The London Mission of 1874 - services at S. Thomas Regent Street
extract from Charles Davies Orthodox London (1874-5)

Victorian reporting on worship in 'advanced' churches is mostly partisan - firmly for or against. Charles Davies' writings are something of an exception, despite being unashamedly journalistic and using all the 'tricks of the trade'. He writes as a 'liberal' Christian, but a generation earlier he had been one of the founder-priests of Charles Lowder's Society of the Holy Cross, so he understood ritualistic clergy and their churches from the inside, and reports their activities with accuracy and not wholly without sympathy. His pastoral observations are on the whole sensible and sensitive. Although the services described were not in this parish, it is included here because the incumbent had been a curate at St Mark Whitechapel around the time Lowder was establishing his mission in the area, and Davies worked briefly in this parish around the time of writing this, when Harry Jones was Rector, no doubt sharing his aversion to large-scale missions. (See here for a report by Davies of a very different kind of service at St Matthew Pell Street.)

Chance led me to the church of S. Thomas, Regent Street, née Archbishop Tenison's Chapel, where I heard what I have every reason to believe a distinctive service; certainly one which interested me greatly, and seemed in its degree characteristic of one aspect of the Mission. S. Thomas's may be—nay, it had better own the soft impeachment, is—ugly. It is an instance of a conventicle that has striven to become Ritualistic, which always more or less resembles that monstrum our bucolic friends describe in their peculiar phrase—as an 'old lamb dressed ewe-fashion'—I mean an elderly spinster arrayed in the latest mode. Tenison's Chapel pretended to be nothing more than a preaching-shop. S. Thomas (I purposely omit the 't' in Saint) is of the most pronounced Ritualistic type—a very coryphæus in the rising generation of 'advanced' churches. Its walls and ceiling are 'flatted' red, white, and blue in a way which brings its native ugliness into prominence, much as do the rings and bedizenments of the dowager above-mentioned. But the sacrarium and altar redeem, or are meant to redeem, everything, and cover a multitude of sins. The Holy Table was vested in black on Saturday night, and eight tapers were standing on it, divided by the central cross, and flanked with two huge [bougies] at the north and south ends. The deep galleries down the chapel looked incongruous enough; but they served to remind us that all the beauty was focussed and concentrated in the chancel. Perhaps they were meant to.

I entered at 8 p.m.—the service being at 8.30, with a second service at 11 'for women only'. A fair congregation already dotted the chapel, many women and a few men; and groups of choristers in cassocks were chatting in rather an irreverent and unmission-like way in the aisles. Station pictures of no very high order of art decorated the walls; and altogether staid old Tenison's Chapel was in a very advanced condition indeed; how changed from the time when the oratory of Lawrell was a sufficient attraction! At 8.15 a demure young man lighted six out of the eight tapers on the altar, to which he bowed with that strange shamefaced air Ritualists adopt in their genuflexions as compared with Roman Catholics, much in the same way as the salutation of an Englishman to the dame au comptoir of a restaurant differs from that of the Parisian 'to the manner born'. At service time a procession of twenty-four filed from the west end, consisting of the Rev. W. J. Richardson, the minister, Rev. Mr Steele, assistant, and Mr Knox-Little, the missioner, the rest being choristers. A metrical Litany was sung by Mr Steele and two acolytes kneeling in front of the altar, the choir and congregation taking the alternate verses. It was a bright, sparkling composition in six-eight time, very effective and appropriate. A few Collects followed, and then the Miserere or Psalm 51, all devoutly kneeling, and singing to a Gregorian tune. Several taking hymns were interpolated at different intervals; amongst them the favourite, 'Daily, daily sing the praises'; and the Mission service was over. The missioner, Mr Knox-Little, passed to the pulpit, and taking as his text the words 'I will arise and go to my Father' (Luke xv. 18), said that the Christian life was one not of feeling only but of action. It was a change of posture; an energetic advance to the Father. This special occasion, he reminded them, involved great obligations, as it offered great privileges. To all the different calls that had been made during life, this one was now added. I could not fail to notice the immense fluency of the preacher, with the absence of all exaggeration, and the mode in which he riveted the attention of a large congregation; for such had ours now grown to be. The women's seats were full: the men's nearly so; and the men were quite as attentive as the women. Christian life, he repeated, was not a mere dream or picture. It was being realized around us in all ages and stations. We ought to take God's call as a great reality, and make a responsive advance. There was one inducement which it might savour of commonplace to urge, but which lie could not pass over. In the silence of night and in the crowd, when we were thinking or when we were waking, the thought would come that this could not possibly go on long. It might be commonplace, but every one of us had to face the great fact of death. 'Don't ask me', he said, 'then, why you should change your posture; why you should advance towards God. Ask rather the hindrances'. These he specified as pride, covetousness, pleasure, indifference; and followed up with a fervid and impetuous call to confession. 'Confession', he said, 'was an act of the Incarnate leading the soul to God. To hold back, if God calls, was most dangerous to the spiritual life. If there were secrets on the soul, and God gave the chance of speaking them out and getting absolution, then to hold back was the most terrible danger, and involved the most terrible responsibilities.' 'Don't hold back', he kept repeating—when the end of the Mission had come, then would be the time for making resolutions. If God has, in the course of it,  said 'Confess', then don't hold back. In the name of your Creator, don't hold back. If you do, the blood of Jesus has been shed in vain. That was the one question. Have I had that message in the Mission? if so, am I holding back? If that were the case he would say, go home and fall on your knees, and say, 'I will hold back no longer'. Hold back, and that truth will haunt you in the shape of the word that man spoke to you at the Mission. If we accept it, all the world may argue, men may ridicule or persecute, public opinion may scoff, but it would not matter to us.

The preacher's manner, whatever we might think of his matter, was perfect, his oratory fluent, his action telling but unexaggerated, and all bearing the stamp of sincere feeling.  Of course the question remained Was the doctrine un-English or not? But I am describing only. He concluded with a fervent extempore prayer, and gave notice that he would add a brief instruction on 'Meditation as a mode of deepening the spiritual life' to such as thought fit to remain after the service. It was twenty minutes to ten, but scarcely a score of people left the church, and soon after the procession had filed out, the missioner and Mr Steele returned arrayed in their cassocks, and several of the choir in the same habit. A hymn was sung, and Mr Knox-Little advanced to the centre of the chancel, where he walked up and down while delivering his instruction. This was a telling and aesthetic account of meditation considered in the light of mental prayer. He deprecated the custom of 'reading a chapter', which so many good people did, as though it were a sort of charm. Meditation was a perfect system, and might be made quite 'business-like'. He sketched separately at some length the Preparation, the Prelude,  the Divisions of the Subject, the Acts of Meditation. It was necessary to place oneself earnestly in God's presence; to realize one's 'creatureliness';  to resign oneself into God's hands, to make the meditation what He would; to adore God; to seek the breath of the Holy Spirit. This, he said, sounded long; but it would take about half a minute, It was simply making meditation a real act instead of a mere dream. Then followed the Fruits of Meditation, the chief of which was to do something or leave something undone that day for God: to be strongly on the watch against some definite sin. The great danger of religion was indefiniteness: the great value of the Catholic Faith was that it was so definite; that it made God and Christ and the saints and angels real persons; that it gave a real Presence in the Sacrament, that it made the Priest real, and the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar real too. It was an age of appearances in secular and religious life. Meditation gave definiteness to the latter. It made the Unseen World a place in which we actually lived, made ths Christian a creature living in two worlds, and gaining immense strength from the fact of walking with the saints and angels. He concluded by a renewed invitation to confession. The missioners would be in church all Monday, not only to receive formal confession, but to talk over difficulties with such as cared to consult them.

The special service for women took place at eleven; but men were rigidly excluded. Two stout policemen took up their stations at the door to enforce this regulation. I was informed that the attendance had been good, and many girls had been rescued and placed in homes, as many as twelve in one evening. On the Monday there was to be an outdoor procession at 7.30 in the streets immediately around the church, to get people to come to the service; and the Mission closed, with a Celebration the next morning.

It is, I suppose, only another instance of men being better than their creeds when I am able to state that, though the Ritualistic preachers have over and over again stated that it was a blessed thing to be persecuted by the press, still, directly I stated my wish to be present and report the services 'for women only', and from which men are, as I stated, rigidly excluded, each of the priests to whom I applied, courteously—nay, even anxiously—requested me to come, and afforded every facility for seeing without being seen. The West-end women, even more than their East-end sisters, are naturally sensitive as to being 'reported'; and on all hands this feature of the Mission requires most delicate treatment.

I paid, then, first of all, a morning visit to each of the two churches which have combined for this raid on Regent Street—namely, St Peter's, Windmill Street, next door to the Argyll Rooms, and St Thomas's, late Archbishop Tenison's Chapel. In each I found the missioners hard at work. At St Peter's, the Rev. Stephen Gladstone, son of the then Premier, was in earnest converse with a man who bore the appearance of an artisan. In St Thomas's a bearded priest was in the same position with a middle-aged female; while several younger women were waiting for an interview. The Rev. Edward Steele was sitting in the vestry for the same purpose; and, in each case, I must in justice say that the mere mention of the avowedly obnoxious press was sufficient at once to gain me the entrée I solicited. I was anxious, however, first of all to see the Mission doing out-of-door work; and for that purpose repaired to St Thomas's Church at half-past seven for a preliminary excursus through the streets prior to the last Mission service, the object of such sortie being principally to collect a congregation; though, no doubt, in a secondary degree, to get at those who will not come to church at all. A somewhat angry mob surrounded the door of the church, and were making remarks, more pointed than polite, on the Ritualists in general, and the confessional in particular. The idea of a procession was wisely abandoned, for one plain-spoken gentleman gave notice that if they brought any of 'them rags' out, he would 'pitch into 'em, if he got locked up for it'. So we went out two and two to a spot agreed upon down a back-street. 'I am afraid there will be a row', said the vicar. 'Then let's have a row', answered the plucky curate. We met at the appointed rendezvous where a Windsor chair was forthcoming ; and before people knew what he was about, Mr Steele had popped on a pocket surplice and mounted his rostrum. A hymn was sung, and he preached a sermonette appropriate to the occasion. The people were quiet; some impressed, others inclined to suggest that the gentleman was in his shirt sleeves; but the assembly was quite divided; and when he made a touching reference to a mother's prayers having gone up to Heaven for many of those present, I saw rough women moved to tears, and even men were disposed to concede that 'the feller warn't a-doing any harm'. Perhaps his greatest coup of all was when he said, 'I dare say many of you ain't Church of England people; but I don't care for that. Perhaps some of you are Wesleyans; I hope you are.' He scored a point there; but lost it again when he kissed the crucifix at the end of his short discourse. As we passed from post to post, marching to the tune of 'Daily, daily', along the unfragrant streets and alleys, the noise increased; but it was made entirely by small boys, and, of course, the smaller the lad the more noise he made. One halting-place was near the scene of a recent fatal fire; and Mr. Steele pressed that fact cleverly into his service. He was a man not to be howled down on any account, or by any number of infinitesimal boys. There was an immense congregation collected for the eight o'clock service, and the gentleman who had elected to be locked up contented himself with howling 'confessional' as Mr. Steele passed him on re-entering the church. Discretion is so often the better part of valour. But it is eleven o'clock, and the bell is ringing for the late service 'for women only; men rigidly excluded'; yet are there not, as Sydney Smith said, three sexes, 'men, women, and clergymen'? I am a clergyman, and enter unchallenged. There were very few women present at eleven -o'clock; but a good many cassocked priests and Sisters in their habits. When a girl did enter she was pounced down upon, perhaps a little too suddenly, by several Sisters at once; but they entered quite readily into conversation; and, in fact, did not seem so much alarmed as I think I should have been myself, under the circumstances. The 'Miserere' was first sung painfully out of tune (perhaps to express penitence); then the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent was read, and the ever-recurrent 'Daily, daily', sung; and afterwards Mr Steele gave some exceedingly good advice to those present. I wish I could think his words went home. I passed out—shall I own it?—disappointed. I could scarcely deem the service at St Thomas's a success; and I fancy I can, without lack of charity, explain the cause. There were too many Sisters, and they were too forward in their attentions. I think we men could have managed matters better—much as I believe in 'woman's mission to woman', I was not surprised to hear the Vicar say that the 'girls' had begun to tire of the services. Magdalene is a very difficult subject to deal with; and I doubt whether they have the best method at St Thomas's. So I passed along that Pandemonium, the lower part of Regent Street, formerly called the Quadrant, and could not help wondering how many years of Missions or Sessions of Parliamentary legislation it would take to cleanse that plague-spot. St Peter's has indeed bearded the lion in his den; for it is next door to the chief casino of London, the band of which seemed to play me into church as I passed the sacred portal. 'Father' Prescott, of the Society of St John at Cowley, was reciting the ordinary Mission service, and there was a fair congregation, numbering many of the obnoxious sex, while cassocked priests dotted the whole church over. The service was succeeded by a long interval of silent prayer, during which I could distinctly hear the thud of the contra-bassi in the next building, the tune of the dances, and eventually the noise of the roysterers as they passed from their revelry, most of them to supper, but some to church. It was a strange contrast, worth sitting-up once in a way into the small hours to witness. At midnight we sang on our knees, and too dolefully withal, the hymn
    Lord, in this Thy mercy's day,
    Ere it pass for aye away,
    On our knees we fall and pray.

Soon after twelve they came in, a motley gathering—of girls and young men with them: for the restriction 'For women only' was waived last night, and still the same mistake. Wherever a giggling girl settled, an estimable lady in a poke bonnet came and settled too, and the poke bonnet made the girls giggle more. Father Prescott commenced his address by giving the girls addresses of the ladies who would attend them in any sickness or difficulty, and then gave out a hymn, which was sung to an incongruous accompaniment of loud laughter as fresh bevies of girls came pouring in. There was, at all events, no lack of congregation here. Then followed the address by an exceedingly uninteresting, but I have no doubt estimable, gentleman. He took as his subject, 'Christ, the Good Shepherd', and talked to his congregation as though they had been children—which they were not. Decidedly the best portion of his brief sermon was where he claimed that the same ban that rested on them, his dear 'children', should rest on those who had led them to it. I had hoped much from this aspect of the Mission, and am sorry to feel it possible it may have failed.

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