Steven Haws remembers the life of John Neville Figgis CR
Many of the Community of the Resurrection’s list of members reads like a Who’s Who, from two of its foundation members—Charles Gore and Walter Frere—to latter-day twentieth century Fathers such as Lionel Thornton, Trevor Huddleston, Raymond Raynes, Geoffrey Curtis, Harry Williams and Benedict Green.
Added to this list we must include an early twentieth century member of CR, John Neville Figgis, the centenary of whose death occurred in April this year. He was born on 2 October 1866 when his father, the Revd J.B. Figgis, was Minister of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion Church in North Street, Brighton. The young Neville was educated at a private school in Montpelier Crescent and later attended Brighton College. In 1885 he was enrolled at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge where he studied mathematics. He had a remarkable knowledge of English literature, poetry and prose and although he didn’t pursue a career in mathematics, he seems to have excelled in history which led to his receiving the Junior Whewell Scholarship in 1891, the Prince Consort Prize in 1892 and the Lightfoot Scholarship in 1899–1900, 1905–1906. In 1899 he became Examiner of University History.
Brought up in an Evangelical household, Neville had been drawn to the claims of Anglicanism and was confirmed in the Church of England. From Cambridge he attended Wells Theological College and was later ordained deacon in 1894 and priest the following year. He served his first curacy in Kettering, Peterborough for a year (1894–1895) and then returned to Cambridge to be curate of Great St Mary’s from 1895–1898.
Parochial life did not prevent him from becoming chaplain of St Catherine’s College and Pembroke College as well as lecturer at St Catherine’s. In 1900 he became Birkbeck Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge and assistant editor of The Cambridge Modern History.
His first published work was The Divine Right of Kings in 1896, an essay he had written for the Prince Consort Prize. Since Neville’s main interest as a historian dealt with political theories, and in particular in the formative period of modern politics, during which the clash between church and state determined the direction of modern political speculation, it had been suggested that he ought to investigate French political thought of the sixteenth century to show its bearing on the development of English theories. Kingship, as Neville understood, was regarded as being under divine authority in support of Christianity, although it was difficult during the Middle Ages for a sovereignty to build on since feudalism prevented its formation.
In 1901 Neville gave up academia to become rector of Marnhull in Dorset which was in the patronage of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. For him this was a bittersweet union between priest and parish, happy in respect of learning much of ordinary practical Christianity from his parishioners and in teaching children. He had a natural way with Nonconformists and would often appear at their meetings in chapel, but was equally unhappy and felt that parts of the Marnhull community didn’t understand him. His own sensitivity and impatience with stupidity made it that much more difficult to engage with the type of class of people who were his parishioners so that he would not always be in agreement with them.
By 1907 it was clear that Neville felt that he had been called to a monastic vocation. After discussing the situation with a sympathetic friend who strongly urged him to pursue such a vocation, Neville resigned the living as rector of Marnhull. It appears that he had no attraction to join the Cowley Fathers at Oxford, since most of his academic career had been in Cambridge.
Neville seemed to be drawn to test his vocation with the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in Yorkshire. Founded in 1892 in Oxford by Charles Gore and five other brethren, the Community was involved in prayer, preaching and teaching, retreats and missions. The men who joined were dedicated in a life of inward and outward self-denial as ‘the early Christians did who had all things in common, neither did any man say that aught he possessed was his own.’ This quote from the Acts of the Apostles appealed to Neville, which led to his decision to join the Community at Mirfield.
The early brethren were involved in Christian Socialism and Gore identified himself as a ‘liberal catholic’ which drew criticism from both churchmen and non-churchmen alike. By the time Neville had joined the Community was very well-established and had become one of the most influential of the men’s orders in the revival of the Religious Life.
Not everyone was happy with his decision to join a monastic order, including his father, the Revd J.B. Figgis, who objected to ‘High Churchmanship.’ The idea that his own son would join the Community at Mirfield was distasteful to the elder Figgis. In spite of his father’s protestations, Neville made his mind up determined to go. Although their affection for one another remained, J.B. Figgis never reconciled with his son’s settling of the matter. This fact was revealed years later when J.B. Figgis made his will with the stipulation that Neville would not receive any money as long as he remained a member of the Community.
Having resigned from his parish at Marnhull, in July 1907 Neville arrived at the House of the Resurrection and attended the chapter of the professed brethren assembled. He was admitted as a probationer (novice) on 13 July and admitted to the Holy Eucharist on Sunday the following day. In 1908 he was chosen as Hulsean Lecturer at Cambridge where there was a crowded attendance that made quite a stir at Cambridge and when his lectures were published under the title ‘The Gospel and Human Needs’ a second edition was soon called for.
On 5 January 1909 Neville was elected to profession and after a Quiet Day made his profession on Saturday 9 January. In April he gave a lecture on apologetics at a Missions Conference at Mirfield.
The fact that Neville was a member of a religious community made an impression on the undergraduates at Cambridge who would make it a point to hear him, but his preaching also took him to various universities, such as Oxford and Glasgow.
While the House of the Resurrection was his home, he spent much of his time preaching and lecturing in London or Cambridge. His persona, along with his lectures and sermons, began to be noticed in America. In 1911 he left Liverpool on 18 February on the Lusitania. The gale at the start was so strong it required six tugs to get the ship away from the landing stage. He spent three weeks in Cambridge, Massachusetts during which he gave ‘The Noble Lectures’ at Harvard University—his prophetic ‘Civilisation at the Cross Roads,’ as well as four lectures to clergy on ‘Churches in the Modern State,’ then afterwards spent a few days with the Order of the Holy Cross at West Park, New York. From there he preached and lectured at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. During Passion Week and Holy Week, he preached and lectured at Columbia University in New York and took Holy Week services at Holy Trinity Church. On Easter Day he went to Philadelphia to preach and on 19 April he left New York sailing again on the Lusitania.
In June 1912 Neville was appointed an Honorary Lecturer in the History of Political Theory at the University of Leeds. During the past two or three years he delivered occasional lectures at the university which afforded this official recognition. In the autumn of 1912, Neville’s ‘Noble Lectures’—Civilization at the Cross Roads—was published. Their publication had been considerably delayed owing to the fact that the book had to be printed in America since the corrected proofs had gone down with R.M.S. Titanic when it sank during its maiden voyage to New York on 15 April.
In March 1913 he visited Cambridge, having accepted the office of unofficial adviser to the newly formed Oratory of the Good Shepherd, still in its embryonic stage. During that same year his Churches and the Modern State was published, and he was once more invited to America, this time to New York by Bishop Paddock Lecturer which culminated in The Fellowship of the Mystery, published in 1914 during the same time he lectured on ‘The Moral Law’ during the Quarry Services at Mirfield.
In 1915 Great Britain with its allies were at war with Germany. Shortly after Easter, Neville visited America again, this time for the purpose of delivering the Bross Lectures on Nietzsche at Lake Forest University in Illinois. While en route to America his ship was tailed by a submarine, to the obvious distress of all on board.
In spite of German ‘frightfulness’ Neville effected a safe return home and arrived back in June even though a month earlier the Lusitania had been torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk with the loss of some 1,200 souls including Basil Maturin, the former Cowley Father who became a Catholic priest.
The following summer during July a series of sermons on human nature were delivered in the Quarry at Mirfield. Neville preached on ‘The Conscience’ and was followed by three other Mirfield Fathers: Chad Windley, Osmund Victor and Lionel Thornton. A fifth preacher included was Fr David Jenks, Director of the Society of the Sacred Mission, Kelham. During this period a number of tracts were written by Neville for the National Missions including ‘The Church’ and ‘Forgiveness,’ part of a series entitled ‘New Tracts on the Creed.’ A new edition of one of his earliest books—From Gerson to Grotius—was published. His main contribution had been The Will to Freedom, and some defects in the English Religion, a book of sermons.
At the end of October 1917, Neville suffered from what was supposed to be water on the knee which had been giving him trouble and some weeks afterwards he underwent an operation for it. He was not able to be present at the opening meetings of chapter and when he became able to attend it was thought best that he should avail himself of the kind invitation of the Wormalds and stay for a while at Field Head across the road from the House of the Resurrection.
Before the January chapter in 1918 Neville had been seriously unwell, but rallied around in time for his departure for America where he was due in the spring to deliver a series of lectures that had been postponed a year earlier. He booked passage for America on the Adania and embarked at Liverpool. The vessel had been underway about fifteen hours when it was torpedoed at the end of the north channel between the Giant’s Causeway and Rathlin Island (i.e. the north-east coast of Ireland). Some two hundred and forty passengers and crew were ultimately saved, with the exception of seven crew members who lost their lives. Of those who survived, Neville was one of the lucky ones having spent three quarters of an hour in an open boat after which his fellow passengers were picked up by a trawler, spending five hours in it until they reached Larne. This happened on 27 January 1918 and the following day Neville was able to send a cable-wire from Belfast to George Longridge CR, superior at Mirfield. After his return to Mirfield he had to leave for special treatment for his knee-trouble which turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis, something more serious than had been thought at first. He spent several months at Harrogate and elsewhere and was able to return to Mirfield shortly before the July General Chapter, a good deal better but, alas, not cured. His new regimen of treatment did not sit well with him, especially when it involved enforced inactivity which he found intolerable.
In spite of his illness he made what would become his last preaching engagement at the University of Cambridge on 2 June 1918. His physical appearance was noticeable, a change from the once seemingly healthy svelte body thirty years before. Obese, looking feeble and tired, and with the aid of a cane as walking became an increasingly difficult endeavour for him, Neville’s condition gave rise to serious anxiety. No improvement followed his treatments and eventually mental trouble threatened his very existence which, given the tragic circumstances between 1912 and 1918, was not surprising.
In March 1919 his brother Samuel B. Figgis, who was a medical doctor, removed him to Holloway Sanitarium, Virginia Water. He remained much in the same state for some weeks. The end came quite suddenly on Palm Sunday 13 April 1919 when Neville Figgis died. His body was brought to Mirfield and buried in the Community’s cemetery. His was the first grave to be opened there on 25 April 1919. He was 52 when he died and had spent twelve years in the Community of the Resurrection, ten of those years as a professed brother. People have spoken of his personal charm and ‘loveableness’ and his writings speak for themselves of his learning and brilliance. It may not seem amiss to mention two of his traits, which among others concerned Community life in particular. First there was his interest in the probationers (novices). Perhaps none of the brethren held a more certain place in their affections or exercised a deeper influence upon them. No matter what his attainments might be, each newcomer found Neville’s sympathy and wise counsel at his service. Before many days had elapsed Neville would go for a walk with him and at once gain his affection and confidence. And secondly, brethren noticed his insight into character and his knowledge of the ways of men. This, combined with his broad grasping of the needs and policy of the Community of the Resurrection, made him invaluable in chapter.
Waldegrave Hart CR, who was chronicler at the time of Neville’s death, wrote the following in the Community’s Chronicle about Neville to the brethren:
‘Those who were apt to think of Neville as a somewhat absent-minded scholar would have experienced a rude shock if they had heard the shrewd, worldly wisdom that so often came from his lips in chapter discussions. Perhaps the chance sayings of his, which from time to time revealed the depth and solidity of his spiritual experience, would have astonished them even more.’
Steven Haws CR is a member of
the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield