Very Reverend Edwin Burton – Obituary 1925

The Tablet Page 22, 19th December 1925

VERY REV. CANON BURTON, D.D.

With deep regret we have this week the task of recording the death of the Very Rev. Canon Edwin Burton, D.D., which took place last Sunday at Convent Lodge, Harrow. It is now some months since he was stricken with the illness which has proved fatal. Failing eyesight came upon him in the spring, and it was not long before this was recognized as the symptom of more serious trouble. Everything possible was done, and for a time the Canon was under treatment at St. Andrew’s Hospital, Dollis Hill ; but the disease had taken too firm a hold upon his constitution. After a short rest at the house of his friend Mr. Mitchell Banks, M.P., he was taken back to his own home at Sudbury Hill, Harrow, to die, realizing the sure and swift approach of death, and meeting the will of God with fervour and priestly recognition. In the following survey of Canon Burton’s career we shall attempt no more than a bare chronicle of facts by way of outlining the story of a busy and ungrudging life of service to the Church—service manifested in administrative work, from the pulpit, and through laborious hours of literary research and writing. We hope to print next week an estimate of the late Canon’s worth and work from one more closely associated with him and more qualified to do justice to his memory. Meanwhile, in another column, it is noted how the death of Dr. Burton deprives The Tablet of a valued friend and contributor.

Edwin Hubert Burton was born on August 12, 1870, and was the eldest son of Major Edwin Burton, of the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, his mother being Sarah, daughter of Thomas Mosdell Smith, of Vinieira House, Hammersmith. After early education at Baylis House School, Slough, he went to Old Hall, and thence to Oscott and Ushaw. As a schoolboy he was never very keen on games; his tastes lay in reading, particularly in reading history, and anything concerning the theatre also interested him. He was at first intended for the clerical life, but after leaving Ushaw he studied for a time as articled clerk to Messrs. Oldman, Clabburn 8z. Company, solicitors. It was at this period of his life That he began acquiring that wide knowledge of the Metropolis which enabled him, long afterwards, to write the article on London in the Catholic Encyclopedia and more recently the informing papers—since gathered into a volume —on London Streets and Catholic Memories for our own columns. In 1893 he qualified as a solicitor, but shortly afterwards resumed his clerical studies, this time at Oscott, which had become, since his former sojourn there, an ecclesiastical seminary. His ordination took place not far away, at St. Thomas’s Abbey, Erdington, in 1898, at the hands of Hie Grace Archbishop Iisley, then Bishop of Birmingham.

Canon Burton’s priestly life found him, for a short time, at Commercial Road, E. where at that time there was a pastoral college, to which Cardinal Vaughan sent him to labour under the late Canon Akers ; incidentally, one of his seniors here was Father Amigo, the present Bishop of Southwark. Shortly afterwards he was appointed a professor at St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, where he was destined to spend many fruitful years ; he was chosen in 1902 as Vice-President by Mgr. Bernard Ward, whom he succeeded in the Presidency on the latter’s appointment as first Bishop of Brentwood in 1917. It was about this time that he received from Rome the honorary degree of Doctor of Theology, and he was shortly afterwards made a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter of Westminster.

The strain of ruling at Old Hall in the very difficult circumstances of the war-time, and particularly the haunting thought of the number of his former pupils who were being killed, undermined still further the Canon’s health, already impaired by a serious illness and operation during his tenure of the Vice Presidency. Consequently he resigned in 1918, and after a period of recuperation at Hanwell, he became, two years later, parish priest at Hampton Hill. Parish work, however, by no means exhausted his energies ; for apart from writing, preaching frequently in and around London, and the spiritual direction of a number of convents, he found time for much useful work on the committees of the Catholic Record Society, the Catholic Truth Society, and other bodies, and in addition undertook the duties of Diocesan Archivist at Westminster.

The last phase of Canon Burton’s active life began when, in June, 1924, he went as chaplain to the Visitation Convent at Harrow, partly for reasons of health and partly to leave himself the needed free time for literary tasks, particularly that of writing the history of the Old English Chapter, an undertaking for which he had gathered much material. Here he continued to work as long as he was able—a brief time only, as the sequel was sadly to show.

Of Canon Burton’s writings, the biggest and most important is the well-known Life and Times of Bishop Challoner : this work had occupied him for many years, and won high praise on both sides of the Atlantic on its appearance in 1909. He edited for the Catholic Record Society the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Douay Diaries ; was joint editor, with the late Father J. H. Pollen, S.J., of Kirk’s Biographies of English Catholics in the Eighteenth Century and of Lives of the English Martyrs ; and produced, in conjunction with Canon Myers, the present President of St. Edmund’s College, a volume on The New Psalter and its Uses. The accounts of London Streets and Catholic Memories, referred to above, appeared in book form, reprinted from The Tablet, within the past year. To the Catholic Truth Society’s list he contributed several widely read pamphlets of English historical and biographical interest : The Penal Laws and the Mass; Bishop Challoner ; Bishop Talbot; and Bishop Milner. For the Catholic Encyclopedia he wrote an almost amazing number of articles on persons and places. Probably not many readers know of the Canon’s Yesterday Papers, privately printed in 1908. He also produced Richard Rolle’s Meditations on the Passion put into modern English. Add to all this his many occasional articles in The Tablet, Dublin Review, and other periodicals, his book reviews and compiled catalogues, and it will be seen that the life now closed was one of great literary fertility.

Canon Burton leaves a brother in the priesthood, the Rev. Harold Burton. To him, and to all other relatives of the deceased priest, wide and heartfelt sympathy will go out in their bereavement.

THE FUNERAL SERMON.

The funeral took place at St. Edmund’s College on Thursday. Preaching at the Requiem Mass, the Rev. Dr. J. G. Vance, Vice-President, said : In this venerable college it has been an ancient custom that those who have ruled and loved St. Edmund’s faithfully and well should be commemorated by word ere they are laid to their long rest. There falls to me, therefore, this morning the sad task of endeavouring to express something of all that Edwin Burton was to those who knew and appreciated his gallant soul, his unswerving loyalty, his zeal, unobtrusive learning, and his genius for friendship. If I crave your indulgence I use no mere formula of words. It is not easy to do justice to our dead. There are things that must remain unsaid, high deeds of his soul that lie hidden with God. There are intimacies of a friend that none Should reveal, which lie not hidden but unspoken in our own hearts. There is the overwhelming sadness of relatives and friends shared in full measure by the friend who speaks these few poor broken words to-day.

The name of Edwin Burton will start different crowding associations in the minds of us all. We think of the direct, simple faith, with its unbounded sense of dependence on God, its deep love, and its humble confidence in Christ Jesus; of the schoolmaster who always erred on the side of mercy and leniency ; of the confessor whose gentleness and understanding brought to his penitents both resoluteness of purpose and consolation; of the Vice-President who, always a centre of unity, gave an unaltering loyalty to the President and his Bishop, and an equal loyalty to all his colleagues; of the historian who collected his material with such scrupulous care before using it with the skill of a master hand; of the President whose brief but fruitful spell of office was darkened by war-clouds ; of the struggling rector of a new mission ; of the staunch protagonist of the canon of the English Martyrs ; of the preacher whose eloquent words had a special quality of sincerity and fire. But there are many more associations still. We think of his vivid sense of humour ; his hearty, spontaneous merriment ; of stories told with a special legal gravity which ended in happy and strangely sudden laughter ; of a very impulsive character disciplined and restrained for the love of Christ ; of the natural instinctive likes and dislikes of a keenly sensitive soul ; of a very great distinctive personal charm; of a character again essentially English—foreigners existed, indeed, but these were rather incomprehensible, with their unusual contractions and expansions of mood, and in any case not very interesting; of a very honourable gentleman who could stoop to nothing mean or questionable ; of a curiously versatile mind and nature which had its keenest interest in its own old legal profession—of which he was always genuinely and rather boyishly proud—in English literature, in English history, in the drama and theatre, which were to him a source of special delight ; in the eighteenth century in all its moods, its coteries, debates, politics, art, and theatre ; in the long, unfolding story of the Catholic Church, especially of the Church in England since the days of the Reformation—as on this subject he was one of the few specialists in existence, his loss will in very deed be irreparable; in the long and splendid story of the City of London down the centuries —he was, he said, a denizen of no mean city, and he loved to wander, fancy free, around the old romantic roads and waterways ; and—for this varied list must close—in all that concerned the ancient history, interests, or present endeavour of St Edmund’s College. As these and other associations press through the mind, I yet feel no hesitation in singling out certain great outstanding traits in this lovable character.

Edwin Burton was one of the most self-forgetful of men ; indeed, the whole of his priesthood is marked with this great seal of Christian virtue. When he became a priest he relinquished a profession which he dearly loved and a hundred interests that claimed his heart. Leaving all things, and forgetful of every personal wish, he followed Christ. After ordination he would have liked to work on the mission in London, the city which claimed so much of his generous and splendid enthusiasm. He was, after a brief spell, sent to teach at St. Edmund’s. For teaching, though he had great and even remarkable skill, he had little or no interest. He used to say that he had none of the instincts—whatever they be—which make a schoolmaster. But he taught the second class of rudiments for many years, without a word of complaint. He never wanted to be Vice-President of the college. Again he suffered the appointment, and threw himself With a characteristic keenness into every possible detail of collegiate life and history. There is not a place in the college, not a department of its manifold work, which does not show daily traces of his organizing capacity, of his great orderliness of mind, of his love for ancient traditions and his zeal for their perpetuation. There was no ambition in this man, who, centre, mainspring, heart and life of the college during all those years, attracted no praise to himself. And the work was done at the bidding of his Bishop for the love of Jesus crucified, in entire and absolute self-forgetfulness. There was, I repeat, no ambition in the man who, against the prayer of all his colleagues, resigned from the presidency because he thought that others were better fitted for the task and the grave responsibility. Nor can I fail to refer to that singularly touching act of self-forgetfulness which led him, an ex-President of the college and a Canon of Westminster, to open a little mission, far enough away from the main highways and waterways of the London that he loved. While he ruled or shared in the rule of St. Edmund’s his life was marked by this same self-forgetfulness. To his superiors went all the credit for the deed done, to himself he allowed whatever blame there might be to attach. His silences were sometimes almost terrifying to those who knew the facts. In his dealing with colleagues or junior priests, he was so self-forgetful that he absolutely never knew what jealousy was or what it might mean. Any success of a junior priest or colleague was to him a source of joy as the happy smile and unstinted congratulations bore constant witness. It was this same quality which gave him such a strange power and manliness of character. When faced a few months ago with a serious operation, which would almost certainly have involved his death, he made all his arrangements very quietly and with the same singular efficiency and the old orderliness of mind. He worked at these his own affairs with the same perfect self-forgetfulness that had characterized his priesthood from the beginning. He little knew how friends who visited him drew inspiration from this splendid, soldier-like manliness, which so well became the son of a soldier and a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Yet while he held the inmost citadel without breach for his captain Christ, Edwin Burton had a great genius for friendship. He was rather quick in his sympathies, which he did not scruple to express. He was equally quick in his antipathies though of those he would be silent. He made friends easily, and wou’d give his confidences unquestioningly to those whom he loved and trusted. With friends he was expansive. To them his whole manner would be one of deep consideration and real affection. Thoughts, feelings, random ideas, plans and hopes, dreams and fears, old memories—all came to be shared in the joys of friendship. There are fhose in friendship whose nature is to give and to give generously of their intimate selves, and others who cannot give themselves but only take the gift of others. Edwin Burton did both–he gave of himself and encouraged others to give of themselves—and in this probably lay the secret of so much of his charm and his power of attracting and keeping friends. His friends were always friends for life—grappled to his soul with hoops of steel. They might correspond or not, years might pass without the crossing of a word, and at the end Edwin Burton would expect just the same unbroken tenacious friendship which he himself so generously gave. Moreover, loyalty to friends was with him not a habit of mind or will, so much as a fundamental and inalienable instinct. Of him it may be said that he never failed a friend, that he never faltered in the cause of friendship, that he loved his friends with an extraordinary fidelity, that he redoubled their joys and halved their sorrows, and that he helped to keep in their ears the melodies of childhood amid the confusion of sounds and the distracted cries of life.

I have finished. With heavy hearts, Edwin Burton, we bear your body from before the Altar where you have so often offered the sacrifice of the Mass for the living and the dead, past the Lady Altar where you prayed with pure heart as child and man and older priest, to the shrine where you will rest peacefully in sight of the relic of our St. Edmund whom you so greatly loved. If the tears start, you with your understanding of friendship will forgive us. But through our sorrow we pray earnestly that you may soon find the realization of every impulse of your generous soul, of your clinging love of beauty, of your desire for the full and plain truth of things, and of your eternal priesthood in a way of which even you, with your deep understanding of the things of the spirit, have never dreamed in the triumphant vision of the Living God.

May his soul and the soul of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

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