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The Cowley Fathers, by Serenhedd James

01 November 2019

Michael Wheeler reads a monumental history of a pioneering Order

ANGLO-CATHOLICISM sustained three losses in 1866. John Keble died on 29 March, aged 74; John Mason Neale died on 6 August, aged 48; and the 22-year-old Gerard Manley Hopkins was received into the Roman Catholic Church by St John Henry Newman on 21 October.

Two months later, however, on 27 December, there was a birth to celebrate, when the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) was established by Richard Meux Benson, Charles Chapman Grafton, and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill. The first stable male monastic community to have been formed in England since the Reformation served as “a focus and rallying point for Anglo-Catholic renewal in Britain and its Empire”, as the blurb to this book reminds us.

Episcopal approval of such innovations was crucial, and the SSJE was established with the permission of Victorian England’s most energetic bishop, 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.

But for Benson and his Cowley Fathers, as they were affectionately known, overseas mission was central to their 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.

church timesFr R. M. Benson SSJE in old age

Dr Serenhedd James is an Honorary Research Fellow at St Stephen’s House and a diary columnist for the Church Times. He explains in his acknowledgements that in 2014 the Trustees of the Fellowship of St John the Evangelist (UK) Trust Association invited him to establish the Cowley Project as its Director and to write this book as its opening phase. Four hundred and fifty pages later, James looks back at the seven phases in the history of the SSJE which he has chronicled so carefully, adding, with just a touch of his lively humour, that “any urge to compare it with Jacques’ soliloquy in As You Like It should be resisted.”

The first phase saw the SSJE’s foundation in the second- and third-generation Tractarianism of the mid-19th century, when popular prejudice against religious communities was widespread. Then came a period of growth in two directions: locally in the life of the parish and internationally in the mission field. Benson, whose austerity became more of a hindrance than a help, was succeeded by Robert Page as Superior General in 1890, and it was Page who “effectively sealed the general direction of the SSJE for the next six decades”, as a “competent and effective provider of overseas mission work”.

In its third phase, the SSJE was strong enough to resist heterodoxy in India, to bring to its wartime ministry in 1914-18 an incarnational theology of the Cross, to become a leading force in the Anglo-Catholic Congress Movement, and to survive the Second World War. In the changed world of the post-war era, the SSJE broadened its outlook and recognised the right of the American and Canadian congregations to a share in the international Society’s governance.

During the 1960s, the Society’s fifth phase was defined by a rising mortality rate and a decline in vocations. Under David Campbell, the SSJE abandoned its mother house at Cowley, and in its sixth phase was subdivided into smaller houses across the country.

In the final phase, centred upon St Edward’s House, Westminster, the Society continued to host visitors from home and abroad until closure became inevitable, leaving the trustees of the Fellowship of St John Trust Association to continue to distribute the Society’s remaining funds.

Today, St Stephen’s House occupies the Cowley site, with its lovely Bodley church, and St Edward’s House is part of Westminster School. The American branch flourishes in Cambridge, Mass. And then there is the Cowley Project. James has more than fulfilled the hopes of the Project’s instigators, having produced a monumental work of ecclesiastical history which relates the trajectory of the SSJE to the broader movements of Anglicanism in each generation. Enhanced by evocative photos of Cowley Fathers and their outposts of Empire, this book achieves a high standard of original scholarship.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and a former Lay Canon of Winchester.


The Cowley Fathers: A history of the English congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist
Serenhedd James
Canterbury Press £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

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