Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An evening with Father Stanton at Oxford

Father Arthur Stanton, a greatly loved eccentric who combined the Catholic faith and evangelical fervour, was for fifty years curate of St. Albans, Holborn, London. A faithful priest, powerful preacher and caring pastor, he died at the age of seventy-four in March 1913. Father Stanton was once asked what he hoped might be carved on his tombstone. His answer was simple yet profound: “He preached Jesus and only Jesus.” 

The following is taken from Arthur Stanton, a Memoir, by G.W.E. Russell, published in 1917 (pages 251-258). It is a clergyman’s reminiscence of an evening with Father Stanton in Oxford, and gives us a glimpse of his love for God and for the people he served. 

It was in the Hilary Term of 1906 or 1907, I think, that among the notices of the meetings of a society known at Oxford as the De Rebus Ecclesiasticis appeared the statement that on a certain day Father Stanton would speak on his Recollections of St. Alban’s, Holborn.

The ‘society’ was a formless thing, without rules of membership or list of members; it had two undergraduate secretaries who sent its list of meetings to graduates and undergraduates, who were supposed to be interested in Church matters. I was myself by that time a graduate and in Orders, and I remember asking one of the Pusey House clergy a day before the meeting whether he was going to it. ‘No, I’m not,’ he said; ‘none of us are. Stanton doesn’t like clergymen at these things, and he’ll be best pleased if we stay away.’

Undaunted by my friend’s warning, I made my way after Hall to St. John’s. The meeting was held in a big, panelled room in the inner quad, and though I was in pretty good time, when I got there the room was packed with men. All the chairs and the window-seats were full. I managed to get a place on the floor where a man’s boot-toe kept kicking the back of my head. It was not a comfortable seat, but I wouldn’t have missed that evening for a great deal. 

At a few minutes before the time for the meeting to begin Fr. Stanton came in, very quickly, and sat down in an arm-chair close to the fire. There was the usual awkward pause, and then a nervous secretary got up, and after a few halting words of introduction said we were ready for Fr. Stanton’s paper.

Stanton - I can see him now - took out of his pocket a well-worn Bible and said, ‘I wonder whether you’ll mind my sitting down while I talk to you: I’m getting an old man, and it comes easiest to talk sitting down.’ And then he turned over the pages of his Bible and said, ‘I’m going to talk to you from the first chapter of the 1st Epistle of St. Peter, 18th to part of the 20th verse.’

I can hear him now repeating over again the last words of his text, dwelling on, rather drawling, them in that delightful way of his, ‘foreordained before the foundation of the world.’ I can only describe the effect of such an exordium as a most sudden and utterly unlooked-for shock. To a man, we had come to hear a shower of jokes and funny stories, accounts of his dealings with Bishops and the like - and then to be treated to a text!

Stanton was apparently quite unconscious of what was expected, for he went on at once to speak of the Precious Blood as the Apostle wrote of It, and launched out into one of the most searching and impressive Gospel sermons I have ever heard in a fairly wide experience It was a most direct and tender appeal, passionately earnest, marked by his familiar mannerisms (so far as an arm-chair permitted), and every word of it arresting. 

Phrases of it, quite disconnected, linger in my mind: they are hardly worth recording, for they give no idea of the sermon’s power, but here they are for what they are worth: ‘Some people think our religion began with Henry VIII. Oh no ‘(shaking his head); ‘we want a religion older than that. We want the old Catholic Church. We want to go right back to the Lord Jesus Himself - ”foreordained before the foundation of the world.”’

Then later: ‘Ah well, you’ll think all this that I’ve been saying to you is very old-fashioned Gospel. Well, you see I come from Holborn. And the New Theology comes from Holborn. Now I don’t want to say anything unkind about Mr. Campbell [from the City Temple, Holborn Viaduct, and author of “The New Theology”] he’s said some very kind things about me, but I do say this to you, “No man having drunk the old wine straightway desireth new, for he saith” (and the speaker’s face lighted up) “the old is better.”’

There was another passage in which he was speaking of the Precious Blood being shed sub specie ceternitatis, and not to the ticking of a clock, and how we must get into the habit of looking at things in that way; illustrating it by the joy it was to him as he sat in his room in the Clergy House to get a glimpse of the sky, with its sense of illimitableness, and how it helped him to see things sub specie ceternitatis. 

And then as he was closing, ‘Now, my dear boys, some of you I know are going to be priests. Now when you are priests teach your people to love the Lord Jesus. Don’t teach them to be Church-of-England; teach them to love the Lord Jesus Christ.’

If the beginning had been unexpected, not less so was the end. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘will you all stand up while I say a prayer? ‘and we scrambled to our feet, and Stanton stood and prayed extempore in the most simple and moving way; prayed that we might know the power of the Precious Blood and the love of the Lord Jesus. 

It was the most amazing De Rebus meeting, I imagine, before or since. For myself I can only say that I was almost gasping. For he had kept our attention rigid, even strained, for more than forty minutes, and after such a sermon and such a prayer one wanted to be alone for a bit. 

I remember the secretary, more nervous than ever, getting up and in the formal way at such meetings thanking Stanton for his paper and saying that if any one wished to ask him any questions about it, he was sure Stanton would answer them. 

It was curiously grotesque, as if any one could ask questions in the Oxford debating-society manner about such a sermon. I remember Stanton saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know about answering questions about Theology. If you want questions answered about Theology, you’d better go across the road to Pusey House; they know all about it there.’ 

Of course no one dreamed of asking questions, and we sat on, awkward and embarrassed, and as the prophets say ‘astonied,’ until at length some one with more wits than his fellows rose and said, ‘Would Fr. Stanton tell us something about his work at St. Alban’s? 

‘That worked like magic, for Stanton immediately replied, ‘Oh yes, I can tell you about the work at St. Alban’s. I can tell you about my boys.’ 

And then he began: and once again I am powerless to reproduce the effect of that experience: he passed from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the grave to the gay, more swiftly than any man I have ever heard: at one moment a lump was in your throat with the amazing pathos of his story, at the next you were laughing at the quip of some street-Arab. 

Stanton began about his boys. ‘We meet,’ he said, ‘on Sunday evenings at 6. We meet in a room underground: the sort of language we use sounds best underground. We don’t play any games; the only game they know is to spit into the fire: we just sit round the fireplace. One Palm Sunday,’ he said, ‘we were doing that, and suddenly one of them said, “Come for a ‘olliday wiv us a Friday, farver” (he reproduced the Cockney accent). ‘I said, “No, I can’t come with you on Friday. Do you know what next Friday is?” And they said, “Yuss, it’s a Bank ‘oliday, ain’t it ?“ And I said, “ Yes, it’s a Bank HoHday, but it’s Good Friday; it’s the day our dear Lord died for us.” Then they said, after a pause, “Well, what would you like us to do a Friday?” And I replied, “Well, I should like you to come to church.” And they replied at once: “So we will if you’ll give us a ‘ot cross bun.” I said, “Oh yes, I’ll give you a hot cross bun.”

‘As a matter of fact, I got the Sisters to provide 2 hot cross buns each for them (I can’t imagine how they managed to eat ‘em) and a glass of milk, and they all turned up, clean and tidy as I’d never seen ‘em before, and then they all marched into church, into a front row, and all knelt down (I can’t imagine who’d taught them; I hadn’t), and one of the good Sisters who saw them said, “Oh, look at those rough lads! That’s Fr. Stanton’s influence.”

‘It wasn’t my influence at all; it was the influence of the buns and the glass of milk. Then the service began, and we had that Litany of Monro’s [The Story of the Cross], and they all sang it: and when we got to the last section beginning — “Oh, I will follow Thee, Star of my soul. Through the deep shades of life To the goal,” they all sang the last word as “gaol “ - and upon my word before the next Good Friday every one of ‘em had been in gaol.

‘Ah yes’ he said, ‘those lads. A year or two ago the sister of our Vicar came up to spend some time with him in December. She wanted to have a Christmas at St. Alban’s, and especially to see “dear Father Stanton’s lads.” I’m always a little suspicious whenever any one asks to see my lads. However, she arranged to come to see them on Boxing Day, of all days. 

‘Now on Boxing Day in Holborn all the Public Houses are open and give free drinks to all comers, and by the afternoon of Boxing Day they’d all been round there. And Miss Suckling came, bringing with her the most beautiful boxes of sweets for “Father Stanton’s lads.” I draw a veil over what followed: they threw the sweets about, and I don’t know what they did! I never dared to say a word about it again to Miss Suckling, and she never said a word on the subject to me till she was going home again at Candlemas. Then she came to say good-bye, and as she did so she said, “Well, I think the thing that has encouraged me most has been the sight of your boys.” I looked at her: and she said, “Yes, I’ve been working with the boys in a Suffolk village now for 30 years, and when I came to London in December I’d decided that it was quite hopeless, and that I’d give it up. But when I’d seen your boys, all I can say is mine are like angels by the side of them, so I’m going on.”

‘Ah’ he said, ‘yet they can be very amusing too, the httle London boys. One day I was feeling very down in the mouth, and as I walked into Baldwin’s Gardens there was a little boy whistling away as merrily as a bird sings. And I said, “Ah, Tommy, I wish I were like you!” And he said, “Well, you’ve ‘ad your time, ain’t yer?“ It was perfectly true, I had. Then I said, “Ah, but I wish I could whistle like you.” And he rephed, “Well, so yer could if yer tried.” And I said, “No, do you know at my age I don’t think I could frame my lips in such a way as to cause them to utter those sibilant sounds which issue so naturally from yours.” He looked up at me very gravely and said, “Chuck it, old ‘un, yer ain’t goin’ to snuff it yet.”

‘Then again, our Vicar at St. Alban’s has what you call a good presence, in fact he has a very great deal of presence‘ (and Stanton imitated a stout man), ‘and as he was walking down Brooke Street one Ash Wednesday afternoon, a httle urchin rushed past him, shouting, “Oorayl ‘ooray! nothin’ to eat for Forty Days, nothin’ to eat for Forty Days.”

‘Talking of interruptions,’ he said, ‘one morning I was very busy, and a knock came at the door, and the maid said, “Please, sir, a man wants to see you.” So I said, “Tell him I’m very busy and can’t see him.” Then she called up, “Please, sir, he says he wants to see you spiritooal.” So I said, “Oh, well, if he wants to see me ‘spiritooal‘ I’ll come.”

‘So I went down, and in the hall was a poor chap very much out at elbows. I took him into the dining-room and shut the door and said, “Well, you want to see me spiritooal, do you. Now what is it? “And he said (Stanton in a hoarse whisper imitating the man), “I say, guv’nor, have yer got an old pair of trousers? And I replied (this also in a hoarse, confidential whisper hke the visitor’s), “Yes, I have, and I’ve got ‘em on.”

And then I said, “Now what do you mean by coming round here and interrupting a busy man and saying you want to see me “spiritooal” when you only want to beg?

‘And the man said, “ Well, look here, guv’nor, if you had nothing inside you for three days and you thought there was a silly parson round the corner what you could get something off of, don’t you think you’d have a try?“ And I replied, “Well, upon my word, I think I should.”’

And then A.H.S. went on, ‘Ah, you fellows don’t know, I expect, what it’s like to have nothing inside you for two or three days, but some of those poor chaps do, and it makes you very tender with ‘em, I can tell you.’

Then he told of his experience with one Jim Larkins. ‘One Saturday I was sitting in my room at my desk, writing my sermon for the next morning, when the door burst open and some one rushed in and flung himself down into my basket-chair. I took no notice for a bit, and then I looked round and saw it was Jim Larkins, with his coat all ripped up and his trousers torn, and I said, “Whatever have you been doing?” And he replied, very hurriedly, “I took a pair of socks off a stall in the Gray’s Inn Road, and a “copper” saw me and he collared me, and I got away and run in frough the church and up here.” 
‘And I said, “Well, you know you can’t stay here, and you can’t go out like that. I must get you some clothes anyhow.”

‘So I went across to the Sisters and got him some clothes, and he put ‘em on and went away. Then I went on with my sermon. Presently a knock came at the door, and the maid said, “Please, sir, there’s a p’liceman to see you, in the hall.” 

‘And so I got up and put on my biretta and went down into the hall, and there sure enough was a great fat policeman. (Stanton puffed himself out to illustrate him). I said, “Well, constable, what do you want with me?” He said, “Beg your pardon, sir, but a lad of the name of Larkins has stolen some socks from the Gray’s Inn Road, and has been traced to this house, sir, and I should be glad if you’ll tell me where he’s gone.”

‘So I looked hard at the policeman, and I said, “Now, look here, constable, I’ve got to preach to-morrow morning at 11 o’clock, and I’ve some other things to do before that. I’ll tell you what: if you’ll preach for me to-morrow morning at 11 o’clock and do the other things I’ve got to do that day for me, then I’ll do your work for you. See?’ 

And then Stanton, with a quaint look, said, ‘What else could I say?’ 

[I remember a priggish lay tutor being much shocked at hearing of this story and saying, ‘I gather, then, that the clergy of that church spend their time in compounding felonies.’] 

And Stanton continued, ‘Ah yes, poor Jim Larkins. Not long after I got a note from the master of the Holborn Infirmary saying Larkins was ill with pneumonia, and would I come and break it to him. So I went and there he was. And when I’d been there a bit, I said, “Jim, dear boy, you’ve had a rough time of it; you’ve never had a home; you’ve never learned a trade; you’ve been bucketed about from one thing to another; you’ve been in and out of prison; and now I want to tell you that the good God is going to take you home to be with Him.” 

‘And he looked up into my face and said, “Well that’s all right, ain’t it, Farver?” And I said, “Well, dear boy, if you think it’s all right, then it will be all right.”

‘And then, I hardly know how to tell you, but he put his arms up round my neck and pulled my face down and kissed me. And after that I couldn’t say any more. And next time I went he was gone.’

Then, after a pause, ‘Ah, those lads, they’ve a great sense of “Gawd,” as they call Him: but, mind you, it’s not an easy thing to have to tell a man suddenly that he’s dying and to know what to say to him when there’s very little time.

‘I’ll tell you this story in case any of you have to do that. One of our district visitors was visiting at the Children’s Hospital in Great Ormond Street one day, and a nurse came up and said, “There’s a boy from your parish dying - he’s only 13, and I don’t think he knows anything. Could you come and speak to him and tell him?” 

‘So the lady went, and she bent over the bed and said, “Sonny, God made you, God loves you, and God came down from Heaven and died for you, and now He’s going to take you home to be with Him for ever.” 

‘And the httle chap looked up and said, “Say it again, lady, please.”

‘So she said, “God made you, and God loves you, and God came down from Heaven and died for you, and now He’s going to take you home to be with Him for ever.”

‘And he said, “Say it again, please.” So she said it once more.

‘And then the little fellow pulled himself up by the rope at the bed-foot and said, “Then thank Him for me, please,” and fell back on the pillow, dead.

‘Now,’ Stanton said, ‘what can you want more than a death like that? Perfect faith, perfect trust.’

At last the meeting broke up. It lives in my mind out of all the meetings I have ever been to (I have had my full share of them), as the one meeting to which I am enormously thankful to have gone.


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