Obituary: Fr Bryan Houghton

Bryan Richard Staples Houghton, priest, born Dublin 1 April 1911, died Montelimar France 19 November 1992.

BRYAN HOUGHTON was a priest set apart. He was a convert Catholic, fiercely loyal to the Papacy though not above the belief that liturgical changes that have swept through the Roman Catholic Church in the past 25 years were ill advised. He was not alone in the view that the reforms to the liturgy had their origin in a theological modernism which was entirely inappropriate to the Faith of Ages, eternal and true. He may have correctly come to the conclusion that the question of his appointment to the hierarchy of England and Wales in the 1960s was determined when he declined to acknowledge the orthodoxy of Teilhard de Chardin when so asked by the Secretary of the Higher Studies Conference of the English hierarchy.

Born in Dublin Castle in 1911 where his father, a professional soldier, was garrisoned, Bryan Houghton was intensely English. His mother was steeped in English liberalism and the privilege of wealth. She was sent as a young girl to Berlin as a Hoffraulein in the household of Princess Victoria. Bryan Houghton's parents spent long periods apart during his father's service overseas and, in consequence, Bryan was brought up in his youth in Europe where his mother had homes in Paris, Berlin and the Cote d'Azur. He spoke little English until, at 13, he was sent as a pupil to Stowe School, then in its infancy. He described himself as 'a goof with little ability save for an understanding of good claret'. He was placed in a remove class. Plainly life prospered for he ultimately obtained an open scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, and took a First Class degree in Modern History. In reality he always considered himself an historian in upbringing and a priest by choice. It was while at Oxford he came under the influence of Fr Martin D'Arcy SJ, who subsequently became a firm friend.

Houghton returned to Paris, where he practised his profession as a banker and he remained in banking until his mother's death in 1936. He was received into the Catholic Church in Paris following a visit to the Soviet Union with his acquaintance Christian Dior who was then advising the Soviet Government on factory system building. He was particularly outraged by the cruelty of the Bolsheviks to the minority groups then trapped in the Soviet Empire.

Following his mother's death he went to the English College in Rome, ultimately to be ordained priest in England in 1941. His was an independent spirit and he was of independent means. He offered his services to the diocese of Northampton and put substantial sums of money into the development of the Catholic church and schools in Slough. He moved to Bury St Edmunds in 1955 as parish priest and set about the development of Catholic schools in the heart of Suffolk. His vision in the field of schools development in the diocese is legendary.

Houghton was a people's priest. He was loved throughout his parish for his piety, understanding and spirituality. His humour was sparkling and infectious. His sermons attracted congregations from far and wide. His parish prospered. He revived in the Church of St Edmund King and Martyr, a Jesuit foundation, sung celebrations of the mass on St Edmund's feast day each November assisted with full choir and orchestra. He is well remembered for the warning he delivered his congregation that they could not expect to 'pop up to heaven like champagne corks', yet he provided, after such a St Edmund's Mass, a champagne reception following the ceremony.

He retired from his parish immediately following the Feast of St Edmund in 1969 and on the introduction of the new Order and English Liturgy. He found the new order unworthy of the Mass he loved so much. He was forever grateful to Cardinal Heenan, who had succeeded in obtaining for the existing retiring English Catholic clergy a Papal Indult, or licence, granting them permission to continue to say Mass according to the Tridentine Rite, though privately. He retired to France at the early age of 58 and settled in Viviers on the edge of Provence. He planted his garden with fruit, flowers and vegetables, busily set himself to becoming domestic, and looked after himself until his death.

He loved beautiful things and surrounded himself with them in his home. He gained a reputation in France as a writer, wit and 'savant', and contributed regularly to French theological reviews. His correspondence was enormous and he acquired a well-deserved reputation in France never fully accorded to him in England. He was perhaps too intelligent and above all too independent for the English hierarchy to accommodate.

The French Church has good reason to be grateful to Bryan Houghton. He was well known to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose 'integrisme' he found quite unacceptable. At least one great abbey in France was attracted by the obvious spirituality of Lefebvre and his retention of the traditional rite. As Fr Houghton explained to the aged monsignors, 'You do not save the Faith by destroying the Church.' Sadly, Lefebvre removed himself from the Church and his sect lost influence and credibility.

Father Bryan said Mass daily until a week before his death at the high altar of the beautiful Cathedral of St Vincent in Viviers. He wrote a number of books of which the first was a monologue, St Edmund King and Martyr. Perhaps his best was produced early in retirement, Mitre and Crook, published ultimately in the United States in 1979 and subsequently translated and republished with other works in France.

A recent review, inevitably American, said of him, 'Fr Bryan Houghton writes just about the best English prose around today - up there with Waugh and Ronald Knox - elegant, clear, concise, severe, humorous, light, cantankerous and bright; in a word consummately British, surprisingly humane and even more, as if Waugh were suddenly Dickens.' That gave him pleasure. His own literary heroes were the great Dr Johnson and PG Wodehouse.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor