Richard Meux Benson was reckoned by one author as “the leading embodiment of the life of the counsels in the Anglo-Catholic Movement” (Saints and Leaders, H.F.B. Mackay) and is remembered chiefly as the founder of the first order of clerks regular in the Church of England since the Reformation, the Society of St John the Evangelist, otherwise known as the Cowley Fathers.
The son of wealthy parents, Benson was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, after a period of travel in his youth that included a private audience with Pope Gregory the Sixteenth. Benson was ordained in 1848 and in 1850 was appointed Vicar of Cowley, then a village some two miles from Oxford, whose parish boundaries extended to Magdalen Bridge in Oxford. In his brief biography, Mackay characterized Benson’s years as Vicar of Cowley: “For nine years Benson-who was an embodiment of the devotion, reserve, austerity and self-effacement of the Tractarians-lived there unobserved, in prayer and labour among the poor.” In 1859, feeling called to missionary work, he was on the point of going to India when Dr Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, induced him to remain to take charge of the new suburban parish growing up around the Cowley end of Magdalen Bridge.
A sermon preached by John Keble inspired Benson, along with two other priests, to found the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) in 1865. Joined soon after by a fourth priest, they lived together in a little suburban brick house, saying the daily hours in a tiny oratory and the Eucharist and the Prayer Book offices in the parish church. In 1870 four novices joined the group, and thereafter the Society went from strength to strength. The Cowley Fathers went out on missions in all directions, early planting two branches of the order in India and another two in America and South Africa. In 1884 Bishop Mackarness of Oxford confirmed the Society’s constitution that had formed through the intervening years, and the Society became an order of clerks regular (priests living according to a rule of life). Benson resigned his superiorship of the Society in 1890. He died January 14, 1915.
Of his person and influence, Mackay wrote in 1928:
“Benson had no form or comeliness apart from the tranquil shining spirit which shone through his dim short-sighted eyes, and in the strong, benevolent line of his mouth. A little shrivelled, bent, thin, wiry, ascetic figure, full of energy, often looking as though he were concealing physical suffering but at fitting times brimming over with laughter and humour, a shabby, faded cassock, a neck-cloth renewed not very often, stockingless feet thrust into old shoes, the cassock girded very tightly-that is the figure people remember, a harsh, rather hesitating voice, no power of popular preaching, nothing to attract you short of the highest characteristics of all.
“But then those! The motive of Father Benson’s life was union with the most Holy Trinity in Unity. That was his passion. His thirst for souls, his battle against wrong, his love of all men, his consecration of the material were all elements, necessary elements in his passion for God.
“God with him was indeed central and supreme, and the external he valued, the letter of Holy Scripture, the precise use of prayer, the practice of the Sacraments, had their value strictly and only to him as means to the knowledge of God, means to union with God.
“In this also lay to him the whole meaning of the vows of the Religious Life. Through them the soul is dedicated with the greatest possible completeness. Father Benson was vowed to poverty and chastity because these were instruments for a clear vision of God and a closer conformity to His Will; humility and obedience were to him the necessary consequence of the attitude the creature must hold towards the Creator.”
- Taken from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and Saints and Leaders, H.F.B. Mackay, Society of SS Peter and Paul, 1928.
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Richard Meux Benson, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Richard Meux Benson is commemorated on this day in the sanctoral calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada.