My dream is that once I retire I will write, at least among other things. There are in particular a couple of clerical figures who intrigue me and I would like to know more about them.
Possibly the Anglo-Catholic History Society, if it’s still going twenty-plus years hence, might be interested in one of them, the first Vicar of my home town, Bournemouth, Revd Alexander Morden Bennett. Fr Wagner of Brighton is a well-known figure in the annals of the 19th-century Catholic Revival in the Church of England, but Morden Bennett, his counterpart along the coast, is almost entirely unremarked-on. Like Wagner, Bennett was a man of independent means – he had to be, as the living of Bournemouth was so poorly endowed no clergyman would take it on for the first few years of its existence (Bennett arrived in 1845). Like Wagner, he refurbished the parish church and founded a swathe of daughter establishments which took Catholic practices further than their parent. He didn’t establish his own order of sisters, but invited some to Bournemouth. Like Wagner, his efforts were not universally popular: a schismatic evangelical church was established to combat Bennett’s principles and on one occasion he was burned in effigy as a ‘Papist’ (in Bournemouth!). He defied the boundaries of his parish to evangelise the potters of Canford Heath in open-air prayer and preaching meetings. The wheel of opinion turned, and by the time Bennett died in 1880 he was treated as a hero of Bournemouth’s early history, the church of St Stephen being built as a memorial to him. I’ve seen a portrait photo of him – a dramatically bald, stern fellow seen side-on – but can’t find it at the moment. He must have been a newly-ordained young clergyman when John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 sparked off the Oxford Movement, so he was among the first generation of priests who took the Tractarian message to the parishes, changing the Anglican Church for ever.
Who might be interested in my second intriguing personality is another matter. He was another Anglo-Catholic, though a far less orthodox one: Fr Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury between 1921 and 1953, who seems to have been absolutely central to the development of Glastonbury as a centre of weirdness, an amalgam of Christian and neo-pagan traditions. Lewis firmly believed the stories about Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visiting the area in the 1st century, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail: he even tried to get what he thought might be the Grail moved to Glastonbury from Wales so it could be enshrined in the parish church. He was instrumental in starting the Glastonbury Pilgrimage, which is still a great jamboree for what’s left of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and was a great friend of the architect and mystical writer Bligh Bond who designed fittings for the church during Lewis’s incumbency; Bond had been dismissed by the Bishop of Bath & Wells as Director of Excavations at the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in the year Lewis arrived, after talking to ghosts to aid his investigations. Lewis carried out the funeral of the occultist Dion Fortune, apparently accepting her own estimation of herself as a Christian of some sort. What an odd man.
And talking about the clerical figures of the past gives me an excuse to mention PJ Harvey. In 2010, while recording Let England Shake at St Peter’s Eype, she drew a series of pencil sketches inspired by the radio mast which sits dramatically amid the green fields along a footpath from the church: they appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine the following year, expressing, so Polly said, the way history repeated itself and wove around particular locations. One showed Edvard Munch; one, TE Lawrence. Munch made sense (one Gothy artist paying tribute to another), as did Lawrence because of the Dorset, and First World War, connection. But the third subject, framed against the radio mast? The Reverend Robert Lowman Lang. He’s an even more uncertain figure than Morden Bennett or Lionel Lewis. He seems to have served his entire clerical career in Somerset, and never reached any greater position of responsibility than Rural Dean of Taunton. What was his link to the Dorset singer? As the portraits of Lawrence and Munch are both taken from well-known photographs, the drawing of Fr Lang must be based on one as well; so where did PJH find it? And why is he wearing a pectoral cross as though he was a bishop? There’s not much material for a biography, I suspect, but there’s a mystery, albeit a little one.