John Neville Figgis, CR : a friend for whom we used to pray (Fr Christopher, OGS)

One of the more controversial Chapter discussions from my early years in the Oratory was concerning what we meant by “praying daily for the Brethren by name”. In those dim and distant days, in the seemingly permanent and searing summer heat of Maryvale, the discussion reached the conclusion that we, in reality, meant both “ the living and the departed”. To the uninitiated, this might have seemed the perfect answer; and, indeed , perhaps the end of the matter. However, it led to long discussions concerning for whom exactly we should now be praying; the List had become longer as the years went by and it obviously seemed ripe for some pruning. Alas, to one who was so newly professed, part of that pruning was to remove all names, apart from the Founders, who did not die in Profession and, in essence, everyone else!  For those whose memory has dimmed with time, that List formerly included departed Bishop-Visitors, some assorted friends and early advisers. One such casualty was Father Neville Figgis, CR.

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Father Neville Figgis, CR

It was a particular sadness to me, as he and I were alumni of the same College and his was a name and academic reputation that still rang bells in the University of Cambridge in my undergraduate days which amazingly was some sixty odd years after his premature death in 1919. His centenary of death is fast approaching us and in writing this paper, I am seeking to impart something of his remarkable story to a younger generation and also, in part, to reassess his vital role in the foundation of our Community. Indeed, I would suggest that, without Neville Figgis, the Oratory might very well have foundered almost before it really began.

For this initial brief and rather general biographical sketch of Father Figgis’ life and work, I am, in part, indebted to the admirable work of  The Rev’d Dr Alan Wilkinson in the 1995 St Catharine’s College Society magazine as well as the long out of print but vitally important study of Figgis’ Life by Father Maurice Tucker. Wilkinson was himself an old member of St Catharine’s and was Chaplain there from 1961-67, interestingly working alongside our departed brother, Christopher Waddams who was dean. For those who wish to read more, Wilkinson also included something about Figgis in his centenary history of the Community of the Resurrection (1992). So along with Selby Taylor, the two Christophers in the Oratory’s history (so far at least) were all St Catharine’s men.

But just how well remembered is Father Figgis at the College? A speaker at the 1937 Society Dinner claimed that ‘the rejuvenation of the College (which had been under a cloud after the debacle over the election of a new College Master in 1861) was due in large measure to John Neville Figgis’ magnetic personality. In 1938, the Society  even collected money for a portrait. In 1948 the annual Figgis prize for history (which is still awarded today) was created, presumably out of the funds collected for the portrait which sadly was never executed. But who was John Neville Figgis?

He was the son of a distinguished Nonconformist minister from Brighton. He went up to St Catharine’s in 1885 as a mathematical scholar and graduated as senior optime. He went on to take a first in history and subsequently won the Prince Consort and several other university prizes. He was later confirmed into the Church of England. His classic study “The Divine Right of Kings” (1896) was reprinted as recently as 1965 as is still widely available thanks to the internet. Those who turn to it today to bolster either the monarchy or a High Church view of Church and State would be rather disappointed! He claims,  ‘The Revolution and the Act of Settlement disposed for ever of the doctrine of indefeasible hereditary right’.

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St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (as seen from Trumpington Street)

The College in those days was too poor to give him a Fellowship. He scraped a living as a private coach and lecturer. However, like his mother, he always had somewhat uncertain mental health. He broke down after his fourth year and had to withdraw for a time. During this dark period, he felt called to the priesthood and was trained at Wells Theological College and was made deacon in 1894 and ordained priest in 1895. After a curacy he returned as an assistant at Great St Mary’s (the University Church), then became a chaplain at St Catharine’s and Pembroke and a college lecturer at Trinity and St Catharine’s.

But  sadly in 1901 he had another breakdown. He was advised to give up the pressures of academic life and became vicar of the small St Catharine’s living at Marnhull, Dorset for five years ( a parish still maintaining its Catholic tradition over a century later). In effect he arrived a semi-agnostic but was gradually converted by the deep and active faith of the people and that of his assistant priest and came to identify himself with the Anglican Liberal Catholicism of Charles Gore. It was said that while seeing one of Bernard Shaw’s plays (possibly “Man and Superman” with its Don Juan themes) that he decided he should test his vocation to the monastic life at the Community of the Resurrection.

He wrote in 1907: “I am going to Mirfield because I have more and more come to see that if we want people to think we are sincere in Christianity, it is desirable to live so that you … appear to mean it; that is a life of poverty, but I do hope to go on with study, with writing”. He also hoped that the monastic life would provide the discipline, prayer and necessary communal support he needed for mental stability. He owed much to his early Nonconformist background: his evident pleasure whenever he stood against the tide; the high value he placed on preaching; his contempt for establishment Anglicanism; and indeed his defiant gesture in joining CR. The call to celibacy was not an issue for him as he always had a marked distaste for clerical marriage. It was that which had helped to make the Church of England so upper middle class, so he thought.

Charles Gore had founded CR in 1892 to be salt for societyand a foretaste of the more disciplined and socially concerned communitythat he wanted the Church of England to become. CR gave Figgis freedom to pursue his academic interests. By its Rule, that freedom and liberty which his earlier teacher John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Actonhad taught him to value were safely  guaranteed : ‘Nothing shall be finally required of any of the brethren which violates his conscience.’However, it must be said,  minor aspects of the CR life chafed, especially the constant interruption of the monastic Hours. Out for a walk with a guest once, he heard the bell for None. ‘Let us be late for None,’ remarked Figgis, ‘but let us not be late for tea.’

Neville Figgis was more fulfilled at Mirfield than he was anywhere else. But in one respect he was disappointed. He had joined CR believing that he would no longer, as he discerned it, be exploiting people. But he found that every piece of bread he ate and every train he travelled in, were part of the economic system he thought he had renounced. At Mirfield Figgis became a much admired preacher and political theorist. His sermons were inspiring, hard-hitting, yet refreshingly honest. He publicly confessed in 1908, ‘To others faith is the bright serenity of unclouded vision; to me it is the angel of an agony, the boon of daily and hourly conflict.’ He was often called upon to preach back in Cambridge where he had a profound effect on a generation of young catholic-minded undergraduates and ordinands.

CR had been founded within the Christian Socialist tradition. But in fact  Figgis did not belong to any political group. In any case the so-called progressivist view of history of most socialists of his day was anathema to him. Indeed during the Great War, with a good deal of satisfaction, he predicted that the war would destroy the belief in inevitable progress, reinstate the doctrine of the atonement as the central truth of Christianity inplace of the incarnationand destroy what he called ‘the tepid weak tea of respectable choristers’ Anglicanism’.

‘The tepid weak tea of respectable choristers’ Anglicanism’

Through all of this, however, his mental health suffered; exacerbated by a series of disasters. The corrected proofs of  his book “Civilisation at the Cross Roads” went down with the “ Titanic”. In 1915 (the year of the sinking of the “ Lusitania”), on his way to Illinois to lecture on Nietzsche, his ship was tailed by submarines to the obvious distress of all aboard. Sailing again in 1918 to lecture in America his ship, the Cunard liner “Andania”,  was torpedoed and sunk. He escaped in an open boat, but his manuscript on Bossuet (the Seventeenth Century bishop and theologian) on which he had worked for years and other papers went down with the ship. He never recovered from the shock of this experience and was admitted to a mental hospital in Virginia Water where he died aged 53 on April 13 1919 (Palm Sunday). He had been visited shortly before by his Superior from Mirfield, Walter Frere.

In his studies in theology and history,  Figgis had rejected the Statism (the notion that the State is all) which characterised so much socialism, Christian and secular, in favour of “Guild Socialism” and “syndicalism” (the political movement advocating workers’ control of industry through the medium of trade-related guilds in an implied contractual relationship with the public). For Figgis the chief sin of his time was avarice. He accused social reformers of evading that because they had ceased to believe in the Christian doctrine of sin. He was one of the earliest  pioneers of true pluralist thought in England. For him, freedom (liberty) was the goal of political action. Power, his old tutor Acton had taught, could corrupt and should be actively dispersed in the church as well as the state.

At a time when many were excitedly discovering the power of the state as a means to better the human lot,  Neville Figgis rejected the concept of the sovereign state and any tendency, as he saw it,  to deify it. Instead he believed it should be a community of communities (communitas communitatum). Above all Figgis passionately believed that ‘unless we can be the Church of the poor, we had far better cease to be a Church at all’. Figgis saw the state as merely a strong power that is needed to prevent injustice between groups and to secure to each group its rights.

Thus the written output of Neville Figgis in political philosophy constitutes the fusing of  his two interests and his two careers; the priest-monk and the actively engaged academic who had a clear interest in “living interests in Church and state.” More of an evangelist and apologist than a theologian, Neville Figgis’ influence tragically and unfairly hardly survived World War I and, of course, his premature death immediately after it . His last and, perhaps, greatest work on the political aspects of St Augustine’s “City of God “ was only published posthumously (based on a series of his lectures) and is only now, nearly a century later, slowly being afforded the academic study it rightly deserves; possibly a post-Brexit world is looking for sign-posts that the state is never all-important or all-encompassing?

But how does this extraordinary man have any influence on the foundation of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd?  Perhaps one or two insights about Figgis’ personal character need to be shown before we seek to answer that. I quote again from another St Catharine’s man called R R Conway who wrote his personal memoirs of Figgis for the College magazine in 1937. They were undergraduate contemporaries and I feel that it is important to quote here at length as it gives a powerful insight into the man:

“….To a great proportion of his contemporaries he was known, not so much for intellectual as for personal qualities; he had a genius for friendship and his vast circle embraced men of every stamp and every pursuit. Many of them had first met him professionally, but in his rooms you might meet Blues of varied distinction, Union orators, politicians, classics, a Senior Wrangler or two, representatives of every imaginable Tripos, and a swarm of those who might be described as “unlabelled.”

 For some years there was in existence a Sunday Lunch Club , composed of Figgis, who was not permitted to open his mouth without every or any statement being violently contradicted by the rest of the party, a leading expert in Persian, who was a Golf Blue, a law lecturer who devoted his spare time to hunting, and the present writer : if there was one thing more than another which gave Neville sincere joy It was to be well and truly ragged, and he certainly got it.

As a host he was perfect ; he never allowed the most timid freshman to feel out of it, he could talk on any subject under the sun ( ed. most often on at lunches given on Thursdays), he loved good cheer and saw that his guests had it too, and his great delight was to give something away: for many years, any incident in my career was marked by the gift of a book, and now on looking at the dates on the fly leaves I find these a very adequate chronicle of past experiences,  cheerful or the reverse.

 And this beneficence had its pathetic side in his later life: after some few years in, perhaps, the most attractive parsonage in Dorset he felt that he was not doing his best work in such ease and comfort and joined the Mirfield Community; here he might well have been exempted from further generosity, but no: he had still his own books, obviously dating from very early days, and he passed them on, one by one; if ever there was a cheerful giver it was he.

To very many it was a distinct surprise when he took orders; those who knew him best understood the reason, and I do not intend to go into it here ; he was brought up in the Countess of Huntingdon’s denomination, he ended at Mirfield ; there was no violent change in his spiritual outlook, but rather a steady development. He was always open to see the best in those who did not think with him, and in the intellectual side of clerical work he seemed to have found a real vocation; few men thirty years ago were so sought after on the occasion of any special call to religion, and as Hulsean Lecturer it is not too much to say that he made a reputation”.

And so this remarkable man became a friend to those early founding fathers of the Oratory. And of these we know he was particularly close to Eric Milner-White, John How and Edward Wynn. His character, his Cambridge life, his experience of the ordered life at Mirfield as well as that of the academic life caused him to be the one to whom they all turned for guidance when this new venture was first in their minds over a century ago. In Henry Brandreth’s early History of the Oratory he demonstrates the importance of Father Figgis in those early years. I quote the salient points here;

“The brethren met daily for Mass in St. Michael’s church. They met again for Nones, had a definite time for Meditation and a fixed hour for retiring. They also met weekly (ed. on Thursdays) in chapter. At Edward Wynn’s request, Father Neville Figgis of Mirfield agreed to act as a kind of unofficial adviser to the Group…There was no thought of founding a religious order on the lines of any existing or ancient society…”

“On March 3rd, 1913, Father Figgis visited Cambridge, and the brethren… made a declaration of intention in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College… In August, 1914, came the war…the others, with Father Figgis, went again to Little Gidding in September of that year…”

“The first profession of the full members of O.G.S. took place in St. Edward’s Church, Cambridge, on Saturday, October 25th, 1919, at 7.0 a.m. Father W. H. Frere, Superior of Mirfield, sang the Mass and received the brethren’s professions. A number of the Oratory’s friends in Cambridge kept the rest of that morning as a time of continuous intercession in St. Edward’s…”

Sadly, by the time of those First Professions the Oratory’s “unofficial adviser” was dead. His final act in helping the early founding fathers was to help to clarify along with Father Frere the word “profession” as the Oratory Manual understood it in the early years. Although that on-going debate was to lead to the departure from the community of some of those founders, some of Figgis’ early wisdom, concerning what the Oratory israther than what it is notstill, stands the test of time.

He was an inspiration, a magnetic guide and a voice of reason and experience for those early Oratory brethren; most of whom were hardly more than in their mid-twenties. He was the one who inspired within those young men a search for Liberty to use their God-given gifts. He was the one who knew that we should seek Joy within our Christian lives, even though one’s personal  struggle might be hard (his certainly was). He, in particular, was the one who valued a life of Discipline in order to flourish in his quest for the Labour of the Mind. And his surely was the example of  generosity of living that led a desire for proper Stewardship in the life of all communities, the Oratory included. Above all, his personal struggles demonstrate that we can all only properly flourish in a society that is one of Fellowship with an enduring desire for all to share in the Love that makes for Peace.

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Neville Figgis, CR’s grave in Mirfield

His inspiration and guidance in the life of the Oratory were cut short by an early death, nearly a century ago. Perhaps the time has come for us to reconsider his legacy to our life and history; and to ask ourselves a different question, “John Neville Figgis, a friend for whom we need to pray”?


  • (1896) 1922 The Divine Right of Kings.2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • First published as The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings. A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harper.
  • 1907 Studies of Political Thought: From Gerson to Grotius, 1414–1625. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • (1913) 1914 Churches in the Modern State.2d ed. London and New York: Longmans.
  • 1917 The Will to Freedom, or the Gospel of Nietzsche and the Gospel of Christ. New York: Scribner.
  • 1921 The Political Aspects of St. Augustine’s City of God. London: Longmans


A paper prepared for the May Chapter of the London and Cambridge College
by Fr Christopher, OGS