Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 26 September 2010

26 September 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

Frank Russell Barry

I have been using the matins sermons this month to think about some of those who have been Canons of this Abbey in the last century and to reflect on what they might have to say to us today. This morning I want to consider the life of Russell Barry, who was a Canon here from 1933 to 1941, before then moving to be Bishop of Southwell in Nottinghamshire, where he stayed for twenty two years.

Barry was born in 1890, the son of a clergyman, and he went to Oxford on a scholarship and obtained a first class honours degree. He stayed on at his College, Oriel, to read Theology, applied to be ordained by the Bishop of Oxford and was appointed Fellow and Chaplain of his College. But very shortly after he was ordained the First World War broke out and so he joined as a Chaplain to the Forces serving with distinction particularly in helping wounded men under fire in no man’s land, for which he was awarded the DSO after the battle of the Somme. According to his biographer he was actually recommended for a Victoria Cross but did not get it because two other chaplains had been awarded that honour in that year. There can be no doubt that he demonstrated great bravery, although he very rarely referred to it later in his life.

In the First World War the then Archbishops made an extraordinary offer to any serviceman who wanted to be ordained after the war, saying that the Church of England would pay for their training if they were accepted for ordination; it was the first time any central grants were made for ordination training. But there was a problem with those potential candidates whose education had been disrupted by the war, or who did not qualify to go to university or theological college. The church managed to establish what was called a Test School in an old prison in Knutsford in Cheshire, and Barry was appointed by the Archbishops to be the first Principal of that School. He stayed there for four years during which time many future clergy including some future bishops passed through his school. He was widely respected as an excellent Principal in relating sympathetically and well to those who had been through the horror of the First World War. After a very brief period, less than a year, as an Archdeacon in Egypt he was then appointed Professor of Theology at King’s College London, and then, four years later, Vicar of the University Church at Oxford until he came here in 1933, where he combined his Canonry with being Vicar of St John’s, Smith Square.

In May 1941 there was a major air-raid in Westminster and he was in the precincts with his wife helping to protect the area from incendiary bombs, and when he went home he found that his house in Little Cloister and his Church in Smith Square had been destroyed in the raid. He was homeless and had lost everything, but the Prime Minister quickly found a solution by appointing him Bishop of Southwell and he embarked on his 22 year ministry there as a Diocesan Bishop.

Well, those are the bare facts of an exciting if demanding life. But for the purposes of this address there are three dimensions to his work and thought which seem to me still critical for our day.

First he was passionate about the Church of England remaining a broad church with many different points of view, and he was certainly up for facing challenges to traditional Christian thinking. When, before the First World War, a Theology Don in Oxford wrote a book challenging the traditional views on miracles Barry defended him. He described the subsequent theological and ecclesiastical battle thus:  ‘An attempt was made to force through Convocation a resolution which would have had the effect of condemning all liberal opinion and discouraging free scholarly research – and that’ he wrote, ‘would have been the end of the Church of England and its unique place in the Christian world.’ He concluded: ‘The Archbishop himself, whose peculiar distinction is to have saved a divided church from disruption and preserved its characteristic comprehensiveness, drafted a far more liberal form of words.’ Barry very much favoured a broad and comprehensive Church while being a theological liberal personally.

But, secondly, more than that academic theological argument Barry was able to rise to the challenge that the First World War posed to Christian belief. As early as 1915 he wrote a book called ‘Religion and the War’ and even at that early stage of the war he faced honestly the question of how God can be all powerful and all good. He recognised that men must choose to be good and cannot be forced to be so by God and that limits the concept of omnipotence, and he said that suffering is ‘the price which the Creator has to pay for creating.’ He went on to say of Christianity ‘that it carries human suffering into the very heart of a still perfect and transcendent God. The Father creates because he needs the responsive love of free and god-like human spirits. That end involves ...the possibility of a world of pain. But the creative love is enough for that. It takes the sorrows of the world upon itself, bearing them in that eternal anguish of which the Cross of Jesus is the temporal symbol.’ That became the basis of many other Christian responses to the trauma of the First World War, but Barry articulated it earlier than most.

The third area where he made, in my judgement, a very important contribution was in the more practical sphere of helping the church recruit sensibly for ordination, first of all of course at Knutsford, but then again after the Second World War when he was for many years the Chairman of the Committee in Church House concerned with the matter. He was not afraid of using the word recruitment, although others criticised it and wanted more emphasis on some inward sense of vocation in candidates, but on that Barry was emphatic: ‘It has been a disastrous mistake’ he wrote, ‘when the church had come to lay almost exclusive emphasis on the inward ‘call’ to Holy Orders.’ And he was very frank about the consequences ‘It is a familiar fact’ he wrote ‘that the weakest candidates, and by any standard the least fitted, are often invincibly certain of having been ‘called’.’

He favoured an understanding of vocation that included a far more explicit call by the church to the most able and best of each generation to consider carefully the claims of the ministry. ‘What was wanted now’ he wrote of the period after the Second World War ‘was … a campaign to put the claim of the ministry across, in the schools and universities, in industry, in the forces (national service was still on), in the professions, everywhere where men were, and letting them know what it was and what it involved, and what kind of qualities it could use.’ Such a campaign did in fact happen while he was Chairman of that Committee, and numbers coming forward for ordination did significantly increase. I believe his thinking about the nature of vocation is one of his most fruitful contributions to the practical issues facing the church, issues which still need to be faced today.

And lest that quotation from his book sounds rather sexist in its language he also wrote in the 1930s ‘A priesthood which excludes half of mankind from its membership can only claim to representative in a very peculiar sense. The claim of women is logically unanswerable. I have little doubt that within the present century, though probably not in my lifetime, the Church will be guided to concede it.’ That was a remarkable prophecy for the 1930s.

I think this Abbey was fortunate to have such a man as one of its Canons between the wars, and it can be said of him, as of the other people I have talked about in this series that ‘he, being dead, yet speaketh.’

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