr Shrive’s enforced return to Britain in 1981 bemused and saddened him. Pining for his beloved Africa, he ended his days in a care home, where he was not allowed to wear his habit, lest it distress the other residents. His newly edited poems live on (True Man A Long Season: The poems of Gordon Shrive SSJE, edited by Mark Woodruff — available from the Fellowship of St John the Evangelist at £6.95 including p&p: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The torch of the SSJE is kept alive in the UK by the Fellowship of St John Trust Association (FSJ), founded by the monks in 1920, and still honouring their work of missionary priesthood by administering the charities historically associated with them. Among other things, FSJ offers grants to support parish missions the religious life, lay ministers, students engaged in Christian service, and work with children.
We have to look to the American Brothers of the SSJE, however, for sustained monastic life. Their website (www.ssje.org) speaks of the community of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the Anglican Church of Canada, which invites men aged between 22 and 45 “and in good health” to explore a monastic vocation with them. Much space is devoted to explaining ways of giving to this independent 501(c)(3) non-profit tax-exempt US corporation: we are firmly in the 21st century.
The North American Congregation replaced Fr Benson’s original Rule with its own in 1996. Now the emphasis is on Johannine friendship and prayerful communal living rather than outreach. Not until chapter 31 do we come to “Mission and service”, and reference to the fact that “God may call a few of us to special ventures in mission in other places and countries.”
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the SSJE on the feast of St John the Evangelist, it is worth recalling the words of Bishop Gore on the centenary of Fr Benson’s baptism: “In the circle of the Church, and particularly in that part of it which adhered to the Tractarian Movement, he exercised a profound influence, I believe without parallel in that generation which has not yet wholly passed away.”
Bishop Gore went on to say that what you would chiefly associate with his name was the constant proclamation of the life of renunciation: “Living through dying”.
Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library. His books include The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in nineteenth-century English culture and St John and the Victorians.
Dr Serenhedd James, to whom the author is indebted in this article, is director of the Cowley Project, and has been commissioned by the FSJ to write the history of the SSJE.