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Convert, Scholar, Bishop by Giles Mercer 

26 May 2017

Geoffrey Rowell on an Anglican well-formed for his RC episcopate

Convert, Scholar, Bishop: William Brownlow 1830-1901

Giles Mercer

Downside Abbey Press £30


Church Times Bookshop £27


WILLIAM BROWNLOW has no entry in either The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. This substantial biography of some 600 pages fills a real gap.

Carefully written and well-researched, drawing on much origi­nal material, this account by Giles Mercer, formerly Headmaster of Stonyhurst and then of Prior Park, is not only of Brownlow’s life from his Anglican roots, through his secession to the Roman Catholic Church in 1863, received by Newman, to his studies in Rome, his work in the Plymouth diocese, and finally his appointment as Bishop of Clifton in 1894.

Described by the Bristol Mercury as “a charming conversationalist, an erudite archaeologist and an amusing raconteur”, Brownlow, both in his work in the Plymouth diocese and in Clifton, saw the importance of church history as underlining RC identity, and his Magic Lantern lectures, as well as his books, were popular and informative.

Educated at Dr Arnold’s Rugby, and then at Trinity College, Cam­bridge, where he was a contempor­ary of Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, he was ordained by Bishop Lonsdale of Lichfield in 1853 to serve as curate of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire. But he soon had a crisis of faith, realising he needed a deeper conver­sion, and sought the guidance of Robert Aitken of Pendeen on the tip of Cornwall.

Aitken’s Catholic Evangelicalism, with its powerful combination of personal conversion with a high doctrine of the sacraments, made a lasting impression on Brownlow. He served in London, Tetbury, Torquay, and Bath, with a seven month pil­grim­age to Egypt and the Holy Land, which kindled his interest in the Holy Places.

Doubts about Anglicanism continued, particularly about the lack, as he saw it, of a proper theo­logical recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist, which was central to his own faith. But, in joining the RC Church, he was clear that he had not repudiated his baptism, or “deserted the Church of my Baptism”: grace, he said, had been found “even amid the broken cistern of Anglican rites”. In particular, he repudiated the polit­ical Erastianism of the English Reformation.

When Brownlow went to Rome to prepare for the Roman priest­hood, it coincided with Christian archaeology in Rome, notably the exploration of the catacombs by Giovanni Battista de Rossi. Brown­low’s involvement with this led to a major publication, Roma Sotteranea, an account of the catacombs, especi­ally that of St Callixtus, and its art.

In Brownlow’s embrace of the Church of Rome, the importance of Catholic continuity in history went hand in hand with what he had learnt from Aitken of Pendeen. It was to be put into practice in his work in the diocese of Plymouth, in mission outreach, in which religious communities played a significant part, and in teaching and Catholic apologetic firmly but eirenically conducted.

In this significant biography, we encounter not only this priest and bishop of courtesy and conviction, but also much information about the devotional and missional life of the RC Church in England in the latter part of the 19th century.


The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

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