Obituary: Fr Bryan Houghton
Tuesday 08 December 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.
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