Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 June 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
The first three days of this liturgical week give us three English commemorations. Evelyn Underhill and St Richard (tomorrow and Tuesday) are represented in the prayers at Benediction; on Wednesday we celebrate a recent addition to our liturgical calendar, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett. Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel is probably their best-known legacy. But their contribution to Church and society was much wider than that. The Barnetts are an example of genuinely self-sacrificial missionary work within this country and Church which has endured and, arguably, displays the special charism of married priestly ministry, sometimes the subject of caricature but quietly effective in many places, not least in our missionary societies. The Barnetts represent a characteristically English Anglican story of privilege and education put to the service of the poor and deprived by the conscientious and mutual living out of practical faith.
Samuel and Henrietta lived not far from here when they first married in 1873: he was curate of St Mary’s Bryanston Square and Henrietta was already working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill. At the time of their marriage Samuel was offered a parish near Oxford, but instead opted to become Vicar of St Jude’s Whitechapel, then having the distinction of being known as ‘the worst parish in London’. They went there with the intention and mutual dream of working to improve social conditions in one of London’s worst slums.
Samuel’s innovative attempts to encourage his parishioners into church were mostly not a success. Like his Anglo-Catholic contemporaries he grasped the problem: the BCP liturgy was simply alien to them. His solution (interestingly for our contemporary context), of providing simple services without robed clergy or prayerbooks and using the building less formally, did not meet with much success. But his keen interest in the causes of deprivation around him soon led him to address practical, and also what we might consider spiritual, issues much more effectively.
With friends and contemporaries he began promoting ‘University Settlements’ – places where richer students could live alongside, learn about and contribute to the welfare of much poorer people – in Barnett’s words: ‘to learn as much as to teach; to receive as much to give’. Their radical vision was to create a place for future leaders to live and work as volunteers in London’s East End, bringing them face to face with poverty, and giving them the opportunity to develop practical solutions that they could take with them into national life. This resulted in the formation of the University Settlements Association. Toynbee Hall was built shortly afterwards, and Barnett became its first Warden, relinquishing his living after ten years in the parish.
Historians have suggested that, in describing Toynbee Hall as a ‘settlement’, Barnett was trying to emphasise its local roots and the commitment of its residents to serving the local community. This sense of local connection is still central to Toynbee Hall’s work today. The majority of its clients are still residents of Tower Hamlets and the charity prioritises its connections with the local community in East London.
Barnett was opposed to indiscriminate charitable giving, which, in his view, encouraged people to rely on hand-outs and discouraged them from developing the skills they needed to support themselves and their families: this did not make him popular with some of his erstwhile parishioners, but he was also one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. He worked hard at Toynbee and elsewhere to develop a strikingly modern approach to social work, giving people what we would call transferrable skills and the opportunity to live independent dignified lives.
The Anglo-Catholic priests of his day, as well as catechising their people, were committed to offering order, beauty and dignity to the worship of the church. Barnett was equally committed, with a different emphasis, to providing education and the access to art and beauty: this led him, with Henrietta’s help, to found among other institutions the Whitechapel Gallery, free to all, and the Workers’ Educational Association.
Barnett’s refusal to align Toynbee Hall narrowly to the established Church (while insisting on the Christian commitment of all who worked there) led to its denunciation as ‘a nest of dissenters’ by other more sectarian projects (all of which have disappeared). But his priorities, to offer people access to justice, independent living, supportive social networks and community organisations, were all based on his apprehension of the Gospel. Bringing young university students to live and work in the settlement ultimately informed and influenced both left and right in British politics and beyond: the settlements were replicated in Chicago and elsewhere.
Henrietta worked alongside him but also on many projects of her own, continuing what had been her parish visiting activities with a focus on women and children, including the more than 2000 prostitutes then active in Whitechapel alone. She also initiated successful projects to resource women teachers and to help women to leave workhouses with gainful employment; there was also an experiment of sending slum children for country holidays which grew into the Children’s Country Holiday Fund.
Their legacy does not end with these and numerous other effective projects in Whitechapel. To get some rest from the inner city the couple acquired a weekend home at Spaniard’s End in the Hampstead area. Immediately they began organising a project to protect part of nearby Hampstead Heath from development by Eton College, setting up trusts which bought 243 acres of land along the newly opened Northern line extension to Golders Green which became Hampstead Garden Suburb, a development which achieved worldwide acclaim, and included the magnificent Lutyens Parish Church (St Jude’s – presumably named for the Whitechapel parish), as well as a nursery school and special housing for the old and disabled; later there followed the now-famous Grammar School for girls which bears Henrietta’s name, as well as an adult education institute.
Hampstead Garden Suburb is not the classless utopia that Henrietta imagined, but it has left an indelible mark on English urban development for the better, as well as one of the finest modern church buildings in London. Toynbee Hall has morphed and changed with its environment since they lived and worked there, but it represents a lasting monument to Christian engagement with the city that continues to provide significant benefits to poor and marginalized people. Both of these, and many of their other projects, too many to mention now, have inspired mission and social improvement in tandem well beyond these shores.
Like me you may not be a natural activist (just reading about all the Barnetts’ activities feels quite exhausting to me), but I hope you share my respect for those who are inspired to live out their faith in these ways. There is much in this story of the Church of England at its parochially-rooted best. Toynbee Hall is one project we might think of supporting corporately at some stage; perhaps you might like to look online yourself at the work done there today and consider supporting this legacy of two modern-day Anglican saints.