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 Issues | Church History | F. J. Chavasse


Great Churchmen No. 24

F. J. Chavasse (1846-1928)

by H. Gresford Jones, D.D.

Second Bishop of Liverpool

Published by Church Book Room Press

The Shepherd of the Flock - Bishop of Liverpool, 1900-1923  

The episcopate of Francis James Chavasse was God’s crowning gift to Liverpool after a century of remarkable progress both civil and religious. Has any city, we may well ask, ever been so blest, as Liverpool then was, in public men of the very finest quality? He would, indeed, be presumptuous who essayed even a modest category of our benefactors. Yet certain trusted names seem immediately to emerge. Giving a prominent place as we needs must to the house of Stanley, for centuries intertwined with our history and never more than in the last, one sees illuminated on our list such honoured names as those of Gladstone and Canning, Huskisson, Roscoe, Cropper and Rathbone, Balfour and Brancker, Forwood, Russell and Earle, Guthrie and Rankin, Holt and Booth, to name but a few. Into our minds with equal homage come those who stood out in their midst as true prophets of God: men like Hugh McNeile, William Lefroy, J. S. Howson, W. M. Falloon, Edward Birrell, Hugh Stowell Brown, James Nugent, John Watson, J. W. Diggle. Nor can we forget among the high points of religious influence during the nineteenth century, the advent to Liverpool in 1874 of Dwight L. Moody; for it was the seed sown in his remarkable mission that was to produce a harvest of telling influence in the years ahead.

Upon soil so well prepared, our first Bishop, John Charles Ryle, came to plant, and after him Francis James Chavasse to water. Ryle, so ably portrayed in an earlier number of this series, six foot two in height, captain successively in his earlier years of both the Eton and the Oxford cricket eleven; destined to become a massive pillar in the Church of God: and after him Chavasse, small of stature, to reign for twenty-three years with that same blend of gentleness and strength that had marked his days at Wycliffe Hall.

Bishop Chavasse was consecrated in York Minster on St. Mark’s day, April 25th, 1900. So great was the crowd from Liverpool and Oxford that the nave was thus used for the first time. The sermon was preached by Dr. Moule, Bishop of Durham, from Acts xxiii. II. His enthronement followed on May 31st, followed by a luncheon at the Town Hall. His first sermon, in the old Cathedral in Churchstreet, was on the following Sunday (Whitsunday) from the text “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts”. “Nothing,” he said, “but the great truth enshrined in the words of the great Eastern creed ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life’, would have emboldened me to come amongst you as your Bishop. When a man enters upon any new work, if he thinks at all, his thoughts wander to that solemn account which he must one day give. None will have to give so solemn an account as the bishops of Christ’s Church: none have higher responsibilities and none have greater opportunities; where can man find strength to go forward and face the work to which God has called him? Only in two great facts of the Church’s history—in the sacrifice of Calvary perfected by the Resurrection and Ascension, and in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.”

Thus began that ceaseless ministry of preaching which was to touch the hearts of Lancashire people from end to end of the diocese. And with his untiring industry and his ordering of every hour of the day, the new Bishop had quickly penetrated into its furthest parts and made contacts with all his clergy.

It was his singular art of preaching and speaking that took him direct to the consciences of his people: and gave them a new tenderness for the Faith that he proclaimed. His primary charge at his first diocesan conference on October 23rd, 1900, was a masterpiece. At the inaugural meeting for the Cathedral next year, among some outstanding speakers, he was facile princeps. His confirmation addresses, his homely Sunday sermons, his “opening remarks” at successive meetings, were listened to with rapt attention and memorized often almost word for word. Before long the Liverpool Post began a leading article with the remark that the Bishop had never yet made a speech in the city without saying something that every one had afterwards felt to be the one thing that needed to be said. What was it? It was superb oratory. But it was more. It was infinite compassion getting home to the humblest in such wise that the most illiterate could catch his meaning. I often felt “how like to the cadences of Galilee”. How did he acquire this most enviable art? And when did he find the time for it? He told us he took seventeen hours to write a sermon. Never once to my knowledge, alas, did he disclose the secret of his technique. Rhetoric, first among studies for the ancient Greeks, is still a sealed art for Englishmen! Here, as in so much else, without note or comment, the Bishop left us an imperishable example, and left it to his example to act as leaven.

As it was with his preaching, so was it still more with that which, in the edifying of the Church of England, ranks yet higher—his pastoral work. Though a bishop appears to live in public and though he seems to be for ever preaching or speaking, it is his building up of his clergy, his endless letters to them and for them, his interminable interviews with them, that decree the final worth of his episcopate. It was here that Chavasse excelled. For his was the master-touch evolved from the school of assiduous devotion. Read his diary. At St. Paul’s, Preston, against January 10th, 1873, he enters: “Hard day—visiting for five hours: worn out at night.” January 13th : “Visited for nearly five hours: lacked directness and point.” January 14th: “Not free till 10.30 p.m., then worn out and too tired to pray.” January 19th: “Lord . . . teach me from Thy Word and on my knees, and grant that what I give out I may first have drawn from Thee.”

How well he knew the infinite strain and burden of pastoral work! And how well we knew that he knew it! When he told us that a vicar ought to pay twenty-five visits a week, and a curate at least forty, we were quite aware that such a measure was well below what he had formerly set himself! At his opening diocesan conference in 1900 as he outlined his first impression of our needs it was, characteristically, “first of all, more clergy.” To add to the supply of these, and to train them as he desired, he told the conference that he had already taken the house next door to the Palace in Abercromby-square where he hoped shortly to have five or six graduates in training.

“Quietly, but surely,” writes one, “the influence so powerful at Oxford is making itself felt here. Already controversy is less bitter, party hostility is less cruel than of old . . . and tokens are not wanting of the dawn of a new and glorious epoch in the history of the diocese of Liverpool . . . I once heard a man say that ‘of all the men in Oxford, if I were in a hole, I should go to Chavasse . . .’. That is just what one feels about the Bishop. One may go to consult him upon any matter. Nothing is too trivial for him. Every little thing receives his earnest consideration. Where he can help he does so. The Bishop too has one rare gift—that of remembering the names, features and circumstances of the people he meets. No parish is so remote but the Bishop seems to know everything about it.” (1)

Little wonder then that if the clergy so quickly felt the stimulus of his influence, the laity felt it too. Here was a bishop after their own hearts: who represented to them exactly what they felt a Father-in-God should be: who spoke to them in the language in which they spoke to each other: who never for a moment in the twenty-four hours seemed to be “off-duty”. He travelled third class. He went about in trams. He made contacts all along. And across twenty or thirty years people have treasured his sayings and his gentle courteous ways. One records a typical incident:

“It took place on an old type of Liverpool tramcar. It was a foggy evening and the tram was crowded to the door. It pulled up in Grove-street and one more passenger boarded it—Bishop Chavasse. The sight of this frail little old reverend gentleman on the platform brought a hefty young labourer to his feet. ‘Please take my seat, sir,’ he said. To which the Bishop smilingly replied, ‘Thank you, but there are ladies standing.” The effect of his reply seemed to take away the breath of those who heard it. Almost every man in the tram rose up, seeking to whom he could offer his seat. It was obvious that the Bishop’s remark was made out of the kindness of heart of a gentleman and not as a rebuke, and this was responsible for its immediate effect.”

Nor did the Bishop forget the railway staff. Another layman tells:

“How eagerly as choir boys at St. Faith’s, Crosby, we all looked forward to the visits of Bishop Chavasse, and how intently we listened to his simple and forthright sermons! On one occasion he said that we should be truly grateful for the public servants we meet in our daily life. Which he thus illustrated:

‘Whenever I travel by train, on arriving at my destination, I never fail to make my way to the engine, look up and say “Thank you, engine driver, and good night”.’”

A churchwarden delights to recall how, in 1912, in a third-class railway compartment, the Bishop took his squalling first-born, reduced it at once to silence, assuring the embarrassed father of his own long experience of such matters in his own family.

A lady witnesses to another typical act at a Confirmation:

“We had arrived a little early, before the doors had been opened. The saintly bishop was also waiting, and noticing my friend’s thin white gown, he immediately took off his overcoat and put it over her shoulders, saying, ‘The wind is rather cold, and I would not like you to catch cold.’”

For thirty-one years another has cherished his chance remark to her, quite unknown to him, in the corridor after an institution, “I am sure you will do all you can to help your new Vicar,” which drew from her the ready response “I will.” “One of those seemingly small things,” she adds, “so characteristic of the great man.”

A working man, who as a child lived near the Palace in Abercromby-square, says, “I had the privilege of knowing that great humane personality. I used to make it my business to be at our door or in the street when I knew he would be passing.”

He possessed in a rare degree the endearing sense of humour. The churchwardens once, after a confirmation at Eccleston, suggested some slight improvement for future occasions, to which the Bishop agreed. Then, before leaving, in solemn tones he remarked: “Having taken me to task let me point out how in one respect you gentlemen failed me to-day, and let me down very badly”; adding with a twinkle after their obvious suspense: “The vestry pen: it was a wretched one!”

Yet more treasured were his profounder utterances. A bank manager, acting as treasurer for one of the diocesan Homes, came one day with the shattering news that they were £3,000 in debt. To this day he recalls the tone in which the Bishop immediately replied, “We must go forward in unshakable faith.” A few years later his successor told him that the whole had been subscribed, and there was a slight balance in hand.

“Jesus first, others second, yourself last” was his address to a bride and bridegroom, indicating the secret of married happiness.

“You must grow a skin like a rhinoceros”—this to a highly sensitive man—“I have to.”

“Get a red-hot centre in every Church.”

“Be good, do good, see good in all things”: this from one confirmed in 1917, who adds, “With his slow, quiet, gentle, impressive voice, and with his hand on my head the Bishop said ‘Defend, O Lord, this Thy child’. These words and that text will always stand out in my memory.”

Most typical of all—to a young vicar entering on new work:

“Live near to God: let nothing interfere with your time of daily communion with Him: keep your mornings for reading: prepare your weekly sermons with great care: be a friend to your people: visit them steadily: and you are sure to be blessed.”

“There is no other life,” he would say, “in which a man need do so little, or ought to do so much.”

With such a bishop the whole diocese was sure to be blessed. Is it any wonder that the Liverpool Post could write at his departure, “The influence of his character put a new mellowness into the religious life of the whole community?”


>> Chapter 3: The Cathedral Builder



1) Lancelot, p. 156.









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