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Book Review

Petà Dunstan
This Poor Sort: A History of the European Province of the Society of Saint Francis
DLT, London, 1997, £19.95

(price at publication of review)

'Why did the reputation of St Francis of Assisi rise so rapidly during the last forty years of the nineteenth century, among Protestants and unbelievers as well as Catholics? Partly because of the new historical consciousness and resulting interest in the imitation of Christ. Still more because of simplicity. We go back to foundations. We know what we know . . . In this mood, which was part consciousness of reality in religion, part defensive attitude appropriate (or inappropriate) to an unsettled age, they found sometimes to their surprise, bridges to the intellectual world that looked so hostile.' (Owen Chadwick, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 251-252).

One practical consequence of this new interest in St Francis was the formation of religious communities in the Church of England which followed his way. Other communities already existed in some number by the turn of the century. But only in 1894 did there emerge a specifically Franciscan one, the Society of the Divine Compassion in Plaistow. From within that community came two men, Giles and William, who in very different ways contributed to the beginning and development of the Society of St Francis that we know today.

This book is the first history of the Society. Its author, Dr Petà Dunstan, is the Librarian of the Divinity School at the University of Cambridge and a well-known historian. She knows SSF well, not least as a Companion and through the Cambridge house and St Bene't's. The result of her considerable and thorough research is an outstanding book. It will be valued for the story which it tells, lucidly and movingly, and for the honesty and accuracy with which she analyses what was happening beneath the surface of the community's life.

The sub-title indicates a self-imposed limitation. There is a detailed account of how Anglican Franciscans came into being, and then of its growth until the seventies, including its spread into the USA, Papua New Guinea, Australasia and Africa. After that, the story is confined to changes in this country and to contacts with other churches in Europe. There is a chapter about the Clares, but relatively little about CSF or the Third Order.

Many of those who read franciscan have already experienced the influence of individual brothers and sisters. What this book does is to show the extent of this influence within the Anglican Communion, and especially within the Church of England. It is an astonishing testimony to what a few people, 'This Poor Sort' (George Herbert) in the sense of not holding positions of power, can achieve through lives deeply committed to God within the Franciscan ethos. Not only have the friars been pioneers - the wayfaring homeless, the school for maladjusted boys at Hooke, liturgical renewal, to mention a few - but their ministry of 'consecrated friendship' and evangelism has been extensive. I am one of a huge band who owe much to different brothers and sisters within the modern family of St Francis.

What has been the distinctive witness of the Society? I mention a few key points out of the many in this history: first, the coming together of catholic and evangelical strands in one community, focussed in the leadership of Douglas and Algy in the early years, which sent out a beacon of hope still sorely needed; second, the costliness of sustaining a disciplined religious life under vows, yet giving individual members freedom to develop their own distinctive gifts and personalities; third, the determination to achieve this balance is one reason for the growth of the Society at a time when most communities were in decline. Dr Dunstan sets the story within the rapid and, at times, almost overwhelming changes going on in both society and the churches from the sixties onwards.
The story of SSF is not one of constant success. At one level, I find this encouraging! Risks have been taken while trying to discern the leading of the Spirit. Despite heroic efforts, the attempts to form an African community of friars in Tanzania failed. Diet, culture and institutional pressures proved too much. Deep differences between individual members make painful reading at times. Did the Chapter fail the Company of St Francis (chapter 14)? Yet new life keeps breaking through. Here is a constant Passion and Resurrection story.

Some of the tensions which are described here are characteristic of all attempts to follow Christ in the way of Francis. Algy was clear that evangelism and the service of others must be rooted in prayer: what Brother Roger of Taizé called 'struggle and contemplation'. Nothing original in that, perhaps; but always hard to hold together within the daily life of a particular house (or parish or diocese).

One final impression: I was a curate at St Luke's Pallion in Sunderland, preceded by Brother Barnabas and overlapping with Brother Edward. I used to wonder how two such different people could be drawn to the same community and remain within it! After reading this book, I can understand it better. Here is an amazing story of a wide company held together by a love of St Francis and by his devotion to the crucified and risen Lord. Do read it. You will be humbled and inspired.

Ronnie Bowlby TSSF

 

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