Many years ago, probably from the library of a clergyman entering retirement, I acquired a copy of The Life of Christ by Frederic Farrar who was born in Bombay in 1931, the son of missionary parents. It sat on my shelf for over 20 years and finally I have gotten around to reading it. I have been enjoying the journey immensely. Writing a life of Jesus seems to have been more popular at other times but the shelves of Christian bookshops today are not groaning with modern books on the same topic. Farrar’s book is immense, 770 pages with illustrations and foot notes in fine print. It is extremely erudite. The book was enormously popular in its day, being reprinted many times and being translated into numerous languages.
As it was written in 1874, it is obviously not abreast of current debates and it is lacking in modern insights. However that is not entirely a problem as the book is refreshingly free from some modern foibles. Further, Farrar had visited the Holy Land so his insights into geography and customs lend the book fascinating insights. Farrar was also an outstanding classical and biblical scholar with detailed knowledge of the views of the Greek and Latin church fathers that don’t often get an airing today. The other astonishing point is that it was written in the spare moments of Farrar’s extraordinarily busy life when he was a very hands-on headmaster at Marlborough School in England
Yet this was not his only labour. He wrote many other volumes. Eric, or, Little by Little was the second most popular book about life at school in Victorian England. Its popularity was immense, exceeded only by the classic Tom Brown’s School Days which I hope everyone will read and not rely on the emasculated television productions that excise all the Christian content for which Thomas Hughes originally wrote the book. Farrar also wrote a companion volume The Life and Work of St Paul which I understand was rated even more highly than Life of Christ. I have it to read on my kindle.
Farrar left Marlborough to become Dean of St Margaret’s, Westminster, later Archdeacon of Westminster and then Dean of Canterbury. He was regarded as one the most outstanding Anglican churchmen of the Victorian age, but was passed over for a bishopric a number of times despite being a preacher who commanded huge congregations. The reason is that he published a series of sermons that were unorthodox in doctrine and challenged classic Christian ideas. Those were the days when being perceived to be at the heretical end of the theological spectrum precluded preferment in the Church of England! Those times seem long gone. Farrar’s unorthodoxy still has its adherents today and at least one of my very good friends is among that number.
My point here is not to defend Farrar on that issue. I don’t, but wish to point out that as the leader of a church congregation he encountered the same financial frustrations as modern ministers. At both Westminster and Canterbury he became the leader of a church with significant issues pertaining to the decay of the fabric of the building. It has been said by a distinguished Sydney Anglican clergyman that the Church of England could be renamed the Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings. Whatever the truth of this comment today, it seems there could be quite a resonance with Farrar’s problems. The issue was particularly pressing at Canterbury Cathedral, which is, of course, one of the most significant sites in England.
This is a problem not unknown by many modern clergy who accept the charge of a local church with an historic building. There is a great frustration that time and effort, energy and finances need to be expended on a structure that is crumbling away but engenders great affection in the congregation and even in the local community. It is difficult not to address the issue. Thirty five years ago I was offered the charge of the congregation of one such wonderful, old, but expensive building. It was one of the factors that made me refuse the offer.
In Farrar’s time Canterbury Cathedral had been running down for centuries and he felt, as he had at Westminster, that he must do something about it. A sum of £20,000, an enormous amount, was needed. Furthermore, much of that sum would need to be expended on behind the scenes, structural items that people wouldn’t see, let alone have an obvious kingdom application.
In the midst of a particularly energetic, parish ministry Farrar raised the money. Probably the most important thing that he did was to throw himself into the task. In my book Giving Generously, I urge that the senior minister is the chief resource raiser. Farrar did not shirk this responsibility. He wrote thousands of letters to prospective donors on both sides of the Atlantic, urging them to give to this cause and not ceasing till the goal was achieved. Farrar was enormously well known in his day because of his fame as a preacher, his notoriety because of his doctrinal controversy and his renown as an author. He was able to use that fame to bring the cause into the public eye. He also instituted a special, annual, thanksgiving service to which benefactors were invited to give thanks to God.
He used the significance of the project to further the cause of raising the money. One of the key issues in raising resources in any but a start-up church, is honouring and celebrating the past. With Canterbury, its historic associations in one form or another go back to St Augustine who came to England in the C 6th AD and the premier churchman in England is still the Archbishop of Canterbury. That is serious history and it is easy to see how restoring the fabric of Canterbury Cathedral might strike a chord with many English hearts.
I have a certain dissonance in writing about Farrar. I am enjoying the Life of Christ immensely yet I suspect if I had met him he might have been too churchy and too theologically adventurous for my tastes. But if you are in a church groaning under the weight of decaying fabric and congregational affection for an ancient building with serious history, Farrar’s story might give some light at the end of your tunnel. Farrar died in 1903 and he is mostly long forgotten. Far more people will be familiar with the name of his celebrated grandson. When she was sixteen, Farrar’s daughter Maud, married Farrar’s thirty two year old curate, Henry, who later became the evangelical Bishop of Tasmania. Together they had at least seven children, the most famous of whom was Field Marshall, Sir Bernard Montgomery, (Monty), the hero of El Alamein. To read more on Farrar, see The Life of Frederic William Farrar by his son Reginald Farrar. For more on Monty, see the superb three volume biography by Nigel Hamilton. Even better, for more of raising resources, see my book, Giving Generously. Buy the Book