“AS DURING the past years of war, so through the present days of reconstruction, we all have great responsibilities to shoulder. If we rely upon our own strength, we shall find the burden too great. But if through prayer and Bible reading we learn to live each day in the strength and power of God, we may well go forth with confidence and hope.”
Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) was speaking in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War, at the 25th anniversary of the Bible-Reading Fellowship (BRF). She spoke of how she was a member of the Fellowship; “so I can say from my own experience how valuable it is to have the help of these Notes in one’s daily Bible reading.”
The Queen Mother turned out to be the BRF’s one and only patron, serving from 1952 until her death in 2002. As the BRF marks its century this year, it has chosen to do so with an online service that has reached subscribers around the world rather than repeat the huge formal gatherings which marked its 25th and 50th anniversaries.
During the quarter-of-a-century before the Queen Mother’s words to those gathered for a day of celebrations in Westminster Central Hall, the BRF had undergone a remarkable growth, one that was entirely unforeseen by its founder, the Revd Leslie Mannering.
In 1922, he was the Vicar of St Matthew’s, Brixton. He wanted to help his congregation to “get on”, as he described it, with their spiritual lives. Writing in his parish magazine in December 1921, he said: “‘We are so apt to be immersed in organisations, committees, and plans, that we become entangled in our own machinery. It is the dynamic of personal religion that really moves men and things. We need to go back to the fundamentals of our faith.”
In a post-First World War era, he understood that, although many people had been schooled in the Bible, they were not engaged with it in their daily lives, and didn’t read it at home.
He believed that the fundamentals of the Christian faith were prayer, Bible-reading, and holy communion. Finding nothing produced elsewhere that would serve his purpose, he determined to create something himself for his own congregation which would immerse them in these fundamentals. In his parish-magazine article, he wrote that he believed that such a “fellowship” would become “a mighty spiritual force in the parish”.
He began by typing up a Bible passage, with some accompanying notes and a prayer, to give to those of his congregation members who were interested. He also organised a midweek meeting for his congregation, and once a month that meeting focused on preparation for communion.
The impact of these monthly notes was to be felt not just in his own congregation, but, within a few months, across the Southwark diocese.
THE present chief executive of the BRF, Richard Fisher, explains: “It so transformed the life of the congregation that, before long, other people were asking: ‘What have you got going on at St Matthew’s?’ In 1922, when he started, 100 people in the congregation were part of this new regular pattern. That had increased to 300 only two years later.
BRF archivesThe Revd Leslie Mannering
“In 1926, the Canon Missioner for the Southwark diocese invited all clergy together. They discussed the leaflets, and more people asked for copies of the Bible-reading notes. It happened so organically it was wonderful: Leslie Mannering kept being taken by surprise at how it grew and grew.”
Originally called the Fellowship of St Matthew, as the notes began to be distributed more widely, the initiative was renamed the Bible-Reading Fellowship. The notes also went from being hand-typed on flimsy paper in a tiny typeface to three separate series of printed notes.
By 1929, a panel of writers had taken over writing the notes, and each monthly issue had a circulation of 20,000. By their peak — at about the time of the Queen Mother’s address — the notes had a circulation of about half a million copies of each issue.
Mannering himself took a back seat as the BRF began to grow. “He was very humble: he never sought to be leading from the front,” Mr Fisher says. Surprisingly little is known about him afterwards. He moved on from St Matthew’s to a parish in Surrey, and then to be a canon of Bristol Cathedral, though he was to remain involved in the BRF until his death in 1974. A photograph of him is held by the National Portrait Gallery.
The BRF team today has heard from people who remember his pastoral skills. One woman who wrote in remembered being confirmed by him, and told of how he would write to all his confirmation candidates personally.
THE notes that he created have had a huge effect on people’s lives. The late Gospatrick Home, who founded the Christian Resources Exhibition, recalled how time was set aside every day at his school for the children to read their BRF notes in the morning.
Others have written in to the BRF to describe how they became readers of the notes. One of them, Beryl Fudge, from Abingdon, started with the children’s notes and is now in her eighties, having subscribed all her life. She recalls her youthful enthusiasm.
BRF archivesSt Matthew’s, Brixton
“I attended BRF’s 25th-anniversary service with my mother. Westminster Central Hall was absolutely packed, and we were down in the basement. The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were both there, and at one point they came down to the basement and walked through, speaking to people down there.
“I don’t remember much of the detail — I was only about 14 at the time — but . . . I was already reading BRF Bible reading notes, and have been reading them ever since.”
Mrs Fudge and her husband, Alan, were founder members of the congregation at Christ Church, Abingdon. Mr Fisher himself has dedicated his life to BRF: after joining in 1988 on a year out while he explored ordination, he never left. “I was meant to be going to theological college, but I never got there. . . But it has been amazing to see how God has worked through BRF.”
At the heart of the BRF today, a century later, remain the series of Bible-reading notes. They are now issued quarterly, and span five different editions, from the most popular New Daylight to Guidelines for students and church leaders, and reflections tailored for women and for older people.
The print run of the current series is around 31,500, but the BRF app has also had more than 6000 downloads in 2021. The BRF is not exclusively Anglican, although it has an Anglican heritage, and the writers for its notes are now drawn from a wide range of denominations. It has also moved on to develop new forms of ministry, including Parenting for Faith.
Mannering would still recognise the organisation today, though he would be astounded at the opportunities that exist to help people encounter God, Mr Fisher insists. “Every time I come to do any review of BRF, I reflect on our founding vision. We have diversified and responded to a changing world around us. But we have been true to the vision of Leslie Mannering.
“The issues that were presenting when he founded BRF — though he never set out to found a movement or a charity — are just as pertinent today. I would like to think he would be supportive and proud that his original initiative has led to Messy Church, Anna Chaplaincies, and others, which are all about helping people to encounter God and go further and deeper into God.
“Bible-reading and prayer are at the heart of all we do. We would not be doing these initiatives if they didn’t fulfil our charitable objectives. We are still passionate about encouraging regular Bible-reading. People have a plethora of options for how they do that now, but the big challenge is how we reach people more widely.”