Feast of William James Early Bennett (August 17)   10 comments

Above:  William James Early Bennett

Image in the Public Domain

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WILLIAM JAMES EARLY BENNETT (NOVEMBER 15, 1804-AUGUST 17, 1886)

Anglican Priest

Sometimes, while preparing a post about a saint or saints, I read a name.  I remain focused on my task, but take a moment to write that name on a list for future addition to this, my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.  That is why I know of the existence of William James Early Bennett, the most recent addition to my Ecumenical Calendar.

William James Early Bennett was an influential and controversial priest in The Church of England.  He, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on November 15, 1804, was a child of Mary Early and of William Bennett, a major in the Royal Engineers, the Royal Army.  Our saint, a graduate of the Westminster School, London; and of Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., 1827; M.A., 1829); married Mary Concetta Franklin in 1828.

Bennett, ordained to the priesthood in 1830, transitioned from being an Evangelical, Low Churchman into becoming a Tractarian and, in the process, a center of controversy.  Anglo-Catholicism was, according to many Low Churchmen, evil it worst.  It smelled of Popery.  The sight of candles burning on an altar proved sufficient to prompt an ecclesiastical proceeding sometimes.  Bennett served various congregations in London through 1851; by 1842 he pronounced High Church tendencies.  Our saint had gone so far as to refer to sacraments as vehicles of grace.

In the early 1840s Bennett began to serve at St. Paul’s, Knightbridge.  He had already come to object publicly to the practice of renting pews, for it gave undue prominence to the wealthy and excluded the poor from churches.  He said:

How constantly we see in our churches the servant attending upon his master or mistress, carrying with him their Prayer Books and Bibles, and waiting upon them to their pew-doors; and then quietly, and in the face of God and of the congregation, retiring from the walls of the church, as if he had no part or lot in the matter of Christian worship.

St. Paul’s, Knightbridge, rented pews, but Bennett persuaded the parish to finance St. Barnabas, Pimlico, in a slum, dedicated in 1850.  Bennett served as the priest of both congregations and, in 1849, ministered to victims of a cholera epidemic in Pimlico.  When Bennett dared to pray for the deceased victims of the disease, the Bishop of London objected on theological grounds.  Bennett replied by citing Anglican precedents for praying for the dead, but the bishop did not relent.  Bennett, under pressure, resigned in 1851.

From 1852 to 1886 Bennett was the Vicar of St. John the Baptist, Frome, Somerset.  When he arrived the church was in terrible condition, numerically and physically.  He revived the congregation, and ended the practice of renting pews, rearranged pews so that the chancel was more visible.  Our saint also changed the schedule of services, adding daily communion services and enabling members of the working class to attend church before going to work.  Attendance increased.  The introduction of vestments and incense also raised some eyebrows.

Overt ritualism was one matter, but advocacy for transubstantiation was, for much of the Evangelical wing of The Church of England, a bridge too far.  Bennett’s pamphlet, A Plea for Toleration in the Church of England (1867), became historically significant.  It led to an ecclesiastical trial, which concluded with the ruling that transubstantiation is not incompatible with Anglican doctrine.  The Privy Council heard an appeal and upheld the decision.

Bennett, an attentive parish priest, died in Frome, Somerset, on August 17, 1886.  He was 81 years old.

Bennett’s published works included the following:

  1. The Eucharist:  Its History, Doctrine, and Practice, with Meditations and Prayers (1837);
  2. A Guide to the Holy Eucharist (1842);
  3. Lecture-Sermons on the Distinctive Errors of Romanism; Preached in Portman Chapel, Marylebone (1842);
  4. A Pastoral Letter to His Parishioners (1846);
  5. Crime and Education:  The Duty of the State Therein (1846);
  6. Lives of the Fathers of the Church in the Fourth Century; for the Instruction of the Young (1847), Volumes I, II, and III;
  7. The Principles of the Book of Common Prayer Considered:  A Series of Lecture Sermons (1848);
  8. A First Letter to the Right Honourable Lord John Russell, M.P.:  On the Present Persecution of a Certain Portion of the English Church; with a Sermon, Preached at S. Paul’s, Knightbridge, on Sunday Morning and Evening, November 17, 1850 (1850);
  9. A Farewell Letter to His Parishioners (1851);
  10. The Last Sermons Preached at Saint Paul’s, Knightbridge, and Saint Barnabas’, Pimlico (1851);
  11. On Anabaptism, the Independents, and Quakerism (1867);
  12. On Presbyterianism and Irvingism (1867);
  13. On Romanism (I) (1867);
  14. Lent Readings from the Fathers (1872); and
  15. Foreign Churches, in Relation to the Anglican:  An Essay Towards Re-Union (1882).

Bennett was a trail blazer.  Much of what was controversial in his time has become commonplace and accepted practice.  The Anglo-Catholic revolution made its mark on the Anglican Communion.

Now we argue about other matters.  I predict that members of subsequent generations of the Church will look back on our time much as we of 2018 regard nineteenth-century controversies about daily communion services and prayers for the dead.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 21, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT ALOYSIUS GONZAGA, JESUIT

THE FEAST OF BERNARD ADAM GRUBE, GERMAN-AMERICAN MINISTER, MISSIONARY, COMPOSER, AND MUSICIAN

THE FEAST OF CARL BERNHARD GARVE, GERMAN MORAVIAN MINISTER, LITURGIST, AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINTS JOHN JONES AND JOHN RIGBY, ROMAN CATHOLIC MARTYRS

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O God, our heavenly Father, who raised up your faithful servant William James Early Bennett

to be a pastor in your Church and to feed your flock:

Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit,

that they may minister in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Acts 20:17-35

Psalm 84 or 84:7-11

Ephesians 3:14-21

Matthew 24:42-47

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 719

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10 responses to “Feast of William James Early Bennett (August 17)

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  1. Thank God, he had the courage of his convictions, in the face of ecclesiastical pressure!

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