Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ralph Martin, SSM

In the early 1920's the Order of the Holy Cross began its now almost century long ministry in Africa by opening a mission station in Bolahun, Liberia.  In the 1970's it was thought best to indigenize that work, comprising a large church, schools, medical clinic, a village for people with Hansen's disease, and other good works.  Time for Liberians to run their own institutions!  As the Order pursued this policy -- which was a process that took many years rather than a single event -- the idea arose of an African novitiate.  In the early 1980's this led to the Order's second African establishment, Philip Quaque Monastery in Cape Coast, Ghana.  A few years later an Anglican seminary was started in Cape Coast, named for St. Nicholas.  The OHC community was involved with the seminary from the outset, though the monastery and the seminary pursued their separate goals.  The first head of St. Nicholas was Ralph Martin, SSM, who has just published a remarkable autobiographical memoir.

Ralph Martin, SSM, Towards a New Day: A Monk's Story.  (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2015).   Available from at a much more reasonable price than US Amazon.

Born, educated and ordained in Canada, Ralph Martin joined the Society of the Sacred Mission in 1957.  SSM had been founded in 1893 by Fr. Herbert Kelly, who desired to educate young men of the working classes for the ministry of the Church of England.  This was a significant development, as many (perhaps too many) of the clergy were not from that social milieu and so the Church's life among working people was not as vibrant as it should have been.  Fr. Kelly is a fascinating character in himself, and the Kelham story is told well by Alistair Mason, SSM: History of the Society of the Sacred Mission (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1993). 

The great work of Fr. Kelly and SSM was the foundation and operation of one of the great seminaries of the Anglican world, Kelham, in Nottinghamshire.  The Church of England, battered in the 1960's from many sides,  decided it had too many seminaries, and in 1971 Kelham was closed.

Martin's description of his early years at SSM is a classic of the I-enter-the-monastery genre of writing.  If the reader knows what is coming, the writing is poignant, and left me almost in tears. 

What a wonderful gift SSM and Kelham were, not just to the Church of England, but to Christianity in general.  It is interesting to compare Martin's account to Richard Holloway's Kelham days, in his autobiographical Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013). 

Ralph Martin's early years in SSM took him in many interesting directions, but led ultimately to almost a decade as Provincial of SSM in the UK (1973-1981).  This occurred in the wake of the closure of Kelham and its internal troubles, and must have cost Martin a great deal.  He steered the community in new directions, which envisioned a broader concept of community life.  When his term was done, he began a remarkable career of ministries which took him to Japan, Ghana, back to the UK, Kuwait, Rome, Lesotho and Australia.  In all of those places his ministries were exemplary, and to read his accounts is to gain a glimpse of what a wonderful thing missionary monasticism can be in our age.

When OHC established Philip Quaque Monastery in Cape Coast, Ghana, the Prior was Christian Swayne.  Christian learned that the Ghanaian church wanted to start an Anglican seminary in Cape Coast.  He and Martin were old friends, going back to early Canada days.  So Christian wrote Martin asking him if he might be interested in heading up the seminary project, and the project began.

The seminary was a real string and baling wire operation in the beginning, and the anecdotes Martin tells are absolutely wonderful, giving a vivid picture of the early days of an important church institution.  OHC and the seminary were not the same by any means, but OHC people are prominent in the account of the seminary: Christian himself, Bonnell Spencer, who in his late 70's taught history and created the library from scratch, Boniface Adams, Leonard Abbah, and many others.  It is a priceless, brilliant word picture of a bit of OHC's history.  And all told with a generous and cheerful eye to human achievement with divine help in the midst of seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

This is a wonderful book.  Wonderful because of the light a central participant in its history sheds on a great Anglican monastic community.  Great because of the picture it paints of vital Anglican Christian life in so many parts of the world.  But most of all, inspired in the character who tells his own story.  Ralph Martin is a shining exemplar of Christian discipleship, of monastic life well led, of profound and effective faith pointed toward the Kingdom.

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