Herewith the first part of “Reconciled Bodies: Recasting Race in Catholic Ecclesiology,” a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16.[1]

We, who remember the Faith, the grey-headed ones,
Of those Anglo-Catholic Congresses swinging along,
Who heard the South Coast salvo of incense-guns
And surged to the Albert Hall in our thousands strong
With ‘extreme’ colonial bishops leading in song.

So begins John Betjeman’s nostalgic poem recalling the “high noon of Anglo-Catholicism”[2] dramatized by the Anglo-Catholic congresses of the interwar years, five of them: in 1920, 1923, 1927, 1930, and 1933. A sixth and final congress followed in 1948.

Pertinent for what we are doing here at the Advent, the first Anglo-Catholic congress of 1920 made a parish, St. Matthew’s, Westminster, the central nervous system for the nascent movement. In his marvelous book Lift High the Cross: Anglo-Catholics and the Congress Movement (2010), John Gunstone explains that St. Matthew’s, like other large Catholic parishes in London and elsewhere, had a staff of unmarried clergy (four curates and a vicar), and “attracted folk from the slums and flats in the parish as well as well-to-do families from the West End.” The parish averaged 400 communicants on Sundays and weekdays, and additional crowds came for the “Sunday non-communicating high mass” (p. 2). Gunstone elaborates:


Finances were strong … and large sums were spent on social welfare in the neighbourhood …. St. Matthew’s sponsored guilds and clubs for children, young people, men and women. Trevelyan Hall, built near the church …, was the focus of these activities. Nuns of the All Saints’ community supervised the pastoral work among the women and children and looked after the Good Shepherd Mission in Strutton Ground …. St. Matthew’s [also] had close connections with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), whose offices were nearby. Some of its clergy went on to serve in Africa, including Frank Weston, one of Trevelyan’s curates, who became Bishop of Zanzibar. (p. 3)

A 1911 postcard of Bishop Frank Weston and the Very Rev. Samwil Chiponde, priest in charge of Zanzibar Cathedral • Wikimedia Commons

Weston, surely, was the famous — notorious — “‘extreme’ colonial bishop” of Betjamin’s reference. Weston wrote a great deal, launching erudite, often polemical missives from Zanzibar in service of every seemingly worthy cause. A man of great energy and a fearless fighter, Weston, a white Englishman, advocated tirelessly for justice and respect for the black Africans among whom he lived and served — concerning land rights, for instance, against forces of exploitation. In the words of Deacon Raymond Adam, one of a group in Zanzibar whom Weston counted as family: “I think there was no European who knew black people better than he did, their characters and customs, their hardships and their longings. I think there was no European who did more to range himself on the side of black people.”[3]

Weston also opposed Modernist theology, not only on material grounds but because it erected stumbling blocks before new converts and gave hostages to fortune on the mission field. One can hear, he wrote, the voice of the Muslim objector: “We have always maintained that your Scriptures are corrupt and interpolated, and lo! Now your learned men tell you we are right …. We have been taught that Jesus was a Prophet and not God, and your learned men say the same” (Gunstone, pp. 54-55).

On arriving in London, Gunstone recounts that Weston had been feeling depressed, wondering perhaps “if he should boycott Lambeth,” a familiar temptation in our day. However,

his gloom was swept away by the success of the Congress. He was overwhelmed by the huge Albert Hall gatherings and packed churches. He was moved by the tremendous reception he received personally. What he saw and heard convinced him that God could revive the Church of England in the Catholic faith and that he might, after all, have a role in this. A man of swings of moods, he suddenly took heart.  (Gunstone, p. 56)

We may mark these huge gatherings as an invitation to greater Christian imagination in our day, since then as now carrying off such events was by no means easy or obvious. We who are interested in community organizing in an ecclesial vein, or movement building of any sort, may find here a model worthy of imitating. Based at St. Matthew’s, Westminster, an executive committee for the congress was formed, consisting of a number of incumbents of other Catholic parishes in London, Birmingham, Cambridge, as well as Dr. Darwell Stone, Principal of Pusey House, Oxford. At first the hall in Church House, which seated 1,500, was reserved. But after placing “a letter in the Church Times asking those who hoped to be present to send … a postcard,” 2,000 cards arrived in the mail within just a few days (Gunstone, p. 4). So the venue shifted to the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. In the event, 13,000 tickets had been sold, with 3,000 more arriving at the doors. “I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” to be sure (Acts 17:22). Looking to the second “Anglo-Catholic Roots” conference, I did the math and all we need is for the 120 people here today to bring 133 guests each a year from now. We can style it the 7th Anglo-Catholic Congress and meet in the Boston Garden.

The congress ran for three days, from June 29 to July 1, and kicked off with “twelve hundred clergy processing along Holborn for a high mass at St. Alban’s … followed by 22 bishops from overseas dioceses of the Anglican Communion” (Gunstone, p. 9). That morning, masses had also been celebrated across London churches, including by the Bishop of Milwaukee (at St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge), who had just come, he said, from visiting “war cemeteries in northern France the previous week …. [As] he remembered the wooden crosses over the graves of young men who had given their lives for their country, he wondered if the members of his audience were willing to give their lives to bear the cross of Christ.” Bishop Weston, for his part, preached at St. Matthew’s, and, his popularity proceeding him, “an estimated five hundred had to be turned away from the door. That afternoon they descended on the Albert Hall in their thousands” (Gunstone, pp. 11-12).

Betjeman concludes his poem aptly: “The bells and banners — those were the waking days / When Faith was taught and fanned to a golden blaze.” And this was, in fact, the point: to fan the faith.

Of course, a downside of meeting in the Albert Hall with 16,000 people in 1920 sans modern amplification was that several of the speakers, notwithstanding impressive credentials, proved ineffectual. Right out of the gates, an ecclesiastical historian offered a long, scholarly study in a voice so weak that half the hall missed it entirely. The great G.K. Chesterton, sad to say, “had a small, high-pitched voice, of which he was well aware and found painfully embarrassing in a vast auditorium. So when he began with a long-winded explanation of why he had not expected to speak on such an occasion, there were cat-calls and shouts from parts of the hall that people couldn’t hear.”[4]

Bishop Weston won’t have had that problem. Speaking on “Our Ideal,” he drew from his experience of having cultivated a diocese that sought to “ignore distinctions based on colour, caste, class, money.” What is needed, he urged, is “disestablishment of the world from its position of power within the Church.” This will yield for the Anglo-Catholic party a properly “external manifestation” of the faith that may “make men see the Naked Christ of Calvary as our Ideal” and “the Coloured Christ of Nazareth as our centre of Brotherhood.”[5] In this way, Weston effectively primed the pump of what would be a major theme at the Lambeth Conference the following week.

On arrival at Lambeth, all eyes were on Weston and on another bishop, whom he had opposed quite publicly from afar, Hensley Henson, now of Durham, whose appointment as a suffragan several years prior raised Weston’s hackles due to Henson’s questioning of the virgin birth and the resurrection. In Weston’s 1919 book The Christ and His Critics, he “branded Henson as a heretic” (Gunstone, p. 56).

Imagine the delight both men felt on meeting one another at the Lambeth Conference. Henson, writing in his diary, early on: “The speeches of the Bishop of Zanzibar were somewhat perplexing. He… tells the Bishops to live among the poor in the slums and ask them to dinner…. He is elaborately polite to me. I doubt whether he is taken quite seriously by anybody, though he is universally popular” (Gunstone, p. 58). In fact, John Gunstone explains,

Weston became one of the stars of the Conference. Those who had not met him previously expected a bigoted firebrand. Instead they encountered a charismatic charmer who overwhelmed them by his friendly openness. They may have disagreed with him, or they may have been uncomfortable as they recognized the truth of his criticisms; but they felt they were in the presence of a man devoted to his Lord and to justice for his African people. (Gunstone, p. 58)

As it turns out, Weston’s charismatic charm and friendly openness rubbed off on Henson, too;[6] even as, push-come-to-shove, Henson happily seems to have recovered something of his prior, Catholic conviction, the more after translation to Durham. Both were placed on the committee on ecumenical reunion — the largest ever, of any Lambeth Conference, chaired by the future Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang, then Archbishop of York. To the surprise of many of Weston’s colleagues, he brought a depth of conviction and experience to their work, as well as imagination; he had an openness, for instance, to a framework for reunion with Methodists. Lang had written to his mother that it seemed “humanly impossible to get a crowd of Bishops representing every possible point of view, and already disclosing great cleavages of principle, to unite in any proposals short of mere platitudes” (Gunstone, p. 59). But then, by all accounts, Lang set upon the idea of an open letter to all other Christians, seizing on ecumenical energies abroad, and the organic fellow feeling of those who had served together in World War I. The idea caught on, and a committee of drafters, including Weston and Henson, set to work on what quickly became the centerpiece of Lambeth 1920, “An Appeal to all Christian People,” that also set the terms and horizon of Anglican ecclesiology for the subsequent century.

The second part of this paper will appear Wednesday.


[1] This paper is dedicated to my City Year teammates on “Echoing Green” (1991-1992), with whom I had the honor of serving in nearly every neighborhood of Boston. Thank you for the gift of your love, and for the single-most transformative year of my life.

[2] John Gunstone, Lift High the Cross: Anglo-Catholics and the Congress Movement (Canterbury Press, 2010), p. 344.

[3] H. Maynard Smith, Frank, Bishop of Zanzibar: Life of Frank Weston, 1871-1924 (SPCK, 1926), p. 319.

[4] Report of the First Anglo-Catholic Congress: London, 1920 (SPCK, 1920), p. 50.

[5] Ibid., p. 85. Cf. Bishop Charles Gore’s comments on the Church as, above all, a “way” of brotherhood that will call forth a transformation of all prejudices of (e.g.) class (p. 190 and following).

[6] Gunstone reports Henson’s final, “deliberate verdict” on Weston, as recorded in Henson’s diary: “He was, in my belief, a very good unselfish Christian, with all a fanatic’s sincerity and all a fanatic’s injustice, but by nature entirely loveable …. Something should be added about his practical sagacity … [and] his passionate love of souls, which lifted him above his fanatical obsessions and carried him into the company of the greater Saints” (p. 70).

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is Director of Unity, Faith, and Order for the Anglican Communion, and served for 13 years as executive director of the Living Church Foundation, Inc.

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