Only the Best: an account of the origins and development of the Society of Retreat Conductors. 1924 – 1955.
This paper is part of an on going research project which is investigating the influence of developments within Roman Catholic spirituality upon the advance of the practice of retreat in the Church of England. It gives an account of the growth and the near demise of the Society of Retreat Conductors from before its inauguration in 1924 to the death of its first superior in 1955. Offered to the present members of the Society to remind them of their roots, it may help to give a context within which they can continue their ongoing process of the discernment of the organisation’s future. The intention is that it will be followed in a year’s time by a second paper covering the life of the Society from 1956 until the present day. The author would welcome comments, queries, corrections and suggestions from members to assist him in further research.
The Society of Retreat Conductors came into being in 1924 during a time of the rapid expansion of the retreat movement within the established church. Up to that time, retreatants were mainly drawn from the clergy and religious, and there was little provision for the laity. Between 1920 and 1935 the number of retreats which were arranged by various groups more than doubled, and there was a marked increase in the number of retreat houses.
A number of factors have been suggested which may have stimulated this surge in interest. One was that in the early years of the twentieth century there was a growing appreciation of the value of the mystical element in religion, fostered by authors such as Dean Inge, Baron von Hugel and Evelyn Underhill (Inge 1899; Hugel 1908; Underhill 1911). Retreats had the potential to help meet this longing to experience God at first hand. Another factor was the desire for silence after the noise and strain of the First World War (Lampard 1993, p.20).2 A third, and perhaps more important, reason was that the Anglo-Catholic movement, which had long fostered the practice of retreat, was gaining in strength and acceptability and its influence was therefore growing. This was vividly illustrated by the striking growth in the numbers of those who attended the Anglo-Catholic Congress. In 1920, when a paper on retreats was presented, 13,000 visitors came, a total which had increased to 70,000 by 1933 (Pickering 1989, p.56).
A further factor was the official encouragement given to the development of the practice by a report on Evangelism published in 1918 as part of the follow up to the 1916 National Mission. One of its recommendations was the establishment of a retreat house in every diocese as a spiritual resource for both clergy and laity. The response to this suggestion was relatively swift, so that by 1923 we find mentioned in the pages of Vision, the quarterly publication of APR, houses which had opened in the dioceses of Manchester, Coventry, Lichfield, Chelmsford, Birmingham, Winchester, Exeter and Norwich (Vision nos. 13-16).
There was another important catylist for this growing interest in the practice of retreat. In an article recounting the history of the retreat movement since the formation of APR in 1913, published in Vision no 113 (July 1954), Bishop Mark Carpenter-Garnier, who had been a member of the original APR committee, wrote,
For my part I believe that a book published by a Jesuit, Fr Plater, entitled Retreats for the People and published in 1912, exercised a great influence. It told of remarkable results in France and Belgium, and also in this country, where week-end retreats were provided for workers in business and factories (p. ix).
Charles Plater’s book had given an enthusiastic but uncritical account of the work amongst the working classes of some Catholic retreat house. In an earlier article, Plater had reported that the retreatants went back to their parishes from these events renewed and enthused, resulting in a noticeable rise in the number of men attending mass. Even more importantly, those who attended had become better employees, the evil of drink was being combated, and their material wellbeing had improved (Plater 1908, pp. 60,62). Now, similar Roman Catholic retreats were being held in this country, with, Plater had claimed, equally encouraging results (Plater 1912, pp.289,126).
This book appears to have made a big impact upon certain members of the Church of England, who had long been concerned about the apparent failure of the established church to bring the working classes into active participation in its life, a view which was to be confirmed by the discouraging reports received from the chaplains to the forces serving at the front (e.g. the report The Teaching Office of the Church, 1918, p.3). Some therefore embraced the retreat method as offering a hopeful way forward, and a number of initiatives taken in the following years can be directly attributed to Plater’s influence. These included the formation of APR, the recommendation to open diocesan houses already referred to, and the formation of the Society of Retreat Conductors, to which we now turn.
The formation of the Society of Retreat Conductors.
The origins of the Society can be traced back directly to the publication of Plater’s book in 1912 (L 1 p.2)3. One of those inspired by the volume was Major Arthur Bowker, a veteran of the Klondike gold rush, who was at this time a waterworks engineer in Kent, an enthusiastic officer in the Territorial Army at Woolwich, an active member of the 100,000 strong Church of England Men’s Society and a committed Anglo-Catholic (O). Between September 15th and 19th 1913, he and Fr Philip Bacon, at that time curate in the parish of Wrotham where Bowker lived, visited some of the Belgium houses which had been described by Plater (BV). As a result, in the following year Bowker and small group of laymen produced a report to the Bishop of Rochester recommending that the Diocese establish a retreat house for the laity, which would have a special emphasis on work amongst men. In particular, they suggested that this be staffed by a team of three priests, relieved from all parish work, one acting as warden, all of them men who were especially trained and experienced in the work of giving retreats (Report section II.2). This idea of a team of priest specialising in retreat work was the seed from which the Society of Retreat Conductors grew. Following this report, Bowker seems to have opened his home at Wrotham for retreats, using a very demanding programme, and a Diocesan Retreat Fellowship was established with Fr Andrew as its warden (RP).
In 1923, Bowker and Bacon returned to the Continent, taking with them Fr Herbert Mather, who had served in the French Red Cross from 1915-1919, and was now4 Chaplain to the nuns at St Saviour’s Priory Haggerston, Fr Edwin Power and Fr Frank Wyatt. They visited houses in Belgium and Northern France and met Père Watrigant, ‘the greatest living student of the Spiritual Exercises,’ as well as the great ecumenicist Cardinal Mercier and also the Abbot of Maritzon (L 1 p.2). During their tour they saw specialist teams of fully trained priests using Ignatian methods when leading retreats of at least three full days duration for working men, in houses which were designed and built especially for the purpose.
These four factors – trained leaders, retreats of adequate length, Ignatian programmes and well equipped houses – may have brought home to the members of the group the inadequacies of the emerging situation in this country. Firstly, the growth in the number of retreats had led to a shortage of retreat conductors, and busy parish priests were being encouraged to offer themselves for this work. In the issue of Vision for May 1921 someone wrote that comparatively little training was needed for conducting weekend retreats for beginners. It needed neither rare gifts of profound theology nor skilled preaching, but ‘a firm grip on the essentials of faith and practice, a simple spiritual outlook, and a sympathetic attitude towards retreatants of little experience and perhaps less knowledge.’ The writer continued ‘We believe that many priests who possibly cut no great figure in the pulpit posses these qualities.’ However, he continued, a sound knowledge of the principals of the Ignatian method was also needed.
However, an article in the issue of Vision of August 1922 took an opposite stance. Retreats in their present form, the author claimed, did not appeal to the masses of men but only to those who had already started on the spiritual life. There was a need for the standardisation of retreats so that men who attended one knew what to expect, and therefore there was a need for adequately trained and specialist conductors (pp. 5,6).
Secondly, the retreats on offer were too short. In his tract on retreats published some sixty years before, Richard Benson had said that retreats needed to be at least three days long; the first day was spent getting away from everyday concerns, and it was not until the third day that the exercise began to tell (Benson c.1865, p.39). Retreats on the Continent lasted for a full three days; (Plater 1912, p.221). Although Anglican retreats for clergy were usually this long, lay retreats were often shorter, typically beginning at Saturday tea time and ending with a very early Monday breakfast, leaving just one full day of silence.
Thirdly, the pioneers of the retreat method in the Church of England, Richard Benson and Canon T. T. Carter had recognised the importance of using the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius as the basis for this form of devotion, (Carter 1893, pp.xx-xxvi; Benson c.1865, p.26). Over the following years conductors had stuck fairly rigidly to the outward form of a preached retreat, but the content of the addresses which they gave had often strayed from the Ignatian ideal. During this present period of rapid expansion, there had been a temptation to popularise the addresses, and to forget their original purpose of leading the retreatant to face the challenge of the call of Christ.
Fourthly, the retreat houses which opened in the early 1920’s were often cheap and inadequate adaptations of redundant large houses. For example, in the Lichfield diocese, the Diocesan Missioner, the Revd T. L. Murray, had in 1920 taken a fifteen year lease on a property set in some 25-30 acres of land, and had converted several large bedrooms into 25 cubicles, equipping other rooms as chapel, dining room and lounge (Vision, no. 5 Feb 1921 p.2). Such conversions tended to be makeshift and Spartan, making real solitude, silence and a welcoming atmosphere difficult to achieve. Further, they proved to be expensive to run, and some only survived for a few years.
Bowker and his companions returned from their tour inspired by what they had seen, and concerned about the short cuts being taken here which in their minds prevented the retreatants from experiencing of the real power of the retreat. The four priests began to meet regularly to study the Ignatian method, and they resolved to form the Society of Retreat Conductors, ‘for the purpose of conducting Retreats according to the method of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and for the furthering of the Retreat Movement in such manner as shall from time to time be decided’ (CM1 Nov. 9th 1923).
By October 1924, Frs Wyatt and Bacon had joined Fr Mather in his home at 161 Tufnell Park Road to live together as a kind of Oratorian community, sharing their income and a following a rule of prayer. Their intention was to devote themselves completely to the study and practice of the Ignatian method of conducting retreats. They were receiving an annual grant of £250 from the Anglo-Catholic Congress Committee, as well as accepting fees for service in local parishes. Through the generosity of Mather, they had bought a lease on the adjacent property so that they could welcome other priests to join them, and they intended to offer hospitality to a limited number of retreatants (Vision, no. 20 Nov. 1929 p.14). On Tuesday October 21st, the Bishop of Stepney ‘dressed in cope and mitre,’ with Bowker acting as thurifer, blessed the house and admitted Mather, Wyatt and Bacon as members of the Society, further admitting Mather as their Superior. Amongst those present were Fr Bull SSJE and Canon Alan Simpson, the latter being at that time acting secretary of APR. Also there were Miss Lorna Dalziel and Miss Winifrede Bliss (CM 1 Oct. 21st 1924).
The birth of the Society was announced in an article published in Vision (no. 20 Nov. 1924, p.12-13). The anonymous author argued that in the long run the best was often the cheapest. In the current expansion of the Retreat Movement, cheap, short term and inadequate solutions were being adopted to meet the demand and these militated against possibility of experiencing the full benefits of a retreat. In contrast to this make-do approach, the intention of the members of this new society was to provide the best retreat house in which retreats lasting for the best duration, using the best method and led by the best retreat conductors would be offered. This was their mission, inspired by what had been so eloquently described by Charles Plater and by what they had for themselves seen on the Continent. How did they put this vision into practice?
The Implementation of the Society’s ideal 1924-1940.
Membership. From the beginning, there were three levels of belonging to the Society. The first was that of the full Members who lived in residence together, attending the offices and spending at least half and hour each day in mental prayer. They pooled all their earnings, but retained their own private property and personal income, receiving from the common fund their board and lodging, laundry and travel expenses, plus a personal allowance of £80 per annum. They agreed to live a celibate life, but made no life-long vows, and whilst in the house had to wear cassock and biretta, both of these requirements being the common custom at that time in Anglo-Catholic clergy houses. Although the hope was expressed in the article in Vision that there might have up to a dozen members, an analysis of the various records reveals that there were never more than four in residence at any one time. These members formed the Chapter which elected the Superior and they were ultimately responsible for all decisions about the work of the Society.
The second level of belonging was that of Priest Associates. These carried on with their normal duties, but received training in retreat work and when necessary led retreats on behalf of the Society. Fr Power was made a priest associate on the day that the Society was inaugurated, became the representative of the other associates in the Chapter, and acted for some time as its Minutes secretary. He resigned in 1935 due to ill health.
The third level was that of Lay Associates. These, both men and women, were actively involved in the life of the Society, and provided much of its finance. The first lay associates were the Misses Lorna Dalziel and Winifrede and Muriel Bliss, to be joined five years later by Miss Bertha Clarke, all of whom were to play key roles in the development of the work.
In practice there was a fourth and unique level of belonging – that occupied by Major Bowker himself. It would appear that he was never made a lay associate but was regarded as the founder of the Society (L2 p.4), and was from the inception the its treasurer a member of chapter. He resigned from this post through advancing years in 1935, but continued his involvement, eventually coming into residence in Stacklands in 1946 until his death in 1950.
A wider group of people were welcomed into association with the Society as members of the Fellowship of the Society of Retreat Conductors. Inaugurated in 1927, largely through the enthusiasm of the Bliss sisters, it had grown to 332 members by 1938, including 32 priests. They were advocates for the mission of the Society, formed a pool of potential retreatants and underwrote its work through their subscriptions and gifts (CM 1 Aug 1927; FSRC 1937).
Purposes. The Society had five stated objects; to train priests for the conduct of retreats, to conduct retreats, to own and to manage retreat houses, to study the Ignatian and other methods of retreats and all that relates to the Retreat Movement, and lastly to publish, or assist in publishing, literature about retreats (BL ii). How did they go about fulfilling these aims?
As to the study of retreat methods and publishing literature, we have little evidence, and must assume that regular and systematic reading was part of the Member’s routine, as it should be of everyone who is in a teaching role. Some of the results of their study were shared in a volume edited by Patrick Thompson before he came into residence in 1933. It was entitled Direction in Prayer; Studies in Ascetic Method and included contributions, some at an introductory level, by Sidney Paton (member 1930 – 1940), Harry Davies (associate 1932), and Thompson himself. There was a particularly useful essay by Mather on spiritual direction as adapted to those at different stages in the Christian life. This reveals both his wide knowledge of the writings of the great Catholic teachers of prayers, and also his realisation of the need for flexibility on the part of the director. He was not to teach the methods given in the books but should encourage the individual to recognise and follow the divine admonitions and guidance which God gave her. However Mather’s teaching as a whole was more suited to the convent than the market place (Thompson 1933, p. 90). Two years later Thompson published a learned article in Vision entitled ‘The practice of Retreat before S. Ignatius’ (July 1935). In it he summarised the research carried out in France by Marcel Viller, SJ., who had brought together evidence for the ways in which people made their retreats before the seventeenth century, information which is not readily available elsewhere. Thompson left the Society in 1942 to marry and to become Dean of Divinity and a Fellow of Magdalene College Oxford, retaining a link as a priest associate and returning to take at least one annual retreat for many years afterwards. Short pamphlets written by members appeared from time to time, some giving advice on making a retreat, others short biographies of St Ignatius, and others which about the work of the Society.
The training of priests to lead retreats certainly went on, although it is rarely mentioned in Chapter minutes. As early as November 1920 Fr Bacon was lecturing the clergy on the use of the Ignatian method in popular retreats (Vision no. 4 Nov. 1920). In the archives is a paper which was given as part of a course on Ascetic Theology during the Queen’s Gate period.
The two purposes of giving retreats and running retreat houses go hand in hand, and so we will consider these together.
Tufnell Park. The limited accommodation in the Society’s first home in Tufnell Park Road gave little scope for welcoming retreatants, but during 1925 and 1926 members were kept busy responding to invitations from all over the county to lead retreats, visiting some 32 different houses over that period.6 During 1925, Mather led 15 retreats, Frs Wyatt, Bacon and Simons each led eight, and Fr Hillier led two.7 Of these, three were private retreats, presumably in the Society’s own house, 20 were for women and four for men. By July 1926, members were realising that the number of invitations to lead retreats elsewhere would diminish, and therefore they began to arrange their own programme (CM1 July 31st 1926).
The fact that there were so few male retreatants was to concern the Members for many years, because part of their initial vision, in the light of what they had seen on the Continent, was to develop work amongst them. So in June 1926, Fr Bacon resigned his parish work, thereby losing income which was useful to the finances of the Society, so that he could develop the retreat ministry amongst the one million men who worked in the City. In the course of October of that year he gave a course of three lectures on retreats in each of three city churches – St. Andrew by the Wardrobe, St Michael Paternoster Royal and St. Magnus the Martyr. He further arranged four retreats as a follow-up, three to be held at the APR owned St Georges Highgate and one at ‘The Yews’ Beaconsfield. There is no indication of how these went, although it was agreed the following year that the use of ‘The Yews’ would only be entertained again if it involved no financial loss (CM 1 July 31st 1926; October 25th 1926; October 24th 1927).
The members had from the start very ambitious ideas about what the best retreat house would be like. The Vision article of 1924 had described a house with three wings, one for men, one for women and another for children, grouped around a cruciform church with a fourth wing for the resident community with their own library and common room. In 1927, an estate near West Kingsdown Kent, some 20 miles from London and close to Wrotham, was purchased by Bowker and presented by him to the Society. It consisted of some 100 acres, with woodland and two cottages, and became known as Stacklands. One cottage was used to house a forester to work on the estate, and the other was available to members as a country retreat. The architect Mr H Gibbons of Abbey House Westminster was appointed to draw up plans, and his architectural model of the great project, (the children’s wing had disappeared by this stage), was displayed at the Anglo-Catholic Congress meeting in 1930, attracting much interest. The two wings would each have accommodation for some thirty retreatants. At about the same time, a pamphlet, written by Fr Frank de Jonge during his year in residence as a priest associate, was published to share the dream of this complex with a wider public. He described a house cut off from the surrounding world by its wood and looking over the beautiful Knatt valley to Water Wood on the other side, an area which had already been acquired for the Society by Major Bowker. Individual rooms for the retreatants were to be spacious and private, furnished in such a way as to encourage devotion (L 3). In the same year, an anonymous gift worth some £3,000 was received, donated, it was revealed twelve years later, by Miss Lorna Dalziel, consisting of shares in her family’s Foundry business (CM 1 Oct. 24th 1927, June 17th 1930, July 31st 1930, Jan 20th 1942).
Members of the Fellowship were involved in a Ways and Means Committee which was already in action raising funds (including by the sale of tobacco) and preparing the linen which would be needed in the house (CM 1 July 1931). The need for the proposed house was confirmed by the demand for the retreat work of the Society. 47 retreats were conducted in 1931 attended by some 520 retreatants (CM 1 Aug 2nd 1932). It seemed as if all was set for the Chapter to instruct the architect to go ahead with the project when an obstacle was placed in their path.
This was in the shape of a new evangelical Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Martin Smith who seemed to resent the possibility of the society settling in his diocese. He was willing to grant permission for the administration of Communion in the chapel of the proposed house, but only on the condition that the Society give an honourable undertaking not to reserve the consecrated elements. In Chapter, the Fr. Superior expressed the view that reservation was very necessary in the particular work which the Society was out to do, and saw four possible courses of action. The first was to build without the Bishop’s permission; the second to hold on to the estate and carry on their work from the limited facilities in Tufnell Park; the third to hold on to the estate and to find some temporary premises in which the Society could enlarge its work, or fourthly to sell Stacklands and move to a more favourable diocese. It was decided to follow the third alternative (CM 1, Dec. 15th 1931, Aug. 2nd 1932, Oct. 21st 1932; Dec. 15th 1932).
Queens Gate By early 1934, the Society had moved from Tufnell Park Road to 37 Queens Gate, with permission from the Bishop of London to reserve the sacrament in their oratory. They could welcome up to eight male retreatants at a time, and also host one or two ladies in an annex who were able to make their private retreat in the chapel. It was not the best retreat house, although better than the one in which they had begun, but, because of mortgage payments, high running costs and few guests use, it was in fact to prove a liability.
The leaflet was published in about 1933 to justify the existence of the Society. It began with these words, ‘To conduct a retreat is not difficult; to conduct a good retreat is not easy.’ There was no lack of priests willing to lead, but not all had the aptitude or the leisure for serious preparation. The Religious made the best conductors, but not even all of them possessed the aptitude, and the best of them could not always be spared for this specialised work. It was necessary to supplement the work being done by priests and religious who were ‘bravely making the best of a bad job,’ and therefore there was the need for a Society to specialise in this work. (L 1, p.1)
Between June 1934 and August 1935, news paper cuttings in the archives show that an ambitious programme of forthcoming retreats to be led by members of the Society was announced in the Church Times, including 28 for men, four for priests and three for ordinands, all to be held at No 37. In addition, 17 retreats were arranged for women, many to be held at Oakhurst in Erith, a house which had come into being as a result of Major Bowker’s report of 1914 and which the Society was using regularly for its own retreats. In practice, during the year 1935, 66 retreats were led by the Members of the Society, 28 of them by Fr Mather, 15 by Fr Bacon, 14 by Fr Panton, who had come into full membership in 1930, and nine by Fr Thompson. Of these, some 37 were held in house, but sadly the average attendance was only two. A further seven were led by Mather at St Savour’s Priory as part of his duties as Chaplain there, and eight at Oakhurst. This leaves 16 non-SRC retreats taken by invitation – half of what it had been a decade before. Still few men were coming, the vast majority of retreatants being women (CM 1, March 13th 1934; L 1 p.4; PC; RR).
It may be that attendances of men at the Society’s retreats were limited by its policy on the duration of them. At that time, lay men did not finish work until lunch time on the Saturday, returning to work first thing Monday morning. Therefore, as already mentioned, in many houses a typical weekend retreat started at tea time on the Saturday, and finished with a Mass early on Monday morning in time for the retreatants to catch a train to work. Society retreats began on a Friday evening and went through to Monday morning, allowing for two full days. This length was easy for leisured people and was achieved by some who were very determined, but for many it was impossible. It was suggested in a Society leaflet that, in the case of a parish retreat, the conductor might go to the parish on the Friday evening to give the first address, with the retreatants coming on to the house after they had finished work on the next day, but there is no evidence as to whether or not this possibility was put into effect (L 1, p.3). However, the proportion of men to women was probably not all that different at other houses.
SRC was faithful to its intention of presenting only the best retreats in the Ignatian tradition. Mather’s copious notes preserved on file cards, now unfortunately lost after the closure of Stacklands because of storage problems, revealed that his approach to the Exercises was a fundamentalist one, sticking very closely to the letter of them and using limited personal illustrative material. Perhaps however in practice his addresses were not as dry as they appeared to be on paper.
Stacklands By 1938, the lay associates of the Society, all of whom had given substantial amounts towards the cost of a permanent house, were becoming restless about the lack of progress. At the AGM in the October of that year, they proposed a motion asking the chapter to reopen negotiations with the Bishop of Rochester and to proceed with arrangements for beginning the building work. It was reported to an Extraordinary General Meeting held the following February that Bishop Smith had now agreed to the reservation of the sacrament, but under strict conditions and only on certain occasions when it was desired by retreatants.
The treasurer, Mr F J Seal, who been welcomed as a Lay Associate in 1934 to succeed Bowker in this post, reported that there were insufficient funds available to pay for the first phase of the project as originally proposed. However the Society’s new architect, Mr Leslie Moore, presented plans for a Domestic Block, reduced in size, which would contain a Dining Room, Library, Chapel and office, with accommodation on three floors for three priests and two maids and which could be erected within the available budget. He suggested that it might be possible to cope with eight to ten retreatants, some of whom could sleep in the existing cottage. With the provision of the necessary services, outbuildings and road, the total cost would be £2,000, within their existing resources. It was agreed to proceed with this design (AGM October 21st 1938; Feb 1st 1939). Work began on June 16th with Major Bowker acting as Clerk of Works, and foundation stones were laid in the name of the four members of the Society in July. Mather, Bacon and Thompson each laid their own, whilst in his absence Panton’s was laid by the architect (note in MR).
Soon after the outbreak of war in September 3rd 1939, 37 Queens Gate, which had been already placed on the market, was closed, and the staff and resident Society members dispersed. Fr Mathers took up residence at St Saviour’s Priory Haggerston, and some retreats for women were held there. Work on the new house suffered delays, but it was eventually ready for use in April 1940, and the Superior moved into residence on the 29th of that month, the first Mass being said the following morning. Bishop Chavasse, who had only recently moved to Rochester, came to bless the house on the Feast of St Ignatius. At about this time, Fr Bacon, for reasons unrecorded, resigned from the Society, as did Fr Panton, who had consistently opposed the building programme, and also Fr Vincent, a priest associate (CM 2, July 29th 1940).
Any feeling of celebration must have been rather muted. What they had erected was far from the original vision of the best retreat house, but at least the Society had a permanent home in a peaceful and quiet place where retreatants could be welcomed, with the possibility of enlarging it at a later date. The move had precipitated the break up of the team who had been at the heart of SRC for some years, and there now only two Members in residence. Further, there was all the uncertainty of the war going on over the English Channel in the very countries which had provided the inspiration for their work.
The early years at Stacklands.
During the war years, many of the chapter meetings were held at The Chaplain’s House at Haggerston Priory, so it would appear that Fr Mathers divided his time between Stacklands and St Saviours. Fr Wyatt returned from abroad, was once again elected a member, and joined Fr Thompson in residence in the new house. The lay associate Miss Clark, who had for some years done the Society’s book keeping, became the tenant of Stacklands Cottage No 1, on condition that when necessary she could provide up to three rooms for retreatants. Miss Dalziel had brought a plot of land on the Stacklands estate from the Society and, despite war time restrictions, managed to get her house built, and so in effect a wider SRC community came into being. Thompson left in October 1942 on his move to Oxford, but was elected as a priest associate, as ‘it was not considered that his forth coming marriage was an impediment to such election,’ and continued to act as Chapter secretary. Unfortunately Muriel and Winifrede Bliss were killed in London in a V2 attack on August 2nd 1944, all records of the Fellowship being destroyed at that time. Relations with the Bishop of Rochester seem to have reached a resolution in 1944 when he had called into the house bringing his licence for the administration of the sacrament and for reservation, but on condition that there was no variation from the rite of 1662 except those allowed in the draft Prayer Book of 1928 (M2, Jan 2nd 1942; Jan 8th 1943; Aug. 1st 1944; Oct 21st 1944).
The government requisitioned Queens Gate throughout the hostilities, the premises suffering war damage, and an anonymous donor paid off the mortgage in October 1945, so reducing the Society’s outgoings. The property was eventually sold in 1952 for a sum of £13,944 which provided capital for the new building work which was going on then (AGM 1946, 1952).
Retreatants soon began to come to Stacklands, although later in the war the fear of flying bombs was to keep some of them away for a time. In 1942, 43 retreats were taken by members of the Society, 28 of them by Fr Mather, of which two were for religious and took place at the priory, 11 by Wyatt and four by Thompson. Average attendances were 2.5 for the priest retreats, 1.3 for those arranged for laymen, 5.9 for women and 12 for religious. In comparison, during the first year after the war, members conducted 45 retreats, 26 of them being led by Mather, 17 by Fr H. H. Bloomfield, one by Thompson and another by Fr Hillier. Average attendances remained at about the same level. With the ending of the war, members were once more invited to lead retreats in other houses, retreats for women being held at Hessle, a house with which the Society had long links, St Ursulas, the Priory and at London Colney, and one for men at West Malling (RR).
Fr Bloomfield had come into residence early in 1945, moving from St Martins Salisbury to take the place of Wyatt who had retired to the clergy home of St Barnabas at the end of the previous year. He had resigned by October 1946, hoping to go to Antigua, but seems to have stayed on in the house, without sharing in retreat leadership, until the middle of 1947 (M2, Oct. 21 1946, July 30 1947). He became Archdeacon of St Kitts in 1948.
From the foundation of the Society, keeping up the strength of the Society had been a pressing concern, and bringing together a team of conductors was a goal which remained elusive. During the Stacklands period, there were only two years when three priests were in residence, for another ten years there two, and for three years only one. Major Bowker had arranged a meeting previously in April 1944 to discuss recruitment to the Society and possible alternatives, although there seems to be no record of the decisions, if any, which were made. With Bloomfield’s departure, finding new members was now urgent. In October 1946, an advertisement was placed in the Church Times which brought in over thirty replies, but most of them were from married men with children. If any applicants had been suitable, it would have been difficult to house them, because Major Bowker, who was without satisfactory accommodation owing to the advancing years of the couple with whom he had lived, had taken up residence in the House earning his keep by acting as Estate Agent. There was therefore a shortage of space and the Superior enquired of a Mrs Uprichard of Oaklands with regards to the possibility of renting two bed-sitting rooms for two priests (M2, Aug 1 1944, Jan 8th 1946, July 30th 1946; Oct. 21st 1946).
At around this time, when the Superior was the only resident priest for a year or more, some of the priest associates assisted him in the leadership of retreats, including Frs Hillier, Thompson, Anderson, Maryon-Wilson and Cheetham (RR). This proved to be a pointer to the way in which the Society would operate in future years.
Fr Charles Stothert came into residence in January 1948. He seems to have had wide contacts both through his previous work in the diocese of Bath and Wells and as a member of Convocation, and during 1949 he led retreats in 11 other houses, this extended ministry continuing into the following years. Not since before the war had the Society’s influence been so widely spread. Because of illness, Mather was out of action for much of 1948 and 1949, and the Society was being kept going by Fr Stothart and Miss Dalziel. The report of the AGM of 1952 describes Stothart as having ‘carried on through [that] year in his own willing and happy way’ (AGM 1949, 1950, 1952). He left in September 1953, moving to the Convent of the Holy Rood at Fenton (AGM 1954).
Major Bowker died on June 12th 1950, having been a ‘great invalid’ during his last few years (AGM 1951). At the Annual General Meetings of the Fellowship in 1951, Fr Mather paid tribute to him as the original founder, ‘whose life and work and generosity had been the great inspiration of the Society’ (FSRC 1951).
Bowker had not lived to see work commenced on a new wing in early December 1951 after some years of planning. It included a chapel, which housed an antique statue of the Mother of God given by the then treasurer the Revd Napier Stuart, and relics of St Vincent, St Victorinus and St Margaret Mary. The bedrooms and chapel were blessed on April 10 1953. Although the design was far from the grandeur of the original plans, the vision of large individual rooms for retreatants was retained, making real solitude possible.
Despite failing health, Fr Mather was still actively involved in conducting retreats, leading some 23 during 1953, although many of these were effectively on a one-to –one basis because of low numbers. He also conducted three group retreats at the Priory. Being once more in the position of having no other priest in residence for almost twelve months, he was relying increasingly upon the support of Priest Associates, nine of them were involved in retreat leadership that year. Miss Dalziel had become a member of the Council at the request of Fr Mather, and his brother Basil, a priest in China for many years, who had been living in the house from at least 1949 onwards, was now made a priest associate and authorised to sign cheques. Fr Grinstead came into residence by December 1954, and was duly elected a Member. There was by now a hard core of regular retreatants and growing support for the work of the Society through an increase in the membership of the Fellowship after the wartime decline. Groups of Fellowship members had been formed in Brighton, Tunbridge Wells and St. Leonards-on-Sea, the latter being the parish of the priest associate Sir Maryon-Wilson. (CM2 April 9th 1953, Oct. 23rd 19 53, July 30th 1954; Dec. 20th 1954). Indeed the gifts of Fellowship members were necessary to make up for a continuing shortfall in retreatants’ fees.
The opening of the new facilities in 1951 led to a slight increase in the number of retreats and of retreatants, but the Retreat Register does not record any great surge in attendances. Never-the-less it was decided to proceed with a second wing, retaining the use of the dining room in the domestic block and providing a new boiler house and automatic heating system. There would be room for nine men retreatants, the chapel block being reserved for women, and also for one priest, leaving an additional spare room, and it also included a library and sitting room. After some delays, work began on March 21st 1955, but less than four months later, Mather died on June 1st.
An extraordinary meeting of the Society was held at 47 Argyle Square, the home of Fr Sturt, a priest associate, on June 29th. Those present received the resignation form the Council of Miss Dalziel, who explained that she had only served because Fr Mathers had asked her to do so, and authorised Fr Grimstead to transact whatever business was necessary at Stacklands (AGM 1955, M2Dec. 18th 1953; July 30th 1954; June 29th 1955).
So the first phase of the life of SRC had come to an end. A leaflet written by Mather after Bowker’s death reveals that his vision for the Society had not changed in the light of experience since its foundation (L2). A retreat house existed although it was not the best house that had been envisaged, and the use being made of it was limited. There was now no team of retreat givers, only one priest remaining in residence. Positively however there was a group of priest associates who had been trained and had some experience in the work. Like all other groups and houses working in the field, the Society had failed to persuade men to come into retreat, although this had been an important part of its purposes when it was formed. No plans had been made for the continuing work of the Society; there was no designated leader, no management structure to replace the Chapter which had virtually ceased to exist, no clear vision for the coming years and no longer could members rely upon the support of an enthusiastic patron. The future looked bleak, and the demise of SRC might have followed closely upon the deaths of its founders.
The Society is a clear example of the influence of Roman Catholic practice upon the development of the retreat tradition within the English Church, although in the event not a happy one. It had started its life thirty one years earlier with a clear and bold vision, inspired by what the founders had seen in France and Belgium, but in a number of ways their ambitions had been unrealistic from the beginning. The houses which they had so much admired were operated by Jesuits who had far greater resources in finance, manpower and experience than the Members of SRC would never muster. They were staffed by priests whose formation in the Ignation tradition had been long and rigorous, a training which could not be quickly reproduced however much one studied the Exercises. Again, the Continental houses were operating in countries where retreats had been part of the spiritual scene for three centuries or more, whereas in England after 60 years they were still viewed as a dangerous novelty by many church people. Finally, France and Belgium where societies and the working class culture were permeated by Catholicism, whereas here, even though Anglo-Catholicism was being more widely accepted, its adherents were far more likely to be found in Brighton then in Brixton.
SRC had started with high ideals and a clear purpose, but with few advantages. Despite the generosity and commitment of its benefactors, it had remained a small body existing, when one looked at the whole of the Church of England, in an ecclesiastical enclave. Their driving force, Major Bowker (1867-1950), was a layman who, although he had once played an active part in the central councils of the influential Church of England Men’s Society, having been made a member of their Retreats Committee in 1914, and who was well known in the Rochester Diocese, was unlikely ever to become a national figure. His immense energy was beginning to wane before the building of the retreat house commenced, and therefore the leadership which he was able to give was limited from then on.
Father Mather does not seem to have been a charismatic leader who could build a team around him. His ministry was not limited to the Society, as he served as a proctor in Convocation for the London Diocese from 1935-1945, and he remained faithful to his role as chaplain to the sisters at St Saviours. Indeed, towards the end of his life some of the nuns came to Stacklands to nurse him (personal memory of Eileen Mills). However, he was probably not widely known within the national church.
Muriel Cooper wrote of him,
He had the ‘gift of silence,’ a patient power of listening to the endless problems and difficulties, troubles and sorrows, that were brought to him for solution, comfort and advice. In characteristically few words he gave his council, with an understanding born of a rare sympathy with the spiritual needs of human hearts and minds (FSRC 1955).
It is here, in the role of a spiritual director, that his particular charism lay. Certainly, Fr Mather, in sharing his own deep understanding of the Exercises with fellow retreat conductors at an APR conference in 1949, stressed that the key thing in the Ignatian method was the relationship between the conductor and the retreatant. He retained his great love for the method, saying to the same gathering that the sequence of meditations aimed at salvation through the supernatural, and ‘it was because the method of the Exercises succeeds in setting its excellent results on a firm basis that has deserved the Church’s favour and its special blessing’ (in Carpenter-Garnier 1948, pp18,23).
Despite the failures of the leadership to plan ahead, there were those who had been greatly blessed and who would not let the Society die. However, they seem to have groped around for a sense of direction for the next fifteen years, and it is the way in which a new vision eventually emerged which will be the subject of the next paper.
John Tyers. St Deiniols Library, March 13th 2008.
From the Archives of Society
AA Annual Accounts 1924-1971
BL Bye-laws vide Memo 3 (f) (Draft)
BV Fr. Bacon’s Account of the First Belgium visit 15-19/9/1913, with (Major) A. F. Bowker, both of Wrotham.
CM 1 Chapter Minutes Vol. 1 1923-1934
CM 2 Chapter Minutes Vol. 2 1935-1955
CM3 Chapter Minutes 1955-1956; Committee Minutes 1956-1959; Council Minutes 1959-1967
FSRC Fellowship of the Society of Retreat Conductors
L 1 Leaflet The Society of Retreat Conductors and its work. n.d. produced in Queens Gate era.
L 2 Leaflet The Society of Retreat Conductors and its work. n.d. produced between 1950 and 1955
L 3 Leaflet The Ideal Retreat House. Fr. De Jonge
MR 1 Stacklands Mass Register 1929-1945
MR 2 Mass Register 1945-1956
O Obituary of Major A. F. Bowker;. n.d. or author.
PC Press Cuttings 1923-1974
Report Report of the Committee appointed by The Bishop of Rochester, Hayes, July 1914.
RP Programme for retreats held at Wrotham, Kent, 1914.
RR Retreat Register 1925-1965
SHC Stacklands House Committee 1929-1946
Benson, R. M. (c.1865). Retreats; On the Advantage and Aim of Spiritual Retreats. London, J. T. Hayes.
Carpenter-Garnier, M. (1948). Retreats and How to Conduct Them. London, Pax House.
Carter, T. T. (1893). Retreats with Notes of Addresses. London, J. Masters and Co.
Cooper, D. (1926).
Ignatian Exercises; an apparatus for Conductors of Retreats; and a chart of Meditations for those who desire to make Progress in the Interior Life. London, Faith Press.
Hugel, F. v. (1908). The mystical element of religion, as studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and her friends. London, J. M. Dent and Co.
Inge, W. R. (1899). Christian Mysticism. London, Methuen.
Lampard, R. (1993). Leavening the Nation; The birth of the Association for Promoting Retreats and the development of the Anglican Retreat Movement 1913 – 1931. History. Oxford, Oxford University. Bachelor of Arts.
Pickering, W. S. F. (1989). Anglo-Catholicism: A Study in Religious Ambiguity. London, Routledge.
Plater, C. D. (1908). A Great Social Experiment. The Hibbert Journal. VII: 49-63.
Plater, C. D. (1912). Retreats for the People. London, B Herder.
Thompson, P. (1933). Direction in Prayer; Studies in Ascetic Method. London, SPCK.
Underhill, E. (1911). Mysticism: a study in the nature and development of man’s spiritual consciousness. London, Methuen and Co.