Anglican Notables – Richard Meux Benson (Religious) – 16 January

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Richard Meux Benson

Born: 6 July 1824 (London, England) – Died: 14 January 1915 (Oxford [the Cowley neighborhood], England)

[The date of the photo of Benson is uncertain.]

For various reasons (though it might be more accurate to say “because of certain prejudices”) the reluctance to see the establishment of religious life in mid-to-late-nineteenth-century Anglicanism was somewhat mitigated if and only if these new orders were active rather than contemplative.  In time, however, those orders that survived, turned from external works to the contemplative life.[1]  This seems to have been the case with the Society of St. John the Evangelist (or the Cowley Fathers, as they are also called), since their community in North American (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) describes themselves as monastic. 

But there is one exception to what seems the typical pattern.  The founder of the SSJEs, Father Richard Meux Benson, seems to have been inspired by the example and spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola more than that of St. Benedict.  The first retreat for priests he conducted (in 1858) was taken from St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.[2]  And when, in 1865, two priests joined him at his parish, St. John the Evangelist Church in the Cowley neighborhood of Oxford, “active external ministry” was integral to their common life as was the fact that they all, as clergy of the diocese, recognized the bishop’s authority over them (except in matters of their common life).[3]  The SSJE styled itself “a missionary order patterned on St. Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests.”[4]  But such were the age-old fears of Jesuits in priest hiding holes in English country houses, waiting to overthrow the crown, and such were those Ignatian elements of Benson’s spirituality, that the suggestion eventually arose that the initials “SSJE” stand not for the “Society of St. John the Evangelist” but for the “Secret Society of Jesus in England,” thus all but identifying the Cowley Fathers not only as “crypto-papists” but also as crypto-Jesuits. 

We can smile over such a comment now.  But anti-Roman prejudices were strong in late-nineteenth-century England and were made all the more so by the fact that the Oxford Movement had not only not withered away, as movements are inclined to do eventually, it had paved the way for various expressions of Anglicanism’s Catholic roots along lines the ecclesiastical establishment (and perhaps the country as a whole) found less-than-amusing.  In addition, then, to the difficulties encountered by any fledgling foundation, the Cowley Fathers had to deal with the usual nineteenth-century ecclesiastical suspicions where things tended to be “too” High. 

Benson, however, “was no great ceremonialist”[5] and thus serves as yet another reminder that the variations that flowed from the Oxford Movement were not as uniform as some might assume.  Benson “showed little desire to keep up with further ritual developments in the Movement; incense, for example, was not used in the iron church.”[6]  (From my experience of liturgy at Jesuit parishes and chaplaincies, a lack of interest in being a “ceremonialist” makes Benson seem even more attuned to the Jesuit way of doing things than not.  But it is good to remember that what is generally taken to mean X in the Catholic context does not always mean X in the Anglican.)

In spite of the mission’s inevitable growing pains, it eventually took root in Oxford and then spread, from 1870 to 1883, to the United States, India, and South Africa.[7]  In 1886, Benson resigned his ministry as a parish priest so that he could focus on the society.  He then stepped down (or aside) as superior in 1890 and spent the next nine years in India and the U.S.  (In 1895, he spent time in Baltimore, including Mount Calvary Church, now a parish of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  Mount Calvary had been denounced less than a year before by the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland for its High Church practices.[8])

“The last sixteen years of Benson’s life were lived at home again. He celebrated the Eucharist as long as he could stand at the altar. During his last years, he was wheeled in a chair to receive communion every morning. He died on 14 January 1915.”  He is remembered annually in the Episcopal Church of the United States not on the day of his death but on the 16th of January.[9]

Benson also contributed a hymn translation to Anglicanism’s treasury of hymnody. He translated an anonymous eleventh-century text.[10]  It is generally set to the hymn tune Auctoritates saeculi.  The text is as follows:

1. O Thou whose all redeeming might / Crowns every chief in faith’s true fight, / On this commemoration day / Hear us, good Jesu, while we pray.

2. In faithful strife for Thy dear name / Thy servant earned the saintly fame, / Which pious hearts with praise revere / In constant memory year by year.

3. Earth’s fleeting joys he counted naught, / For higher, truer joys he sought, / And now, with angels round the Thy throne, / Unfading treasures are his own.

4. O grant that we, most gracious God, / May follow in the steps he trod; / And, freed from every stain of sin, / As he hath won may also win.

5. To Thee, O Christ, our loving king, / All glory, praise, and thanks we bring; / Whom with the Father we adore / And Holy Ghost forevermore.

Gracious God, who hast inspired a rich variety of ministries in thy Church: We offer thanks for Richard Meux Benson, instrument in the revival of Anglican religious life.  Grant that we, following his example, may call for perennial renewal in thy Church through conscious union with Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

[Modified from the collect posted here.]

Br. John-Bede Pauley OSB, PhD


[1] Thomas Mudge, “Monastic Spirituality in Anglicanism,” Review for Religious 37 (1978), no. 4, 512.

[2] The Catholic Literature Association, “Richard Meux Benson” (1933).

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Meux_Benson

[4] January 16: Richard Meux Benson and Charles Gore, Religious; 1915, Bishop of Worcester, of Birmingham, and of Oxford, 1932 – Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

[5] The Catholic Literature Association, “Richard Meux Benson” (1933).

[6] The Catholic Literature Association, “Richard Meux Benson” (1933).

[7] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Meux_Benson

[8] New York Times, 31 May 1894, page 5.  Cited in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Meux_Benson

[9] January 16: Richard Meux Benson and Charles Gore, Religious; 1915, Bishop of Worcester, of Birmingham, and of Oxford, 1932 – Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

[10] The Cyber Hymnal 5420. O Thou whose all redeeming might | Hymnary.org

[11] January 16: Richard Meux Benson and Charles Gore, Religious; 1915, Bishop of Worcester, of Birmingham, and of Oxford, 1932 – Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

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