28 March 2023

The Revd Oliver Henly, Vicar
of Wolverton Saint Mary, and
a church crisis in Stony Stratford

The former Wolverton Saint Mary Church in Stony Stratford … scene of a church crisis in the 1900s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Two graduates of Keble College, Oxford, were interesting and controversial priests in the two Church of England parishes in Stony Stratford over a century ago. One left Stony Stratford as the other arrived, and both are remembered for their role in liturgical controversies that drove them into the Roman Catholic Church.

The Revd Oliver Partridge Henly (1861-1934) was the Vicar of Wolverton Saint Mary the Virgin, on London Road, but left Stony Stratford in 1909 after 12 years of controversial ministry in the parish. The Revd Cyril Howard Stenson (1885-1943) arrived in Stony Stratford that same year as the Revd Henry Long’s curate at Saint Giles, but he too would leave within a few short years, and both Henly and Stenson ended their days as Roman Catholics.

Parish and church life were healthy and thriving in Wolverton, Stony Stratford and Calverton at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The arrival of the railway and the building of a new tram line brought prosperity to this part of north Buckinghamshire, and the foundations had been laid for a vibrant church life among the growing populations, with new churches and new schools, new rectories and the refurbishment and rebuilding of the older churches.

The Revd William Pitt Trevelyan (1812-1905) oversaw the division of Wolverton parish In the late 19th century and the creation of the creation of Wolverton Saint Mary as a new parish serving the east and south parts of Stony Stratford. The new Church of Saint Mary the Virgin was built on London Road in Stony Stratford, along with a new parish hall and a new vicarage.

Trevelyan and many of the other clergy in the area were strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, the Tractarians and the later Anglo-Catholics. Wolverton was in the gift of the Trustees of the Radcliffe Trust, and the trustees appointed the Revd Oliver Partridge Henly as the Vicar of Saint Mary Wolverton in 1897.

Henly was the grandson of Abraham Henly, a prosperous wine merchant and Mayor of Calne in Wiltshire, and his was a strong clerical family, being a younger son and younger brother of priests in the Church of England. He was born in Coates Heath, Staffordshire, in June 1861, a younger son of the Revd John Henly (1822-1907), later Vicar of Ruscombe, Berkshire, and his wife Mary Jane (Millner), who were married in Saint Pancras Old Church, London, in 1856.

Oliver Henly’s brother, the Revd William Henly (1858-1928), was educated at Keble College, Oxford, and spent many years (1882-1914) as a missionary in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), with the Anglican mission agency SPG (now USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel), including time as Principal of the Diocesan Training College. He returned to England in 1916 and became Vicar of Ruscombe in 1917. He resigned in 1924, and died on 10 April 1928 at Tonbridge, Kent, aged 70.

Oliver Henly was educated at Keble College, Oxford, which was built in 1870 as a memorial to John Keble (1792-1866), a founding figure in the Oxford Movement, and attracted High Church students, often from church families. Henly graduated BA in 1882, and then trained for ordination at Ely Theological College (1882-1884), which was founded in 1876 and attracted advanced Anglo-Catholic ordinands.

He was ordained deacon in 1884 and priest in 1885, and first served as a curate in Saint Saviour’s, Upper Chelsea (1884-1886), and Saint Matthew’s, Westminster (1886-1897). His time at Saint Matthew’s overlapped with one of the foremost leaders of the Anglo-Catholic movement, Bishop Frank Weston, who was also curate there in 1896-1898.

Weston and Henly were active members of the Society of the Holy Cross, and Henly was the assistant secretary in 1897. The society was founded in 1855 and its priests were noted for their ritualism, including devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, frequent celebrations of the Mass with intentions, the practice of sacramental confession, wearing eucharistic vestments, and using incense, liturgical hand bells and wafer bread.

The Radcliffe Trustees appointed Henly to Wolverton Saint Mary in 1897, and he remained in Stony Stratford for more than a decade until he was forced to leave the parish in 1909.

From the beginning, Henly was a challenging vicar. The school on the corner of Wolverton Road and London Road was built in 1867 by the Revd William Pitt Trevelyan, and was designed by the local architect Edgar Swinfen Harris. The original deeds made the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Old Wolverton, and his churchwardens trustees of the school. In practice, the school had been managed by the Vicar of Wolverton Saint Mary and members of the parish, but recent legislation required that the foundation managers be formally appointed.

The Rector of Wolverton, the Revd Arundell Glastonbury St John Mildmay (1859-1924), claimed he and his churchwardens remained the foundation managers of the school. However, Henly acted unilaterally and on 1 October 1902, teachers and pupils arrived to find the school doors locked and the windows secured. Mildmay appealed to the Buckinghamshire Education Committee for help to reopen the school the following day. To enforce this, men had to scale ladders and gain access through the windows.

One tragic event in this unfortunate affair was the suicide of Edwin Hayne. For many years he was the verger at the church and had become depressed, fearing he would be evicted.

The controversy over Henly’s liturgical practices came to a head three years later, in 1905, when the Bishop of Oxford, Francis Paget (1851-1911), reprimanded him and instructed him to change his ways.

Ironically, Paget was a follower of the great Tractarians of the time, including Edward Bouverie Pusey, Henry Parry Liddon, and Dean Richard William Church, whose eldest daughter he married. Paget had been examining chaplain to James Russell Woodford, Bishop of Ely, who had founded Ely Theological College, and had contributed an essay on ‘The Sacraments’ to Lux Mundi, the collection edited by Charles Gore.

While Henly was conducting a funeral, the Bishop of Reading, Leslie Randall, saw Henly and the choir genuflecting before the reserved sacrament, and saw a lamp hanging near the altar. Randall, a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Oxford, reported this to Paget, although he admitted he had not seen a tabernacle or ambry where the Eucharist may have been reserved.

Henly was accused of the ‘reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.’ The rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer stated that If any of the sacramental bread and wine remains, it is to be consumed reverently. In practice, many priests reserved the sacrament for hospital and home visits. But others applied a strict interpretation to Article XXV, which states that ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.’

Paget wrote to Henly asking him to confirm or deny Randall’s account of events. When Henly confirmed Randall’s report, Paget asked him to abandon the practice immediately. Henly replied, saying the bishop had no right to make such a demand and that he had never disobeyed the rubrics, which did not prohibit reserving the sacrament for the sick.

The correspondence provided the basis for the prosecution. It was clear Henly disagreed with the bishop, but had he reserved the sacrament after his bishop’s ruling? Had he directly disobeyed his bishop or merely disagreed with his theology?

No witnesses were called, the only evidence was the exchange of the letters, and Henly was found not guilty in 1906.

However, Henly found himself before the Court of Arches once again in 1909 for reserving the Blessed Sacrament, holding a Benediction service, and disobeying a monition of the court in 1906 on the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.

Henly hardly helped his own defence not only by not being present during the trail but also threatening to ‘black’ the eye of William Henry Partridge, clerk to the registrar of the diocese, when he tried to serve Henly with the bishop’s monition. On this occasion, the Court of Arches agreed with the Bishop of Oxford and Henly was deprived of his church offices in the Province of Canterbury.

When Paget decided to replace him with the Revd Archibald James Moxon, Henly protested, writing to bishop from Brighton on 14 January 1910, claiming ‘the living has not been declared vacant by any Ecclesiastical Court, since the Court of Arches has ceased from being such, and therefore I am canonical vicar of the parish.’

Paget replied on 17 January 1910, saying he only resorted to legal proceedings after Henly had ‘persistently disregarded’ his requests and directions. He rejected Henly’s ‘view of the Court of Arches,’ and confirmed that as bishop he was going ahead with licensing Moxon.

Henly, however, continued on as though the reprimands and rulings did not apply to him. Paget eventually lost his patience and went to the Court of Arches to deprive Henly of his living. The court agreed and the bishop sent along two priests to clear Saint Mary’s on 19 August 1910 and to change the locks of the church doors.

Henly was in London at the time. On his return, he was met by a large crowd. and a crowd gathered too outside the church while the locks were changed. Some parishioners were already inside the church in private prayer. Some refused to leave and stayed until 10 pm. Police were called to guard the church.

Bishop Paget came to Stony Stratford the following Sunday to take the services in Wolverton Saint Mary’s. When the bishop arrived, Henly took his followers down the High Street in Stony Stratford to Saint Giles’ Church. In the weeks that followed, Henly and his supporters tried to reclaim the church. Eventually all the locks were changed and the police were called to keep Henly and his supporters out of the church.

The Society of the Holy Cross passed a very warm vote of sympathy with Henly in the attack made on him, thanking him for the firm stand he had taken.

When Henly left Stony Stratford, he found sympathetic colleagues at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Brighton and assisted with services there, albeit without the approval of the Bishop of Chichester, and lived at the Clergy House, Brighton. Later that year, it was announced that Henly had been received into the Roman Catholic Church on 1 October 1910 in the Church of Our Lady of Seven Dolors, Bognor Regis, by the Very Revd Alphonsus Coventry, OSM, prior. At the same time his colleague the Revd Arthur Reginald Carew Cocks resigned as Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s and also joined the Roman Catholic Church.

Henly and Cocks were among a group of high profile figures who moved to the Roman Catholic Church at this time, including the Revd Henry Fitzrichard Hinde, Vicar of the Church of the Annunciation, Brighton, Hinde’s curate, the Revd HR Prince, and the Revd Ronald Knox, a former curate in Southwark Cathedral and Saint Barnabas’ Church, Southfields, and a descendant of the Scottish Calvinist reformer John Knox.

Bishop Paget died within a year, on 2 August 1911. Henly died at Saint Mary’s Home, Worthing, on 9 July 1938. Saint Mary’s Church, the church in Stony Stratford where he had been vicar, is now the Greek Orthodox parish church, while the school he tried to lock closed is now the Old School House, a public house on the corner of Wolverton Road and London Road.

Meanwhile, Henly was followed into Roman Catholic Church many years earlier by the Revd Cyril Howard Stenson, the new curate who had arrived at Saint Giles, Stony Stratford, at the height of the crisis at Wolverton Saint Mary on London Road.

But the story of Cyril Howard Stenson, who joined the Benedictines at Prinknash Priory in Gloucestershire and became Dom Columba OSB, is another story for tomorrow evening.

The Old School House on the corner of Wolverton Road and London Road in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this building became a Community centre in Stony Stratford and in about 1980/81 the local Jewish Community wanted to hire it to hold Shabbat morning services. I believe they did use it a few times, but then suddenly the vicar of St Mary's and St Giles discovered that in the small print it said that the hall could not be used for religious services. He explained this to the congregation in his church one Sunday morning adding that even if they needed to use the hall for a service, they would not be allowed to either. So the Jewish Community were banned. Years later, this small print seemed to have disappeared, one of the church wardens denied it ever existed as did the new vicar. The building was sold to the Greek Orthodox community who use it as a church.