From New Directions

As a beneficiary of the Catholic vision of both the Mirfield and Cowley Fathers I enjoyed Mirfield monk Steven Haws’ story of the work done by Cowley in Philadelphia from 1876-1891. St Clement, Philadelphia being his home parish equipped Steven CR especially for this labour of love chronicling ministries of evangelisation, catechesis, spiritual direction and lay empowerment for service that gave heart to the early Episcopal Church. Brother Steven relays the heart for mission of Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) founder Father Benson.  The founder saw his Cowley Fathers’ outreach as ‘humble means of awaking souls, and bringing them to a devout use of the ordinary means of grace’ especially when SSJE were put at the disposal of parish clergy for weeks under the patronage of St John the Evangelist. 

A parochial mission by SSJE in St Clement, Philadelphia 1874 opened the way for the order to run that parish from 1876 bringing through sacrifice and good humoured service, in the face of episcopal opposition, significant church growth and a deepening of spiritual life rippling out from their venture. Disputes about prayer for the dead and sacramental confession were sidelined by this dynamic which enriched the Episcopal Church in the way the Oxford Movement enriched the Church of England. Part of that enrichment was revival of religious life starting with SSJE itself, the first post-Reformation order for men. 

The work at St Clements was heartened by the example of UK priests like Arthur Tooth jailed 1877 for ritual ‘crimes’ and through the visit to Philadelphia in 1880 of Fr Mackonochie. The Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn preached outside Church due to a parallel ritual ban imposed on St Clement’. Like Mackonochie, SSJE gained approval for work evidently true to Christ’s Incarnation in its simultaneous addressing of spiritual poverty and social deprivation. 

Steven Haws portrays Fathers Benson, Prescott, Maturin, Sheppard, Field, Longridge, Convers and Brother Maynard celebrating their gifts of preaching, administration, music, youth engagement and spiritual wisdom. Field became a hero of the Johnstown flood disaster of 1889 vividly described in the book. The ascetic witness of SSJE linked to Field’s Guild of the Iron Cross founded 1882 through which ultimately thousands of men were drawn to make this costly pledge: ‘I pledge myself to resist the sin of intemperance, and will use my influence to prevent the commission of this sin by others. I pledge myself to resist the sin of blasphemy, to honour God’s name and bless my fellow men. I pledge myself to resist the sin of impurity in thought, word and deed, and to use my influence to draw others from evil talking and immoral living’. Persuading so many to make such a commitment puts the missionary achievements of 21st century Anglicanism well into the shade.

‘The Cowley Fathers in Philadelphia’ reminded me how much the Church owes to the power houses of religious life and of our need to pray and work for their revival and for a rise in costly discipleship unashamed to be counter-cultural. In all the ecclesiastical disputes they braved, SSJE at St Clement’s did not let their discipleship, nor presentation to others of the claims of discipleship, slip and neither should we who brave similar trials.

The Cowley Fathers in Philadelphia is available from the Mirfield Bookshop please click here for more information.