27 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (43): Charles Henry Brent, 27 March

Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929) … missionary bishop, ecumenical pioneer, poet and campaigner against the drugs trade

Patrick Comerford

Today [27 March] is the Wednesday in Holy Week. Today too, the calendar of the Episcopal Church (TEC) remembers Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929), Bishop of the Philippines, of Western New York and in Europe. He died on 27 March 1929, but because this so often falls in Holy Week or Easter Week, the alternative date of 25 August, the date of his arrival in the Philippines in 1902, was adopted in 2008 by the Central Philippines diocese in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines

Charles Henry Brent was born on 9 April 1862, in Newcastle, Ontario, the third of ten children of the Revd Canon Henry Brent of Saint James’s Cathedral and Sophia Frances Brent. He graduated with a BA in classics from Trinity College, University of Toronto, in 1884, and from 1885-1887 he was an under-master at Trinity College School, Port Hope, Canada.

He was ordained deacon in 1886, ordained priest in 1887, and received his MA from Trinity College, University of Toronto in 1889.

He first worked in Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, but his time in Buffalo was brief and in 1889 he moved to Boston, where he lived in an Episcopal monastic order, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. The Cowley Fathers, who put him in charge of Saint Augustine’s, a small chapel erected to minister to the African-Americans living in Boston’s dilapidated West End.

Although he never took any vows, his three years with the Cowley Fathers had a profound impact on his life, theology and values. Late in life, Brent said his training with the Cowley Fathers was “so sound and inspiring that I could covet it for every young priest.” He said: “Daily meditation was a severe and joyous task. The Practice of the Presence … the love of Jesus Christ, the application to modern life of principles by which he lived, and the overwhelming importance of the unseen, were instilled into my being in a manner and to a degree from which there is, thirty-five years later, no escape.”

As he applied pragmatic Christianity in Boston’s slums, he became receptive to the social gospel. His spiritual growth and social awareness evolved after a conflict within the Cowley order ended his monastic life in 1891.

His Rector, Father Arthur Hall, became Bishop of Vermont in 1891, and Charles became a US citizen that year. With another Cowley refugee, Henry Martyn Torbert, Charles volunteered to work at Saint Stephen’s on Florence Street, an Episcopal mission in an Irish-Catholic and Jewish ghetto in Boston’s South End. Together, they built an impressive institutional mission church. Saint Stephen’s physical plant was expanded to include a parish house, a settlement house, a rescue mission, a lodging house, and a wood and coal yard that allowed men to earn money for their meals and housing for the night.

While never an original theologian, Brent read widely and was profoundly influenced by the Anglican Socialists, especially Frederick Denison Maurice. In Boston, he became friends with the Christian Socialists WPD Bliss and Vida Schudder, and was an active member of the Christian Social Union.

He remained at Saint Stephen’s for ten years until 1901. Meanwhile, the Spanish-American War began in1898 over a dispute about Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Philippines were acquired by the US in 1901, and the bishops of the Episcopal Church appointed Charles Brent as the Missionary Bishop of the Philippines.

That year, both Brent’s mother and his friend and colleague, Torbert, died. The Revd WS Rainsford, Rector of Saint George’s Church, New York, offered him a position on his staff, the University of the South elected him to its faculty, and the General Theological Seminary, New York, offered him for the position of dean. But, unexpectedly, he was elected missionary Bishop of the Philippines, and he was consecrated bishop in Emmanuel Church, Boston, on 19 December 1901.

It took eight months for Brent to arrive in the Philippines after his consecration, and he arrived in Manila on 25 August 1902 on the same ship with the American Governor, William Howard Taft.

The new bishop carried with him the unofficial but very real prestige of the new American establishment.

However, he soon demonstrated that he was going to resist the temptations that ruined many Protestant missions. He refused to waste time criticising Roman Catholicism, the religion of most of the Filipinos, or to conduct a “chapel of ease” for the rich and comfortable American Episcopalians in Manila. He determined, instead, to go to the thousands of non-Christians on the islands, including the Igorots in Luzon, the Muslims, and the Chinese in Manila, and also to see that the US rule in the Philippines was responsible and ethical.

Confronted by the moral and physical devastation of opium addiction, he became an unflinching advocate of drug control. He took the cause internationally, calling for co-operation in eradicating drug abuse. He served on a committee, appointed by the Philippine government to investigate the use of opium, from 1902-1914. He served as chief commissioner for the US and president of the first international Opium Commission at Shanghai (1908-1919), and chair of the US delegation to the Opium Conference at The Hague (1911-1912), and as president of the Conference in 1912.

In those years, he returned to the US regularly, and was Paddock lecturer at the General Theological Seminary, New York, in 1904, and William Belden Noble lecturer at Harvard in 1907.

However, on three occasions he declined three elections as bishop in dioceses in the US – twice as Bishop of Washington in 1908 and on a third occasion as Bishop of New Jersey in 1914. Instead, he insisted on continuing his work in the Philippines. In those years, he also attended the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910.

Brent had serious misgivings about the Edinburgh Conference, and noted the absence of Roman Catholic and Orthodox delegates. But he left Edinburgh a renewed ecumenist, and later would find himself at the forefront of ecumenical endeavours in the Episcopal Church.

His experiences in the Philippines helped to develop this strong concern for the cause of visible Christian unity. He wrote: “The unity of Christendom is not a luxury, but a necessity. The world will go limping until Christ’s prayer that all may be one is answered. We must have unity, not at all costs, but at all risks. A unified Church is the only offering we dare present to the coming Christ, for in it alone will He find room to dwell.”

His health had broken, and in 1918 he accepted his election as Bishop of Western New York. But the US had entered World War I in 1917, and he was the Senior Chaplain in France with the US forces and did move to his new diocese until 1919.

After World War I, he spoke out against harsh treatment of conscientious objectors and defended the Turks against indiscriminate condemnation, arguing that the chief things they had learned from Christians were better weapons of war and better fighting.

His commitment to ecumenism continued after his return to the US. In 1920, he chaired the Geneva meeting to plan the World Conference on Faith and Order, and in 1921 he toured Scotland as the Duff Lecturer in the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

In 1926 he was appointed the Bishop in charge of the American Episcopal churches in Europe, which then included two churches in Paris and others at Nice, Florence, Rome, Dresden, Munich, Geneva and Lucerne.

In Europe, he helped organise the first World Conference on Faith and Order, which met in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927. This significant ecumenical gathering helped lay the foundation for the World Council of Churches.

Bishop Charles Henry Brent on the cover of ‘Time’ magazine in 1927

He remained the Episcopal bishop in Europe until he was taken to hospital in November 1927.

His last public appearance was 75 years ago, when Bishop Brent represented the Episcopal Church in the US at the installation of Cosmo Gordon Lang as the Archbishop of Canterbury on 4 December 1928.

On his way to a much-needed holiday in the Mediterranean, he died in Lausanne on 27 March 1929, just a fortnight short of his being 67th birthday. He was buried in the Bois de Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne. His granite grave marker has an eloquent Celtic cross carved into its top. In its obituary, The Guardian (5 April 1929) said: “He could speak to business men, or diplomats, or undergraduates with equal ease, and all knew that a man of God had been among us.”

This prayer, which was written by him, is still used widely:

“Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love upon the hard wood of the Cross, that all men everywhere might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us with thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of thy Name.”

The writer James Thayer Addison called him “a saint of disciplined mental vigor, one whom soldiers were proud to salute and whom children were happy to play with, who could dominate a parliament and minister to an invalid, a priest and bishop who gloried in the heritage of his Church, yet who stood among all Christian brothers as one who served.”


Heavenly Father,
whose Son prayed that we all might be one:
Deliver us from arrogance and prejudice,
and give us wisdom and forbearance,
that, following your servant Charles Henry Brent,
we may be united in one family
with all who confess the Name of your Son Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 56: 6-8; Psalm 122; Ephesians 4: 1-7, 11-13; Matthew 9: 35-38.

What is dying? by Charles Henry Brent

A ship sails and I stand watching
till she fades on the horizon,
and someone at my side
says, “She is gone.”
Gone where? Gone from my sight,
that is all; she is just as
large as when I saw her...
the diminished size and total
loss of sight is in me, not in her,
and just at the moment
when someone at my side
says “she is gone,” there are others
who are watching her coming,
and other voices take up the glad shout,
“there she comes!” ... and that is dying.
“There she comes!
An horizon and just the limit of our sight.
Lift us up, Oh Lord, that we may see further.

Brent published over 20 books during his lifetime, and a few more were published posthumously. Most are devotional in nature or collected works of sermons. His books include:

With God in the World: A Series of Papers (New York: Longmans, Green, 1900).
Leadership: The William Belden Noble Lectures (New York: Longmans, Green,1908).
The Mind of Christ Jesus in the Church of the Living God (New York: Longmans, Green, 1908).
Adventure for God (New York: Longmans, Green, 1915).
The Revelation of Discovery (New York: Longmans, Green, 1915).
A Master Builder, Being the Life and Letters of Henry Yates Satterlee, First Bishop of Washington (New York: Longmans, Green, 1916).
The Mount of Vision: Being a Study of Life in Terms of the Whole (New York: Longmans, Green, 1918).
The Commonwealth: Its Foundations and Pillars (New York: D. Appleton, 1930).

Tomorrow (28 March): Patrick Forbes and the Aberdeen Doctors.

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