by John Bailey
In the story of East Brent's famous Archdeacon George Anthony Denison we have now reached the period in his ministry which his nephew, Prebendary Henry Phipps Denison, called the golden age of the village.
As the country's most controversial ecclesiastic the Archdeacon never lacked a congregation. People came from miles around, and some even took houses in the village so that they might be near the church to attend the daily Mass and Sunday services.
"On great festivals the street was like a fair with the number of gigs and carts from a distance," his nephew wrote. "At evensong on a great festival the church was crammed from end to end, and I have known about 40 or 50 people standing outside, unable to get in. l often saw people at sung Mass on a festival who had driven from Glastonbury and Wells."
Prebendary Denison was the son of the Archdeacon's brother, William, who was GovernorGeneral of Australia in 1885, Governor of Madras in 1861, and for some months, acting Governor General of India. There is much about the Denison's era at East Brent in a book, Seventy-Two Years Church Recollections, written by Prebendary Denison, who himself was at East Brent for 35 years.
His childhood was spent in Tasmania and New South Wales. When his father became Governor of Madras in 1861 he sent four of his children, including Henry, to make their home with Archdeacon and Mrs Denison "who had an exceptionally large vicarage at East Brent and had no children of their own." Henry arrived at his new home in June, 1861.
Of East Brent Church he wrote:
"It was a revelation to my young mind. I had never seen anything at all like it. In my youthful ignorance I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had seen.”
The nave was seated with 14th century oak benches, with magnificently carved poppyhead ends. The walls of the chancel were coloured dark red, the chancel windows being of all painted glass. In the north aisle were two splendid windows of medieval glass.
At the west end an old organ of the Lincolns stood in a Jacobean carved and panelled organ loft.
The altar was vested in red velvet with a band of needlework with gold letters on pale blue ground, forming what might have been called a superfrontal; a small dossal of needlework with a cross worked on the middle of it filled the space between the altar and the east window, and two large heavy pewter candlesticks stood on the altar."
Archdeacon Denison had already been Vicar of East Brent for 16 years before his nephew's arrival. He was a great protagonist of the Oxford Movement, which began in 1833, and aimed at the restoration of much of the church ceremonial that had fallen into disuse since the Reformation. The followers of the movement were called high churchmen or ritualists, and sometimes met with fanatical opposition from those who disapproved of what they termed Romanish tendencies.
The Archdeacon’s nephew, Henry, had resolved to become a clergyman when he was 12. He was at Winchester for a time, and after a period with a private tutor at East Brent went to Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1871 at Wells Cathedral, was licensed to the curacy of East Brent, and returned there to help his uncle who was ill.
The Archdeacon’s innovations at East Brent continued to arouse opposition from some of his parishioners. He was unpopular elsewhere, too, even with the Weston Mercury! Reporting that the Archdeacon had addressed the Archdeaconry of Taunton on the Irish Church and was said to be
"in great tribulations about the state of affairs ecclesiastical and political", the Mercury commented, "The interests of the church might be better served were he to look to the interests of his own flock at East Brent, instead of running about the country like a clerical incendiary, seeking to get the popular mind in a blaze."
Prebendary Denison had to take the blame for some of the changes in the ritual at East Brent imposed by the Archdeacon, and the troubles came to a head one Christmas morning. The young Curate was both the priest and organist, and this meant that he had to be alternately in the Chancel and the gallery.
To get to the gallery he had to dive through the vestry coal-hole into the churchyard and gain entry to the organ loft through the belfry. On this Christmas morning, having accompanied the singers in the offertory sentences, he attempted to leave the gallery to assist at the altar but found the door through which he had to pass had been locked. It was necessary to get it forced open "by Gemmy, the bellows blower".
Argument raged as to whether Prebendary Denison had been locked in the gallery deliberately, or whether it had been accidental. There was no doubt in the curate's mind for at the evening service he declared,
"I have previously been insulted in the public streets of Rooksbridge. At this morning's service l was bolted in the gallery at a time when I wished to take part in the Holy Sacrament."
He accused a party of worshippers from Rooksbridge headed by three or four farmers.
The Rooksbridge farmers waited for him after the service, denied having locked him in the gallery and demanded an apology, but he refused to give it. It was also argued that Mr. Higgs, the churchwarden, who left the organ loft with the collection plate, just before the curate, had difficulty in closing the door and had slammed it with the result that it had become locked.
The end of the affair was that a complaint was made to the Bishop who summarily revoked the curate's licence. The Archdeacon lodged an appeal in the Archbishop's Court and the licence had to be restored owing to a flaw in the Bishop's method of procedure. Thereupon the Bishop refused to ordain the curate as a priest, and he was made to remain a deacon for four years. In later years the Bishop became on the friendliest terms with the curate he had so severely disciplined.
Church life at East Brent did not stay peaceful for long.
"A good deal of harm was done by the arrival as a resident of a wealthy farmer who was an Irish Bible Christian," wrote Prebendary Denison. "Under his influence the flame was fanned and the little Baptist Chapel at the end of the parish became a good deal more important than it had been before."
Through "Outside Protestant influence" another day school was set up at East Brent in opposition to that started by Archdeacon Denison, and this became officially recognised as the Government school, the Archdeacon’s being merely a Church school. Spasmodic attempts were made to keep the opposition going in other directions.
"and on one occasion a member of the opposition was, by careful organisation, elected parish warden", wrote Prebendary Denison. "He signalised his term of office by ordering the church bells to be rung at the passing of the iniquitous Public Worship Regulation Act, but he had reckoned Without his host in trying issues with the Archdeacon.”
"The belfry was locked and my uncle had the key. The churchwarden, relying on his right of entry to the church on parish business, ordered the blacksmith to break open the door. When he and his triumphant army burst in they found the bell ropes hauled up to the upper loft, and my uncle seated in front of the closed door of the tower staircase.”
"They soon found they had got themselves into a very awkward mess for, to begin with, the churchwarden has not got the authority as to the ringing of the bells and in the second place he had committed a grave offence by breaking down the door and thereby brought himself under the arm of the law. So the result was a climbdown and an apology."
Archdeacon Denison died on St. Benedict's Day, 1896. He had been Vicar of East Brent for 51 years and his nephew curate there for 25.
His differences with some of his parishioners did not deter him from doing all he could for their general Welfare. He provided a water supply. He also ran a "grow your own food" Campaign. Allotments were rare in those days. He let out 12 acres to parishioners at nominal rentals on condition the land was turned by the spade and not the plough.
Mr E.E. Hutson, in memories of the Archdeacon stated that "the Vicar's yearly two-day tythe audit saw the payees regaled with huge joints of beef and plenty of beer".
He added: "Some of them, paying perhaps, only 1d., 3d., or 6d., managed to get a good square meal on both days, for on the first they would have attended to pay their own dues, while on the second they would gladly bring those of neighbours who for some reason were unable to be present."
The Archdeacon had led a simple life at East Brent. He always got up very early - in the summer often about 4 a.m., and would work in the garden or greenhouse until the bell sounded for 8 a.m. service. Nothing was ever allowed to interfere with daily worship in the Church, morning and evening.
The jubilee of his incumbency was commemorated in 1895 by the restoration of the churchyard cross and by a special visit from the Bishop of Bath and Wells and Mrs. Kennion. The Bishop preached to a crowded congregation, and the Archdeacon, no longer able to walk, was carried, and robed in his surplice from the Vicarage to the Church.
Fierce controversialist that he was he made few enemies. He even became reconciled to the Rev. Joseph Ditcher, vicar of the neighbouring Brent Knoll, on whose complaint the Archdeacon had been arraigned for heresy. It was as a friend Mr. Ditcher officiated at his funeral.
Archdeacon Denison was buried in East Brent Churchyard near the path to the school so that, as he said, his children's feet may pass him by.
Shortly after his death his nephew was accorded the Yatton prebendal stall in Wells Cathedral. He had intended becoming a chaplain of St. Michael‘s Home, Axbridge, but while awaiting a letter from the patron he was offered the living of St. Michael, North Kensington, which he accepted. He was there 23 years.
On his retirement he went to Wells where he found happiness and fulfilment in his prebendal association with the Cathedral. The Archdeacon’s widow, who had gone to live with her nephew at North Kensington, died there in 1908.
Of her, Prebendary Denison wrote: "No one will ever know how my dear uncle during his long life contending for the Church was helped and supported all along by her gentle wisdom. And no one can know what for the 17 years We lived together, she has been to me.”