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A Life-Long Springtime: The life and teaching of Fr George Congreve SSJE by Luke Miller

by
11 March 2022

Fr Congreve was of his time, but also modern, says Dominic Walker

IT MAY seem strange for someone to be writing a biography today of a priest who died in 1918, but George Congreve was no ordinary priest, and he lived at an extraordinary time, when Britain still had an Empire to evangelise. At home, the British people were experiencing new modes of transport and communication, while overseas they were fighting the Boer War and the First World War. Two of Congreve’s relatives were awarded the Victoria Cross.

Born into a military family of landed gentry, Congreve was educated at Eton and read classics at Oxford, where he was influenced by the Anglo-Catholic movement and its theological emphasis on the incarnation. He served his title at Warminster and then took a family living before entering the noviciate of the newly established Society of St John the Evangelist (to be known as the Cowley Fathers) at the age of 40.

The founder, Fr Benson, was keen to establish a monastic-style community committed to foreign and home mission, and the community carried out pioneering work in India, South Africa, and elsewhere. Benson, however, came across as austere, autocratic, and emotionally detached. Congreve had the insight to see that if the community was to survive he needed to tell the founder to step down. Benson had the humility to resign, and new leadership and fraternal friendship enabled the community to grow.

Although Congreve esteemed self-sacrifice in warfare and viewed Christian mission as a means of bringing about civilisation, many of his writings are quite contemporary. He loved his time in South Africa and believed in racial equality. He delighted in God’s creation and saw Christ’s presence in every living creature and in the beauty of nature, which he described as a sacrament. He was a master of prose, and wrote of the sights that he had seen and the birds and animals in which he delighted. He also wrote about the challenges of getting older and the suffering and joy that is found in the ageing process.

Fr Congreve SSJE, who, in old age, found sorrow turning to joy

He wrote: “Life becomes more serious and mysterious and sorrowful every year. . . We take steps nearer the edge of time. . . But as we get by experience closer to the sorrowful mysteries, we are also to be getting close to the joyful mysteries. . . sorrow is always turning to joy because of His triumph over evil. . . Here might be an open road as we grow old, leading us unto the many unknown countries of blessing.”

As a Cowley Father, Congreve gave many retreats and talks. He encouraged the burgeoning women’s communities, and his own sister joined the convent at Clewer. He preached hundreds of sermons and wrote many letters that have been preserved. He was most prolific in his writings past the age of 70, publishing books and articles for The Cowley Evangelist.

Thankfully, these have been kept and archived in the Lambeth Palace Library, which has enabled Luke Miller, the Archdeacon of London, to write this interesting biography, setting Congreve’s life in its historical and ecclesiastical context and providing many extracts of his teachings.


The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is a former Bishop of Monmouth.

 

A Life-Long Springtime: The life and teaching of Fr George Congreve SSJE
Luke Miller
Sacristy Press £24.99
(978-1-78959-198-9)
Church House Bookshop £22.49

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