Physician of Souls: the hidden ministry of Reginald Somerset Ward
No.5 Wolseley Road, Farncombe, is a large, unremarkable-looking red-brick house built in the late 1800s. Today it’s a single private residence, rather unusually for a building of its size in that location. There is nothing about it to suggest that, for more than forty years, it housed one of the most notable spiritual works in the twentieth-century Church of England. And that was what the man at the centre of that work preferred.
1. A Serious Call
The Revd Richard Ward, a reserved – some might say hypersensitive – Irishman of Evangelical outlook, and his wife Edith, had been living in Newcastle-under-Lyme for six years when their son Reginald was born on January 28th, 1881. Richard had been Vicar of St George’s Church in the Pottery town during that time and would remain there until his death, aged only 62, in 1895. There would eventually be four children in the family. Richard and Edith were both convinced Protestant Christians, essentially warm-hearted and intelligent people who inherited a form of piety which tended to constrain delight in the ordinary things of human life. Reginald’s spiritual counsel would continually try to balance a strict approach to the soul and its troubles with an open and understanding assessment of what human beings needed to live.
Reginald was never a hearty child, and to physical infirmities were added psychological ones, including a tendency to claustrophobic panics which began after a hayrick fell on him when he was playing alone in a barn at the age of six; these attacks carried on to the end of his life despite him knowing what had produced them. The following year, his first at Newcastle High School, Reginald was beaten by the headmaster for obtaining sweets on credit from local shops, completely ignorant of how credit was supposed to work. This incident gave him another neurosis, the morbid fear of doing wrong without knowing it. Again, the digging-out of fear would play a large part in Reginald’s spiritual work.
In 1895, when he was 14, Reginald was sent to Marlborough School where, having been forced by his prefect to wade through freezing water from burst pipes, he contracted rheumatic fever. His parents took lodgings near the school to keep an eye on him, and there Richard Ward died that June. Sad though that event was, in a sense the family was liberated. Edith came into her own, and took her children to Cheltenham, where she had met Richard while he was a curate. She enrolled Reginald in Cheltenham College where he was fairly content apart from hating games. After two years the family doctors advised a visit to Switzerland where the Wards eventually stayed until 1900, and Reginald found the country free and full of interesting people. He was a churchwarden, and voluntary Librarian of the English Library at St John’s Church, Territet.
That coming-out of himself carried on when Reginald began a mathematics degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge, a subject he abandoned after a year in favour of history. Like other shy youngsters, he found friends in the wider society of university and began to flourish. Before he’d taken his degree, he went on a holiday back to Switzerland in 1902, and met an American girl, Charlotte Kissam – and proposed to her within ten days of meeting! The proposal took place ‘under a wayside Calvary’ at a local beauty spot which suited Reginald’s sense of piety even if it was a dramatic way of doing it. In any case, Charlotte accepted him, though there was no question of them being married yet, when he was no more than 21 and had no job.
Engagement seemed to give Reginald a new sense of security and courage. Certainly his next step was a bold one: not to study at a theological college, but instead to spend a year at the Pembroke College Mission in the slum district of Walworth. He disguised himself as a tramp and wandered the capital’s streets at night to see what happened to the homeless poor, eating at Salvation Army kitchens and being taught how to pilfer watches (not a talent he ever seems to have made use of).
RSW was ordained deacon in September 1904 and served his title at Emmanuel Church, Camberwell, built in 1841 to replace the fire-gutted St Giles’s, and serving a large, working-class parish in Walworth (the church was closed in 1963). Of course he was still only 23, and young curates in those days were expected to put up with Spartan conditions. His first lodging was two rooms built against the railway arch, though this was later expanded to three rooms elsewhere ‘to secure adequate sleep and improve his sermons’, as he later recalled. RSW was largely responsible for running a small mission chapel on the Camberwell Road, and found the area rough but the work rewarding, especially dealing with children, which would have an impact on his future ministry.
In 1906 RSW and Charlotte married in the US, and on returning he moved jobs to St Clement’s, Barnsbury, a church founded in 1862 to stand out from the generally Evangelical flavour of Islington Anglicanism (and another London church closed in later years). RSW’s vicar had been the senior curate at Emmanuel, but the two were to part company as the older clergyman began to be drawn further in an Anglo-Catholic direction than his younger colleague felt comfortable with. RSW complained that his vicar was ‘wasting his great powers in defending trifles of no worth to any but petty minds, instead of the broad fundamental truths’ of the Christian faith. He had never felt comfortable with institutions of any kind, including ecclesiastical ones, and yet again, his experience was teaching him by contrast. Obsession with rules and structures would be one of his bugbears ever after:
The soul madly seeks to stop the imaginary dangers of the mind by increasing the futile barricades of numberless rules. Before long the multi-plication of rules leads to the inevitable destruction of the power of rule.
It is as well to have a rule of prayer, a rule of rest and a rule of fasting and to keep them very strictly, and to these you should add another rule – to have no more rules.
RSW strongly denied being ‘High Church’, seeing himself in the broad middle of the Church of England. Nevertheless, he began to feel that God was intensely present in his prayers and in the sacraments of the Church, and was surprised to find the same experiences recorded in the writings of the medieval mystics. Slowly he began to feel his way through the stages of the spiritual life, a process helped by discovering sacramental confession.
In 1908 RSW he decided to resign his curacy, the first time, but not the last, that Charlotte Ward had to exercise a similar faith to her husband as he took a step that would leave them both without an obvious future. He then caught the wrong bus on his way somewhere and decided on a whim to visit Hume Campbell, Secretary of the Church of England Sunday School Institute. Mr Campbell told him he was leaving his position and asked RSW to apply for it, and he began work in January 1909. This was the job that opened up the beginning of his life’s work for God.
2. The Path to the Road
In the Edwardian Church of England, Sunday School provision was very far from haphazard and makeshift. It was treated as a vital element of education generally. It was not so very long since the Church had been directly running schools, and the Sunday School Institute was responsible for strengthening the system. RSW travelled all across the country taking part in training conferences for Sunday School teachers which were serious and rigorous; in his papers, for instance, is a schedule for such a conference in the Rural Deanery of Worthing in 1913 which took up four entire days, examining the spiritual development of children, organisation of lessons, and school equipment with the detail one would expect in everyday schooling at the time, if not more. RSW estimated that he was travelling up to 20,000 miles a year at this time.
All this while he was experiencing a strange deepening of mystical prayer which he came to think of in terms of a journey towards knowing God in a very real and direct way, and which he called ‘The Road to the mystical city of Jerusalem’. When his association of spiritual seekers was established in later years, members would, as the director saw fit, receive a copy of his book with this title, originally written in 1912, and which contained the basic ideas which RSW would emphasise throughout the rest of his ministry. They included the concept of the soul reaching, on its journey, three crosses on a hill, which would represent the ‘crucifixions’ of the senses, the will and eventually the soul itself, experiences everyone had to undergo in order to make progress on the Road. The vestments later made at Chiddingfold and used at the chapel in Ravenscroft bore embroidered motifs of three crosses on a hill, and a city gate revealing the sun, symbolising these core ideas. The phrase ‘the sacrifice of All to ALL’ occurs too, meaning that we must be prepared to surrender all we have in this earthly life, and all our experiences, in order to receive back the whole of the true life that matters and is meaningful, the life lived with and in God. Travellers on ‘The Road’ also tended to use RSW’s terminology of the ‘hidden sanctuary’, a particular, powerful and unmistakable sense of being in the presence of God and to which he referred to repeatedly in his own private writings: ‘He drew me into the Hidden Sanctuary as I was travelling in an underground train’, he wrote on January 11th 1913, possibly not aware of the comic impression of his words! In later years he stated:
The prayer of the Hidden Sanctuary is that state within ourselves wherein we become conscious of the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus … It is only reached by some. The reasons for this sad fact are to be found in the presence of self-love, which concentrates the attention and desire of the soul without rather than within, and in the absence of penitent and persevering attempts to find this state due to lack of desire and contentment with a low degree of reality … [but] it is more to the advancement of the soul to be patient, and full of rest, than to fret because it does not seem to advance fast, or has not made so much progress as other souls.
Part of RSW’s insistence on secrecy as regards his spiritual work was to avoid the temptation of spiritual pride and competition, a temptation he clearly greatly feared in himself.
From 1910 RSW was assisted in his work at the Sunday School Institute by Phyllis Dent. Miss Dent was clearly a remarkable woman in her own right, writing together with RSW The Church’s Garden of Children and a series of books on the spirituality of children and guidance for teachers, alone and with others, until her death in 1944. She and RSW saw things in a similar way and encouraged one another in the spiritual life. On the 8th of March, 1911, Miss Dent was admitted as the first member of The Road. In June that year, RSW seems to have devised for her a remarkable ritual to mark her ‘spiritual betrothal’ to Christ, which took place in the church of St Mark, Newport, and was made with vows and a ring. She would renew her vows at various times in later years, a strikingly medieval form of devotion which matched RSW’s interest in the mysticism of the Middle Ages: in 1915 he had printed his own version of a devotional poem, A Talkyng of the Love of God, by one of the circle of the 14th-century mystic Richard Rolle, for the use of members of The Road.
In those first months after the ‘admission’ of Phyllis Dent, and while he remained working for the Sunday School Institute, RSW underwent a number of strange experiences which began with his hunt for somebody to oversee his own spiritual development. He became convinced that he should treat Jesus himself as his spiritual director:
30th September 1911 – On this day, I was led to call the Beloved to be my Director, since he had not provided me with a mystic Director … That same day I received bodily penance, which was also required a week later on account of me breaking The Rules …
15th & 16th November 1911 – [At All Saints’, St Leonards] my face was lifted up and the Beloved leant down and touched my lips with his …
Finally he took the step to tell his confessor, Fr Vaughan, about his decision, admitting he was ‘in great terror at the change’, and the priest having concurred, made his confession to Jesus for the first time at his old church, Emmanuel Camberwell, in January 1912, ‘not at the altar rail but crouching in a corner’. Two years later he felt the decision was dramatically confirmed when, kneeling at the altar rail in Chiddingfold church. He fell to wondering how he could be sure that God was there, ‘not generally but immediately and locally’ to hear his confession. ‘At one minute before three o’clock the great door of the church, which had been shut during the half-hour I had been in church, suddenly began to open. The click turned my eyes to it. I saw it open slowly, and it opened slowly all the way right back and hit clearly against the doorpost; there was no quickness nor violence … It is terrible when spiritual things enter the material world visibly.’
It was over the winter of 1911-12 that RSW underwent the third crucifixion, the ‘crucifixion of the soul’ in which the sense of God vanishes and prayer becomes empty and dark. He knew that this was necessary yet found it painful, as all do who experience it. ‘I long for it and am shaken at the thought’, he wrote in May 1912.
These were all indicators that the Lord was leading him in a new direction. The Road had already been established and as well as Phyllis Dent RSW now had other souls to guide. Many of these came to him as a result of conversations with the Sunday School teachers he was meeting. Increasingly convinced that this was the work he was called to do, he decided to resign his position with the Sunday School Institute. This was another act of faith for both he and Charlotte, especially as they now had a daughter, Julian, to think of. However, a letter arrived from the Lord Chancellor offering him the incumbency of Chiddingfold, south of Godalming. In Holy Week 1913, RSW was preaching at Ripon Cathedral , one of his final commitments as Sunday School Institute secretary, and days later the Wards arrived in Chiddingfold.
A small Surrey village apparently offered RSW more time for his spiritual work. However, the living of the parish was only worth £450 a year, raised from tithes, of which £150 went as a pension to the previous rector (which was the custom in the Church of England until well into the 1960s). £60 had to spent on drains for the rectory, and the first payment to the new rector was £6, six months after he arrived. RSW was a zealous incumbent, establishing daily communion (which he felt was essential to his own spiritual life, let alone that of his parish), reforming the Sunday School and setting up two missions, but the First World War had a profound unsettling effect. RSW was a pacifist – Bishop Morgan says of him, ‘having seen the flashing splendour of Incarnate Truth he could not compromise with evil’, and he saw any advocacy of killing in exactly that light. In later years he would ascribe many malign spiritual elements in the life of the nation to that terrible conflict. He managed to alienate rich and poor alike, rebuking his bellringers for bringing beer into the belfry and his gentry ladies for hoarding food.
Some of RSW’s parishioners must have sympathised with his aims, however. The house called Sandalphon, named after the archangel who, in Jewish folklore, receives the prayers of human beings and offers them to God, became in 1917 the ‘House of Prayer’, offering a home to those who wanted to spend their time in prayer while not living as a community as such. The house maintained a connection with RSW; Geraldine Midgley, who lived there until 1943, was a talented embroiderer and probably made the vestments used in the chapel at Ravenscroft. The owner, Helena Isabella Cooke, died in 1954 and is on the memorial roll of the Guild of All Souls; Sandalphon is now known as Chantry House.
Early in 1915, RSW received a strong impression while praying that he should give himself up completely to the work of spiritual direction. Although he was never comfortable with church authority, he nevertheless took obedience seriously and sought the advice of Edward Talbot, Bishop of Winchester and therefore his diocesan. Bishop Talbot thought his impression represented a genuine spiritual call and as a result, for the third time, RSW prepared to resign his position with no clear idea of what would happen next. His family now included two children, son Adrian having been born in 1913. His final sermon at Chiddingfold was on a text from Genesis 12, ‘get thee out of thy country’. Within days a parishioner approached him with the news that ‘certain persons’ were prepared to provide him with a stipend to support his work; these gracious souls, in the shape of the ‘Ward Trust’, would remain in the background of RSW’s ministry for the rest of his life. The benefactors took out a tenancy on a house in Farncombe which RSW named ‘Ravenscroft’ in reference to the ravens that, in the Book of Kings, fed Elijah in the desert. By summer 1915 it had begun its work as an unlikely centre of spiritual influence that would touch the whole Anglican Church. RSW was now unencumbered and free to pursue his life’s vocation.
3. The Road
Bishop Talbot was fully in support of RSW’s work and came to Ravenscroft to consecrate the newly-fitted chapel on the top floor, before handing supervision to his suffragan, Bishop Randolph of Guildford. The chapel’s east end was decorated with carved panels depicting some of the great saints of the mystical tradition who were so important to RSW – Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; who made these images is not known. The chapel is now, rather appropriately, a playroom. A potential upheaval was avoided in 1922 when the house was sold and the Wards were prepared to leave, but the new owner – Deaconess Edith Banks, one of the founders of the Ward Trust – was, RSW wrote, happy to renew the tenancy: ‘it is a good object lesson to show me the smallness of my faith’, he decided.
A pattern was now set which RSW would follow for many years to come. For thirteen weeks of the year, at first, he would travel the country by train from city to city, sleeping in hotels and using various churches as his base wherever he went. Wherever he was, his clients and penitents would come to him, to talk, receive spiritual advice, and make a confession. Eventually he was supervising directly more than 200 souls ‘on The Road’, an unknown number of other directees, especially clergy, as well as all the many others who were drawn strangely to pour out their troubles to him in casual encounters which sometimes led into deeper spiritual waters. When not travelling, RSW carried on his spiritual direction work from Ravenscroft by correspondence, especially with his directees who were based overseas. Many of these were early members of The Road.
We say ‘members’: RSW was always insistent that The Road was ‘not a society, not an order, but a method of training in mystical prayer’, so perhaps that is not the right word. Nevertheless with his usual meticulous record-keeping he listed all the people who were engaged in the journey. Just as Phyllis Dent was the very first of these, so through the years the majority would be female, including many abroad on missionary work and members of the Deaconess Order. Even so, individual correspondence was sometimes impossible to keep up with, and RSW’s circular letters were intended to fill the gap.
There was clearly a hunger for the sort of spiritual guidance RSW was offering and his list of directees continued to grow. His health was never strong and in 1918 he suffered a breakdown; thereafter he took greater care to guard against overwork and always warned his priest directees to do the same. On the advice of his doctors he restrained his home working hours to 10-1.15 and 5-6.30, not counting his two daily hours of prayer, and Bishop Randolph insisted he only take on the care of new souls when vacancies occurred in his list.
Two years later a great step in the organisation of the work took place. The priest members of The Road became concerned at RSW’s workload and at the end of July 1920 he presided over a four-day conference at Ravenscroft with the aim of relieving him of some of the burden. It was not a step he took lightly. He wrote:
I could not find words to express to you my consciousness of my own inadequacy for the work I have to do during that week. It is only because I believe that the tremendous power of your prayers will uphold me, and be a means of grace for me, that I am able to face it and try to prepare for it.
The Conference decided that The Road should be organised in national Groups, each under the supervision of a Bishop – Randolph of Guildford for Britain, and Phelps of Grahamstown for South Africa. The Rule of Life for Road members was to include two hours of prayer each day, which could include the Eucharist but not the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. A soul was to be admitted to The Road by undertaking the ‘Act of Decision’:
I do voluntarily and of my own free will choose to follow this Road to God.
I am prepared to give up all that I possess, all that I hope for, and all that I desire in order to come to God.
I am prepared to undergo suffering, humiliation, mortification, and the crucifixion of the soul.
I accept the Test of the Road by giving my obedience to my Director on the Road, subject to the four safeguards.
(Those safeguards were that the directee could withdraw at any time and for no stated reason; that any commands made by a Director that were patently unChristian were null; that any vows made before embarking on The Road were untouched by commitment to it; and that a directee could demand a reason for any instruction their Director gave).
In the later part of that year RSW’s friend and secretary Edith Harrison was established at Roadside Cottage in Llanaway Road so that visitors coming for spiritual help would stay there rather than at Ravenscroft which was proving too much of a burden for the Wards. Over the years a succession of devoted secretaries acted in the same role – Rhoda Bethell, a Miss Ashton, Thea Reade (an ex-missionary) and Mary Nalder (a former headmistress of Louth).
RSW did not scorn Farncombe’s parish church of St John. In 1923, for instance, when Rector Frank Pickford was away over the summer and then the parish was without a curate for some time, he preached a total of seven times and presided at the Eucharist six times, including the two earlier services on Christmas Day at 7 and 8am. That Christmas Day RSW also assisted at the 11.30am Choral Eucharist and led a children’s service at ten to three in the afternoon. The following year saw him at St John’s much less frequently, and eventually a pattern developed of him taking the 7am communion service at the church on each of Easter Day and Christmas Day, and then filling in on other occasions as he might be asked. By the time of the War, celebrating at 7am on the great feast days was clearly becoming a bit demanding and he offered the eucharist at 8 instead. Meanwhile he was still celebrating a daily Mass at the little chapel of the Holy Ghost at Ravenscroft; on Whitsunday 1922, RSW wrote in a circular letter, ‘the chapel overflowed and we were hard put to find seats’. RSW had told the Road Conference in 1920:
The gates twixt heaven and earth are flung open in the Bread and Wine at Consecration, and through them pours out the Life of Christ in a flood which overflows the souls of all faithful worshippers. In the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, the doorway is opened in each communicant, and the Life fills the soul.
Some of RSW’s work took him, not always comfortably, into the institutional life of the Church. Thanks to his time at the Sunday School Institute he had an experience of working with women which was unusual for a clergyman of his day, and became heavily involved with the Deaconess Order. Apart from becoming a religious, commissioning as a deaconess was the only way a woman could have an institutionally-recognised status in the Anglican Church; it was not very clear what deaconesses were for, but the title could give an energetic and strong-minded woman a quasi-clerical status which was especially useful in overseas missions. In 1923 Bishop Talbot appointed RSW as Warden of the St Andrew’s Deaconess House in Portsmouth, and, together with a group of deaconesses he gathered to act as a focus of prayer, he determined to found a Central House for the Order of Deaconesses. In two years the sum of £10,000 was raised and the house was opened at Hindhead in 1926; RSW served as its Chaplain until 1930 and remained as Warden of St Andrew’s until 1937. In 1924 he proposed a course of final training for deaconesses before their commissioning, involving four weeks of prayer and study and a week’s retreat.
In the mid-1930s, RSW ‘became acutely impressed by the needs and deficiencies of the young clergy he met in his work’ and felt that ‘all which could be accomplished by committees, conferences and organisation was being tried, but that they failed to touch the deeper spiritual levels of the problem’. He discussed this with Arthur Langford Jones (‘a very saintly priest’) and with Leslie Owen, then Principal of Lincoln Theological College and later bishop of Lincoln. This resulted in the establishment of a ‘cell’ to pray about and discuss the problems faced by young priests and what could be done to help them. The first meeting was in September 1937 at Ravenscroft, the other members being Lumsden Barkway, Bishop of Bedford; Edmund Morgan, vicar of Old Alresford and later Bishop of Truro; and John Champaign, Provost of Newcastle and later Bishop of Knaresborough. The members all agreed to pray for each other daily. In 1942 the Cell’s record noted:
The young priest must recognise the necessity of being himself the battleground where the controversy goes on between God and Man … he is himself, consciously or unconsciously, on the side of the enemy … The primary necessity is to confront the young priest with his own danger.
-which is pure RSW. This kind of arrangement was much more to his liking than formal committees; subsidiary ‘cells’ were later set up but again too much organisation was resisted. The ideas of the Cell fed slowly into the Church’s approach to training priests and supporting the recently-ordained, and in 1947 Eric Abbott, Dean of King’s College, London, one of RSW’s directees who became Dean of Westminster Abbey, joined the group. In 1956 its gatherings moved away from Ravenscroft to Keble College, Oxford, though the ‘First Cell’ carried on meeting until the 1990s.
RSW claimed that during his work for the Southern Province of the Deaconess Order he sometimes fought unsuccessfully against ‘the continual temptation to intrigue and domination’. He ventured out of his usual literary anonymity to write a psychological biography of French Revolutionary leader Robespierre (writing, very remarkably, ‘The French Revolution was a real stirring after a glimpse of something divine. If the world knew more of worship, it would seek in prayer for the purification of such movements, an opportunity of forwarding the perfect plan of God’), and tried penning a novel arising out of his studies into the history of that strange Victorian sect, the Catholic Apostolic Church; but apart from these diversions he became more and more convinced that his vocation lay in withdrawal into his spiritual work, and gradually he surrendered such public commitments as he had. The correspondence, travel, direction and advising, however, continued unabated.
Much of RSW’s teaching not done face to face or via individual correspondence was contained in the monthly Instructions he issued to the people he saw as Director, and which were gathered together, edited, and anonymously published in his books, The Way, Following The Way, and To Jerusalem.
God is very simple and the way is simple; the trouble is that it takes us so long to learn to be simple.
But, as his directees discovered as they advanced on their own journeys, the work could not be done by reading or even worship on its own; it required constant work and the details were different for everyone.
RSW’s emphasis on effort, discipline and sacrifice creates the impression of someone stern. He could certainly be comically serious-minded – it was characteristic that he once devised a game whose aim was to shoot down the Seven Deadly Sins with a pop-gun – and without his influence, through the 1960s, the Cell became more jocular and light-hearted, with its members able to come and go rather than stay for the duration of its meetings. In 1922 he was invited to a Church meeting to discuss the remarriage of divorcees in church and the admission of divorcees to communion, changes to which he was strongly opposed. Sympathetic as ever to the feelings of the people he met, he nevertheless felt that to break a vow, no matter who if anyone was to blame, could not be treated as a matter of no importance:
I had not found that God’s love was marked by the removal of all penalties for my actions.
As a spiritual director, RSW could be, Edmund Morgan wrote, ‘a beloved tyrant’ while another directee wrote that ‘a meeting with RSW was like a meeting with God’ which could be intimate or disconcerting depending on circumstances. Evelyn Underhill, looking for a new director, found him ‘the most remarkable soul-specialist I’ve ever met since the Baron [von Hugel]’. ‘For some penitents he was too severe and too dogmatic’, said Norman Goodacre, who inherited much of the work – yet he also reported waiting to see RSW and make his confession and hearing ‘peals of laughter’ coming from the priest and the previous penitent. For many, their view of RSW is shaped by the picture on the cover of his memoir by Edmund Morgan, where he indeed looks appraising, critical, even grumpy. Yet that photograph was one of a number taken in 1960 when his daughter Julian came back from Australia to visit, and in the archives at Lambeth Palace is one of the others – which shows him smiling and looking like a different person.
Dullness ill becomes one who is even a distant follower of the sane, humorous and sociable mysticism of those holy English followers of The Road who have gone before us.
So often our faults are brought to our notice, not by stern warnings, but by a divine smile … it is the humour of God which enables us to understand how infinite mercy and infinite justice can be combined in one.
I always wish that in the Gospels we had more detailed accounts of Our Lord’s holidays. It is certain as a matter of principle that He took holidays. I am sure that they must have been full of joy and unselfishness; but the details would have been a great help.
It was not just RSW’s awareness of his own sins and temptations that helped to keep him humble, but also the knowledge that he could not help everyone:
I know no soul who makes real progress on the Road who does not have to learn to trust the sorrows of others to God and to bear the suffering of human love.
Just after World War Two, when RSW was in his mid-60s, his work reached a peak. In 1947 his tours took him, in addition to London, to Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Carnforth, Birmingham, Derby, Bristol, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Winchester – each twice over the year. ‘The doctor is the ordinary instrument of God for the welfare of our bodies’, he wrote, and his own health varied considerably. In 1926 he had all his teeth removed (not an uncommon operation in those days), and two years later underwent surgery for appendicitis and pleurisy. He wrote a great deal about the spiritual significance of illness and age. Despite warnings to slow down, however, he found it difficult to curtail his ordinary work unless actually laid low by illness. In Holy Week 1933 he saw 75 people at Ravenscroft despite, he said, being aware of the need to rest. In 1949, aged 68, RSW suffered a heart attack. He had, he wrote, always said to God that at a clear signal he would cut down on his work: ‘I have now received such a signal and I must obey it’. Consequently the tours were ended, apart from trips to London and Winchester, and some of the directees were transferred to Norman Goodacre, who RSW had come to trust. Fr Goodacre was vicar of Thornbury and then Coniston Cold in Yorkshire and had already taken on 40 souls in 1945; now more of the work of The Road fell to him.
The Ward Trust had supported RSW and his family since 1915; now, as his life entered a new phase, an annuity of £200 per annum was found for him. This gift, beginning in 1951, provoked an introspective mood:
With the perspective that comes with old age, I am enabled to see how much my faults and failings have done to hinder God’s use of me. Nevertheless … it fills me with wonder at the love and mercy of God, and with gratitude to those who have been the agents and tools of his goodness.
In 1953, Charlotte Ward died; her funeral took place at St John’s Church. RSW left his friends in no doubt of his wife’s vital contribution to his work: ‘Without her freely given cooperation,’ he wrote in a circular letter, ‘my vocation could never have been carried out. I would ask you to give thanks to God for his great mercy in giving me such a wife’. RSW was now alone, apart from his secretaries, his supportive network of friends, and his son Adrian, who had become vicar of Blackmore in Hampshire.
The work continued: even in 1959 RSW spent 34 days in London and four in Winchester seeing his clients. However his health was now declining and from the middle of 1961 he was seriously ill; most of the work had already passed to Norman Goodacre who now had in excess of 500 directees, had given up his parish and was being supported financially in his own right. By the turn of the year, Adrian Somerset Ward reported of his father, ‘his mind now works very slowly’ and by May he was finding it hard to speak. However the Trust made sure RSW and his family were not left to worry however hard the situation was. After his father’s death, Adrian wrote to their friends:
Not only were material anxieties removed, but there was at all times the consciousness of a great supporting body of prayer and friendship which upheld all at Ravenscroft and in the Cottage through long months of strain and difficulty.
At this point the ecclesiastical powers remembered the great director. RSW had been honorary chaplain to Archbishop William Temple during the War; now another Archbishop – and very probably one of his directees at one stage – Michael Ramsey, determined to recognise his work with the grant of a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. RSW was unable to travel and so the Archbishop made the journey to Farncombe to award the degree in person.
On the 9th of July, 1962, Fr Reginald Somerset Ward passed out of this world of shadows into that Nearer Presence of Jesus unmediated by sacraments and signs. His funeral took place at St John’s, and was attended not just by the Rector of Farncombe, Canon Allingham, but by no fewer than four bishops – Reindorp of Guildford, Morgan of Truro, Gresford Jones of St Albans, and AO Hanley, lately a bishop in India. On October 8th there was a Requiem Mass sung for him at Westminster Abbey according to the Sarum pattern, with the clergy vested in black and gold and Archbishop Ramsey in attendance. There was ‘such a scene of greetings, handshakings and embraces that a stranger might have imagined they had been attending a wedding! And he whom we had come to honour would have understood, and rejoiced to have it so.’ Dean Eric Abbott summarised his old director’s ministry in these words:
We thank God openly for a priest whose ministry was hidden; for the special grace that was his as a director of souls; for the costly, patient obedience that he rendered to his God-given vocation through the years.
For the active trust in God which he taught, to cast out fear; for the way in prayer which he helped us to follow; for the atoning love and power of Christ which he helped us to receive in the ministry of absolution.
For his deep and passionate love for the Church of England; for a cure of souls that was charismatic, and because charismatic was wise with the wisdom of God, discerning with the piercing of the Spirit’s sword, stern with the divine judgement, and compassionate with the Redeemer’s mercy.
RSW’s body was cremated and his remains buried in the plot of Chiddingfold churchyard devoted to former Rectors, in time marked with a small and simple stone; ‘Priest, Physician of Souls’, it names him.
This piece is written by James Rattue, Rector of St John’s Parish Church, Farncombe, Surrey. If anyone would like a copy of the text in booklet form, please contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links to other writing about RSW: