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In a Fair Ground – Peter Howes

May 4, 2013

IAFGThis is the life story or a remarkable man who spent 45 years of his life as a missionary, colonial civil servant and bishop in Borneo.

The reason I tracked down this rare, out of print, book goes back to one of my heroes in my teenage years. My Church of England secondary school used to draft in local priests to celebrate the school eucharist and to take some RE lessons. These latter were delivered to a whole year group at a time and the discipline was usually lax and the behaviour poor. With one notable exception – Fr. Stonton. Arthur W. Stonton had been a missionary colleague with the author and he regaled us with stories which kept us on the edge of our seats. We learned about head hunters, Land Dyaks and Sea Dayaks. He told us of his experience saying Mass in a long house, built on stilts to keep from flooding. Of how dogs would disturb everybody and had to be clubbed. Of how the view from the makeshift altar was of row upon row of human skulls. These were like mantelpiece trophies. The more heads you possessed, the better hunter you were and the more senior among men. We also learnt of Stonton’s days in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

My first experience of church came from the very saintly but very evangelical clergyman who took my father’s funeral. I ended up in his church’s choir where occasional Holy Communion followed sung Morning Prayer and was celebrated in surplice, scarf and hood at the north end of the ‘communion table.’ I discovered that st p weyFr. Stonton was an assistant priest at the church in the council estate on the way out of town but was warned never to go there because ‘they worship idols’. Well, never tell a teenager not to do something. My first experience of a Solemn Mass converted me to the riches of Catholic worship. Uncertain as to how to cross myself, when to stand or kneel, such fears were swallowed up in the sheer beauty of the experience. The celebrant was Fr. Stonton, dressed in a cloth of gold, facing an altar with six tall candlesticks, with his back to us and there was incense aplenty.

I learned, much later, from a school friend, who was an altar server at that church and who is now a priest, that Fr. Stonton lived a very simple life in a bedsit. I learned, later still, from this book, that he had been, in Borneo, a skilled medical officer who extracted teeth in the absence of a dentist, was a skilled woodworker who was responsible for much building work and also a translator, as the author told me in a letter, of “Lives of the Saints (Tangga Strga), The essential Old and New Testaments (Jalai Pengidup Lama enggau Baru), Hygiene, Pilgrim’s Progress (Orang ti ngiga Penyamai), and three Readers (published by McMillans)”.

The title comes from Psalm 16:6-8: 6. The Lord himself is the portion of mine inheritance, and of my cup : thou shalt maintain my lot. The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.  I will thank the Lord… Clearly, the author has looked back at his achievements and be satisfied, but in his letter to me, he said ‘It was originally written to get the past off my chest, and not with publication in mind. However my friend Datuk Amar James Wong, on a visit to this country, picked up the manuscript and took it away with him. That is how it got into the hands of Excalibur; a somewhat disreputable outfit which went bankrupt.”

There is an interesting description of his training at Kelham. I visited the place in 1969 with a view to becoming a student and little seems to have changed since he was there: The male-oriented monastic discipline of Kelham life encouraged a society in which emotional attachments were common-place. Such attachments were known as `pashes’. They did not normally last very long, and there is no evidence that Kelham produced any more homosexuals than Cuddesdon. Perhaps there were fewer, judging from the alacrity with which students married once they got out into the world. The boys in the Cottage, and new men, when young enough, were the most liable to be idealised. The rule forbade men to speak to boys other than in the course of duty; but it did not expressly forbid the writing of notes. There was, in the central Hall, a General Notice Board, much used during periods of Lesser and Greater Silence. If the kitchen suddenly substituted eggs in place of baked beans for breakfast, the refectory workers had to be warned to make the necessary changes in table-ware; and up went a notice on the board. Most messages were as innocuous as that. But it did sometimes happen that a man, aroused by the freshness of a Cottage boy would contrive to waylay him in some quiet spot and have a few words with him. The boys knew as much about pashes as the men, and once an interest had become mutual it was possible to fan the flames by a guarded exchange of notes. It was necessary, of course, to wait until there was nobody else near the board before pinning up an epistle addressed to the admired. In my second year the most accomplished organist was a cherubic little boy by the name of Lewes. For several weeks I loved him from afar, but then I noticed that he nearly always wore a blue scapula. There were very few such, and that any one person should be on the receiving end of so many argued design rather than accident. A contrived accidental contact gave an opportunity to remark on the subject, and an admission followed that he liked the blue. From them on I made a point of being about when scapulars were distributed, and if there was a blue one I got it. The Notice Board then came into its own, and a time and place for exchange was arranged. It was ridiculous, but nothing more. A year later the boy moved up into the house to become a man. He soon became a Novice, and was in due course professed into the Society to become one of its most holy fathers, and famous in later years as a retreat conductor. He remained one of my dearest friends, and one of whom I have never been worthy. He patiently put up with my devotion, and kept me well under control until the passage of time made control no longer necessary. In my first few weeks at Kelham, before I knew anything about pashes, I was roughness. The Cottage ‘Master’ was a priest called Scutt; a swarthy little man who looked more like a jockey than a monk. He was plainly addicted to muscular Christianity. The boys were encouraged to box, play football, go on cross-country runs, and take all forms of manly exercise. There was no privacy whatsoever. Boys ate together the most awful food in a dining room; slept together under rough military-type blankets in a dormitory, and bathed together, stark naked, under rows of showers. It was a rule that everybody took a cold shower on rising. It was also a rule that there should be no talking from compline until after mass next morning, and a rule that ‘boys’ must not speak to ‘men’ . There were rules by the score; a whole book of rules in fact, and before going to sleep it was a rule that you wrote down how many rules you had broken in the course of the day. A little book called a ‘Fault Book’ was provided for this purpose.”

“On reporting, the spirit was immediately cheered by the decision to assign me to the ‘men’ rather than, as I had feared, to the ‘boys’. One had escaped the swarthy Scutt and his repugnant manly activities. In the ‘House’, in contract to the ‘Cottage’, students were treated as adults. They lived three or four to a room, either in the mock Gothic splendour of the old Hall, or in the Spartan modernity of the New Wing. A room senior would be in his third or final year, and he ruled over two or three other men in descending grades of seniority. He was responsible for discipline within his room, and it was he who arranged his room’s chores, the sweeping and polishing of floors, and the carrying of coal during the winter months. Room Seniors were but human, and some were popular while others were not. But this was of little consequence for the authorities went to great pains to ensure that no emotional attachment ever reached danger level. At the beginning of each term, and half way through each term, there was a general room change. This did not affect the Room Seniors, but all others found themselves among new faces and in new places. From a turret in the Old Hall a man might lug everything he possessed into the far distant modern wing where, over the next three months or so he would accustom himself to the eccentricities of his new room mates; their snores, sniffs, smells and eructations.

“In 1929 no form of Women’s lib. had sullied ecclesiastical society. Women were not allowed into the House at Kelham. They had to be content with a seat in the narthex if they came to Sunday Mass, and they received communion in that position so that they did not contaminate the inner sanctuary. Kelham was a male preserve. Religious and students ran the House, doing the cooking, washing, sweeping, polishing, gardening, typing, duplicating, any labour necessary to the well-being of the community. A House-Master rostered everybody to a two-week stint of daily housework. Corridors and public places had to be swept and polished daily. Far less desirable was washing up, or laying table; jobs which had to be done after every meal. In addition to this daily housework a man would spend two afternoons each week on a special task assigned by the House-Master; anything from scrubbing a corridor to weeding the garden. On two other afternoons a man found himself down for games; on one afternoon he was free.

“Kelly had founded his Society of the Sacred Mission….(for) the lower classes ….they had neither the money nor the education not necessarily any less intelligent ….Our tutors were renowned for their eccentricities.  Herbert Kelly had been acclaimed by Archbishop William Temple as one of the  greatest thinkers of the Anglican Communion.  (But) the ‘ founder’ (believe every day given to us by God should be filled, so he collected discarded razor blades “which he would, in theory, re-sharpen (during his inaudible lectures)  sliding them backwards and forwards over a glass block.”

“There were few Fathers who were not peculiar. Father Gabriel, who lectured us on Synoptics, would stuff a handkerchief between his teeth when faced with a difficult question, tugging at it, while emitting a querulous whinny. The Sub-Prior, who lectured in Church History, was asthmatic and punctuated all discourse with spasms of sniffing. Brother George, a brilliant intellect, was plagued with an appalling stammer. More normal than most was the Prior. Tall, gaunt and handsome he dwelt in godly seclusion, up a small flight of stairs which led to a study and a bedroom. No other person in the whole Community enjoyed such two-roomed luxury. He was alleged to be a psychoanalyst of note, and he would

disappear from time to time to attend professional conferences. He also acted as a shrink to a few individuals who seemed, to us, abnormally peculiar. A case would disappear up the stairs and into the den; and for a couple of hours or so an ‘Engaged’ notice would hang on the door.”

Speaking of the bishop who ordained him, he wrote, “The great Herbert Hensley Henson was Prince Bishop of Durham in 1934. He would often refer, in quirkish fashion, to his `illustrious predecessors’, by which he meant Bishop Lightfoot and other notable scholars. He possessed huge bushy eyebrows. To a timid curate-to-be the first sight of the man at his desk, with the flash of eyes from beneath so much undergrowth, was, to say the least, intimidat­ing. And he spoke always ‘with authority’. He was never matey; never condescended to your level. Yet one warmed to the man; for he was such an agglomeration of qualities and opinions that the distaste created by his attitude on one subject could turn to admiration as he dealt with another. On that first interview he expressed himself strongly on the disloyalty of certain clergymen who, heedless of their vows, had the audacity to disobey their bishop. He was particularly incensed by the activities of High Churchmen who reserved the Blessed Sacrament without his permission, and who, worse still, conducted illegal devotions before it. St. John’s Stockton, and St. Mary Magdalene’ s Sunderland were dens of High Church iniquity. During his Charge before the ordination in Advent ’35, Henson con­demned such rebels who were to be found, he said, not surprisingly “among the scum of the population.” It was a terrible indictment of the very poor who would have hastened to offer the bishop a cuppa, had he condescended to refresh himself among them. He questioned me about my attitude to Sacramental Confession, and expressed his pleasure when I replied that I practised it and intended to teach it. It surprised me; for I had half expected to be relegated to the ranks of the disloyal.

And, preachers take note: “He again pleased me when he stressed the value of writing out sermons in full. That was the only way a man could ensure a logical presentation of sound doctrine, he emphasised. ‘Never think that the Holy Spirit speaks through you only when you preach extempore. He wants you to preach sense, not nonsense.’ To listen to Henson as he read his own sermons and instructions was pure joy, no matter whether you agreed with the matter or not. There was never a superfluous word. The argument ran with a precision that was close to poetry. You never longed for him to stop, but wished he would go on and on.”

When he was looking for a title curacy, he described one parish: “. Near the end of Imperial Avenue stood one of the most hideous brick churches I had ever set eyes on. With sinking heart I approached the Notice Board, hoping that it was not St. Michael and All Angels. But it was. Perhaps the inside was better than the outside. It was not. It was a scene of unrelieved concrete gloom, the only relief being in the form of great swathes of black above the radiators where heat had embedded the smog of Billingham into the concrete. It was also clear that the churchmanship was downright Protty. It was a ridiculous waste of time to visit such a place. With mind made up I made for the Vicarage higher up the road. The door was opened by a well-nourished parson wearing, to clinch matters, one of the broadest dog collars I had ever seen. There could be little doubt that I had landed in the very lowest form of Protestantism tolerated by the established Church. But I had to respond to the warmth of the Vicar’s welcome. He proved immensely entertaining and kindness itself; and his house-keeper provided the most delicious meals. One went to bed feeling that thought the spirit might starve in such a place, the body most certainly would not.

“There was an ‘8 o’ clock’ on the Sunday, with a very good congregation. The Vicar took the service in surplice and stole, positioned at the corner of the altar on the gospel side. (Months later he explained that he had daringly crept round the corner after being inducted into what was then a north-end parish.) Ordinary bread was used for the communion; the first time I had experienced such eucharistic domesticity. It felt blasphemous. At 10.30 there was a truncated Mattins followed by a Sung Eucharist. The church was full for this, with lots of young people in the congregation. It was impressive and surprising.

“After dinner that evening the Vicar spoke his mind. ‘It must,’ he said, ‘be a strange experience for you. You will have seen nothing like this at Kelham, nor perhaps elsewhere. I have tried, ever since I came here, to give solid catholic teaching. That is what I want for the parish. But it is not easy for me, because I was not brought up that way; and as far as the externals go I have done nothing, because I am too ignorant on such matters to know what to do. That is why I would like to have a Kelham man here; to help bring the parish on, and to help instruct the children properly; a job I’m really too old for. I’d like you to come, if you can stomach it. But I know it will be hard for you. Don’t give me an answer now. Go back and think it over.’”

He declined – though anglo-catholics do well to remember that it isn’t the pretty vestments that made a parish ‘catholic’ It is sound catholic teaching. The other stuff is merely the gilded baits of high churchery’.

After some parish work in England, the author left for missionary work. Anxious to make his confession before a long voyage, he gets an unwelcoming reception at the S.S.J.E. (known as the Cowley Dads) and waits for ages before they dredge up a very decrepit priest who requires him to shout into his ear-trumpet. The author reckons he could be heard all the way down Great Peter Street.

BThe author sailed out to Borneo in 1937 under the auspices of what was then known as SPG. There were three main Anglican missionary societies then: The UMCA (very anglo-catholic and focussing on Central Africa), SPG (quite catholic) and the CMS (which the author describes as ‘prot’ – from which an even more ‘prot’ group broke away and became BCMS – B for Bible.). The author described MS as ‘the enemy.’

He visited an elderly predecessor; a man called Howell, and told him that we worked with a Fr. Sparrow. Howell’s photo showed ‘a very protestant surplice and a black preaching scarf’ and told him that he only knew of a MISTER Sparrow.

He translated the New Testament from Greek into Land Dyak. Early on he succumbed to mosquito bites which became ulcerous. What rudimentary medical care was available failed to do him any good and he awaited gangrene. Then a lucky accident befell him. He fell into a very muddy river. He had no more trouble after that. I can’t help thinking of Naaman the leper who was told to bathe in a dirty river if he wanted healing.

His diocesan conference of 1937 forbade cock fighting. His fellow priests were perturbed at the very long queues for confession before a mass was due (few priests, many villages, infrequent celebrations). The young men felt they could get off lightly if they confessed to ‘orong petah’ – white men, because they could lapse into Iban slang for the naughtiest bits. Until Fr. Sentag came along, who spoke Iban.

For those who think that English ceremonial is ‘a bit much’, consider this: “Bishop Allenby had resigned in November ’68, so it fell to Bishop Basil Temengong to take the first confirmation at Malang in 1969. He was welcomed at the entrance to the longhouse by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics who had, between them, provided a pig which, in accordance with Iban custom the Bishop was supposed to spear before stepping over the body to climb the steps up to the main door. The bishop was horrified at the syncretic combination of Canterbury, Rome and pagan pig, and he may well have been moved with sympathy for the wretched animal, which struggled against its bonds as though aware of what religion had in store for it. He turned to me, and whispered in English, “You kill it”. I was not prepared to concede that a bishop’s authority in matters of Faith and Order extended to the killing of pigs. I took the master of ceremonies aside, after which he took the spear and did the deed, while we rested a hand on his. It felt better that way, although it is doubtful whether the poor pig noticed the difference.”

A man of his time, he is very paternalistic towards the local people and admires colleagues who are ‘dominant males’ when there are so many devout women parishioners. That being said, there was a 40% infant mortality rate, mainly owing to malaria, when he came. Much improved as a result of the missionaries and, in his introduction, he writes: “In 1937 Sarawak enjoyed a tranquil existence; its people agriculturally self-sufficient in an undeveloped and unspoilt country. But the winds of change were, over the 45 years, to blow away the tranquility. Development, good and bad, brought an end to the happy contentment of the pre-war era, and embroiled the inhabitants of the country in all the political and economic machinations of the modern world.

When, in 1981, an end came to the writer’s missionary service, it had also become clear that to all intents and purposes it marked the end of the European missionary. The Indigenous Church was, by then, able to fend for itself: one end at least to rejoice over rather than regret.”

Trainee priests got subjected to the same regimented day that the author experienced in his training:

5.30     Meditation

6.00     Mattins


7.00     Breakfast

7.20 -8.30        Housework/Gardening

8.45     Lectures/Study

12.00   Sext

12.30   Lunch

1.30 – 3.00 Manual work

3.30     Evensong

4.00     Study

5.00     Free time

6.30     Dinner

7.30 – 9.00       Study


9.15     Comp line

10.00   Lights out

Silence was kept from Compline until after the Mass next morning.

Lay Readers get somewhat of a bad press. One was not very good at ringing church bells for the arrival of a bishop and is described as a ‘wretched lay reader.)  Many Readers were trained to conduct Sunday morning services of spiritual communion (as priests visited infrequently to say mass). They had to know the Prayer Book well, including proper prefaces and suchlike. To many, he said, the Prayer Book was like ‘the peace of God which passeth all understanding.’

When the Japanese invaded in December 1941, he and his fellow priests were put in prisoner of was camps. Malnutrition, oedema and scabies were rife and the guards were happy to kick men around though they were punctilious in their saluting and general respect at the funerals of their victims. The priests tried to say their daily offices. One, when interrupted by a guard had his own antiphon, “Can’t the bastards see I’m saying my fuckin’ prayers?”

On his occasional visits back home, he was expected to do what all ‘furlough’ missionaries do – travel round churches giving talks to raise funds. Show slides of tigers, crocodiles and anything else dangerous and the parish will adopt you as their ‘Dear Fr. X’

He ended up as Bishop of Kuching in 1976 before retiring to York. It was from PHthere that he wrote to me in 1999 after I had tracked him down – no then. I simple wrote to him via the publisher, which had, by then, gone bankrupt. But the postal service found him. Would that happen today?

He died in 2003 (having been born in 1911 and given an OBE in 1961)

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