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Anglo-Catholicism is...contemplative

Seventh Sunday of Easter: 1st June, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

[The apostles] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:14)

One of our spiritual fathers as Catholic Anglicans is Edward Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford, for more than 50 years from 1828 to 1882. He was a scholar and Tractarian, of course, but underneath this all he was a contemplative. His writing, his inspiration, his tenacity in bringing about change, came out of a wellspring of prayer. Evelyn Underhill, one of the great twentieth-century Anglo-Catholics, sums up Pusey's life in this way in her book Worship (1936):

Pusey, the true prophet of the [Tractarian] movement, was by temperament an ascetic and contemplative. His inner life, disciplined by much suffering, was nourished by the writings of the great Catholic mystics, whose influence can constantly be detected in his sermons, and sometimes breaks out in passages of sustained splendour. Indeed, the modern recognition and restoration of the mystical element in religion ... began with this scholar-saint. Further, his Spiritual Letters reveal Pusey as a great director of souls, devoted, wise and gentle; the first in a series of teachers who have brought back into the [Anglican] Church the secrets of the interior life of prayer.[1]

The Oxford Movement, from the very beginning, was not about setting up a church-political party or a religious club for people to belong to; it was about going back to basics, it was about rediscovering the life-changing fundamentals of the Christian faith. The Tractarian movement was a revival movement, seeking to breathe fresh life into the dusty bones of the nineteenth-century Church of England. And breathe fresh life it did. Fr John Alexander ssc, notes: "From its inception ... the Oxford Movement called Anglicans to the pursuit of holiness. And one feature of genuine movements of Christian renewal is that, sooner or later, they inspire some of their adherents to seek to give up everything in order to follow the Lord. The Oxford Movement proved no exception."[2]

A good example is the story of Marian Hughes who did just that, she gave up everything to follow God when her spiritual director, Dr Pusey, heard her profession in 1841 as a nun. Mother Marion's profession, however, was much more than just a personal commitment; she was the first nun professed into the Church of England for 300 years (since the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII). Pusey and Mother Marion had made a radical move, and a slow but steady flood of professions followed, first of women and then of men, as new religious communities began to form: the Community of St John the Baptist, the Society of the Holy Cross, the Cowley Fathers, the Mirfield Fathers, the Kelham Fathers, and in due course the Anglican Benedictines and Franciscans.

At the same time this flourishing of contemplative spirituality was taking place in England, Fr Henry Handfield, vicar of St Peter's Eastern Hill, was encouraging Emma Silcock in her desire to treat a vocation to the Mission to the Streets and Lanes as one to the religious life, rather than in the more traditional way as a deaconess. Emma had been a novice in one of the new religious orders in England, the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, and soon after taking up her pioneering position at the Mission in 1888 she started calling herself by her religious name, Mother Esther. This was actually a controversial move, as the Church of Australia was a long way off agreeing to the new Tractarian practice of establishing religious orders. It took more than 5 years before Mother Esther's profession was formally received, and then in the Diocese of Ballarat. Only in 1912 after 24 years was the Community of the Holy Name recognised by the Diocese of Melbourne, under Archbishop Henry Lowther Clarke.[3]

The revival of Anglican religious orders was more established in 1933 when another vicar of St Peter's, Fr Farnam Maynard, invited the newly formed Brotherhood of St Laurence to take charge of St Mary's Mission Church, in the Fitzroy end of the parish. It was the height of the depression and the Brotherhood's founder, Fr Gerard Tucker, in true Oxford Movement spirit had "declared war on the slums." His religious order caught the interest of other young men wanting to make a difference, and the old school at St Peter's, Keble House, was turned into a training centre. By the end of 1934 there were 19 members of the Brotherhood. It was a contemplative life, a life of prayer for the trainee priests who lived there. They would rise at 6.30am and begin the day with 15 minutes of meditation. Matins would be said at 7.15am followed by Holy Communion and then they would breakfast in silence. After their studies and morning lectures the students would go to the chapel again at 12.15pm for prayers before lunch, and then following the afternoon activities evening prayer would be said at 5.30pm before dinner, and the day would be rounded off with compline at 9.15pm.[4]

The contemplative tradition, with its disciplined inner life of prayer and outward expression in social service, has been a cornerstone of Anglo-Catholicism from its nineteenth-century origins in England, to its being transplanted here in Melbourne at St Peter's. It is this contemplative tradition that drives so many of our activities today at St Peter's: the daily cycle of morning and evening prayer still goes on, the daily mass is observed, the Institute of Spiritual Studies, the Icon School, the Wednesday afternoon contemplative prayer group, the Cell of Our Lady of Walsingham, our visit to Tarrawarra Abbey next Saturday, our recent parish retreat at the Community of the Holy Name in Cheltenham, our appointment of a Chaplain to the Lazarus Centre, and so on. It is this contemplative charism that makes us who we are as St Peterites and as Catholic Anglicans. It is where a deep and nurturing faith is to be found.

In closing I would like to go back to the two Anglo-Catholic saints I opened with. Evelyn Underhill understood well the driving force behind Edward Pusey's reforms. She writes: "He had no love for ritual excesses: or any great interest in the externals of religion save in so far as they expressed inward realities, or ministered to the good of souls. His real spirit and the source of his power is most fully revealed to us in his prayers." And then she shares one of Pusey's prayers, that I invite you to join with me in praying:

Let me not seek out of Thee
What I can only find in Thee;
Peace and rest and joy and bliss,
Which abide only in Thy abiding joy.
Lift up my soul above the weary round of harassing thoughts
To Thy Eternal Presence.
Lift up my soul to the pure, bright, clear, serene,
Radiant atmosphere of Thy Presence,
That there I may breathe freely,
There repose in Thy Love,
There be at rest from myself
And from all things that weary me;
And thence return,
Arrayed in Thy peace,
To do and bear what shall please Thee.[5]


  1. Evelyn Underhill, Worship (London: Nisbet & Co., 1936/1946), p. 331-22.
  2. John D. Alexander, "What is Anglo-Catholicism?" retrieved 31st May 2014 from here.
  3. Graham J. Whitehead, "A Home for Wayward Girls," retrieved 31st May 2014 from here.
  4. John Handfield, Friends and Brothers: A Life of Gerard Kennedy Tucker, Founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Community Aid Abroad (Melbourne: Hyland House, 1980), pp. 72, 117-8.
  5. E. B. Pusey, Private Prayers (12th edition), p. 39; cited by Underhill, p. 322.


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