Alan Edwards reflects on the life and eccentricities ofFr Ignatius, fervent orator and evangelist for Jesus and con troversial and ill-disciplined pioneer monk
To see him in or out of church you’d say, “There’s a Papist of papists.” Listening to him you’d say “There speaks a champion Protestant.”‘ A verdict on someone who today embodies the New Directions masthead ‘Serving Evangelicals and Catholics’?
Possibly, but actually a contemporary tribute to Fr Ignatius of Llanthony, the centenary of whose death occurs this year, an Evangelical Catholic fittingly accompanied across the Jordan by Ira Sankey who also died a hundred years ago.
Joseph Leycester Lyne, the future Fr Ignatius, was born the year the Victorian age began and became one of its most colourful religious figures. Charles Bradlaugh, the Richard Dawkins of his time, admitted that Ignatius was the only man whose influence he feared. Gladstone thought him one of the greatest orators of his day, oratory which drew vast crowds to his mission rallies.
He felt destined for the church from childhood. Nursery games involved services for his playmates where he always ‘had to be the man in the nightgown – the one in charge,’ according to Baroness Bertouch, his hagiographer.
Made deacon in 1860 he was never advanced to the priesthood because of his insubordination to authority and eccentric behaviour though, such was his self-confidence in his successful moments, he probably felt brother to that other deacon Francis, whose public stripping to symbolize the embracing of poverty might also have been regarded as a trifle eccentric.
Ignatius recorded that his earliest religious impetus was to evade Hell and that he saw becoming a monk as an insurance. It was not until he underwent an Evangelical style conversion experience while convalescing from of his bouts of ill health – like Hope Patten his illnesses often reflected set-backs – when he saw that, ‘love of his Saviour was better than fear of Damnation.’
Curacies with Prynne at Plymouth and Lowder in East London saw him demonstrate a power in preaching, and the conviction that the BCP must be interpreted as completely Catholic in doctrine and ceremonial expression.
His preaching fervour disregarded the ruling made at his deaconing that he was not to preach until priesting, which was not planned to follow for three years because of his lack of a theological training. Joseph saw no need for this: the Bible, the BCP and the Sarum service books contained all that he needed and he adopted what was to be his lifelong motto, ‘Jesus Only’
He also adopted a monastic habit, the name Ignatius and put himself at the head of various short-lived quasi-Benedictine communities, one of which briefly contained Charles Walker, author of The Ritual Reason Why, who soon fled because he couldn’t stand the Rule insisted upon by Ignatius. Not enough sleep or food; too many services and too much work.
Although Ignatius’s ambition was to restore the Benedictine life to the Church of England he lacked the stability that was at the heart of the Benedictine ethos. Not only was his temperament mercurial – manic depressive many have said – but the chronic shortage of money that dogged his various monastic ventures meant that he had to undertake frequent preaching cum cash-raising crusades.
In 1869 he eventually found a place to establish a permanent community, Capel y ffin, a short distance from the ancient Llanthony Abbey, an area that also had attracted that other restless soul, Walter Savage Landor.
For near on forty years until his death he presided over the building of a new Llanthony Abbey. He was still short of funds, having to employ jerry-builders, gathering around him an ever-changing army of followers, nuns as well as monks.
He ruled with a mixture of bullying and sentimentality allied to his own do-it-yourself versions of monastic rule and liturgy. Missionary tours continued (including to the Indians of the USA) and his fame grew. Press photos of Ignatius cuddling a surplice-clad infant on his knee, ‘the Boy Oblate’, if published today, would have hordes of Sun readers chanting ‘Paedo-priest’ outside the Abbey doors.
By the mid-19th century Rome had its Lourdes, so Ignatius was not at all surprised when his own devotion to the Blessed Virgin was rewarded by her appearing to him as an apparition in a bush in the Abbey grounds in August 1880. Miracles, including many self-claimed wonder cures, like controversy, always surrounded Ignatius.
Controversy came from his frequent brushes with Anglican authority and from Protestant opponents who delighted to publish accounts of life in Ignatius’s ‘Romish monastery’, provided by some of the many refugees. Not all the lurid detail was the product of Kensitite imagination.
Failing to secure priesting from Canterbury, he gained ‘ordination in 1898 at the hands of a dubious episcopus vagans, an act damaging him more than all the Protestant pillorying. When he died in 1908 his community died with him.
A failure? Not to the many touched by his missions and sermons, but certainly in his ambition to establish a lasting Benedictine community.
But if he was too undisciplined to produce a stable community and his poorly-built abbey church crumbled into ruins, he nevertheless built a wider acceptance of the monastic ideal when England was still predominantly Protestant in mood. His courting of publicity by his own missions, and participation in such enterprises as the Moody & Sankey campaigns, touched wider audiences than his more restrained monastic contemporaries.
If you have ever visited the remaining monastic buildings at Capel-y-ffin and seen the simple graves with their inscription ‘Jesu yn Unig’ (Ignatius became a cultural Welsh Nationalist) and watched as the sun sinks over the all-surrounding silent hills you can just believe that the Virgin Mary did visit that peaceful place in his time.
In his day Francis Kilvert came to Llanthony and saw the monks hoeing spinach. When, a century later, on one of our visits to the Capel-y-ffin buildings, then owned by Eric Gill’s granddaughter, we were invited to ‘help yourself to the vegetables during your stay’, we were delighted that the descendants of the Ignatian spinach still flourished.
We over-indulged ourselves on Eggs Mornay – excess that surely did honour to the excessive spirit of Fr Ignatius OSB 1837-1908.