Saturday, October 3, 2015

Charles Chapman Grafton

Recently four books relevant to the study of Anglican monasticism have appeared.  I have read three of them and am now reading the fourth, and thought I would share some thoughts about them.  This is in a way a promotion, and I am happy to do so, because I think the study of Anglican monasticism deserves more attention both by the reading public and by scholars.

Eldridge H. Pendleton, SSJE, has written a wonderful short biography of Bishop Charles Grafton, which I heartily recommend.  But first a word about Eldridge.  He died less than two months ago, on Aug. 26, 2015 .  Eldridge joined SSJE in 1984, and in the thirty years of his monastic life made a deep impression on many people.  He was a beloved spiritual director and advisor to many, many serious seekers after God.  He is deeply missed, and I am sure he is with the Lord in glory.

Press On, The Kingdom: The Life of Charles Chapman Grafton (Cambridge, MA: SSJE, 2014).  It is available from

Charles Grafton was one of the three founding members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, together with Richard Meux Benson and Simeon Wilberforce O'Neill.  They began community life together in 1865 and made their vows in 1866, in Benson's parish in the village of Cowley, near Oxford.

He was born in Boston in 1830, educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard Law School, became active in the faith as a young man, and was confirmed at the Church of the Advent in Boston in 1851.  He was eventually ordained and with Oliver Sherman Prescott, a fiery ritualist Anglo-Catholic, was drawn toward the idea of a religious community for men.  Since this did not then exist in the Anglican world, he went to England to meet people moving in that direction, and there he joined Benson and O'Nell in the Cowley adventure.

His understanding was that Fr. Benson and the nascent community intended SSJE to establish an American branch, and so when the opportunity arose for him to return to the U.S. he did so.  He eventually became the rector of the Church of the Advent, but left SSJE in 1882.  He remained at the Advent until 1889, becoming Bishop of Fond du Lac, in Wisconsin, shortly afterward.  His many works included the foundation of the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity, the re-establishment of Nashotah House seminary on a firm footing, the solidification of his own diocese, poor and unstable when he began his ministry there, decades of leadership of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, whose principles are now the basis of Prayer Book Episcopalianism, and pioneering ecumenical work with the Orthodox world.  He died, full of honors, in 1912.

The property where Mount Calvary Monastery is now located was founded and developed by his Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity in Santa Barbara in the early 1950's.  Even though the direct inspiration for the former St. Mary's Retreat House was the work of our own Fr. Karl Tiedemann, OHC, it is in a sense an indirect foundation of Bishop Grafton.

Pendleton shows in a clearly, compellingly written traditional biography -- that is, a biography which begins at the beginning and ends at the end and encounters the events of the subject's life in the order in which he himself met them (as not all modern biographies do) -- the course of Grafton's remarkable life.

Two virtues, beyond its wonderful writing, stand out in particular.  First, Pendleton tells, perhaps for the first time, the unvarnished story of the breakup of SSJE in the early 1880's.  Grafton was doubtless the precipitating agent.  But Pendleton writes candidly about the interaction of other members of SSJE in it as well.  In particular he describes the breakdown of the relationship between Fr. Benson, with his authoritarian ways, and Fr. Grafton, whose determination was as inflexible as Benson.  Pendleton's work is the more remarkable in that he does not let Benson's subsequent deposition as Superior and his eccentricities anachronistically control the narrative.  He quotes liberally from correspondence and shows how the events of 1882 unfolded in their contexts.  SSJE is to be commended for opening its archives and shedding light on this complex series of events.

The second great virtue of this work is that Pendleton resurrects Grafton as a person.  Grafton wrote voluminously but there is not a lot of self-disclosure in his works.  Lacking this, the portrait of him here shows well his great energy, capacious mind and sophisticated understanding of the Church.  His was a great spirit, but of a type which might not find much sympathy today.  Pendleton reminds us that the church always stands on the shoulders of people of other ages, of other understandings, whose lives, when presented by a sympathetic, learned and skilled author, can shed light where once there was obscurity.

A book well worth reading!

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