The Anglican Poetry of S.J. Forrest


By Richard J. Mammana

For almost three decades in the middle of the 20th century, the Rev. Stanley John Forrest (1904-77) produced a stream of 15 slight volumes packed full of Anglican light verse. They began as paperback booklets issued by the quixotic Coelian Press of the Rev. Herbert Hamilton Maughan, an extreme Anglo-Catholic priest in the unsympathetic Church of Ireland. The early compilations are rare today, and Forrest’s work has never been anthologized. (A commentator noted in 1955 that “those pamphlets … must by now be collector’s rarities.) The collections of mirthful poetry became 60-page hardbacks, illustrated by the poet’s brother, the Rev. Edward W. (Ted) Forrest, and published by commercial presses with a wide transatlantic circulation. A handful of the poems remain in semi-popular awareness, but the majority have faded into an early obscurity.

Forrest was born in Manchester and imbibed an early Anglo-Catholic ethos by attending the now-defunct St. Gabriel’s Church, Hulme, where his father was sacristan. After studies at the University of Leeds, he trained for ordination at the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1929. Forrest served parishes in the dioceses of Manchester, Peterborough, and St. Albans, with notable tenures at All Saints, Leighton Buzzard, and St. John’s Church, Watford. As a priest, he married and had two children. His final cure was his work as chaplain to the Sisters of Bethany in Bournemouth from 1961.

His first ventures in poetry as a mode of comment on church life appeared in the columns of The Church Times (London), and the forgotten extremist periodicals The Dome, Our Lady’s Mirror, and The Fiery Cross, all voices of the Anglo-Catholic Congress movement in the Church of England. The Second Vatican Council looms large in the background of Forrest’s later work, with an attitude of bemused insecurity about ecclesiology rooted in the culture of the Branch Theory.

The churchmanship of Forrest’s poems is high, self-amused, and self-reflective, like E.L. Mascall’s contemporary collection Pi in the High (1959). The subjects of the poems vary from the effects of modern trends in liturgy, music, and church life to ecumenism, new roles for women in the church, the advent of television in English homes, popular preaching styles, the observance or passing of old customs, men and women religious, churchly personalities and dress, and ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

Forrest wrote little about his work, except in occasional forewords where he commented that “So long as the members of our dear Church of England continue to say and do funny things, we shall be inexorably urged to comment upon them in our vilest verse.” He laments, in 1959, that “it is very difficult to convince our fellow countrymen that gaiety is of the essence of genuine Christianity. If this little book of verse from the vestry can help people to appreciate this truth it will not have been compiled in vain.” But he was not concerned only with diversion and amusement. He moves away from humor into true pastoral piety in his only longer-form work, A Town Parson’s Day (1960), a gentle 16-page poem that begins:

A quaint conception of the way
In which a parson spends his day,
Is entertained on every hand
By those who do not understand;
Who wonder, sometimes comment too,
“Whatever can he find to do,
This lucky man whose work unique
Is only needed once a week!”
We know he gets his little pay,
But does he earn it, anyway?”

A major promoter of Forrest’s work was Sir John Betjeman (1906-84), a broadcaster, architectural conservationist, devout Anglican, and poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death. In a 1960 foreword to What’s the Use? (along with 1959’s Chapter and Verse the most popular in American clerical libraries of its time), Betjeman writes that “One of the joys of belonging to the warm-hearted Church of England … is the jokes about ourselves.” “If we can laugh about ourselves we can love one another, and these family jokes printed here, though they may sometimes prick, will surely never wound.”

Bibliography of S.J. Forrest

  • The Church in Reconstruction (1945)
  • Anglican Noah’s Ark (1947)
  • Buzzards at Play (1947)
  • Parish Fashions (1949)
  • What the Vicar Likes (1952)
  • Time for a Rhyme (1954)
  • What’s the Use? (1955)
  • Chapter and Verse (1959)
  • A Town Parson’s Day (1960)
  • Orders in Orbit (1962)
  • Our Man at Saint Withit’s (1964)
  • Verse from the Vestry (1966)
  • Parson’s Play-pen (1968)
  • Saints and Sinods (1971)
  • The Church Bizarre: Light Verse for Heavy Weather (1973)

Soft Shrift (1949)

I love a gentle eiderdown,
I am its proud possessor.
It is my very dearest friend,
And favourite confessor.

For, when I tell it all my sin,
It seeks no retribution;
But lulls me in its silken folds
With downy absolution.

I know deluded Catholics,
By sinister persuasion,
Are forced to give themselves away
To priests, without evasion.

I know neurotic server-boys,
And women with obsession,
Are lured by curates to commit
Auricular confession.

Yet, sins by which the Romanists,
And foreigners are smitten,
Are hardly likely to infect
The sturdy sons of Britain.

For, though we English have our faults,
Of which we do not chatter;
We seldom find the conscience bowed
By any weighty matter.

Although in church at Morning Prayer,
Of erring sheep the tale is;
Such florid Stuart rhetoric
We take cum grano salis.

To own my failings to a priest,
I dread beyond all measure;
But tell them to my eiderdown
And find it quite a pleasure.

This gospel of the Kindly Quilt,
Is worthy of all spreading.
Let Church of England saints exult,
Rejoicing in their bedding!

Surgery Liturgical (1957)

How lucky that it is the Pope
Who has curtailed our yearly scope,
By ordering the S.C.R.
To simplify the calendar.
For, had these changes come to be
By Anglican authority
What cries of agonized dismay
And threatenings to disobey!
How many would have disagreed
If Convocation had decreed
To drop each semi-double feast
That ferias might be increased;
Or else a finger dared to lay
On Corpus Christi octave-day.
Had English Bishops, in the past,
Reduced the eucharistic fast,
Or dared such violence to wreak
On services in Holy Week.
How surely this would seem to be
Some protestant conspiracy.
How many Anglicans would say:
“The Church of England’s had its day;
This really is the final straw,
It’s evident we must withdraw,
And seek, beneath St. Peter’s done,
The changeless liturgies of Rome.”

How lucky that it is the Pope
Who thus curtailed our yearly scope.

Beware of the Dogma (1949)

He preached about the Trinity and how the world began;
Explained the Incarnation and the destiny of man.
He carefully expounded every detail of the creeds,
And tried to show their relevance to modern human needs;
He brilliantly upheld the Christian heritage of truth,
And sought to make it lucid and acceptable to youth.
They listened with correctitude, but everybody said,
“He’s far too theological, and quite above our head.”

He gave an exposition of the Church’s means of grace,
Revealing how the Sacraments revive a fallen race;
Of self-examination and the ways of mental prayer,
And why we need Communion, and how, and when, and where.
He spoke of Bible-reading, and to make it all complete,
Gave practical instruction on the value of retreat.
And everyone agreed that it was logical enough,
But only suitable for those who like that kind of stuff.

He chose the Ten Commandments as the basis of a course,
He amplified their meaning and emphasized their force;
He took the eight Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount,
And spoke of Christian stewardship and rendering account.
He did his best to penetrate beneath their toughened skins
With pointed expositions of the Seven Deadly Sins.
They felt a little slighted to be led across this ground,
For morals in suburbia are basically sound.

One day, in disillusionment, believing no one cared,
He flung at them a homily completely unprepared,
Endeavouring his customary quarter-hour to fill,
With sentimental platitudes that meant precisely NIL;
Returning to the vestry in the grip of horrid fears
That people would consider it insulting to their ears.
But no, they were enraptured and devoured every word:
“Oh, Vicar, it was lovely! Quite the best we’ve ever heard!”

Turn Again Clergyman (1968)

“I find myself unable to worship in a church where the vicar faces the congregation across the altar—it seems to destroy all the mystery.” Complaint by suburban lady.

I may be thought peculiar
Eccentrically odd,
But, when I see the vicar’s face,
I cannot think of God.

Though some may term me heretic,
Or even silly ass,
I feel that this degrading sight
Invalidates the Mass.

I love the sense of mystery
That fills the human mind,
And thus prefer in peace to view
The vicar from behind.

The awesome clouds of Sinai
All seem to melt away,
Before his frightful countenance,
Obtruding in the way.

The worship seems to lose its point,
Tortures our thoughts askew,
By setting human features thus
In focus of our view.

The ugliest of idol forms,
From darkest heathen race,
Presents an image less debased
Than our old parson’s face.

Indeed, a student of the play,
Might pertinently ask,
If clergymen could not revive
The old dramatic mask.

A laughing face for Eastertide,
A sombre mask for Lent,
Would swiftly indicate to all,
Just what the seasons meant.

How useful if our architects
Ingeniously drew,
A special mask for Series One,
And one for Series Two!

Altarations (1971)

Although I’m Church of England,
I haven’t been of late,
Since organized religion
Is somewhat out of date;
With desiccated clergy,
And fossil-forms of prayer,
Which fail to bring conviction,
Or lead us anywhere.
I never went to worship,
Since everybody said
The Church was quite outdated,
And almost wholly dead.
’Twas plain its aged structure
Was riddled with decay,
And in an early future
Would surely pass away.

I went to Church at Christmas,
In sentimental mood,
To rouse nostalgic echoes,
On bygone days to brood;
But horror rose on horror,
And left my mind deranged,
For services had altered,
And everything was changed!
The noble rites of Cranmer,
The fine old B.C.P.,
Had now been superseded,
As far as I could see;
A crowded congregation,
Equipped with books of blue,
Were ploughing through a service,
Described as “Series Two.”

The rights of every voter
To find his Church the same,
Are cynically flouted
By such a Christmas game;
These words, so unfamiliar,
The language, stark and bare,
All blatantly unsuited
For Anglicans at prayer.
If changes thus continue,
We confidently state,
The Church of England structure
Will soon disintegrate;
As clergymen, and vandals,
Injure her soul unique,
And thus destroy for ever
A valuable antique.

Richard Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation.


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