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A simple Liturgy of the Hours for singing available here.
Resources for the Liturgy stored at: Company of Voices Resources.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Father Benson and the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

This week I was saddened to learn that Saint Edward's House, Westminster, the London House of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist has been sold to Westminster School. I remember attending the Office at St Edward's in between shopping at the former Church Union and Church House bookshops, both around the corner. The austere chapel was spoiled in recent years by the addition of Stations of the Cross which somehow seemed alien to the clean lines of the building.
The British province of the Society has been declining in numbers for many years. The buildings now occupied by Saint Stephen's House in Oxford were the original mother house. The Society was founded by Richard Meux Benson and the community were very much the Anglican Jesuits in their rigour and influence. Storm troopers for the kingdom.
Father Benson wrote many books of meticulous meditations. He also wrote commentaries on the psalms. The Way of Holiness is a commentary on Psalm 119 used then at Prime, Terce, Sext and None every day. Even when Pius X reformed the Latin Breviary in 1911 and the psalms were distributed differently (as translated in the Anglican Breviary) Anglican communities in this country tended to use the traditional distribution for the Little Hours alongside the monthly course of psalms for Matins and Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer. My copy of The Way of Holiness is marked on the inside of the cover 'Basil T. Davies St Luke's Charlton Easter 1943'. St Luke's is where my friend Mother Erica Wooff (@ericauk) is now  Rector.
Father Benson's commentary on the remainder of the psalter is found in The War Songs of the Prince of Peace in two volumes. It includes a rendering in verse of all the psalms by Father Benson himself.
I can't remember where I acquired the copy of the Day Hours pictured here. It is a nineteenth century printing which must have belonged to a member of the Society. Pasted into the front and back are numerous letters including some from Father Benson himself addressed to Father Greatheed. A note inside indicates that the volume had been at Glasshampton and was used by Father William of Glasshampton (founder of the community at Crawley Down) after Father Greatheed's death.
The book is annotated by hand throughout with all the plainsong melodies, additional devotional material, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin texts. I use it every now and again for one of the day hours. It brings me great joy to be linked to such scholarly and devout priests of our Anglican past.




Father Benson of Cowley
There is a reference in one letter to trips to Bombay and Fr Benson begins another: "My dear F. Greatheed I scarcely know where this will reach you."  Letters of Father Benson - including some to Father Greatheed - are available here many other writings and a complete list can be found here. His comments to Father Greatheed on the Office and meditation:

"I do not feel inclined to diminish the Offices. Without this I think our devotions would get very desultory. They are in fact, if properly used, one of the best forms of meditation and of Scripture study. We should be careful not to say them too fast. Certainly I should wish you all to consider that there ought to be an hour of meditation daily, if possible."
There was something heroic about the Society and this comes out in Father Benson's letters:
"AN age that is not heroic can scarcely be expected to give birth to heroic children. We need very much to cultivate the heroic consciousness as a necessary element of perfect faith."
Father Greatheed appears to have attended the consecration of Saint Augustine's, Canterbury in 1848 sitting with John Mason Neale (see here). I can't find anything else on the web about him.
The biography of Father William, William of Glasshampton by Geoffrey Curtis C.R. makes clear how strong the links between the leading Anglican communities was with many letters between members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield and the early Anglican Franciscans in the Society of the Divine Compassion of which Father William had been, for a time, Superior. Father William prepared to begin his life at Glasshampton by living with the Cowley Fathers (SSJE) in Oxford.

The Society of Saint John the Evangelist appears to be in better health in the United States. Their website is worth looking at. They rewrote their rule some years ago which is available as "Living in Hope" I think it is  remarkable document full of energy and rooted in the community's traditions and in the writings of the founder.
Chapter 18 on the Daily Office includes this:
"The Daily Office is a sustained act of union with Christ by which we participate in his unceasing offering of love to the Father.  In reciting the psalms, singing canticles and hymns, pro­claiming the divine word in Scripture or lifting our voices in prayer, we are to enter more and more into the mind, heart and will of Christ, and be borne up by the Spirit in him to the Father. Our praying of the psalter, which is the heart of the Daily Office, takes us ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation; the psalms give voice to the whole range of human experience which Christ has embraced and redeemed as the Savior of the world.  Although nothing essential is lacking when the office is said, we continue the tradition of our Society by singing whenever there are sufficient voices.  As we sing and chant deep levels of our being are involved; our hearts are lifted up in greater exultation.  And music enhances our worship with riches inherited from many ages."
The following quote which includes words from Father Benson shows how much he was determined not to try and copy some romantic model of the religious life nor even the then models available in the Roman Catholic church but to do something specifically and definitely Anglican:
"As we meditate on the grace of tradition each of us will hear the call to become, in Father Benson’s words, “a man – not simply of the day, but a man of the moment, a man precisely up to the mark of the times. This makes the religious – so far from being the tradi­tional imitator of bygone days – most especially a man of the present moment and its life.”
My favourite hymn by Father Benson is this one in which his profound belief in the angels is so evident. It is eminently suitable for the days between Ascension and Pentecost.



Praise to God Who reigns above,
Binding earth and Heav’n in love;
All the armies of the sky
Worship His dread sovereignty.

Seraphim His praises sing,
Cherubim on fourfold wing,
Thrones, dominions, princes, powers,
Marshaled might that never cowers.

Speeds th’archangel from His face,
Bearing messages of grace;
Angel hosts His words fulfill,
Ruling nature by His will.

Yet on man they joy to wait,
All that bright celestial state,
For in man their Lord they see,
Christ, th’incarnate Deity.

On the throne their Lord Who died
Sits in manhood glorified;
Where His people faint below
Angels count it joy to go.

Oh, the depths of joy divine,
Thrilling through those orders nine,
When the lost are found again,
When the banished come to reign!

Now in faith, in hope, in love,
We will join the choirs above,
Praising, with the heav’nly host,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

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