Walking with the Saints

Richard Meux Benson 

Born in London on July 6, 1824, Richard Meux Benson was the principal founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.  He was a student at Christ Church, Oxford and ordained priest in the Church of England in 1849. He served as a curacy at Surbiton, then became rector of Cowley, a village neighboring Oxford.  In 1859, Benson started a new parish church dedicated to St. John the Evangelist.

In 1866, together with two other priests, he founded the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, styled as a missionary order patterned on St. Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests, was the first stable religious community for men in the Anglican Church since the Reformation.

The form of religious life instituted by Benson had an emphasis on contemplation though its members did engage in active external ministry. The brothers recited the Divine Office together in choir and meditate together everyday. The community had a summer retreat of four weeks, later reduced to fortnight and other retreat and silence days. As a religious founder, Benson concentrated on essentials, among which he reckoned life-vows, taken with precautions as to maturity, regular confession, choir office, prayer and meditation, and priestly ministry.

The Society established a branch house in Boston in 1870. In 1874 work began in Bombay, India.  By 1880 the Society of Saint John the Evangelist had opened a mission house in Cape Town, South Africa, and another one in the Transkei in 1903.  During the creation of the Society, Benson had maintained his duties as a parish vicar. In 1886 he resigned this charge to devote all his attention to the Society and its mission. He wrote the original Rule for the Society  and served as Superior until 1890.

From 1870 to 1883 the Society spread to the United States, India, and South Africa. Benson himself made an American mission tour. In 1884 the society adopted a Constitution and Rule drafted by Benson. In 1890 Benson stepped aside for another to be elected Superior. He spent one year in India, and eight years at the American house in Boston. During the last sixteen years of his life, Benson lived at home and celebrated the Holy Eucharist as long as he could stand at the altar, and then was wheeled in a chair to his Communion every morning. He died on January 14, 1915.

Charles Gore was born in 1853 in Wimbledon and received his main education at Oxford. He was ordained in 1876 and served in positions at Cuddeston and Pusey House, Oxford, both of which were focused upon theological education and the formation of clergy. In 1880 he became Vice-Principal of Cuddesdon Theological College, founded by Edward King. In 1889, he helped to found the Christian Social Union as one of the two Vice-Presidents, dedicated to promoting the view that Christian principles as applied to the political and economic organization of society, demanded reform along trade-unionist and moderate socialist lines. Between 1902 and 1919, Gore served successively as bishop of the dioceses of Worcester, Birmingham, and Oxford. While at Pusey House, Gore founded the Community of the Resurrection, a community for men that sought to combine the rich traditions of the religious life with a lively concern for the demands of ministry in the modern world.

Earlier, in 1887, Gore had founded the Society of the Resurrection, an association for priests, aimed at deepening the spiritual life. In July of 1892 this became the Community of the Resurrection, a religious order for priests, which began with six members. The members declared their intention of remaining celibate for life, but took vows of celibacy for only one year at a time, rather than taking a vow binding for life. Many Americans will know the Community best through the work in the 1950's and early 1960's of the priest Trevor Huddleston, author of Nought For Your Comfort, a book discussing racial animosities and inequities in the Republic of South Africa and elsewhere, as well as calling Christians to a ministry of justice and reconciliation.

Gore was pioneer of liberal Anglo-Catholicism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglicanism. One of his main concerns was to prick the conscience of the church and plead for its engagement in the work of social justice for all. He wrote extensively on the social and economic applications of Christian ethics.

Since his college days, Gore had been committed to educational and economic improvement for the working class and he gave an annual lecture to the Workers' Educational Association at Reading. In 1911, a major labor dispute arose in Reading and Gore publicly sided with the workers, giving them money and pressing for a panel of inquiry into the living conditions of the workers.

When tensions increased between the British government and the Boer republics of South Africa, Gore denounced British Imperialism, and when war began in 1899 he denounced the British policy of rounding up Boer civilians in detention camps, where the mortality rate was very high.

During the First World War, Gore travelled to France twice to preach and administer the sacraments to men in uniform. In June 1918 he went to the United States to speak on the Church and the post-war world, He spoke chiefly on reconciliation and the necessity of restoring Germany as soon as possible to the family of nations after the war finished.

After the war, Gore resigned his bishopric and retired in July 1919. He died on  January 17, 1932.

Benson and Gore set for us examples of uniting a devoted spiritual life with external activities for social justice. Their monastic organizations and writings have a profoundly influence in the Anglican Communion and beyond.