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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 8. The Eton Mission
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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 8. The Eton Mission Post by :dan7530 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1555

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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 8. The Eton Mission


There were many reasons why Hugh should begin his clerical work at Hackney Wick, though I suspect it was mainly my father's choice. It was a large, uniformly poor district, which had been adopted by Eton in about 1880 as the scene of its Mission. There were certain disadvantages attending the choice of that particular district. The real _raison d'etre of a School Mission is educative rather than philanthropic, in order to bring boys into touch with social problems, and to give them some idea that the way of the world is not the way of a prosperous and sheltered home. It is open to doubt whether it is possible to touch boys' hearts and sympathies much except by linking a School Mission on to some institution for the care of boys--an orphan school or a training ship. Only the most sensitive are shocked and distressed by the sight of hard conditions of life it all, and as a rule boys have an extraordinarily unimaginative way of taking things as they see them, and not thinking much or anxiously about mending them.

In any case the one aim ought to be to give boys a personal interest in such problems, and put them in personal touch with them. But the Eton Mission was planted in a district which it was very hard to reach from Eton, so that few of the boys were ever able to make a personal acquaintance with the hard and bare conditions of life in the crowded industrial region which their Mission was doing so much to help and uplift, or to realise the urgency of the needs of a district which most of them had never visited.

But if the Mission did not touch the imagination of the boys, yet, on the other hand, it became a very well-managed parish, with ample resources to draw upon; and it certainly attracted the services of a number of old Etonians, who had reached a stage of thought at which the problem of industrial poverty became an interesting one.

Money was poured out upon the parish; a magnificent church was built, a clergy-house was established, curates were subsidised, clubs were established, and excellent work was done there. The vicar at this time was a friend and contemporary of my own at Eton, St. Clair Donaldson, now Archbishop of Brisbane. He had lived with us as my father's chaplain for a time, but his mind was set on parish work rather than administration. He knew Hugh well, and Hugh was an Etonian himself. Moreover, my father was glad that Hugh should be with a trusted friend, and so he went there. St. Clair Donaldson was a clergyman of an Evangelical type, though the Mission had been previously conducted by a very High Churchman, William Carter, the present Archbishop of Capetown. But now distinctive High Church practices were given up, and the parish was run on moderate, kindly, and sensible lines. Whether such an institution is primarily and distinctively religious may be questioned. Such work is centred rather upon friendly and helpful relations, and religion becomes one of a number of active forces, rather than the force upon which all depends. High-minded, duty-loving, transparently good and cheerful as the tone of the clergy was, it was, no doubt, tentative rather than authoritative.

Hugh's work there lay a good deal in the direction of the boys' clubs; he used to go down to the clubs, play and talk with the boys, and go out with them on Saturday afternoons to football and cricket. But he never found it a congenial occupation, and I cannot help feeling that it was rather a case of putting a very delicate and subtle instrument to do a rough sort of work. What was needed was a hearty, kindly, elder-brotherly relation, and the men who did this best were the good-natured and robust men with a generic interest in the young, who could set a clean-minded, wholesome, and hearty example. But Hugh was not of this type. His mind was full of mystical and poetical ideas of religion, and his artistic nature was intent upon expressing them. He was successful in a way, because he had by this time a great charm of frankness and simplicity; he never had the least temptation to draw social distinctions, but he desired to find people personally interesting. He used to say afterwards that he did not really believe in what involved a sort of social condescension, and, like another incisive missioner, he thought that the giving up a few evenings a week by wealthy and even fashionable young-men, however good-hearted and earnest, to sharing the amusements of the boys of a parish, was only a very uncomfortable way of showing the poor how the rich lived! There is no sort of doubt about the usefulness and kindliness of such work, and it obviously is one of the experiments which may tend to create social sympathy: but Hugh came increasingly to believe that the way to lead boys to religion was not through social gatherings, but by creating a strong central nucleus of Christian instruction and worship; his heart was certainly not in his work at this time, though there was much that appealed to him particularly to his sense of humour, which was always strongly developed.

There was an account he gave of a funeral he had to conduct in the early days of his work, where, after a large congregation had assembled in the church, the arrival of the coffin itself was delayed, and he was asked to keep things going. He gave out hymns, he read collects, he made a short address, and still the undertaker at the door shook his head. At last he gave out a hymn that was not very well known, and found that the organist had left his post, whereupon he sang it alone, as an unsustained solo.

He told me, too, that after preaching written sermons, he resolved to try an extempore one. He did so with much nervousness and hesitation. The same evening St. Clair Donaldson said to him kindly but firmly that preachers were of two kinds--the kind that could write a fairly coherent discourse and deliver it more or less impressively, and the kind that might venture, after careful preparation, to speak extempore; and that he felt bound to tell Hugh that he belonged undoubtedly to the first kind. This was curious, because Hugh afterwards became, by dint of trouble and practice, a quite remarkably distinguished and impressive preacher. Indeed, even before he left the Church of England, the late Lord Stanmore, who was an old friend of my father's, said to me that he had heard all the great Anglican preachers for many years, and that he had no hesitation in putting my brother in the very first rank.

However his time was very full; the parish was magnificently organised; besides the clubs there were meetings of all sorts, very systematic visiting, a ladies' settlement, plays acted by children, in which Hugh took a prominent part both in composing the libretto and rehearsing the performances, coaching as many as seventy children at a time.

He went to a retreat given by a Cowley Father in the course of his time at the Eton Mission, and heard Father Maturin unfold, with profound enthusiasm and inspiring eloquence, a scheme of Catholic doctrine, worship, and practice, laying especial stress on Confession. These ideas began to take shape in Hugh's mind, and he came to the conclusion that it was necessary in a place like London, and working among the harassed and ill-educated poor, to _materialise religion--that is to say, to fit some definite form, rite, symbol, and practice to religious emotion. He thought that the bright, dignified, and stately adjuncts of worship, such as they had at the Eton Mission, were not adequate to awaken the sense of the personal and intimate relation between man and God.

In this belief he was very possibly right. Of course the dangers of the theory are obvious. There is the ultimate danger of what can fairly be called superstition, that is to say giving to religion a magical kind of influence over the material side of life. Rites, relics, images tend to become, in irrational minds, invested with an inherent and mechanical sanctity, instead of being the symbols of grace. But it is necessary to risk something; and though the risk of what may be called a sort of idolatry is great, the risk of not arousing the sense of personal religion at all is greater still.

Hugh's ordination as a priest followed in 1895; and he then made a full confession before a clergyman.

In 1896, in October, my father, who had paid a state visit to Ireland, on his return went to stay with Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden, and died there in church on a Sunday morning.

I can never forget the events of that terrible day. I received a telegram at Eton which summoned me to Hawarden, but did not state explicitly that my father was dead. I met Hugh at Euston, who told me the fact, and I can recollect walking up and down the half-deserted station with him, in a state of deep and bewildered grief. The days which followed were so crowded with business and arrangements, that even the sight of my father's body, lying robed and still, and palely smiling, in the great library of the rectory failed to bring home to me the sense that his fiery, eager, strenuous life was over. I remember that Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone came to the church with us, and that Hugh celebrated and gave us the Communion. But the day when we travelled south with the coffin, the great pomp at Canterbury, which was attended by our present King and the present King of Norway, when we laid him to rest in a vault under the north-western tower, and the days of hurried and crowded business at Addington are still faint and dream-like to me.

My mother and sister went out to Egypt for the winter; Hugh's health broke down; he was threatened with rheumatic fever, and was ordered to go out with them. It was here that he formed a very close and intimate companionship with my sister Maggie, and came to rely much on her tender sympathy and wise advice. He never returned to the Eton Mission.

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