31 August 2016

Finding Christ in the garden
and the gardener as a priest

Sunflowers in the garden at Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I heard a story this morning of a monk from Cyprus who was the gardener in his monastery. He was happy at his work, growing vegetables, tending the vines and orchards, bringing the flowers to bloom, and looking after the soil, in season and out of season.

He enjoyed his work, and never sought to do anything more in the monastery.

One day, the Abbot called him aside and told him he wanted him to be ordained.

The monk was perplexed. He was from a simple farming background and had never thought about being ordained a priest.

But Father Abbot, he protested, I do not know how to serve the liturgy.

But the garden is your liturgy, the Abbot insisted. And the garden shall continue to be your liturgy.

Despite his protests, he was ordained a priest.

He continued to work in the garden. The flowers bloomed and the vegetable grew in such vast quantities that the monks had to give them away freely to the local villagers.

Often, while the monks were praying the offices or hours in the chapel, Father John was still out on his tractor, looking after the garden, the flowers, the vegetables, the vines and the orchards. They needed constant attention, Father John understood nature, and there he prayed with them.

There are three degrees in Orthodox monasticism:

Rassophore (ρασοφόρος): when the novice becomes a monk, he is clothed in the first degree of monasticism and receives the tonsure.

Stavrophore (σταυρoφόρος): when some years after the first tonsure the abbot feels the monk has reached an appropriate level of discipline, dedication, and humility. This degree is also known as the Little Schema.

Great Schema (μεγαλόσχημος): Monks whose abbots feel they have reached a high level of spiritual excellence, they reach the final stage, known as the Great Schema.

In his dying days, Father John received the Great Schema from the Abbot. He died a few days later, but his gardens continue to bloom and to blossom, and both he and his generosity are still remembered by the villagers many years later.

Shortly after hearing this story this morning, I found myself face to face with a fresco depicting the Resurrection scene where Mary Magdalene in the garden mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener.

But if priesthood is about presenting Christ to the people, and the people to God in Christ, then it seems there is something spiritually beautiful and appropriate about the monk-gardener becoming a priest, and that the Risen Christ might at first sight be confused with the gardener.

After breakfast this morning [31 August], we left Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, for our annual visit to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex.

It was the last day of the summer conference organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and the programme included a tour of the monastery and a lecture by Sister Magdalen on ‘Mother Elisabeth (1893-1993),’ and also offered an opportunity for walks in the monastery garden and the Essex countryside.

‘Noli Me Tangere’ … a fresco of Mary Magdalene with the Risen Christ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A fellow of Sidney Sussex who
ended up in prison for ritualism

The bell of the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College seen from Green Street, Cambridge … the college was a ‘Puritan’ foundation but responded positively to the Anglo-Catholic movement in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The chapel in Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, where I am staying this week, is closed for repairs, and I have not been inside for the duration of this week’s conference organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Although Sidney Sussex was founded as a ‘Puritan’ college in the late 16th century, the college responded positively to the rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the 19th century. The college chapel, built in 1600, rebuilt in 1782 and again from 1912 to 1923, was refashioned in the Edwardian era, with brown oak stalls and panels, marbled floors, a bronze and marble altar, and decorative barrel vaulting. Today, it is one of the finest and most elaborate modern Catholic-style chapels in Cambridge.

A pioneering 19th century Anglo-Catholic from Sidney Sussex was the Revd Thomas Pelham Dale (1821–1892), who was jailed for his ‘ritualistic’ high church practices.

Thomas Pelham Dale was born at Blackheath on 3 April 1821, the son of Thomas Dale (1797-1870), Dean of Rochester. The elder Thomas Dale had also been Professor of English language and literature at London University (1828-1830), Professor of English at King’s College, London (1836-1839), Vicar of Saint Bride’s in Fleet Street, London (1835-1846) and Rector of Saint Pancras, London (1846-1861), and has been described as ‘an old-fashioned high church evangelical.’

Dale grew up in Beckenham, Kent. After attending King’s College, London, he went up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was admitted as a ‘pensioner’ on 30 June 1841 and matriculated in Michaelmas term.

He graduated BA in 1845 as the 25th Wrangler. The Wranglers are those students at Cambridge who gain first-class degrees in mathematics. The Cambridge undergraduate mathematics course, or Mathematical Tripos, is famously difficult. The Senior Wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge, a position that has been described as ‘the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.’

Dale was immediately elected a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College in 1845. He was ordained deacon that year by Charles Sumner, Bishop of Winchester, and was ordained priest in 1846.

His first appointment in 1845 was as curate of the Camden Chapel, Camberwell, Surrey. The Camden Chapel on the north side of Peckham Road had opened in 1797 as a Protestant Dissenting Chapel, and became an Anglican chapel in 1829. But it had only become a parish church within the Church of England in 1844.

Dale resigned his fellowship at Sidney Sussex in 1847 when he was appointed the Rector of Saint Vedast’s in Foster Lane with Saint Michael’s-le-Querne in the City of London. He received his Cambridge MA in 1848, and continued his scholarly scientific and theological interests, so that he was the librarian of Sion College in the City of London from 1851 to 1856.

In 1861, with Archibald Tait, Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury, Elizabeth Catherine Ferard (1825-1883), who was related to Dale by marriage, and two other women, Dale founded the North London Deaconess Institution, based in King’s Cross. Dale wanted to establish a women’s society to work among the poor, but one that was more flexible than a structured religious order.

Dale was also a considerable Hebrew scholar, and he was the author of A Life’s Motto (1869) and A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (1873).

Less than three months after becoming Dean of Rochester, Thomas Dale was visiting his son at No 2 Amen Court, Saint Paul’s, London, when he died suddenly on 14 May 1870.

Like his father, Dale was originally an evangelical. However, he came to believe that ritualism was specifically appropriate to deal with the nature of secularism and the forces he saw as hostile to Christianity of the time. He began to use the mixed chalice and to wear Eucharistic vestments at Christmas 1873.

Opposition to Dale crystallised around his ritualism, and grew when he offered locum tenens ministry in 1875 to the congregation of Saint Alban the Martyr, Holborn, while the Revd Alexander Heriot Mackonochie was suspended for his ritualist practices.

In 1876, Dale was prosecuted under the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874. He was supported by the English Church Union in his prosecution by the Church Association. In the same year, he joined the Society of the Holy Cross.

On 12 November 1876, John Jackson, Bishop of London, enforced an inhibition obtained from the Court of Arches, and insisted on taking over the services at Saint Vedast’s. Dale submitted for the time, but legal flaws were discovered in the case of the prosecution. Amid much correspondence, public and private, Dale renewed the services, and ignored the citations, summonses, admonitions, inhibitions, and other documents with which he had been served and in December 1878, he recommenced all his former practices.

After protracted legal proceedings, another judgment was obtained against him from the Dean of Arches, Lord Penzance, in the Court of Arches on 28 October 1880. Two days later, Dale was arrested and he was sent to Holloway prison on 30 October 1880.

Dale’s imprisonment drew great sympathy from all but his most die-hard opponents. Such imprisonments did more than anything else to turn public opinion against Disraeli’s attempt to use the law to put down ritualism.

Dale was released on bail on Christmas Eve 1880, and in January 1881 he was entirely released by order of the Lords Justices, who held that the writ of inhibition was bad, because its issue had not been reported to the Court of Queen’s Bench. A protracted case that had excited extraordinary attention had been had come to an end.

Soon after his release, Dale was presented by the patron, Charles Trollope Swan, to the living of Sausthorpe-cum-Aswardby, near Spilsby in Lincolnshire, and he was instituted on 21 April 1881.

In his rural rectory, Dale resumed his Hebrew and scientific studies and his water-colour painting. Several of his paintings, made on in Padua and Venice on a tour of Italy in 1882, were reproduced in his biography by his daughter.

Dale died at Sausthorpe Rectory on 19 April 1892, on the eleventh anniversary of the death of Disraeli, one of the architects of the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874. He was buried in Sausthorpe churchyard.

His later successors at Saint Vedast’s included Canon Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1974-1986), former Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and the Revd Dr Alan McCormack (2007-2015), former chaplain of Trinity College Dublin.

A Sidney Sussex don and father
of the architect of Portmeirion

The Sidney Sussex boathouse by the River Cam … John Clough Williams-Ellis (1833-1913) was a good oarsman and swimmer and received a medal for rescuing a friend from drowning in the River Cam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing last month about Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), the English-born architect from a Welsh family who is best remembered as the designer of Portmeirion.

I am staying this week in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, during the annual Summer School organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and I was interested to learn that the architect’s father, the Revd John Clough Williams-Ellis (1833-1913), was a leading don at Sidney Sussex.

John Clough Williams-Ellis was a don at Sidney Sussex College in the Victorian era before returning to Wales, and was descended from a long line of Welsh Anglican priests.

The Williams family can be traced back to Thomas Ellis Anwyl, of Porthdinllaen, Edern, Caernarfonshire, who died in 1703. Later, the Ven John Ellis (1721-1785), Rector of Bangor, Chancellor of Bangor Cathedral and Archdeacon of Merioneth. His son, Canon Thomas Ellis MA (died 1833), was Rector of Llanfachreth, Anglesey, and the Treasurer of Bangor Cathedral.

The architect’s grandfather, the Revd John Williams-Ellis, adopted the additional name of Williams when he inherited the Brondanw estates. He was born 21 January 1808, and educated at the Friars’ Grammar School, Bangor, and Saint John’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1830). Later, he was the Rector of Llanaelhaiarn and the Rector of Beddgelert. On 21 February 1831, he married Harriet Ellen, only child of James Henry Clough, of Plas Clough, Denbighshire, and they had two sons and a daughter.

His eldest son, Thomas Parr Clough (1832-1897), succeeded to the Plas Clough estate in 1878 and assumed by royal licence the name of Clough in accordance with the will of his grandfather.

His second son, the architect’s father, the Revd John Clough Williams-Ellis (1833-1913), succeeded to the Glasfryn and Brondanw estates. He was born in Plas Clough, Denbighshire, Wales, on 11 March 1833. He was brought up in Brondanw, Llanfrothen, and later, when his father became the Rector of Llanaelhaearn, in Glasfryn, Llangybi. He was educated in Rossall School and came to Cambridge in 1852 when was admitted a pensioner at Sidney Sussex on 28 April 1852 and matriculated at Michaelmas 1852.

Although he was proficient in Welsh, he seems to have written only in English. He won prizes for poetry in Cambridge, and while he was proficient in Welsh and assumed the pen-name, ‘Shon Pentyrch.’

He was also a good oarsman and swimmer. In 1855, he received the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal for rescuing a friend from drowning in the River Cam.

Williams-Ellis graduated BA (3rd Wrangler) in 1856. The Wranglers are those students at Cambridge who gain first-class degrees in mathematics. The Cambridge undergraduate mathematics course, or Mathematical Tripos, is famously difficult. The Senior Wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge, a position that has been described as ‘the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.’

Following his graduation 160 years ago, Williams-Ellis was elected a fellow of Sidney Sussex College in 1856. Two years later, he was ordained deacon by Thomas Turton, Bishop of Ely and former Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, in 1858. He proceeded MA in 1859, and was ordained priest by Bishop Turton that year.

He was admitted MA at Oxford (ad eundem) on 7 June 1860, when he was described as ‘Of Glasfryn, Co Carnarvon, and of Brondanw, Co Merioneth.’

He remained a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College for over 20 years from 1856 to 1877, and was also a Tutor from 1859 to 1876. He was Senior Moderator of the University of Cambridge in 1866-1867.

Williams-Ellis may have been the first Welshman to climb one of the highest mountains in the Alps. He was familiar with the mountains of Snowdonia and in 1857 he went on a tour in the Alps with the Revd JF Hardy, also a don at Sidney Sussex College.

On 13 August 1857, accompanied by JF Hardy, William and St John Mathews, ES Kennedy (1817–1898), and five guides, he climbed the Finsteraarhorn (4,274 metres), the highest peak in Bern Oberland. The mountain had been scaled earlier, possibly in 1812, but this was the first British climb and the venture inspired William Mathews and Kennedy to establish an Alpine Club.

However, Williams-Ellis did not join the Alpine Club and there is no mention of him visiting the Alps again, although his family still has his alpenstock.

Meanwhile, the reforms to the university in the 1850s would change Sidney’s intellectual course forever. From the largely theological and mathematical college of the first two centuries or so, it became a power-house in the rapidly expanding medical, natural, physical and chemical sciences, and this direction was much inspired by John Clough Williams-Ellis.

John Wale Hicks, later Bishop of Bloemfontein, was typical of the time, publishing books on both doctrine and inorganic chemistry. The laboratories that stood along the Sidney Street wall beyond ‘A’ staircase, were among the first in Cambridge. Later, they were the site of a string of important experiments by the world famous metallurgist FH Neville and others such as EH Griffiths until they fell into disuse by 1910.

Their fame led Dorothy L Sayers to propose Sidney Sussex as the Cambridge college Sherlock Holmes attended in 1871-1873. Developing this theme, Professor Richard Chorley of Sidney Sussex College later allocated Holmes a room on the first floor of Staircase A, overlooking both Hall Court and Sidney Street.

The fame of John Clough Williams-Ellis and others led to Sherlock Holmes being ascribed rooms on the first floor of Staircase A in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

As a brilliant mathematician and a successful tutor, Williams-Ellis contributed to enhancing the reputation of Sidney Sussex College. When the Cambridge chair in mechanics became vacant all the eminent scholars in the field supported him, but another person was elected as a result of the influence of the larger colleges.

While he was still a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Williams-Ellis became the Vicar of Madingley, Cambridgeshire, in 1865. His predecessor, Robert Mackray, who was Vicar from 1862 to 1865, was later the first Anglican Primate of Canada. As Vicar of Madingley, Williams-Ellis restored Saint Mary’s Church, and he planned the new vicarage, which allowed Madingley to have a resident vicar.

In 1876, he became the Rector of Gayton, Northamptonshire. Within a year, he married Ellen Mabel Greaves on 2 January 1877, and resigned his fellowship at Sidney Sussex. They had six sons, including Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect (1883-1978), who was their fourth son.

Meanwhile, Williams-Ellis invested his earnings as a tutor in expanding his Glasfryn estate in North Wales, and he retired there in1889. A year later, he became a Justice of the Peace in 1890.

Williams-Ellis died on 27 May 1913 at the age of 80, and was buried in a glade near Glasfryn in North Wales. Had he remained a don at Sidney Sussex College and never returned to Wales, I wonder whether his son, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, would ever have dreamt of building Portmeririon.

Rowing by the Sidney Sussex boathouse on the River Cam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)