Friday, 9 September 2016
The chance meeting with a Quaker that
deprived Newman of a future archbishop
During my visits to Sion Mills and Strabane in Co Tyrone, and Saint Columb’s Cathedral in Derry earlier this week, I was reminded of the great hymn-writer Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) and her husband, Archbishop William Alexander (1824-1911).
Some of Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymns are said to have been inspired by the scenery around both Sion Mills and Strabane, and her husband, who born in Derry, was Bishop of Derry and Raphoe for almost 30 years years (1867-1896) before his final appointment as Archbishop of Armagh (1896-1911).
William Alexander was born on 13 April 1824, the third child of Canon Robert Alexander. From Tonbridge School, he was sent up to Oxford and Exeter College, where he matriculated in 1841. This was just at the close of the Oxford Movement and he came under the influence of both John Henry Newman, who was then still an Anglican, and of Edward Bouverie Pusey, who was the Regius Professor of Hebrew.
Throughout his life, Alexander’s theology bore the stamp of the ‘Bisley’ school of Tractarianism, gathered around John Keble’s brother, the Revd Thomas Keble, who was Rector of Bisley in Gloucestershire. He put great faith in the idea of putting the Book of Common Prayer into practice, and he read widely not just Anglican theologians, but also French and German writers.
Although Alexander’s health did not allow him to pursue an honours degree, he did so well in the examinations that he was granted an areogatat degree. He was ordained in 1847, and after a brief curacy he was rector successively of the parishes of Derg, Camus and Fahan parishes in the north-west of Ireland.
He became Dean of Emly in 1864. Three years later he was made Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in 1867, and he was the last bishop of the Church of Ireland to sit in the House of Lords before the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871.
Like the other bishops of the Church of Ireland, he opposed disestablishment, but he accepted that disestablishment on good terms was better than prolonging establishment at the price of a further suppression of Bishoprics by the government. The first reduction, from 22 to 12 had been accomplished in 1833-1846 and had sparked the Oxford Movement, and it was felt that a further reduction, from 12 to eight, would adversely affect the efficiency of the bishops.
After disestablishment, Bishop Alexander, along with Archbishop Marcus Beresford of Armagh, Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin, Lord Plunkett and Bishop John Gregg, played his part in derailing a number of proposals that would have given the Church of Ireland a government more Presbyterian than Episcopal in its structure.
Bishop Alexander did not always appreciate the cautious tone of the Irish Canons in ceremonial matters, but the survival of the Book of Common Prayer almost intact encouraged him.
As a bishop, he retained his academic interests. He was the select preacher at Oxford (1870-1872 and 1882), Cambridge (1872-1892), and Dublin (1879), and he gave the Bampton Lectures, a series of prestigious theological lectures, in Oxford in 1876. He was an eloquent preacher and the author of numerous theological works, including Primary Convictions. His collected poems were published in 1887 as St Augustine’s Holiday and other Poems.
Bishop Alexander is also mentioned by James Joyce as part of the procession in the Cyclops episode in Ulysses.
On 25 February 1896, he became the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. He was then 72.
He finally retired in Lent 1911 at the age of 87, and lived briefly in Torbay, where he died on 12 September 1911. His concerns for sound theology, good worship, and lively parishes made him one of the most effective influences on the newly disestablished Church of Ireland.
His wife, Cecil Frances Alexander is remembered as the author of many well-known hymns, including ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’
But she also wrote some tracts in connection with the Oxford Movement, and it is sometimes forgotten that William Alexander was also a strong supporter of the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians. Indeed, through the influence of John Henry Newman he almost became a Roman Catholic, but for the intervention of a Quaker he met on his way to Birmingham.
William Alexander passed his ‘responsions’ in June 1843, the first of the three examinations required for a degree at Oxford until 1960. They were known as the ‘Little Go’ and were generally taken by students prior to or shortly after matriculation, with questions on Latin, Ancient Greek, and mathematics. The Cambridge equivalent was the Previous Examination.
Three months after Alexander passed ‘Little Go,’ John Henry Newman resigned as the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Oxford, on 25 September 1843, and shortly afterwards he preached his last sermon as an Anglican priest at Saint Mary’s, Littlemore, where he was also the Vicar since 1828. William Alexander went out to Littlemore to hear that sermon in 1843. Immediately, he began to have doubts and to ask questions about remaining an Anglican.
He was a young man and had hung on Newman’s every word. Now he found himself alone in the wilderness. He did not dare to go to Newman for help and guidance, and later when he was asked why, he answered: ‘My awe of him was too great.’
He sometimes wandered out to Littlemore, but he never ventured to knock at Newman’s door. Once or twice he saw the sad white face of Newman passing in the street in Oxford, but drew back trembling with excitement and in reverence.
Newman formally joined the Roman Catholic Church on 9 October 1845. Alexander attended Mass, possibly at the Jesuit Church where Newman preached, and was carried away by all that appeals to the senses. He went again and again, and was worried that he would be expelled from Brasenose. Acting on impulse, he took his name off the books, wrote to his mother on the spur of the moment that he had decided to follow Newman and become a Roman Catholic, packed all his belongings, and left Oxford without any intention of returning.
His brain was whirling, his mind was seething with anger, and his heart was beating with fierce unhappiness, doubt and defiance.
He took a cheap coach that was going to Birmingham but seems to have been unprepared for the long journey. His nearest travelling companion was a Quaker woman who was older than him and was dressed in traditional Quaker dress.
Her presence on the coach seems to have calmed and soothed the disturbed young man, and she began to speak to him gently of peace out of the peace in her own heart. Her journey ended before his, but the coach stayed for half an hour for a change of horses near her cottage. She invited him Alexander to have tea with her, instead of going to the coaching inn for a drink and meal with the other passengers.
‘I have a little book for thee, friend,’ she said to him. ‘The book will do thee no harm, and verily the tea will do thee much good.’ Alexander read the book on the last stage of the journey. He was calmed and elevated by the gentle Quaker, and to the end of his life she remained in his grateful memory as an influence for good. The lost tract threw some light on the darkness of his doubts.
Alexander spent a night in Birmingham in the small attic of a cheap hotel. There the great battle of his life was fought out on his knees. He returned to Oxford, first to New Inn Hall and eventually to Brasenose College, where his friend, Sir George Ferguson Bowen (1821-1899), was then a Fellow and Tutor. Bowen was from Taughboyne, near St Johnston in Co Donegal, where his father, the Revd Edward Bowen, was the Rector. In 1847, Bowen was appointed president of the Ionian University located in Corfu, a post he held until 1851. He later held colonial appointments in the Ionian Islands, Queensland, New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius and Hong Kong.
Eventually, two years after he almost left Oxford, Alexander graduated with classical honours and was ordained in 1847. He received his MA at Oxford in 1856 and was honoured by Oxford University with two doctorates, as a Doctor in Divinity (DD, 1867) when he became Bishop of Derry, and as a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL, 1876) when he was invited to give the Bampton Lectures.
The name of the Quaker and her simple tract are long forgotten. Without either, would William Alexander have followed Newman to Rome, and would he be remembered to this day?