Talk to the Central School of Religion Reunion

I was the invited speaker at the Central School of Religion Reunion at St Jude’s Free Church of England, Balham, in November 2014. Here is the talk given on that occasion:

Ambrose Philipps de Lisle, 1809-78

I am going to talk to you today about a nineteenth-century English pioneer of the ecumenical movement, Ambrose Philipps de Lisle, and give a brief account of his life and achievement.

Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle was born on 17 March 1809. He was the son of Charles March-Phillipps of Garendon Hall, Leicestershire, and Harriet Ducarel, a lady of Huguenot descent. The de Lisle family of Leicestershire were originally simply the Phillipps from London. The Garendon estate near Loughborough, was inherited by Thomas March, who adopted the name Phillipps, and married Susan de Lisles. Their son, Charles, adopted the de Lisle crest and arms. Steady accumulation of landed property made him one of the ‘wealthiest commoners’ in England and a member of that class known as the landed gentry. When Charles March-Phillipps died in 1862, Ambrose took the additional name of Lisle, becoming Ambrose Charles Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle. For the purposes of this talk, I shall take the liberty of referring to him as Ambrose, not least because in doing so I will also recall the saint and Doctor of the Church after whom he was named, one who provided a model for him in his famous saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Ambrose spent his earliest years at his birthplace and was brought up as a member of the Church of England, receiving his first religious instruction from his uncle, William March Phillipps, a High Church clergyman of the Church of England. The Bishop of Gloucester, having married Sophia March Phillipps, was his uncle by marriage, and so the boy spent Sundays and holidays at the bishop’s palace. In 1818 Ambrose was sent to a private school in South Croxton, whence he was removed in 1820 to Maizemore Court School, near Gloucester, kept by the Rev. George Hodson.

At school he met for the first time a Catholic, the Abbé Giraud, a French émigré priest. A visit to Paris in 1823 gave him his first acquaintance with the Catholic liturgy. The effect on his mind was shown on his return home when he persuaded the Anglican rector to place a cross on the communion table, but this first effort to restore the cross to English churches was stopped by the Bishop of Peterborough. He converted to Catholicism, and immediately removed from Mr. Hodson’s school, and returned home with his father, who arranged for him to continue his preparation for the university under the private tuition of the Rev. William Wilkinson. He was obliged every Sunday to attend the Anglican church, but did not join in the service.

Ambrose was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in November 1825, though he did not go into residence there until 16 October 1826. At the university he found a congenial friend in Kenelm Digby, author of Mores Catholici and The Broadstone of Honour, who was, like himself, a member of a long-established family of the landed gentry and a recent convert. In those days there was no Catholic chapel at Cambridge, and every Sunday for two years these two young Catholics used to ride, fasting, over to St. Edmund’s College, Ware, a distance of twenty-five miles, for Catholic Mass and Communion. It was on one of these visits to St. Edmund’s, in April 1828, that Phillipps was seized with a serious illness, having burst a blood-vessel in his lung. The doctors recommended his father to take him to Italy for the winter, and this necessarily cut short his Cambridge career, so that he had to leave the university. It should be remembered that at this point, because he was not an Anglican, he was debarred from taking a degree at the University.

On his return to England in 1829, he became acquainted with the Hon. George Spencer, then an Anglican clergyman, and his conversation was largely instrumental in leading to Spencer’s conversion to Catholicism, as the latter admits in his Account of my Conversion – he says “I passed many hours daily in conversation with Phillipps and was satisfied beyond all expectations with the answers he gave me to the different questions I proposed about the principal tenets and practices of Catholics.” The following winter (1830–1831) Ambrose again spent in Italy, on which occasion he met the Blessed Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, the philosopher and founder of the Rosminian Order, who made a great impression on him.

On 25 July 1833, Ambrose married Laura Mary, eldest daughter of the Hon. Thomas Clifford, son of Hugh, fourth Baron Clifford of Chudleigh, in the Church of St James, Spanish Place, London. Charles March Phillipps gave his son possession of the second family estate, the manor of Grace-Dieu in Leicestershire, which before the Protestant Reformation had been the Augustinian Grace Dieu Priory. Here Ambrose Phillipps built a new manor-house Grace Dieu Manor, 1833–34, and in the meantime he and his wife resided at Leamington, or at Garendon Hall. Writing a few years before his death he summed up the chief aims of his own life in these words: “There were three great objects to which I felt after my own conversion as a boy of fifteen specially drawn by internal feeling for the whole space of forty-five years which have since elapsed. The first was to restore to England the primitive monastic contemplative observance, which God enabled me to do in the foundation of the Trappist monastery of Mount St. Bernard. The second was the restoration of the primitive ecclesiastical chant, my edition of which is now recommended by the Archbishop of Westminster for the use of churches and chapels. The third was the restoration of the Anglican Church to Catholic Unity.”

According to Edmund Purcell’s 1900 biography of Ambrose, “In that early day no one did more for the Catholic revival in England, almost single-handed, than Phillipps de Lisle”. In the foundation of the Cistercian Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire he received generous support from his friend John, Earl of Shrewsbury, but it was Ambrose himself who conceived the idea, believing it necessary that the ascetic aspect of Catholic life should be presented to the English people. Mount St. Bernard Abbey was the first monastery built in England since the Reformation. Ambrose gave both land and money, severely depleting his own resources in providing the necessary buildings. This work was begun in 1835 and completed in 1844, while, during the same period, he founded missions at Grace Dieu and Whitwick. His disappointment was great when he found that the Trappists were prevented by their rule from undertaking active missionary work, because he attached the greatest importance to a supply of zealous missionary priests who would labour in English villages; he said, “I would have them go about and preach everywhere on the foreign plan, in the fields or in the high roads even”.

In 1838 Ambrose joined his friend Rev. George Spencer in establishing and propagating the Association of Universal Prayer for the Conversion of England. In a continental tour he and Spencer made together, accompanied by Mrs. Phillipps and two of her children, in 1844, they passed through Belgium, Germany, and North Italy, meeting many distinguished Catholics and enlisting the sympathy of prelates and clergy in the cause. Nicholas, soon to be Cardinal, Wiseman was co-operating in Rome, and soon the movement spread widely through the Catholic world. Ambrose was for some time the only Catholic who was in confidential correspondence with the leaders of the Oxford Movement, including Blessed John Henry Newman, receiving them at Grace-Dieu. He saw the Oxford Movement as a step towards his desire of reconciling the Anglican Church with Rome. As his son stated: “National Conversion by means of Corporate Reunion he likened unto the Apostolic practice of fishing with a net ‘gathering in multitudes of all kinds of fishes.’ And this he considered to be his own special call from on High, to prepare the way and hasten the time when the Divine Word should again be spoken to Peter, ‘Cast your nets into the deep’.”

In a letter of 1841 to John Rouse Bloxam of Magdalen College, Oxford, who was, in the words of Lord Blachford, “the grandfather of all Ritualists”, Ambrose explained that for him, the Church of England was the true Catholic church of the British nation, despite its lack of communion with Rome. He regarded Anglican Holy Orders as valid, and the eucharistic service of the Book of Common Prayer as a true Catholic sacrificial Mass. It was the State, for Ambrose, that had impaired the Catholic witness of the Church of England; if reunion could be achieved, he saw the possibility of all churches and cathedrals being united in the celebration of the Sarum Rite in Latin, while some portions could be given simultaneously in English translation. He also foresaw circumstances in which the Anglican clergy would be permitted to retain their wives. These insights came about because Ambrose was closely in touch with European thought on these matters, in contrast to the British Establishment which was much less cosmopolitan in its inclinations. Equally, the capacity of Ambrose and his wife to offer lavish hospitality at Grace-Dieu Manor helped secure him a greater measure of support, even among the clergy of the Church of England.

As well as his Catholic works of translation and compilation, Ambrose in 1855 authored a work entitled Mahometanism in its relation to Prophecy; or an Inquiry into the prophecies concerning Anti-Christ, with some reference to their bearing on the events of the present day. This is an interesting work, and I will quote a few words from its conclusion, “If Mahomet be not Antichrist, may humanity be spared the revelation of something worse, of something still more horrible ! But if the imagination of my reader would be satisfied with something less horrible than Mahomet, let me, at least, congratulate humanity that it has already seen the worst phase of evil, while I leave it to the contradictor to adjust the balance between the statements of prophecy, and the phantoms of his own brain.” In fact, this was a longstanding preoccupation of Ambrose, who as a boy had seen a bright light in the sky and heard a voice say “Mahomet is anti-Christ, for he denieth the Father and the Son”.

Ambrose welcomed the restoration of a Catholic hierarchy in the United Kingdom in 1850, and tried to reconcile to it some of the Catholic laymen who thought it inexpedient. He saw great significance in the fact that Pope Pius IX had not named any of the new dioceses after any of the medieval Sees, since he surmised that the Pope must therefore share his view that the Church of England was the true church of the English nation. During the debates that ensued throughout the country he wrote two pamphlets: A Letter to Lord Shrewsbury on the Re-establishment of the Hierarchy and the Present Position of Catholic Affairs, and A few words on Lord John Russell’s Letter to the Bishop of Durham. The progress of events raised his hopes so high that he regarded the reconciliation of the Anglican Church to the Holy See as imminent, and to hasten its fulfilment entered on a new crusade of prayer, in which the co-operation of non-Catholics was desired. Following Ambrose’s eirenic pamphlet “On the future unity of Christendom”, “The Association for Promoting the Unity of Christendom”, (A.P.U.C.) was founded on 8 September 1857, by fourteen people including Father Lockhart and Fr. Collins; the rest were Anglicans, with one exception, a Russo-Greek priest. Cardinal Wiseman gave it his blessing.

The only obligation incumbent on members, who might be Catholics, Anglicans, or Greeks, was to pray to God for the unity of the baptised body. At first the association progressed rapidly. Ambrose wrote to Lord John Manners and said, “We soon counted among our ranks many Catholic Bishops and Archbishops and Dignitaries of all descriptions from Cardinals downwards; the Patriarch of Constantinople and other great Eastern prelates, the Primate of the Russian Church … I do not think any Anglican Bishops joined us, but a large number of clergy of the second order” – that is to say, presbyters. He gave the number of members as nine thousand. The formation of this association was, however, regarded with distrust by Cardinal Manning and a good number of other influential Catholics, who also took exception to Ambrose’s treatise On the Future Unity of Christendom. The matter was referred to Rome by Cardinal Manning and was finally settled by a papal rescript addressed Ad omnes episcopos Angliæ, dated 16 September 1864, which condemned the association and directed the bishops to take steps to prevent Catholics from joining it.

As might be expected, this was a great blow to Ambrose, who considered that “the authorities had been deceived by a false relation of facts”. He however withdrew his name from the A.P.U.C. “under protest, as an act of submission to the Holy See”. The ground on which the association was condemned was that it subverted the Divine constitution of the Church, inasmuch as its aim rested on the supposition that the true Church consists partly of the Catholic Church in communion with Rome, “partly also of the Photian Schism and the Anglican heresy, to which equally with the Roman Church belong the one Lord, the one faith and one baptism”. His own pamphlet was not censured, but the condemnation of the A.P.U.C. was regarded by him as the death-blow of his hopes for the reunion of Christendom during his own lifetime. But his own belief in it persevered and influenced his views in other Catholic affairs. Thus he warmly supported the attendance of Catholics at the English universities, and he even approved of the abortive project of a Uniate English Church. He pointed out that his prophesy of 1841 had come true, and that at least a few parish churches were now using the Sarum Rite in the vernacular. Writing in 1867, he noted that within the Church of England we could now find churches that were “restored in all their grandeur. The sweet perfume of holy incense is again inhaled in our ancient temples, the names of Mary and the Saints are again honoured and invoked, and men are once more called to the practice of sanctity, and the imitation of the Saints”, while “Catholic morality is again inculcated in pulpits that used to utter only the errors of Calvin or Luther”.

During the remainder of his life, Ambrose continued ever to take an interest in public affairs as affecting the fortunes of the Church, and in the same connexion he carried on intimate and cordial correspondence with men as different as Cardinal Newman, William Ewart Gladstone, and Charles Forbes René de Montalembert. He counted among his friends John, Earl of Shrewsbury, Cardinal Wiseman, Augustus Pugin, who provided designs for Grace-Dieu, and many other well-known Catholics, and though he differed on many points from Cardinal Manning and Dr. W.G. Ward, the professor of moral philosophy at St Edmund’s College, he remained on friendly terms with both. In 1868, he was appointed High Sheriff of Leicester, and chose Dr Frederick Lee of Lambeth, one of the founding prelates of the Order of Corporate Reunion, as his chaplain. Lee’s second son was named Ambrose de Lisle Lee after him. Ambrose’s plans for a Uniate Church continued to occupy him and his colleagues, and he was among the first to propose that the clergy of the Church of England should be conditionally reordained in order to secure their validity. This proposal, too, would eventually be adopted by the Church of England following the 1931 Bonn Agreement with the Old Catholic Churches.

On 5 March 1878 Ambrose died at Garendon, survived by his wife and eleven of his sixteen children. His achievement was to be the prophet of much that was to follow him, and that would eventually find expression in the current Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.