A new history of the Cowley Fathers: No surrendering at the altar

01 November 2019

In his new history of the Cowley Fathers, Serenhedd James tells the story of how a conflict in India led them to a public and spirited stand over eucharistic doctrine


A group with Fr Elwin at the door of the mission bungalow at Yerendawana, Inida, in 1903

A group with Fr Elwin at the door of the mission bungalow at Yerendawana, Inida, in 1903

BY THE turn of the 19th century, Anglo-Catholicism was generally accepted as an increasingly normative expression of Anglican church life — John Henry Overton observed in 1897 that it was “perfectly marvellous to observe how things are now accepted which once provoked suspicion” — but an unwelcome development in India towards the end of Robert Page’s time as Superior General led the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) to take a public and spirited stand for an orthodox interpretation of eucharistic doctrine as it perceived the Church of England to have received it.

The Society’s friend Louis Mylne (Bishop of Bombay from 1876) had retired from Bombay in 1898, although he continued a doughty supporter of the Indian work; his successor, James Macarthur, had been translated to Southampton in 1903; and Macarthur had been succeeded by Walter Pym, who had been translated from Mauritius. Mylne had taught at Keble, and Macarthur had been trained at Cuddesdon; but Pym was a Cam­bridge man, and came from a very different theological stable.

In a Charge delivered in the course of his Primary Visitation of the diocese in 1907 he ostensibly sought to regularise a number of aspects of worship and practice across the see. In practice, he meant to curb Anglo-Catholicism in his diocese. Among the practices he objected to were the use of holy water; the burning of incense, except in a static censer to sweeten the air; the blessing of palms on Palm Sunday; and the liturgical observation of any feast not mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer. As he intended to abolish the keeping of All Souls’ Day and the offering of requiems, he also suggested that the Guild of All Souls — which had been founded in 1873 by Arthur Tooth, one of the “ritua­list martyrs” imprisoned in the wake of the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 — ought to “disappear”.

Although he was willing to allow the Cowley Fathers and other clergy­men who wore Eucharistic vestments to “benefit of the doubt” surrounding the interpretation of the Ornaments Rubric, Pym also contended that “ritual and practices which represent Roman teaching are the very ritual and practices which in our own Church are at the root of our present trouble.”

Accordingly, he sought to suppress the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and any gestures that might suggest adoration of the consecrated elements at mass — he particularly advised “the discontinuation of such pauses even for the sake of your private devotion as materially interrupt the prayer, and suggest that you are secretly reciting the Roman Canon of the Mass”.

This all led up to the main points of the Charge: that the offering of bread and wine was not more than a commemoration of the Sacrifice of Calvary; and that the Real Presence was effected in the reception of Holy Communion by the devout believer. “The consecration prayer”, he argued, “works no such miracle in the bread and wine.” He also forbade the celebration of mass when there were fewer than three communicants present; and the attendance of unconfirmed children, except those who “on some one Sunday before they make their first Communion, may be allowed to attend”.

Pym effectively took up a theme that was by then seven decades old: that those who advanced a fuller understanding of theology and liturgical practice than that which seemed to be explicitly laid down in the letter of the BCP were not loyal sons of the Reformation. It was an accusation almost as old as the Oxford Movement itself, with its crucible in Newman and Keble’s pub­lication of Froude’s Remains in the late 1830s. “They ignore or repudiate the religious changes of the Reformation,” wrote Pym, “and speak of them with hatred and contempt.” He singled out Viscount Halifax and the English Church Union for particular criticism.


THE brethren in India received the Charge with horror. Edward Elwin wrote home urgently to say that “till you have read it, you will not be able to realise how critical the situation is.” He pleaded for “a most earnest consideration” by the members of the Society in Oxford as to what sort of stand should be taken. As early as 1866, the Church Times had trumpeted that “the Real Presence and the Unbloody Sacrifice are the two hinges of that mystic rite”; but now he was clear that “the whole of the Indian work may be in jeopardy”.

On certain points concessions might be made. The Society was not prepared to go to the stake over the thurible, for example — even if Godfrey Callaway later felt that in South Africa “we really needed the fragrant smoke of incense. There is no outward symbol in the Church’s worship which appeals to me more.” In 1899, it had briefly ceased to be used during High Mass at Cowley, after Bishop William Stubbs had asked the Society to defer for the moment to the negative Opinion of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on the matter. During its suspension, the community church was instead “perfumed with incense by the Deacon and Subdeacon” beforehand, which Frederick Puller thought “a slight modification of the usage of the Eastern Church”.

LAMBETH PALACE LIBRARYThree Superiors General (left to right): Gerald Speirs Maxwell (1907-15), Richard Meux Benson (1866-90), and Robert Lay Page (1890-1907), in the cloister garden at Cowley in 1907

Pym’s Charge, however — while in places echoing the earlier Archbishops’ Opinion — was now so “distinctly against that doctrine concerning the Blessed Sacrament, for which the Church has suffered so much” that there could be no desertion, and no surrender. The Cowley Evangelist immediately laid out the grounds on which the Society would now have to proceed, and “the truth for which we wish to contend”. It united itself with the statement issued by prominent Tractarians in the wake of the Denison case of 1856, and to the same constituency’s Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury of 1867; and its position boiled down to two main points.

We believe that, as in heaven, Christ, our Great High Priest, ever offers Himself before the Eternal Father, pleading by His presence His Sacrifice of Himself once offered on the Cross; so on earth, in the Holy Eucharist, that same Body, once for all sacrificed for us, and that same Blood, one for all shed for us, sacramentally present, are offered and pleaded before the Father by the priest, as our Lord ordained to be done in remembrance of Himself, when He instituted the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood. We believe that Christ Himself, really and truly, but spiritually and ineffably, present in the Sacrament, is there­in to be adored.


RICHARD BENSON (the Society’s founder) voiced his own opposition to Pym in a letter to Richard Traill, reassuring him that “it is by the power of the Holy Ghost descending from Heaven at Pentecost that we are called to consecrate the Bread and Wine, and make them channels of mediatorial grace by their Identification with the Mediatorial Head of the Covenant. If we do not realise the supernatural character of this Presence we cannot believe in the spiritual glory of the ascended Saviour.”

“It will require all the collective wisdom of the Society, under God’s good guidance, to steer us through these troubled waters,” thought Elwin; and it was the necessity of consultation that precipitated the next stage of the business. As men in religious vows, the brethren in India — and it affected all of them, as the SSJE’s permanent Indian work was entirely based in the diocese of Bombay — could not take a personal view of whether or not they would or could accede to Pym’s require­ment. Any decision would have to be taken at Cowley; and the response would have to be a corporate one, led by the Superior General.

Elwin’s personal instinct was that Pym would not “budge an inch”, that the matter would come down to opposing him outright on two points — “the exclusion of our children from mass”; and the enforcement of the three-communicants rule, which in some places “would deprive many souls of the communions which are to them their very life”.

LAMBETH PALACE LIBRARYFr Frederick Puller (1843-1938)

The ritual proscriptions would also have to be resisted, “on the ground that they symbolise a doctrine which he will not tolerate”. He feared that Pym would withdraw the licence of any priest who refused to comply with the directions of the Charge, but that whatever happened the Cowley Fathers must stay with their people “at whatever spiritual sacrifice for ourselves”; and that there was already enough support in the wider Church for the day to be won. “If we hold on, even if we have to go for our communions to one of the cantonment churches, we must win.”

Far away in Boston (Massachusetts), even the members of the Tuesday-evening Bible class at Bowdoin Street were outraged, and sent an alms-offering to Bombay “as a token of sympathy with the S.S.J.E. there in its present difficulties”. Hugh Nicholson wanted it to be generally made known that “we have not got any extravagances of ritual in our Churches” — and as we have seen, the Society’s liturgy had lagged behind the developing ritualism of more advanced establishments.

Furthermore, any ritual practices that existed had “been in long use and sanctioned by previous Bishops” — although, knowing these defences were likely to be used, Pym had made a point of dismissing them at the outset.


IN MAY 1907, the Cowley Evangelist thanked its readers for the support the Society was receiving from its “many kind friends”, and gave a flavour of its feelings on the matter by reproducing William Draper’s poem “Die Fighting”. It also gave a reassurance that the Society was confident of a satisfactory outcome, “though it is not possible to say much now”.

Page had in fact taken advice from Darwell Stone, the Principal of Pusey House, which was later published as an open letter. Stone considered that Pym had overreached himself: that he had misunderstood the obligations placed on the clergy by their oath of allegiance to the Crown, on which he had rested much of his case; that he had misinterpreted Reformation-era practices through want of knowledge, and made errors “which could hardly have been made by anyone who had the facts clearly before his mind”; that he had mis­understood the position of the Anglican divines, particularly Richard Hooker; that he had presented as mere Receptionism the rich and ancient theology of the concept of Spiritual Communion; and, effect­ively, that his arguments against allowing children to be present at mass might as well have been plucked out of thin air.

All these historical and theological points, thought Stone, might well be placed before Pym to see if he could be persuaded to pursue a different course. But he also made the point that if the Society’s licences were withdrawn, with “the eventual result of the break up of your native congregations and the removal from the diocese of your clergy and of the Sisters who belong to the Communities of All Saints and of St Mary’s, Wantage”, then “such results might have disastrous consequences in the way of destroying the confidence and shaking the faith of native Christians, and even some of the native clergy”.

The Rt Revd Walter Ruthven Pym (1856-1908), Bishop of Bombay 1903-08

“The harm which may thus be done”, wrote Stone, “might not be confined to the diocese of Bombay or even to India.” This widened the scope of the controversy considerably, and in itself called for action from the Indian bench.

Stone also suggested that Pym might be well-advised to consult the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, on the prudence of “whether a sudden prohibition of what has long been allowed ought to be pushed to extremes by an individual Bishop” until after the 1908 Lambeth Confer­ence had met.

Puller was impressed by Stone’s letter, and thought that Pym was “very much at sea”. From his own scholarship he rejected the instruction, which Pym had also made, for mass to be said on Good Friday and Easter Eve. Although he favoured a more pacific course, he was also adamant that the matter of the children’s exclusion had to be fought all the way; and “Requirement 24” soon became the mast to which the Society fastened its colours.

After a heated meeting with a number of the Indian brethren on 17 June, Pym wrote an angry letter to Nicholson, as Provincial Superior, which he also released to the newspapers. He accused the SSJE of having been ringleaders of “agitation” against him in his own diocese; and stated that while many of the clergy had acquiesced in his demands, “it has rested with your own Community and those closely associated with you to persist in refusing me obedience.” He was also furious that “it was admitted by you and the others that you must be guided, not by the wishes and directions of your Bishop, but by the advice of friends in England [. . .] What right Mr Darwell Stone has to interfere in the affairs of this Diocese, or what claim he has upon your obedience com­pared with the claim which I have as your bishop, I am at a loss to under­stand.”

Pym did not grasp — or refused to acknowledge — the fact that Stone’s part in the matter was incidental: he had merely advised Page, albeit publicly, on the matter. Colin Stephenson (an Anglo-Catholic priest and memoirist) later observed that Stone was “consulted by everyone in the Church of England like a Delphic oracle”, and on the basis of his advice Page had instructed the Indian brethren in the course they were to take.

Now their obedience to their Superior General — whether or not it aligned with their personal views on the matter, which of course it did — brought them, Pym claimed, “under ecclesiastical censure”. On that basis he was resolved to treat the Society’s work as “extra diocesan”, and so terminate its eligibility for access to diocesan funds. The Cowley Evangelist responded robustly, pointing out the obligations relating to canonical obedience dealt with in the first and second of the Society’s Statutes.

It also called Pym’s teaching on the Eucharist “very inadequate and, in some of its negations, grievously erroneous”. As such, there would be no change in the way in which mass was celebrated, or to who was allowed to attend, in the Society’s churches in the diocese of Bombay, until the Indian brethren “can feel certain that this or that requirement is not based on a view of the Holy Eucharist which contradicts the teachings of Our Lord”. The Society therefore intended to take the matter to the Bishop of Calcutta, Reginald Copleston, for adjudication in his capacity as Metropolitan of India.


PYM soon realised that the Society was in no mood to compromise on Requirement 24, the matter of the attendance of children at mass. He therefore played his trump card, and refused to countenance consecrating the new St Peter’s at Mazagon until his instructions had been effected. At this stage, the appeal to the Metropolitan became crucial; and Puller — who was on furlough at Cowley — was duly dispatched to Bombay to help.

Nicholson’s appeal — “To the Most Reverend Father in God Reginald Stephen, by Divine Permission Lord Bishop of Calcutta, and Metropolitan of the Province of India and Ceylon” — claimed that Pym had “taken divers coercive measures to enforce obedience to the said requirements, insisting that he has legal authority to impose the same”. The appeal centred round Requirement 24: it was submitted to be “illegal and ultra vires”, and that “in making and insisting upon obedience to the same” Pym had exceeded his lawful authority. An associated submission, relating to Requirement 35, was that no priest should be coerced to say mass on Good Friday and Easter Eve.

Puller’s contribution to the proceedings was later published as Non-Communicating Attendance; and he returned to South Africa in time to take up cudgels in the “Deceased Wife’s Sister” marriage question. The latter was resolved to his satisfaction when in 1909 the Provincial Synod threw out the suggestion of admitting to Communion anyone who had entered into such an arrangement in a civil union, after he had demanded a vote by houses.

The appeal argued that “in the matters hereafter set forth, the Lord Bishop has misused his lawful powers and authority as Bishop of Bombay, and has conducted himself unlawfully and oppressively towards your Petitioner and others of his Clergy”, causing “great scandal and dismay” in the diocese and in the Church at large.

The hearing was originally fixed for 7 January 1908. Puller was to argue the theological and liturgical points and the Society’s lawyer in Bombay was to present the legal case. Pym, however, was known to be in poor health; and with the agreements of all parties it was postponed to 18 February. But things began to look bright, as with the announcement of the postponement Copleston directed that Nicholson should not in the interim be hindered in any way in his work at St Peter’s. “We shall patiently await the judgment which the Metropolitan will deliver,” noted the Cowley Evangelist, “confident that we shall not fail to obtain whatever is just.”

The Society received with relief a telegram from Nicholson a few days after the hearing had begun, “telling us of the happy ending of our anxiety”. Details would have to wait until the letters arrived from India a couple of weeks later; but the Times reported that “The Bishop of Calcutta, Metropolitan of India, has decided that the attendance of unconfirmed children at Holy Communion does not necessarily imply a strange doctrine, and cannot legally be prohibited.”

It soon became clear that “the three points which our Fathers brought before [the Metropolitan] have been one and all decided in our favour.”


BY THE time he was defeated Pym had already repented of much of his hot-headedness. He wrote a conciliatory letter to Henry Lord, who was by then ministering in the Konkan, recanting his former accusation of disloyalty to the diocese because of his association with, and support of, the SSJE: “I write to say that as far as I associated you with that Society in the expression ‘Extra Diocesan’ [. . .] that expression is withdrawn.” He closed “with the prayer that a smoother course now lies before us all”.

The Indian brethren were also “looking forward hopefully and happily to the peaceful development of their Mission Work” in the diocese; but any concerns they might have harboured about their relationship with the bishop in the future were swept away on 2 March, when he conveniently died.

Pym had been seriously ill for some time; and, keen to demonstrate that all was forgiven, the Cowley Evangelist paid him fulsome tribute and praised his determination to work until the very end. “We wait in prayer and hope”, it concluded, “that such an appointment may be made to the vacant Diocese as shall ensure the peace thus inaugurated being carried on to the fullest realisation.”

It was a sign of things to come that, after his ruling in the Society’s favour, Copleston chose to spend Easter Day at Poona. Herbert Asquith, only just in office, did not disappoint. Edwin Palmer was Chaplain of Balliol, and his father had been Archdeacon of Oxford. Among his uncles were William Palmer, the celebrated High Churchman, and Roundell Palmer, twice Lord Chancellor under Gladstone, and 1st Earl of Selborne. He was known for being “moderate in opinion and accommodating in all things except where basic beliefs and principles were involved”; and the Society could hardly have asked for a more satisfactory outcome.

When Maxwell addressed the General Chapter for the first time as Superior General later in the year, he spoke of “the thankfulness which we feel for the ending of our troubles in India, and for the appointment of the new Bishop of Bombay.”


This is an edited extract from The Cowley Fathers: A history of the English Congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist by Serenhedd James (Canterbury Press, £45 (CT Bookshop £40.50); 978-1-78622-183-4). Read our review of the book here.

Dr James is Hon. Research Fellow and Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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