The Oratory in Cambridge After 1939 (Fr Christopher, OGS)

A paper given by Fr Christopher, OGS at the February 2020 Chapter of the London and Cambridge College.

There is an old saying, variously attributed, that in part motivates the writing of this long overdue paper on the work and ministry of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd in the city of our origins, Cambridge, after 1939. That saying is this,

Never forget where you came from, because you may have to go back there someday”.

Indeed, throughout most of my years in the Oratory, even to mention the name Cambridgeamong some of our Brethren could (and occasionally still does) elicit so strong a negative response that this paper may still be regarded by some as a brave venture! But, to avoid past hurts, potential misunderstandings and some unresolved questions, can surely only hinder our community’s growth, maturity and future vocations.

So, for most of the years that I have been professed, the prevailing opinion among some of the Brethren, of the European Province in particular, is that Cambridge was the thenand we are the now. Indeed, it seems to have been widely assumed by those who have joined the Oratory in my time that our physical connections with Cambridge ended with the closure of the Oratory House in 1939; and that, as they say, was that!

Indeed, the Oratory’s own website has this telling phrase in its brief history section asserting that, “It is noteworthy that the Oratory only started to grow after it left the House”. In that blank assertion, we see the linking of the closure of the House with a withdrawal both from the city and the university and the resulting feeling that only then did we grow.

However, in this paper, I seek to put that somewhat erroneous assumption right and also to show that it can be asserted that, in the Oratory’s continued presence the university and city after 1939, the origins of much of our present work and ministry were sown and nurtured.

In seeking to demonstrate how our past roots cannot be simply ignored, I will be reliant on the earlier history of the Oratory written by Henry Brandreth (1958), which you can read here, and quoted heavily by George Tibbats in his subsequent history (1988) to set out the historic context. I think it helpful to quote, sometimes at some length, these important historic documents, even though neither were written with the advantage of the passing of much time, and of course, most of the protagonists were then still very much alive when they wrote.

Father Brandreth tells us: So throughout the late twenties and early thirties the Oratory continued on its way, consolidating and expanding in one place, and perhaps finding it necessary to retrench in another. A constant ministry throughout these years was that at Saint Edward’s Church, where the Oratory continued to be responsible for the Sung Mass on Sunday mornings, at which, during term, the brethren preached special courses of sermons which were widely attended by undergraduates.


Cam Brethren at West Malling
Some Brethren at St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling.

The annual Chapter was, from 1919 onwards, a great feature of the Oratory’s life. For many years, except for a break in the second World War when the community was evacuated, this has been held at Saint Mary’s Abbey, West Malling in Kent, and in the course of these years there has grown up a close attachment between the Oratory and the Benedictine Community of Malling, an attachment which was strengthened when, for some years, Father Brian Oman, OGS acted as their Chaplain.


Inevitably, the disposal of the Oratory House in 1939 had both practical and philosophical reasons behind it. Some echoes of those discussions, now so very long ago, can cast long shadows even to the present day; so in writing this they cannot be ignored. Any living community will change and develop in ways of self understanding perhaps not envisaged by the founding brethren almost a century later, but they continue to have a bearing in terms of our relationship with our past. I return to Brandreth,

The question as to what the Oratory really was continued to turn up from time to time, and in 1936 Edward Wynn brought the matter up at General Chapter, and he was asked to prepare a memorandum on the subject for circulation among the brethren. In this document he stated the case for the original conception of the Oratory. The raison d’être of the Oratory seems to be to give priests and laymen doing their own individual work, the advantage and help of a rule and a close fellowship. There is little or nothing in the rule that contradicts this or that implies more. But we should now, after twenty-four years of life, consider carefully our direction. Impressions have been received and are being received by people, that we claim to be a “religious community”.

As far as we ourselves are concerned the discussion of the exact definition of the word “religious” maybe unprofitable. But scandal is caused, 1. because the life of some of us bears little or no relation to the ordinary and reasonable conception of a “religious”. 2. By the number of our brethren who leave us to be married. It is also significant that some have left us because they need the “religious life” and have gone to Cowley and to Mirfield. We are happy that this should be; but if we have any claims to be “religious” this would not in every case be a source of satisfaction. He went onto point out that, although the Oratory undertook certain corporate responsibilities, such as the Oratory House, no brother could be ordered to do any particular piece of work, or to live in a particular place, and that, in view of the fact that there is no obligation to life profession, the possibility of permanence is reduced to a minimum.

He proposed two solutions for discussion. 1. That the rule be so changed as to give the Oratory full and absolute control over the brethren, and insist that the common purse be a reality to every brother, or, 2. to return to what he conceived the original plan of the Oratory to be, of a brotherhood of priests and laymen working in the world, which would, again, involve certain changes in the rule.

I think it is almost impossible, at such a distance in time, to realise quite how seismic an effect this Chapter meeting had on the lives of its members and the subsequent development of the Oratory, both in Cambridge and beyond and it was not the only part of the discussion that brethren had to consider. To Brandreth, again.

This memorandum was circulated among the brethren, together with one by Alec Vidler, in which, accepting Edward’s second solution, he sought to set out the practical consequences. The more radical of his proposals, both of which were, in principle, subsequently accepted, were:

  1. If we accept the latter solution, the idea of the Oratory as a kind of religious community is discarded, and the idea of the Oratory House as the mother house of a religious community goes with it. In any case, it will here be proposed that this aim of the Oratory House should be discarded, and that such a centre as the Oratory needs should be distinct from the Oratory House, and elsewhere. 2. That pastoral work among undergraduates as the primary aim of the Oratory House should also be discarded. A priest whose primary vocation was for that kind of work, would be normally better employed in a responsible post which gave official opportunities for it. He went onto propose that the Oratory House should be retained as a house of sacred study. In regard to the Oratory as a whole, in view of the need for such a society among celibate priests, he said that it would need, 1, to take steps which would make it clear that it was not a predominantly academic institution and 2, a centre elsewhere, where one or more members of the OGS would make it their primary business to serve the whole life of the Oratory.

These two memoranda were discussed by the General Chapter of 1937, which, however, took no action upon them beyond moving that Edward Wynn had done the Oratory an extremely opportune service in bringing to a head issues which must be faced forthwith, and that there was a strong prima facie case for a careful examination of the proposals contained in Alec Vidler’s memorandum.

A special General Chapter was held in Cambridge in March, 1938, to consider the matter further. The brethren had before them a memorandum from Eric (Milner-White) stating his reasons for disagreeing with both the other documents, and pointing out reasons for regarding OGS as a religious community in the generally accepted sense of the term. It would be interesting to know what his reasons were, but the record of his memorandum has been lost.

It is a great pity that, given subsequent events, the contents of Milner-White’s memorandum were “lost” as this vexed question of what we are (or are not) has rather dogged the Oratory in the ensuing decades and was discussed at length in my paper “Truths among the Trends; Trends among the Truths”.  Therefore, this question has managed to become rather inter-twined with any truly dispassionate appraisal of the Oratory’s subsequent history in Cambridge itself.

Indeed, if only there had been a delay of just a very few years on the vexed question of “profession” there were about to be further explorations of modes of consecrated life within the life of the Church of England which might have allowed the question to be answered. Most notably in 1940 the superiors of the then “major Orders of men” in the Church of England (Cowley, Mirfield and Kelham) were about to sponsor an initiative that exists to our day, The Company of Mission Priests (CMP). Although it was only in our day that they been recognised as an “Acknowledged dispersed community”, their very foundation and officially encouraged existence (as far back as 1940) showed that the Church of England was already seeking to discern and encourage a variety of forms of the religious and consecrated lifeinto which the idea of “Oratory Profession” would have fitted much more comfortably; without the then generally perceived need for a cloistered life. But, Brandreth takes up the story again,

In the event, the matter was already partly solved. Alec Vidler reported to the brethren that he had been offered the editorship of Theology, together with residence at Saint Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden, near Chester. There was also the strong probability that he would be offered the post of Warden of that institution when it became vacant by the retirement of Bishop Wentworth-Shields the following year. The brethren were unanimously in favour of his accepting the offer. The fate of the Oratory House was again in the balance, and, after a long discussion, the General Chapter decided that it was no longer practicable to keep it, and that it should be offered to one of the established religious communities for men. At the General Chapter in August that year it was reported that the Society of Saint Francis had accepted the invitation of the Cambridge Chapter to take over the House in October, 1939.

 It was this decision which caused Gordon Day to leave the Oratory. The General Chapter in August, 1938, passed a resolution defining what it meant by the word profession: The word “profession” as used by the Oratory, has not the implications that it has when used in the technical sense of taking vows in a religious order. It means self-commitment before God and within the fellowship of the Oratory, to the way of life described in the Rule —no more and no less.

 This definition, if such it was, caused Eric Milner-White, who had already been unsettled by the other proposed changes, to record “a statement that he cannot accept the definition of the word profession as proposed by the General Chapter, August, 1938, as representing the meaning of the first and subsequent professions which he then understood himself to be making in the Oratory. In view of this interior divergence of one professed for life, with the Chapter’s conception of the Oratory, and the difficulties with which it presents him in the fields both of conscience and action, he asks for time to consider, in consultation with the Superior, his position.

On September 23rd, 1939, he wrote to the Superior that “I feel both that I ought to and would like to resign my membership; and with sadness, but also with settled purpose, do so. For me, no problem arises about “life-profession”. The change in the character of the Oratory seems to me automatically to wipe out a “profession” made to something quite other, and with a wholly different interior intention. And I could not but continue to protest against such a term and thing, with its ancient and solemn associations, being maintained in the new order.”

The imminent departure from the life of the Oratory of one who had been not only a founder but also Superior from 1923 to 1938 was to cast a pall over the Brethren for years to come. These debates about the definition of Profession and the nature of our community were only (in part) settled during my years in profession; but no equivalent rehabilitation of the links with Cambridge has yet been fully achieved. To my mind, it remains (among some at least) the proverbial, “Don’t mention the war”, of the Oratory’s history. But now Brandreth concludes with the inevitable out-working of the impending tragedy. In rehearsing it, I would add my own sense that, were Eric to be with us today, his decision to leave may very well not have happened as we are now living (on the whole) peaceably as a community of those who do make a Life Profession and those who do not; after all, in the Oratory family, profession is profession.

The Chapter was unable to accept the view that the changes made since 1937 had constituted a fundamental change in the character of the Oratory, but, apparently with the view that one self-committed could not be self-dispensed, referred the matter to the Episcopal Visitor, Bishop J.A. Kempthorne (sometime bishop of Lichfield), who issued the dispensation in April, 1940, though agreeing with the Chapter’s view of the nature of the Oratory.

Eric’s departure from the Society was a matter of considerable distress to the Cambridge brethren. He was a man of imaginative brilliance and an able historian, and at King’s College as Dean of Chapel he generally managed to get the governing body to do what he wanted. Perhaps it was his imaginative dreaming which convinced him that the Oratory was acommunity. His friends knew that when he left he continued to live the rest of his life by the Oratory rule, and his Oratory friendships were never broken.

He gathered round him in King’s young men (including our brother John Thorold) who often found their vocations to the priesthood under his guidance and care. Archbishop Davidson expressed a belief that he was responsible for more ordinations than anyone else in the Church of England. In 1941 he left Cambridge to be Dean of York, where he died on 15 June 1963.

The departure of Milner-White, the beginning of the Second World War and the closure of the Oratory House mark a distinct change in the connections that existed with the early history of the Oratory in Cambridge; but certainly not the end. Indeed, although it is obvious from the way Henry Brandreth wrote the early history in 1958 that it was in many ways “business as usual” and without any break in continuity with the past, it should be remembered that by the time he joined the Oratory in 1944 in the centre of the Oratory was in fact at Hawarden. I quote him again,

After the disposal of the Oratory House, the “Centre” of the Oratory was moved to Hawarden, where Alec Vidler had been joined by William Lutyens. During the War the brethren visited Hawarden for their annual retreat and General Chapter and, with Alec Vidler as Secretary-General of OGS and Warden of Saint Deiniol’s Library, there was little sense of loss at the handing over of the Oratory House.


Cam Wilfred Knox
Wilfred Knox OGS

Wilfred moved to a small house near Addenbrooke’s Hospital until he went to Pembroke College, and George Tibbatts, back from Africa with a broken ankle, became Chaplain of Magdalene College in January, 1940. So the Cambridge College was able to be maintained with three brethren working in Colleges after Edward Wynn became Bishop of Ely in 1941.The Second World War was less disruptive of the life of the Oratory then the first, and there was not the same impulse to become military Chaplains, though the brethren in their various areas played their part in civil defence. The War was also a time of growth. At its beginning there had been twelve professed brethren and two probationers, while at its end there were seventeen professed and five probationers.


Cam 2When the second history came to be written in 1988, George Tibbatts, who had relied so heavily up to the War Years on Brandreth, produced his own briefer history of the on-going work of the Oratory in Cambridge. It sheds light on the Cambridge of my own student days (1985-1989) and forms a useful bridge into the second half of this paper. In what he writes, we need to bear in mind how many of the named brethren of that College are now on our Departed List. He reminds us:

The Cambridge College has continued in existence up to the present, though for a few years it was called the Oxford College when brethren there outnumbered those at Cambridge. George Braund and Eric Simmons joined the Staff at Saint Luke’s, Chesterton, where George Tibbatts became Vicar in October, 1952.

George had left Magdalene for Sidney Sussex College in 1946, and in 1960 Father Braund became Chaplain of that College, until 1968, when he left Cambridge to work for USPG. Father Eric Simmons left Saint Luke’s in 1957 to be the first resident Chaplain of Keele University, and from there he joined the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, where he subsequently became Superior.

When Wilfred died in 1950, George became Superior until 1966. He was succeeded at Saint Luke’s in 1963 by Father Thomas Gresley-Summers, who had joined the Oratory in 1959. From 1968 until he left Cambridge in 1980 to be Vicar of Saint John’s, Finsbury Park, Tom was the only resident member of the Oratory in Cambridge .For eleven years Saint Luke’s Vicarage was the Centre of the Cambridge College, and this large parish had three Oratorians on the staff for most of that time…

…The Saint Luke’s brethren all resided in the Vicarage, and in 1960 they were joined by Father Tom Akeley from Maryland in USA. The life of the Oratory at Saint Luke’s in many ways resembled that of the Oratory House and of Saint Luke’s, Gillingham, some thirty years previously. There was a daily Mass at 7 a.m., preceded by Matins and followed by meditation. The morning was spent at parish business and reading and preparing work, and the afternoon in visiting. Evensong was said at 6 in Church, and again the brethren dispersed into the parish. Compline was said at 10.30 p.m., which gave brethren a good excuse to get home if they were visiting in the parish, though it was not regarded as compulsory. There was deliberately no common purse.

Simply because of the way George Tibbatts had arranged his “History” it is also important to note that from 1930 (when he succeeded Gordon Day as Chaplain) until his death in 1965 there was another of the Brethren, Christopher Waddams, ministering as Chaplain of St Catharine’s College, engaged in teaching and pastoral care of the students of my own College. Tibbatts continues,

The Northern half of Saint Luke’s parish consisted of a farm and allotments in 1952, to be turned into a new housing estate. The first houses soon went up and Father Braund took charge in 1954. At first Mass was said on a kitchen table, but soon the necessity for a building became obvious. Four sections of an army hut were bought by the Diocese and erected on the site which had been acquired for the new Church.


Cam Good Shepherd Arbury
The Church of the Good Shepherd

On 31 July, 1957, Princess Margaret laid the foundation stone of the new Church, which was at that time to be dedicated in honour of Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding as encouraged by Eric Milner-White, who was present at the ceremony as well as a number of members of the Oratory. This intention did not materialise, and on 24 October, 1964, the completed Church was consecrated by the Bishop of Ely in honour of the Good Shepherd, and as the Nicholas Ferrar memorial Church. This dedication is a permanent reminder that the parish came into being when the parish of Saint Luke’s, and therefore the new estate, was in the hands of brethren of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd.


During the years a number of priests joined the Oratory as Mission Brethren attached to the Cambridge College. Henry Brandreth was one of these at the beginning of his ministry. Father Martin Thornton joined when he became Vicar of Swaffham Prior, some miles from Cambridge. Robert Symonds became temporarily priest-in-charge of Milton, near Cambridge, and was admitted to probation in the Oratory in 1942, and to full membership in 1944. Richard Seymour joined in 1950, and from that time until his death on 7 March, 1979, was a mission brother of the Cambridge Chapter.

Guy Carleton joined the Oratory on his expulsion from Malawi when that country became independent in 1963. He was also a Mission Brother of the Cambridge College until his death, also in 1979.

Cam Alec Vidler
Alec Vidler OGS

And, of course, no survey of Oratory connections with Cambridge after 1939 would be complete without a more in-depth mention of Alec Vidler. He went up to Selwyn College, Cambridge in 1918 to read theology. At Cambridge, he met the future journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-90), who became a lifelong friend and lived as an undergraduate and Companion at the Oratory House. In 1931, Alec returned to Cambridge and to Profession in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd choosing to live at the Oratory House with, among others, Wilfred Knox. At this period, the House was also the home of our late Companion and sometime Probationer, Canon Jack Bagley with whom I was to have a friendship some fifty or more years later.


After the closure of the House Alec moved to be Warden of St Deiniol’s Library at Hawarden in Flintshire. The post was ideal for him as it gave him the freedom and time to research, think and write. He was also an admirer of Gladstone, whose books formed the core of the library’s collections. The evidence for the daily spiritual regime at Hawarden is sketchy, but it would not be beyond the realms of imagination to think that in some ways it resembled what it had been in Cambridge since it was also very much repeated in the Vicarage at St Luke’s.

In August 1948 George VI invited him to become a canon at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle,  and at the same time, he ran his own theological college for middle-aged ordination candidates (known as “the doves”), at his spacious house in the cloisters. Nearly fifty men received training under him.

He might have stayed longer at Windsor, but in 1956 he received an unexpected invitation to become dean of King’s College, Cambridge, a position he held until 1967. Perhaps echoing the words of T S Eliot, “in my end is my beginning” he returned to live in his birthplace, a 13th century priory in Rye, and in 1972 was elected the town’s mayor as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had been. He died at a rest home in Kent in 1991, aged 91.

So what emerges is far from a complete withdrawal from Cambridge after the Oratory House was handed over the Society of St Francis in 1939, but rather an unbroken link with the place of our origins until as late as 1980 when Tom Gresley-Summers left the city for his last parish ministry in London. Within a few short years the current writer was himself an undergraduate at a College that had Oratory links all the way back to Gordon Day and subsequent history has brought others to their studies there.

Indeed, history almost came full circle in the early parts of this century. When the Franciscans withdrew from their ministry at St Bene’t’s Church in 2005 the then diocesan bishop was keen to keep a “Religious presence” in Cambridge (for by then that is how we were seen in the Church ) and so invited the Oratory to return. But at that time no one appeared to be in a position to take on that parish as well as having other brethren free and able to open a house again in that place.  A different house from that before 1939, as that property had long since become Lucy Cavendish College. About the same time plans were discussed and funds sourced to consider a new “House” in a parochial setting; but, again, it appeared at that time that no one was available. Perhaps it was just not the right time, certainly for those in Profession in this Province at that time.

But, in the same way that I have sought in recent years to address other issues that have seemed “difficult” in this Province, so in writing this paper I venture to suggest that the time could be right in the future, possibly even the near future.

Indeed every family seems to keep certain subjects “unspoken about”; and in my experience one such subject can be our connections with Cambridge. Yet if one looks closely at the evidence, Cambridge and Oratory ministry in that context, figured greatly for over forty years after the Oratory House was closed. So the question needs to be posed; why this seeming embarrassment about our own history?

The answer, as with all these things, is complex and reflects upon the very human experiences of the some of the Brethren past and present. Even a cursory glance at the Oratory’s history will reveal two things. Firstly, there were key figures in our history who were very much “Cambridge men”; and, secondly, from the very beginnings, there were those who were not and that there were Oratory works and ministries that were not connected with the city and University of Cambridge almost from the very beginnings.

There was an anecdote current when I was newly professed that suggested the degree of angst that took place, among some, when our departed brother David Jowitt was elected as Superior;  because he was an “Oxford man”! It was amusing enough, but reflected two things to me; one was a residual sense that the Oratory and Cambridge were in some way inextricably linked in the mind-set of some of the then older Brethren and that was not helpful to some of those who came later . Secondly, there was an increasingly “anti-Cambridge days” feeling by a (sometimes vocal) minority of later brethren who had neither studied nor ministered there. This feeling may well have been subliminal, but for some of us it has cast a shadow.

This latter prejudice (for that is in part what it was) was, I suspect, based on a false view of a Cambridge “don-ish” life that had not in reality existed since long before the War. And, as I hope I have demonstrated, very few even of our early Brethren lived exclusively the life of a doneven during the years of the Oratory House, and certainly not after its closure. Indeed, I would go further in suggesting that many of the expressions of ministry that our current in this European Province not only owe their origins to the Cambridge days but exist, in part, because of them.

European Province
The Brethren of the European Province at General Chapter 2019

So it is that at present we have Brethren involved in parish ministry (sometimes until recently in the same place and circumstance); we have Brethren ministering to our Companions (whose very origins were in the earlier ministry to students in Cambridge); we have Brethren engaged in academic study and teaching; and we even have brethren whose ministry is episcopal (just like Edward Wynn over seven decades ago). All of these expressions of our life had their origins, in part, in the days of our presence in Cambridge.


But what to my mind  is sadly lacking is that we do not have Brethren currently involved in theological education; we have no one ministering to students; we have no one ministering in the environs of Cambridge (either the city or university) and we do not have Brethren sharing in a common life and common work as was maintained after the House closed in 1939 in various places “for a season”, both in Cambridge itself and elsewhere (most notably at Hawarden).

At a time when all communities are concerned about vocations and the future of their ministry, what might these observations teach us? It is not necessarily a “glorious return” to Cambridge as was envisaged by at least one of our departed Brethren; but perhaps a fresh reflection on what those years of history can teach us for our future.

We are surely far enough away from any sense of concern that the Oratory and Cambridge were ever really synonymous. After all, very few of the current Brethren had their education there; but surely too we have reached the point as a community when we can cope with those who did!

The unspoken (or not) sense that Cambridge was the then and we are now, can unwittingly stifle potential vocations as, of course, does the impression given that we do not in the ordinary waylive the common life together, except in the past. God may well be calling some of the younger Brethren who come now to revisit the ministries of the past; not necessarily in a particular city, but certainly following honoured expressions of our corporate life from former times.

The most pressing need in many of those seeking to discern a religious vocation in our day is the need to belong. Whatever expressions of our life that we present as options must be seen as “authentic” and above all “of equal value”. Many may well wish to have an active ministry and share, even for a season, the very common life that finds its heart in the Manual of the Oratory.  Almost without realising it, the past few decades have made that expression of our life almost an impossibility because most of us have not experienced it; it is expressed in such negative terms in our vocations’ literature. As I have done so “for a season”, perhaps mine can be the voice that seeks to remind us that it may well be an optionfor those who are coming into our life now.

We ask of all our Brethren the true charism of our life as Oratory brothers, that we are consecrated to celibacy; for many us this is a vocation we have embraced, by God’s grace, in active and vocational ministry that has been solitary for much of the time (almost a community of hermits, if you will). But that was clearly not what the Oratory set out solely to be. It may well be that there will be some vocations among those who wish to live our life who would prefer to do that in common with others on the same journey. Is that not what the Note on Liberty seeks to express?

So, in writing this paper seeking to look at the potential need to “rehabilitate” our past connections with Cambridge, perhaps my real conclusion is that when we come to consider how it is that we seek to attract new vocations in what we say to the world about ourselves, it would do us well to remember the old proverb, Never forget where you came from, because you may have to go back there someday”.