ChapterIV Heritage

Some Brighton Churches – Chapter 4

Herbert Hamilton Maughan (b. 1884)

(author of “Wagner of Brighton : the centenary book of St. Paul’s Church, Brighton
and many other books on church architecture and traditions)


IT is to be hoped that, before the generation which had a close and intimate knowledge of Arthur Douglas Wagner, and of his work in Brighton, has altogether passed away, some writer well-equipped for the task will attempt a biography of the first Vicar of St. Paul’s. The name of Wagner of Brighton deserves to be as widely known as those of Enraght of Birmingham, Tooth of Hatcham, or Ridsdale of Folkestone; and if as yet that is scarcely the case, a partial explanation may be found in the fact that Mr. Wagner was never sent to prison for conscience’ sake, as were Mr. Green and Mr. Tooth, or even prosecuted, as were Mr. Mackonochie and Mr. Ridsdale, although he was no less the victim of a ruthless and vindictive persecution which he endured with remarkable patience and courage, until even those who were vehemently opposed to his teaching and practice at St. Paul’s had learned to regard him with admiration and respect. Another reason may be found in his singularly modest and retiring dis­position, which seemed never to permit him to realize that he was a person of the slightest importance, although his work in Brighton was quite as great and lasting in its effects as that of any of those more famous priests for whom he always felt, and displayed, the greatest admiration. We shall have occasion to return to this later; in the meanwhile, it is necessary to remark that only a very brief and wholly inadequate sketch can be attempted here.

His father, the Rev. H. M. Wagner, was Vicar of Brighton from 1824 until his death in 1870, a period of forty-six years. Although a High Churchman of the old school, which in pre-Tractarian times meant little beyond Tory politics and a slightly less Erastian view of the Church than that which prevailed amongst the Latitudinarians, he was not always in sympathy with the highly developed Tractarian views of his son, whom he placed in charge of the new church of St. Paul in West Street. Arthur Douglas Wagner was, in fact, considerably in advance of his day, and although the ceremonial at St. Paul’s, in his time, was some­what less elaborate and “advanced” than that of more than one of the daughter churches which he founded, his teaching was as thorough and as fully developed as that of any of the most progressive clergy of a later period. He belonged to the generation of pioneers who first sought to translate the principles of the Tractarians into practice, but his convictions were not, as in the case of nearly all his contemporaries, the product of a gradual and often painful development. It all seems to have been there from the very beginning, and thus enabled him to keep pace with the latest developments of the Movement at an age when many of his own generation were no longer able to retain their place in the front rank. This, in the opinion of one of those who knew him most intimately, was one of the most remarkable things about him, and speaks volumes for the patience with which for many years he contented himself with a standard of ceremonial at St. Paul’s distinctly below that which his own inclinations would have led him to desire. He was, of course, far too Evangelically-minded to regard mere ceremonial in itself as a matter of the first importance; but to one who had a remarkably complete grasp of the whole Catholic position from the very beginning of his ministry, the restraints imposed by considerations of charity and common-sense in building up his pioneer work must have been sometimes irksome. The crowded congregations which thronged St. Paul’s, after its adversaries had done their worst, bore witness to his wisdom and courage, as well as to the triumphant success of his work.

When St. Paul’s was opened in 1848, Arthur Douglas Wagner was not yet in Holy Orders, some difficulties having arisen with regard to his ordination. Amongst the archives of those early days, carefully preserved by the present Vicar of St. Paul’s, is a letter written by Cardinal Manning, addressed to “A. D. Wagner, Esq.,” giving permission to Mr. Wagner to print and circulate the sermon on “The Lost Sheep,” which Manning, at that time Archdeacon of Chichester, had preached at the opening of St. Paul’s. But the difficulties were soon removed, and Mr. Wagner was duly ordained in 1849, three months after the opening of the church. St. Paul’s was served by the clergy of the parish church until Mr. Wagner was definitely appointed priest-in-charge in 1850.

Fr A. D. Wagner

From the very first, St. Paul’s aroused the suspicions of the Protestant party. Here at last was a place of worship which dared to depart from the conventional and prevailing type of preaching-house altogether. There was no towering “three-decker,” no high pews, no mean Communion Table hidden away behind the erection from which prayers were usually read: on the contrary, there was a long chancel containing a dignified altar and many sinister objects, such as sedilia and credence table associated with “the corrupt usages of the Church of Rome.” The local Protestants shrugged their shoulders, and remarked that they knew what might be expected before very long.

In one sense they were perfectly right, for St. Paul’s has probably exceeded the worst of their expectations. At the beginning, however, there was little beyond those things which most churchmen to-day regard as the barest decencies of public worship. It is indeed difficult to realize that only sixty or seventy years ago the chanting of the Psalms was regarded as a Popish abomination; and that when the present Vicar first went to serve under Mr. Wagner in 1863, St. Paul’s was still the only church in Brighton which had a choral service, and mocking placards referring to “the morning Opera at St. Paul’s” disgraced the walls of various buildings in the neighbourhood of the church. Such scurrilous tactics, of course, did much to defeat their own object. They gave St. Paul’s a great deal of advertisement, and inclined all decent people to sympathize with its courageous vicar. It was not long before St. Paul’s became one of the best-attended churches on the south coast, and perhaps the most fashionable of all; while many visitors learned there for the first time what the worship of the Church could be when rendered with reverence and dignity. This, however, only deepened the malice of those who could not enjoy their own religious liberty without seeking to destroy that of the people of St. Paul’s, and only the opportunity was needed to arouse them to active hostility and persecution.

The storm burst in 1865, after the trial of Constance Kent who, at the age of sixteen, had murdered her half-brother, Francis Savile Kent, a child just four years old. The evidence was not sufficiently conclusive to secure a verdict against her at the time, and she was discharged. The crime was committed in 1860, at Road in Somersetshire. Subsequently, Constance Kent came under the influence of Mr. Wagner, who advised her to give herself up to justice; and when she had decided to do so, Mr. Wagner himself went with her to Bow Street. She was committed for trial at Salisbury Assizes, and there convicted upon her own confession, the death sentence being commuted to penal servitude for life. Mr. Wagner’s offence, according to the view of his hostile critics, lay in his absolute refusal at the trial to contribute to the evidence against the prisoner by revealing anything which she had told him under the seal of sacramental confession. Immediately he became the centre of a whirling storm of execration. Slander, abuse and insults, were heaped upon him. Roughs and rowdies were encouraged tobreak the windows of St. Mary’s Home, where the Sisters of the Community which Mr. Wagner had founded carried on their works of charity. Ladies were pelted with stones as they went to or from St. Paul’s. Mr. Wagner himself was the victim of a most cowardly and brutal assault by a couple of miscreants, who one is glad to learn, were sent to prison for it. It was entirely characteristic of Mr. Wagner that, as soon as he had recovered from his injuries, he ascertained the names and addresses of the roughs who had assaulted him, and maintained their wives and families at his own cost until the men came out of prison. In the meanwhile, other means to molest the Vicar of St. Paul’s were being employed. Questions were asked in Parliament, and a movement made to secure the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the manner of conducting Divine Service at St. Paul’s, and particularly with reference to the practice of sacramental confession in that church. This, however, was unsuccessful. The Mayor of Brighton was requested to call a public meeting to denounce Mr. Wagner, but he declined to do so. The local Protestant Association then convened a meeting at the Town Hall, and passed resolutions calling upon Parliament to interfere in the affairs of St. Paul’s. At a public meeting held soon after the trial of Constance Kent, one of the clergy of St. Paul’s, who ventured to speak in defence of Mr. Wagner, was refused a hearing and handled with brutal violence; the meeting then degenerated into a riot and broke up in disorder. However, in spite of all these commotions, no steps were taken against the Vicar of St. Paul’s by the high authorities invoked. At last something occurred which the adversaries of St. Paul’s hoped might furnish them with an effective weapon against Mr. Wagner. It was discovered that Constance Kent had desired to give the sum of £1,000 to Mr. Wagner, to be used at his discretion for the benefit of St. Mary’s Home and the other charities connected with St. Paul’s. Here was a splendid opportunity for further calumnies and slanders. Mr. Wagner, however, had very wisely refused to accept the gift; and when the greater part of this sum had been surreptitiously placed in the alms boxes in the church, the Vicar at once handed it over to Miss Kent’s legal representatives. In view of the scandal set afoot, Miss Kent’s solicitor—Mr. Rodway —  wrote letters to the newspapers which entirely cleared Mr. Wagner of all suspicion. “Mr. Wagner has never manifested any desire to retain this money for St. Paul’s Church, or St. Mary’s Hospital, but on the contrary has from the first expressed his anxiety that it should be used for the benefit of Miss Kent, and be at the disposal of her family for that purpose.” This settled the matter for the time being.

In 1867 Mr. Wagner was summoned to the Jerusalem Chamber, at Westminster, to give evidence before a Royal Commission, appointed to investigate the principles and practices of the “Ritualists.” He gave his evidence frankly and boldly, and some of his replies to the questions put to him are of sufficient interest to churchmen to-day to justify their inclusion here.

In answer to a question as to whether Vestments were in use at St. Paul’s, Mr. Wagner replied : “No, not at the present time. About eight or nine years ago I used them for about a year, and then the Bishop wrote to me expressing his annoyance at it, and begged me to discontinue it, which I did, and have refrained from wearing them since, expecting a legal settlement of the whole matter. I have never raised the question since.”

“What did your congregation think of your dropping them ?”
“I have no doubt that if I were to introduce them to-morrow they would be very glad to see them restored.”
“Do you use lights and the mixed chalice ?”

Mr. Wagner was also questioned as to the use at St. Paul’s of the hymn “Faith of our Fathers,” which contained these lines :—

“Faith of our Fathers, faith and prayer
Shall win our country back to thee.”

“You do not think,” inquired the Earl of Harrowby, “the ‘Faith of our Fathers’ means the Romish Church, and that we are to be won back to that ?”

“I suppose,” was the reply, “that it means that we shall be won back to the Catholic Faith, which the Athanasian Creed says unless we believe we cannot be saved. England has grievously fallen away from that in many points.”

It does not appear that anything in particular resulted from the investigations of the Commission, and, the excitement aroused over the Constance Kent case having to some extent died down, Mr. Wagner was allowed to continue his work in comparative peace for a while. It was not very long before he was able to restore the use of the Vestments at St. Paul’s, and there seemed reason to hope that more peaceful times were at hand.

In 1873, however, there was a revival of the agitation against the practice of sacramental confession at St. Paul’s, and at other churches founded by Mr. Wagner. A public meeting was held to denounce a devotional manual given by the clergy to candidates for Confirmation, and to protest against a notice displayed in St. Paul’s stating the times when the clergy would be in attend­ance to hear confessions. At this assembly the usual violent speeches were made, and a great deal of mud hurled at the Vicar and clergy of St. Paul’s. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr. Durnford, refused to condemn a practice clearly contemplated by the Book of Common Prayer, but suggested that the notice in the church should be removed. Mr. Wagner at once offered to resign, and nothing more was heard from the Bishop. After this, the agitation gradually died down so far as St. Paul’s was concerned. Mr. Wagner, however, was much affected by the persecution of the Rev. John Purchas at St. James’; and although he very rarely went outside his own parish to preach, he appeared in the pulpit of St. James’, Hatcham, to testify to his sympathy with the congregation during the prosecution of their courageous vicar, the Rev. Arthur Tooth. He also attended a meeting at Birmingham in support of Mr. Enraght, another victim of malignant persecution, and continued to labour, unobtrusively but effectually, for the cause to which he had devoted his life and work until he had seen the triumph of those principles for which he had always contended. He died at the age of seventy-seven, on January 11th, 1902.

His great work as a church-builder will be described in detail elsewhere, but a bare summary of his achievements is sufficiently impressive. At his own cost he was the builder and founder of St. Mary Magdalene’s, Bread Street, of the church of the Annunciation, Washington Street, and of St. Bartholomew’s, which alone cost more than £17,000 to build. He also built St. Mary’s church at Buxted, and founded St. Mary’s Hospital in Brighton, with a branch house at Buxted. In addition, he had a large share in the building of the beautiful church of St. Martin in the Lewes Road, erected as a memorial to his father, the Vicar of Brighton. He also built, or renovated, many houses to provide the poor of Brighton with better and more sanitary dwellings, and supported innumerable charitable organizations connected with his churches. It is estimated that he spent two or three fortunes upon his work for the Church in Brighton, while continuing to live in the greatest simplicity himself, and his many individual acts of kindness and generosity were well known to everybody in Brighton in spite of the carefully unobtrusive manner in which they were performed. It was truly a noble record such as it is given to few men to achieve, and calls for a worthy biographer to give to posterity a fitting account of the life and work of Arthur Douglas Wagner: in the meanwhile, in the town to which he devoted his life and his fortune, his work remains to give him the proud epitaph accorded to Sir Christopher Wren — “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

Arthur Douglas Wagner was a notable refutation of the thoroughly false theory that a man cannot become a really saintly character unless he is a grim and gloomy ascetic and parts with every vestige of a sense of humour. Simplicity, but not asceticism, was the dominant note of Mr. Wagner’s life, while a genial humanity, rather than a dour Puritanism which regards all wit as sinful flippancy, was one of his chief characteristics in social life. There are many anecdotes which show that his sense of humour was keen and alert. On one occasion, in the early days of St. Paul’s, when Mr. Orby Shipley had preached an eloquent sermon on the subject of Extreme Unction, Mr. Wagner turned to the preacher, as soon as they had returned to the sacristy, and said: “Mr. Shipley, can you tell me where I can get the Oils?” His geniality and unvarying kindness endeared him to all his assistant priests, some of whom were with him for many years. Although he occupied a very important position in the town and in the diocese, and fulfilled his responsibilities most admirably, his genuine humility and simplicity of character would not allow him to realize his personal importance. When he arrived at the public meeting in Birmingham assembled to express the general sympathy with the persecuted Mr. Enraght, “Wagner of Brighton” was recognised by many of the audience and loudly cheered: totally unaware that the ovation was intended for himself, Mr. Wagner remarked to a friend who accompanied him: “I suppose some important person has just come in.” The same humility nearly concealed the fact that he was a scholar and a theologian; but his advice and guidance was so frequently sought by other clergy that his light could not be hidden completely. His practical theology, however, as it appeared in his daily work and teaching, was simple enough. For him, acceptance of the great truth of the Incarnation as an actual fact involved two necessary and inevitable consequences, the importance of the sacramental system, and the honour and veneration due to the Blessed Virgin Mary — the Mother of the Incarnate Word. His whole life and teaching was a steady insistence upon these truths. At St. Paul’s, one of the first churches in England to restore the Daily Eucharist, the whole sacramental system was preached from the very first, and at no church was the battle which raged around the sacrament of penance more resolutely and victoriously fought. With regard to the second logical consequence of the Incarnation, Mr. Wagner’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin manifested itself in nearly everything he did. It will be noticed that all his churches were inaugurated, opened or consecrated, upon one of Her festivals. The full dedication of the church in Bread Street is to St. Mary and St. Mary Magdalene. The Religious Community which he founded was the Community of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the centre of their charitable works was St. Mary’s Home. The church which he built in Washington Street was named in honour of the Annunciation, and the new church at Buxted was dedicated to St. Mary. To every one of the churches which he founded he gave a picture of the Blessed Virgin, a reproduction of the traditional “St. Luke” Madonna treasured at Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome. His personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin was also apparent in his devout observance of Her festivals, and in his sermons in which he frequently laid great stress upon the unique dignity and glory of Mary as the Theotokos. Such teaching may be almost a commonplace to-day, but to take up such an attitude in the middle of the nineteenth century argued a considerable amount of courage. Courage and consistency, however, were the dominant characteristics of his life and teaching; and it was probably the determination to be consistent which led him fearlessly to follow out his principles to their logical conclusions, instead of pausing half-way as many of his contemporaries did, and so kept him so much in advance of his time. It would be well for the present-day disciples of the school which he adorned if they could all unite the same courage and consistency with the same devout and truly Evangelical zeal in upholding the principles which they have inherited from Arthur Douglas Wagner.

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