Eric Milner-White: the Founder we need not have lost?

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

It may be remembered by readers of an earlier of my papers on the subject of Father Neville Figgis, CR that one of the more controversial Chapter discussions from my early years in the Oratory was concerning what we meant in the Manual by “praying daily for the Brethren by name”. In those dim and distant days the discussion reached the conclusion that we meant both “the living and the departed”.

To the uninitiated, this might have seemed the perfect answer; and indeed 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 seemed ripe for some pruning. Part of that pruning was to remove all names, apart from the Founders, who did not die in Profession.

So it is that I am here reminded that there is a popular television programme that helps to research the ancestry of those who are in the so-called the public eye called Who do you think you are?. The premise is a simple one; family history is professionally researched for the willing participant and the more sensational the results the better the ensuing television show appears to be.

So in that context it can be that a famous “national treasure” can discover that they are in some way related to a figure of terrible historic notoriety; and equally a popular actor in a modern soap opera can discover that they are in fact directly descended from a Fourteenth Century Plantagenet king.

In some ways this analogy can be applied to the memory of some of our brethren from earlier periods in our history; a joyful acceptance of the family resemblance, or perhaps quite the contrary! We all seem to be drawn to the memoires of some more than others. The analogy should not be given too much credence of course, since it is often said that nearly a fifth of the United Kingdom is in some way descended from at least one Stuart monarch but the current writer chooses to be discrete enough not to suggest from which particular king! But, rest assured, poor Nellie did not starve!

Eric Milner-White when Dean of King’s College, Cambridge wearing the distinctive Oratory girdle

In writing this paper about one of the Oratory’s better known departed former members I would perhaps suggest that the brethren of today have similarly divergent feelings when it comes to our better known predecessors in the Oratory life; but it seems to be even more complicated when that brother was one of the three original founders and one of the two who did not die in profession.

Indeed, of those three original founding fathers of the Oratory, Eric is perhaps the best known today even though his reasons for leaving in 1940 have never really been addressed fully in more recent years and at a distance of time that would have made any such dispassionate examination of his reasons impossible when the two earlier Histories of the Oratory were written in the Twentieth Century by Henry Brandreth and George Tibbatts. 

So, of those three founders we had the situation of John How who left to marry and went on to become the Primus of Scotland; Eric Milner-White who left for reasons that will be discussed later in this paper; and Edward Wynn who stayed in profession but left Cambridge to become the Diocesan bishop of the very diocese in which that City lies.

So just who was our founding brother, Eric Milner-White? He was born on 23 April 1884 in Southampton, the eldest of the four sons of Henry (later Sir Henry) Milner-White, a barrister, and his wife Kathleen Lucy, née Meeres . His mother died in January 1890 when he was only five, four days after the birth of her youngest son. The two younger brothers died in childhood; Algernon in 1895, aged seven, and Basil in 1896, a few days before his sixth birthday.

Eric was educated, with his surviving brother Rudolph, at Harrow School and, in 1903, went up to King’s College, Cambridge to read history, obtaining a double first degree and he was also the recipient of the Lightfoot Scholarship. He then spent a year at Cuddesdon Theological College before being made deacon in 1908 and ordained priest in 1909 at Southwark Cathedral. He served as curate at St Paul’s, Newington, from 1908-9 and at St Mary Magdalene, Woolwich from 1909-12 when he was appointed chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge and lecturer in history at Corpus Christi College.

Eric Milner-White in 1913,
year of the Oratory’s Foundation

During the First World War, Eric volunteered for service as an army chaplain and served on both the Western Front and on the Italian Front. He was appointed senior chaplain to 7th Infantry Division on 15 February 1917 (with temporary promotion to Chaplain to the Forces, 3rd Class). For his service during this period he was Mentioned in Despatches on 24th December 1917 and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the 1918 New Year Honours List.

On his return to King’s College in January 1918, he was appointed Fellow and Dean. In thanksgiving for his own delivery from death when under fire, he transformed one of the side chapels into a memorial chapel for those who had lost their lives during the war. Eric was horrified by what he had witnessed during his time at the Fronts of the Great War and, as the College had lost 202 men during the conflict, he decided to make the college’s Christian Festivals simpler, warmer and more colourful. 

He began that first Christmas after the War in 1918 with the creation of a new Christmas Eve service that would allow anyone to join in and celebrate as well as grieve for absent loved ones and  friends. The idea had been pioneered in Truro as early as 1880 but Eric made it his own; indeed his own influence is said to be most clearly seen in the famous bidding-prayer. There would be no Latin, no sermon, no Psalms but lots of Bible and congregational singing. Since 1919, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ has led the service but in 1918 it was the second carol to be sung. This was first broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1928 and has now become a major part of their Christmas programming; by 1934, the BBC were claiming (as was often Lord Reith’s wont) the service was “traditional”!

Eric also introduced the processional Advent Carol Service in 1934, due to the popularity of the earlier Christmas Eve service. The new service was so well suited to the Chapel that Lydia Lopokova (the famous ballerina wife of King’s economist don John Maynard Keynes) commented ‘Now we know why the Dean is such a lover of the ballet: he is the best choreographer of us all.’

During his Great War service it became clear to Milner-White that the ministry of the Anglican Church, and particularly the services for the burial of the dead, did not meet the needs of the troops in the trenches. He made his views clear in an essay ‘Worship and Services’ published in The Church in the Furnace in 1918. He continued to press for prayers additional to those in the Book of Common Prayer to meet the needs of modern congregations. Of his own prayer publications probably the best known is Daily Prayer which first appeared in 1941 and contains a selection of prayers for public, private and school worship. Towards the end of his life (when Dean of York) he published two books of prayers: My God, My Glory in 1954 and Let Grace Reign in 1960 dedicated to the Vicars Choral of York Minster ‘with my deep love and gratitude’.

But primarily for us, the Oratory of today, Milner-White was one of the three founder members in 1913 who served as its Superior from 1923 to 1938. In its early days and especially immediately after the Great War his spiritual and literary influence were most keenly felt. The Seven Notes and the earlier forms of the Manual were very largely his work as was the devotion to Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding as the Oratory’s patron. In these critical literary compositions in the early years of the Oratory, Milner-White shows a mastery of Liturgical English perhaps only rivalled by Cranmer himself.

He was, in a real sense, the force motif, (more so than the other two) for what the Oratory was seen, in its origins, to be. In the Brandreth History we read about a Memorandum (containing many echoes of his later Seven Notes) that Eric produced early in his time back at King’s after the Great War; it is worth quoting some of it at length to set in context the man who left the community he co-founded and the Cambridge he so loved.

“The Oratory has been cradled in an historical epoch, which must largely determine its mission and labours. There are new needs to be met by the Church, and old needs, as yet unsatisfied by her, have been made visible to all eyes. Thus the sphere in which our little brotherhood is to work is marked by these outstanding characteristics:

1. It is a world tuned to high spiritual self-sacrifice for causes and claims, however sacred, less sacred than those of Christ:

2. A world in part ignorant of the Faith, in part with eyes directed on the verifiable facts of human truth; as a whole, blind to the Presence, even the use, of Jesus Christ, and of any obligation to membership in His Church:

3. A world, therefore, eager to find occasion against those who openly profess Christianity; and finding it (1) in the scandal of Christian disunion and (2) in impatience of old definitions and ecclesiastical watchwords, etc., which only irritate:

4. A world, that, nevertheless, has seen and learned deep things, made new resolves, longs for brotherhood and for healing.

“The Oratory, we hope, is to devote its life and energy in this new world, to the service of Christ in His Catholic Church. It is, in ideal, a close and loyal brotherhood of priests and lay men in the Church of England, which shall hold and live by the Catholic Faith with boldness and enthusiasm. But it is, at the same time, deeply conscious of a stewardship in a new and widened world; and so will make it a special study and fearless duty to welcome truth in all branches of thought, to meet modern thought and categories with sympathy in all presentation of Christian teaching, and to refrain entirely from outworn labels and ecclesiastical catchwords which, by offending the modern man, or savouring of past controversies, are fit to die.

The Oratory must seek to fulfil a high ideal of self-sacrifice, and rival by a life of poverty and self-sacrifice, the death of that great company, who sacrificed life for country in the Great War. It shall definitely tread a way of the Cross. The outward sign of this shall be the common purse, strictly interpreted. More important, shall be the corresponding spiritual effect of loving unselfishness.

Within the brotherhood, the Oratory shall present an example of a perfect family of Christian love. The spirit of love is to permeate every rule and every labour. Deliberate efforts shall be made to heighten loyalty and love, not only by rule, but by upholding the very loftiest standard of fellowship and mutual self-surrender as a mark of the community……

In the world outside, the brethren shall not only count every opportunity of unselfish action for the sake of others as a first duty, but also seek daily to make such opportunities. They shall be absolutely forbidden to speak scorn or ill of other types or bodies of Christians. So that in all things the practice of Christ-like love shall be the motive and method of Oratory shepherdry.

To these ends, the Rule shall be made so severe as to necessitate every day a real effort of love on the part of each brother; and so light as will not enchain his charitable energy in the course of his daily round.”

Having thus stated the Oratory ideal, he proceeds to discuss a number of practical points for the future work and organisation of the society…(especially) the work in Cambridge…

He puts forward various hopes for the future, including the founding of an Oratory House in Cambridge “to facilitate our own common life, and converse with university men.” But although there was so much emphasis on Cambridge, an emphasis much stimulated and encouraged by Father Neville Figgis, yet an important purpose of the memorandum is to legislate for the expansion of the Oratory in places other than Cambridge, both in the foreign mission field and in parishes at home.

The former Oratory House in Cambridge.; now Lucy Cavendish College

This was the Oratory that Eric Milner-White envisaged and which attracted, among others, Wilfred Knox and Alec Vidler to join. But it is clear from our history that this vision, especially with a house in Cambridge, lasted only twenty years. As I have said in my paper The Oratory in Cambridge post 1939 (some elements of which will need to be quoted in this paper) the disposal of the Oratory House had both practical and philosophical reasons behind it.

Some echoes of those discussions, now so very long ago, can still cast long shadows. Of course, any living community will change and develop in ways of self understanding perhaps never envisaged by the founding brethren but they will continue to have a bearing in terms of our relationship with our past. I turn here to the Brandreth History to set the context of the dénouement that led to Eric leaving. It has often been said that the disagreements that ultimately led to it all centred on the desire by one of the brethren to purchase a motor car without first consulting the other brethren and Eric felt this might be a cause for scandal for a religious; try as I might this has not been easy to prove or disprove from the available sources. It may be noteworthy, however, to point out that such large expenditure still requires a brother to consult his college chapter in the proper spirit of the Note on Stewardship.

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”…

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. So 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…

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.

Indeed, if only there had been a delay of just a very few years or even months 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 better 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 still exists to our day, The Company of Mission Priests (CMP).

Although it was only in our day that they been have recognised by the Church as an “Acknowledged Dispersed Community”, their very foundation and officially encouraged foundation (as far back as 1940) showed that the Church of England was already seeking to discern and encourage a wider variety of forms of the religious and consecrated life into which the ideal 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 (Edward Wynn) 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 some years to come. These debates about the definition of Profession and the nature of our community were only (in part) settled during my own years in profession. To my mind, it remains (among some at least) one of the proverbial, “Don’t mention the war” sayings, of the Oratory’s history. It has even managed to reappear in recent months and that was, in part, my motivation in looking at the departure from profession of Milner-White.

But now Brandreth’s History 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 a community. 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…

It would seem odd to us, so far removed from those events, that it was deemed a necessity for Milner-White to be given episcopal dispensation (now always from Lambeth) from his profession as would any religious in the Church of England, then as now, if his Oratory profession were not been seem in that light. How ironic for such a wonderfully literary man to have, seemingly, been caught out by a matter of semantics and the Church’s then too narrow definition of what religious profession could mean.

During his time as Dean of York, he directed the replacement of many of York Minster’s windows and undertook a great deal of writing on liturgical matters. He served on various national committees and served on the Advisory Council of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1944 to 1959 due to his interest in stained-glass windows. He also became Provost of the northern section of the Woodard Corporation and, from 1948 to 1962, was amongst those who produced the New English Bible.

Eric, who was an avid collector of ceramics, was made an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers in 1948 and appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1952 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. The same year he was awarded a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) in 1962 by the University of Leeds.

As Dean, Milner-White devised a number of services for special occasions in York Minster such as an improved service for the enthronement of new archbishops and the televised wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent in 1961 attended by over sixty members of the royal family.

Eric Milner-White died of cancer in the Deanery of York Minster on 15th June 1963. Since his death, student accommodation at the University of York’s Vanbrugh College has been named after him; this seems rather fitting.

This brief summary of his life shows an extraordinary man: a truly renaissance man; a man of letters; a man of profound bravery and fortitude; a man of extraordinary commitment to his calling to follow the Good Shepherd, wherever He may lead; but equally a man who can inspire us still in our calling to be Oratory brethren in a new age.

His was a voice for the immediate post-Great War world; a world that was never to be like the gentle, pre-War world of his youth, but rather a world that was changed forever and needed the Church to speak into that utterly changed reality. That, of course, is the kind of world in which we find ourselves at this very moment; in the midst of experiences without precedent in the lives of any of us but in which we need as brothers, Companions, Christians to face with the same conviction as Milner-White did in starting afresh in the aftermath of that so-called war to end all wars.

We may have lost him as a professed brother in 1940; but we need not lose his influence and inspiration as we now face a world that has been changed forever. He is a member of the family of whom I am immensely proud; one who was even mentioned by HM The Queen in her Christmas Day broadcast in 2018. As is well known, Milner-White wrote a new bidding prayer for that 1918 Christmas Eve Service that was described in Jeremy Summerly’s A Cause for Caroling as ‘the last war poem’. 

They are words that inspire me as we approach a Christmas unlike any other in the lives of any of us living; for they are words to give hope afresh as they did in the candle-lit chapel at King’s so many Christmases ago as others faced a world of uncertainty, loss and grief and found strength in the only certainty we can find; in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

‘Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.’