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 Issues | Church History | F. J. Chavasse

 

Great Churchmen No. 24

F. J. Chavasse (1846-1928)

by H. Gresford Jones, D.D.

Second Bishop of Liverpool

Published by Church Book Room Press

Pastor Pastorum: Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, 1889-1900  

“YOU will make the mistake of your life if you don’t go to Chavasse.” It was my last year at Cambridge. I was soon to be ordained. This chance suggestion by an old friend seemed to offer an “extra” for which there was no room. Yet to Chavasse, by God’s providence, I ultimately went. Full as was my remaining year in lay life, he enabled me to squeeze in one brief term at Wycliffe Hall: there to receive, as a life-long inspiration, enduring impressions of the personality of that remarkable man whom this brief memoir is to portray.

Wycliffe Hall, founded through the energy and the munificence of a group of clergy and laity, was opened in 1877. It has worthily sustained the character of the great Oxford leader whose name it bears. As head of an Oxford College, as a serious student of the scriptures and the first to give them to Englishmen in their own tongue, with his ardour for reform and for evangelism, John Wycliffe, at once good Catholic and good Evangelical, represented much that, mutatis mutandis, was to distinguish the College destined to honour his memory five centuries later.

To Wycliffe Hall in 1889, as its second Principal, came F. J. Chavasse. He was now forty-three. With some notable friendships formed twenty years earlier at Corpus, with a fine record both as a curate in the North, and as a Vicar in London, still more with an established reputation as a preacher in Oxford itself (1) it was an admirable appointment.

The progress of the Hall in its early years had not been rapid. It was a young plant scarcely suited to the Oxford soil. And much is due to Canon Girdlestone, its first Principal, for the serene faith with which he faced great difficulties and disappointments. With the coming of Chavasse and the strong contacts he had already established with undergraduate life, it was soon clear that a new day had dawned. The number of students continued to rise. But much more than an increase in numbers became quickly apparent.

It is no easy thing for a young man to decide to be ordained. If by a “call” we mean “a vision of human need”, where can that need be more in evidence than in the vast masses of mankind, whether in our great cities at home, or in our far-flung dependencies abroad? Ordination, however, involves something more than awareness of human need. It means a determination to meet it. We are to be:

“messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord, to teach, to premonish, to provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad and for His children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” (2)

A minister of Christ is not merely to provide social betterment; he is to lead men to Heaven. He sees them sub specie eternitatis; and this in enemy-occupied territory, in a society that has largely rebelled against its Creator. Many a man with high and generous aspirations may recoil from the prospect with that hesitancy of the prophet: “Ah, Lord God, behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child.”

If then each entry into the Christian ministry is something of a miracle, how far greater a miracle is asked of him who is to train and mould and inspire that Ministry! “It takes a soul to make a soul,” said Chavasse. It takes a shepherd to make a shepherd, a painter to make a painter. Lectures, advice, exhortation, at a theological college do not avail very much. The decisive thing that turns hesitancy to assurance, and despair to hope, is that the pupil shall see the artist at work, shall see the bare canvas transformed before his eyes into a noble picture, and that not by a superman but by a frail mortal like himself. “It can after all be done,” he says to himself. “Who is to say that, with the help of God, I can’t do it too! “This supreme artist, this “Pastor Pastorum”, this maker of shepherds, has been Christ’s good gift down the ages to His Church. We think at once of Columba and Benedict and Aidan; we think in these later days of Dean Vaughan of Llandaff, of Bishop Lightfoot at Auckland, of Handley Moule’s great missionary output from Ridley Hall, of Charles Simeon’s crowded sermon classes at King’s. In this very select company a place of honour must be given to Francis James Chavasse.

I like to recall my first meeting with him. It was late when I arrived, travelling post-haste from abroad. I felt immediately the impression of his courtesy, his gentleness, his tender provision for my comfort, above all the sweetness of his face and demeanour. And it was to find at once how this spirit of his pervaded the whole College.

Whether or no our normal theological college has as yet met the real needs of the Church of to-day seems an open question. Is it not too much a looking back to academic ideas, too little a preparation for the exacting programme of the modern parish priest, too much still a “college”, too little a training school, too much softness, too little hardness? Men need habituating not so much to the handling of sympathetic congregations as to the arresting of unsympathetic critics, not so much to listening to interesting lectures as to the construction of convincing sermons. Something analogous to “Commando-training” is called for.

Wycliffe Hall had been established on the Banbury-road in what was formerly the residence of Thomas Arnold, son of the great Headmaster. Next door was the Principal’s house. In my day there was no Chapel. Our services were held in a room temporarily adapted for the purpose. There were obvious limitations. All this, however, was by the way. We had come to be with Chavasse, and Chavasse was there, to give to the whole College life a tone and a quality of its own. The event of the week was the Principal’s address in Chapel on Fridays at 5.45, when he poured out into us his very soul. It was his voice, his holiness, his profound reverence, his atmosphere of intense urgency, that influenced the life of the place; and that gave to each man in turn a new conception of an effective Ministry.

“‘It fell to my lot,’ writes the Rev. J. Sinclair Stevenson, ‘as an aspirant to the ministry in the Presbyterian Church to exchange Oxford for Edinburgh. For one precious and unforgettable summer term, I, a Presbyterian, was allowed to be numbered among the Wycliffe men as the Principal’s guest. I went back to a very different Edinburgh, for I was changed myself. That Wycliffe term had coloured for me the whole grey study of theology with the brightness of the rainbow-coloured grace of God.... He walked with God, and he had the power of making others conscious that in his presence God was near.’” (3)

The above would find so responsive an echo from so many Wycliffe men that I have ventured to quote it from the excellent biography of Bishop Chavasse, written by Canon J. B. Lancelot, to whom I am indebted for so much beside. From him too I must quote some of those beloved obiter dicta treasured by Wycliffe men:

“God’s bidding is God’s enabling.”

“We are men of power as we are men of prayer.”

“It is far easier to preach than to pray.”

“Praying will keep you from sinning, or sinning will keep you from praying.”

“If you preach exactly the same sermons as you did ten years ago, there is something wrong.”

“Aim at preaching extempore but not till you are master of the situation.”

“Let your sermon come from the text.”

“Avoid curious texts—avoid scripture conjuring.”

“Sermons should not come out of the factory, but out of life.”

“The best cure for pride in a popular preacher is to visit from house to house.”

“You will learn some of your best lessons in the homes of your people.”

“Visiting is the best of all Church defences.”

“Visit at all times, in all weathers, and in all states of health.”

“Don’t be a smileless man in black.”

“A glad heart makes work easier, attracts our people, commends our religion.”

“The best way to dispel error is to teach the truth.”

If any affirmation as to the aims and the achievements of Wycliffe Hall should be cherished, it is that of Chavasse himself. In 1877 the Hall had been opened. In 1927 its Jubilee was celebrated. I vividly recall that thrilling re-union. As was most meet the preacher was none other than the aged Bishop—now eighty-one—to whose leadership the Hall owed so enduring a debt. The following are some brief extracts from his memorable sermon. It was his last: a veritable apologia pro vita sua.

“On this red letter day when we meet, as a band of brothers, to praise God for the opening of Wycliffe Hall fifty years ago . . .Let me remind you of three of the great objects for which it stands.

“I. Wycliffe Hall stands for the guarding and proclaiming of evangelical truth. Among all the great truths won back at the Reformation surely the greatest was the assured supremacy of Holy Scripture in credal and ethical questions. Wycliffe Hall in its trust deed emphatically lays hold of this vital point and without hesitation affirms as one of the principles upon which the Hall is founded that the Scriptures are written by inspiration of God, and are to be taken as the sole standard of religious truth in the plain sense of Article VI of the Church of England. Our trust deed lays down other principles.... In the forefront it places the great central fact of the Atonement...the ministry that ignores the Atonement cannot touch the deepest cravings of the human heart.

“2. Wycliffe Hall stands also for the maintenance of primitive faith and order in the Church. While it is not ashamed to speak of the Church of England as Protestant and Reformed, it is equally not afraid to affirm its Catholicity.... It emphatically declares its unity with the Primitive Church.... It is far older than the State. It stood at the cradle of Parliament. It has grown with our national growth.... It is a true and pure branch of that ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ founded by our Lord Himself, ecumenical in its range, all-embracing in its truth, and lasting until its Divine Founder comes again.

“3. Wycliffe Hall stands lastly for the extension of Christ’s kingdom at home and abroad. It was founded by men who belonged to that section of the Church of England, which, with all its many grave shortcomings, has ever been fired by a passionate love for the souls and bodies of those for whom Christ died.... In this work Wycliffe Hall has played its little part at home and abroad. It has sent out six hundred men ... sixty of its members have gone into the Mission Field. Three of its sons have fallen as bishops in heathen lands. To-day some of the best known living English missionaries have received their training in Wycliffe Hall.”

There are those who would say that this moulding of men for the ministry was his greatest gift to the Church. It lay with much weight upon his conscience. When Lord Salisbury in 1900 offered him the Bishopric of Liverpool, he wrote to a friend, “Where can I be more useful, in Oxford or in Liverpool? My own judgment leads me to say, in Oxford. God is blessing Wycliffe. Ought I to leave it at present?”

The need in our own day is greater than ever. The very forces that range themselves with increasing bitterness against Christ and His Church—the all-corroding scepticism, the widespread moral laxity, the open atheism—constitute precisely the situation that calls for men of God, like Chavasse himself, to witness by word and by life to the way of Christ.

Here and now we clergy are of small account. Like the Apostles of old, we are the “street sweepings” (4) of the world. But wait awhile. Look ahead. Lift your eyes from the mud of the trenches of the Church militant here on earth to the glory of the Church triumphant, as she soon will be around her victorious Lord: see life in its true perspective, see men in relation to their true destiny, and at once the humiliation is transformed to a coveted honour, and we are thankful to God that He has called us, or still better called our sons, into His clerus, His own corps d’élites of the ministry itself.

It may take years to make a good clergyman. A Cambridge friend of mine, now dead, with a fine record both at home and overseas, told me that, when he decided to be ordained, he wrote two letters, one to his father, the other to his mother. By return of post he got two replies. The one from his father, that this was the great disappointment of his life. The other from his mother saying that she had prayed for this very thing ever since he was a little boy.

Well may we pray—as Christ himself has charged us—Ut operarios fideles in vineam tuam mittere digneris. (5)

 

>> Chapter 2: Shepherd of the Flock: Bishop of Liverpool, 1900-1923.

 

Endnotes:

1) As Vicar of St. Peter-le-Bailey, Oxford, 1877-1889.

2) The Charge to Priests: Book of Common Prayer.

3) Lancelot, p. 126.

4) 1 Corinthians iv. 13.

5) From the Latin litany of York Convocation.

                                                                  

             

 

 

                         

 

 

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