Distinguished Churchmen and Phases of Church Work/Hanmer William Webb-Peploe
THE REV. PREBENDARY WEBB-PEPLOE
PREBENDARY WEBB-PEPLOE, M.A.
Vicar of St Paul’s, Onslow Square.
QUARTER OF A CENTURY IN THE WEST END.
“Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate,
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.”—Longfellow.
Recognition of Twenty-five Years Service At Cheltenham and Cambridge—Successful but Unfortunate Athlete—Decrease in Tithe and Poverty among the Clergy—Dearth of Clergy—Tendency of Modern Fashions—The Clergyman and Society—Possible Relations between Church and Nonconformity.
Both in London and the provinces Prebendary Webb-Peploe is well-known as one of the most notable preachers in the Church of England, and as a leader of Evangelical thought, prominently identified with the National Protestant Church Union. He is, in fact, to London and the South of England what the Venerable Archdeacon Taylor, D.D., is to Liverpool and the north, and the two men hold many views in common.
Little needs to be said in the narrative, except as regards the Prebendary's early life, because for the last quarter of a century he has been devotedly attached to St Paul's, Onslow Square, and about this much light is shed in the dialogue. Let it be 268 DISTINGUISHED CHURCHMEN
said that it was pleasing evidence of the love of his people for him when only recently he was made the recipient of a handsome present in recognition of his long-continued services.
Throughout life the Vicar of Onslow Square has given proof of marked individuality, coupled with great strength of will, which have enabled him to override difficulties against which many a man with as good a heart, but Jess happily endowed in other respects, has struggled in vain. Over and over again his health has given way under the strain of his self-imposed tasks and his zeal to accomplish much in the service of his Master. But it is characteristic of the man, if he should thus stumble, to rise again with an unconquerable desire to achieve his purpose. It is recorded of him that while at Pembroke College, Cambridge, after hav ing won for himself a reputation as an athlete being particularly good at the high and long jumps he fell from the top of a gymnasium and injured his spine, with the result that he underwent the examination for his degree while lying upon a couch in the Senate House. He, however, returned to his pastimes afresh, and, unfortunately, to his bed, as a consequence. From the point of view of health, therefore, it has been a chequered career ; but few careers have been more useful and helpful to others, or more consistent throughout.
Prebendary Webb-Peploe was born at Weobley, in Herefordshire, in 1837, the youngest son of the
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Rev. J. B. Peploe, himself the occupier of a pre- bendal stall in Hereford Cathedral. After early education at Marlborough and Cheltenham, he pro ceeded to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1859, taking his M.A. degree nineteen years later. Before being ordained in 1863 he travelled a great deal on the Continent, and met with a further mishap while figure skating at Dresden. A considerable time was spent in his father s parish of Weobly (Herefordshire), and while there he restored the church, at a cost of between ,3,000 and ,4,000 ; and a similar work was subse quently done at King s-Pyon-with-Birley, in the same Diocese. It was in 1876 that Sir Charles Freake offered him the living of St Paul s, Onslow Square, and, making that the centre of his work, he has laboured continuously ever since for the welfare of rich and poor alike. His Church organisation is held by many to be a model of what is required in these days of religious activity, and as something novel the St Paul s Coachmen s and Menservants Club, in the Old Brompton Road, and a training home for destitute girls deserve mention. He was appointed Prebendary of Neasden in St Paul s Cathedral in 1893, and has shown in a further strik ing way his deep-rooted affection for the Church by contributing three sons to its service.
��When interviewed at Onslow Gardens, Preben-
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dary Webb-Peploe was seriously concerned about the future outlook of the Church, and emphasised his view that there is grave danger of the Church of England falling to pieces directly because of the want of real consideration on the part of the laity.
"Are you aware," he remarked, "that the number of ordination candidates has for some time past been dwindling ? Eight years ago the number of ordination candidates throughout the whole country numbered 800, whereas last year there were only 600 a decrease, you see, of more than one-fourth. That is a most serious position to face. The decrease in tithe and the low stipends tending to poverty among the clergy have, no doubt, had something to do with it. Parents realise the unfortunate state of affairs, and, instead of en couraging their sons to take orders, as used to be the case, they advise them to select other walks in life. It is appalling to observe the distress among the clergy, though the public are not especially conscious of it, because the clergy, for the most part, strive uncomplainingly, making their inadequate incomes go as far as they can. The clergy them selves are too poor to educate their sons for the Church ; and the laity, seeing that the clergy have no provision for the future, turn their sons from a calling in which they would be threatened with starvation."
" But what of your work in the West End
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during the last quarter of a century, Prebendary Webb-Peploe ? "
" Well, I am not aware that there is anything very special to speak of the work, under God, has been much the same as in a good many other parishes. You ought to know that my faithful workers are engaged in two distinct spheres, namely, the parish proper, and two districts affiliated from poor Chelsea parishes, and this I consider a most happy arrangement, for to my mind it is essential to all spiritual development, among
the well-to-do, that they should have a field of labour found for them ; unless that is done they are apt to become merely fashionable so-called worshippers, who attend Church without any definite results. There must be a field for their spiritual energy, or it decreases very rapidly. When I came here I found not only that the church had been built under peculiar conditions, but that the parish had been conducted on lines which to us of the last quarter of a century would appear, at any rate, unusual. The church had been built in 1860 by Sir Charles Freake, for the Rev. Capel Molyneux, in the midst of houses which Sir Charles (then Mr) was running up as a speculation. When he asked Mr Molyneux what he wanted as to the style of church, he replied characteristically for him, I want a great preaching box that is my desire, and there was built for him as ugly a church as could be imagined, with seats for 1800 people. Although
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there was nothing in the church that could be called up-to-date or attractive, Mr Molyneux, who, by the way, was my uncle, was responsible for it being crowded in those days. It is interesting to recall that Mr Molyneux preached regularly for more than an hour, and people never found it too long except the worldly ones. I say it is interesting to recall that, because now, you know, according to the decision of a judge who was questioned on the point, clergymen should preach for twenty minutes, with a leaning towards mercy !
" And what was the condition of the parochial organisation in those far-off days ? "
" I hope it will not be considered deprecating when I say that Mr Molyneux was essentially a preacher. He would not appear upon the public platforms, and there was no parochial organisation. But there were splendid collections on particular occasions. Mr Molyneux was followed in 1873 by the Rev. C. D. Marston, but he died suddenly in 1876. Strange to say, the moment I saw the announcement of his death, I was led to pray every day without knowing why, for I was perfectly content in the family living on my father s estate that the right successor might be appointed to this church. In about eight weeks, much to my surprise, I received the offer of the living from Sir Charles Freake. On coming I found that Mr Marston had attempted to organise work for his people. One of the things he did was to take over
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a Penny Gaff Theatre in Manor Street, Chelsea a building put up during the Crimean War for the use of the soldiers. It was subsequently sold by the Government, and a company took it for the pur poses of a Penny Gaff Theatre. When the lease was about to be renewed, Mr Marston appealed to his congregation to help him to buy with a view to its transformation into parochial use. This they kindly did, but Mr Marston never lived to see it opened. When I arrived there was a debt attaching to the building, and the good people on my first Easter with them paid off ^1,000. Under God, we worked there with the most marked success ; but with the singular result that, after a tide of blessing and prosperity, our mission hall the Penny Gaff Theatre of the past became too respectable, and only those who were in earnest would come regularly. The lesson gained from that experience was that no mission hall should be turned into a regular Church establishment, but should be always kept as a place for breaking new ground, as it were."
" But how did it come about that you have practically two districts under your care besides Onslow Square ? "
" I was coming to that. After a few years we added to our work another large district, containing 5,000 poor, called St Matthew s, Walton Street, and embracing part of the Parish of St Saviour s, Upper Chelsea. There, during seventeen years, we have
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witnessed a wonderful growth of organisation and work among the roughest poor. My people spend altogether including remuneration to clergy ^1,700 a year on these two districts alone, and completely carry out the Church organisation which is deemed necessary. We have about sixty district visitors, Bible nurses and lay mis sionaries. I work with four curates, and one of the happiest undertakings of my life has been the training of young men, after they have taken their degree, for earnest, practical work. I give them ^50 per year each towards their lodgings and expenses. Altogether I have had 1 1 1 such men under me, and they are now located all over the world, some missionaries abroad, and some vicars at home. Besides these, I have had twenty- five regular curates during my twenty-five years at St Paul s, Onslow Square. They now hold high positions in different parts of the country, and still generously call me Vicar whenever they meet me. I look back with great thankfulness to their work here.
"You have inquired about our work here," Prebendary Webb-Peploe continued, " and in con junction with our work you would like to know something of the lessons deducted therefrom. Perhaps one lesson is seen in how missionary zeal, really engendered from the centre, will spread right through a parish or congregation. On my arrival we had not, to my knowledge, any mis-
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sionary effort here beyond the annual collection. For the C.M.S., in 1880, our people collected ^624, and that went on increasing year by year, until, in 1898, when, I think, high-water mark was reached, the collections for the same society amounted to ^3,249. They subscribe to many other societies, and the number of missionaries we have in the field make up a host. I can only thank God and take courage from that, and the most liberal way in which our people give to this and other laudable objects."
" And what, may I ask, are the other societies assisted by your West-End congregation ? "
"We will take the missionary societies and the like first there are, besides the C.M.S., the Barbican Mission to the Jews, the Rev. T. Con- nellan s Work in Ireland, Irish Church Missions, the South American Missionary Society, the Lon don City Mission, the Missions to Seamen, the London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews, the Indian Female Normal School and Instruction Society or Zenana. Bible and Medical Mission, and the Bishop of Honduras Fund. Then they also assist the Bible Society, the Church Pas toral Aid Society, the Evangelical Alliance, the Colonial and Continental Church Society, the National Protestant Church Union, the Religious Tract Society, the Boys Brigade, the Chris tian Colportage Association, the Army Scripture Readers Society, the Church of England Tern-
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perance Society, the Kensington Church Women s School Association, and the South Kensington Rescue and Preventive Work. These, mind, are all in addition to the donations for parochial pur poses, among which may be mentioned the Dis trict Nurse Fund, Home for Girls, Coachmen s and Menservants Club, Men s Sick and Benefit Club, Women s Sick and Benefit Club, the Flower Mission, etc."
" Your methods of collection are somewhat un usual, are they not?"
With characteristic vigour the Prebendary dis closed his methods, giving the why and the where fore in proof positive. "I do not believe in the advisability of collections taken from pew to pew at every service," he remarked. "Our collections are only taken at the doors. It seems to me that we turn people away from the Church more and more by the thought that they must give every time they come ; they regard it, in some cases, as a question of money, and not of religion, and the business men who deal with money six days a week do very much dislike having Sunday turned into a fresh money-dealing or money-begging day. I think, therefore, collections should only be taken from pew to pew on exceptional occasions ; those who wish can and do give at the church door and through other channels. I should like very much to mention that for the information of those who think otherwise, and who say so much
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on the subject of giving. What I have pointed out marks a very fine feature in my congregation. St Paul s, Onslow Square, is, I think, the only church in London where collections are not taken from pew to pew, and yet, as I have before indi cated, the congregation give most liberally. You might mention the one exception to our rule. We have a pew to pew collection at the watch-night service, when the people give a penny all round for the poor. Generally we have a congregation of 1,500 or thereabouts on that occasion."
" And you find the West-End people good churchgoers ? "
"Generally, yes. Of course, there are changes from time to time, people coming and going ; but the people, for the most part, are in real earnest about their devotions. The attitude of the Ritual ists during the last ten years has undergone a change ; for I remember the time when they used to make much of the numbers of Communicants, particularly at Easter time. That custom has rather died down, because the Ritualists now urge the people to come to Mass, but not to partake. If, however, we must attach importance to numbers at Communion, then, I think, such an Evangelical church as my own will well compare with others. Let me give you the attendances for the last two years in 1899, there were 10,858 communicants, including 2,161 males; in 1900, 11,158, including 2,352 males. The figures for
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this year (1901) will be much the same as for last year. I mention this in refutation of the statement so often heard, that the Evangelicals are merely and mainly a preaching sect."
" Of course, Prebendary Webb-Peploe, you are mindful of the change which has come over Church thought during the last forty years. How, may I ask, has that change affected the West End ? "
" You mean the rise of the High Church party ? If you assume that has been felt in the West End you are right ; but there are still a good many Evangelical strongholds. But there is a darker side to the picture. Churchgoing is not so much a matter of practice as it used to be ; the rising generation are more negligent in this respect than the fathers and grandfathers were. I think it may be said that the faithful earnest preaching of entire consecration to God and the demand for the whole life, leads to the abandonment of attend ance of all the half-hearted and the worldly- minded. My own experience has been that parents with large families of young people have in too many cases been led to give up their own habits of devotion and service for God in order to follow the bent and fashions of the younger folk, among whom there is a want of discipline. One of the features of present-day life is seen in parties out of London for the week end ; and the half hearted can no longer tolerate services in which music is not the chief attraction. Preaching, we
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maintain, must be one of the chief instruments in producing spiritual worship of God."
The thought occurred to the interviewer how difficult it must be for Mr Webb-Peploe, amid all the demands of his busy life, to find time for anything in the nature of social life. So a question was ventured. The answer will astonish many, since it reveals an entire devotion to duty.
" Let me tell you, in the first place, that I have only attempted to sit in my drawing-room three or four evenings during the whole twenty-five years I have been in West London, and on two of those evenings I was called away. The fact is, I enjoy a busy life. I do not go in for the social side. I recognise that I may be losing influence with the richer people owing to the fact that I do not go into Society more ; but I prefer to spend the time which might be spent in Society, in visits to the young people at large business establishments like Peter Robinson s, Maple s, Shoolbred s and others, where, with the sanction of the employers, we read and pray together. It is a great question, I know and I say it after all my experience in the West End for a clergyman to decide whether he will give himself to social life for so many nights in every week, and thus try and influence people at dinners and social parties, or whether he will give himself entirely to preaching and meetings, which may be arranged every night if he has any gift of speech at all, and I dare not give a decision. It
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may be that I do wrong ; but I think each clergy man must decide for himself. I may be told that I have lost touch with the rich because I may have neglected their social life ; but, on the whole, my belief is, that a man s power will lie in a con secrated life, and the devotion of himself entirely to the best interests of his people, and to the preaching faithfully of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Party differences would then be much less accentuated. A leading member of the Episcopate once told me that he went twice a week into Society, and he used this expression, Do you know, Mr Peploe, it costs me more to prepare for a dinner-party than it does to prepare for a sermon in my church.
"As a Churchman with broad views, will you explain how far you think it is possible for Church men to associate with Nonconformists."
"Well, I think it is possible to associate with them in everything except Church organisation. I should say, Co-operate with them in everything where it is possible whether for religious, philan thropic or social purposes. Although we may not, according to law, invite Nonconformist ministers to preach or take part in our Church services, I say let us use every possible method for united worship such as at the Keswick and other conventions, where we meet without the question ever arising as to the denomination to which a man belongs. The tent at Keswick, you know, is fronted with a
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arge placard, upon which are inscribed the words, All one in Jesus Christ. And this we find to be perfectly true of those who love the Lord truly. I hope Churchmen and Nonconformists will be more and more drawn together. I see no chance of union with Rome, and I see small chance of union with dissenters, simply because they cannot accept our Church government, and I do not quite know what one method can be propounded that would meet the desires and claims of two separate bodies, but if any method could be found I should hail it with joy and delight."