Canon Albert Ernest Laurie, D. D., M. C., Rector of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

The battlefield priest

Heroism, compassion and enduring hope: the lost war letters of Canon Laurie

Artillery Row

It was a fine spring day for a funeral. From every corner of Edinburgh they had come, filling the little church to capacity. By 2:30 in the afternoon, there was officially no more room. Half an hour later, the church hall was opened up to admit a fraction of the massive crowd gathered outside. Loud-speakers carried the service throughout the building as the people listened in reverent silence, hanging on each word. When it was done, the Rector’s body was carried down the Calvary Staircase, which led up to the Warriors’ Chapel he had commissioned in memory of the district’s honored Great War dead. The project was near to his heart. As a battlefield chaplain, he had watched many of them die himself.

The cortege emerged into the light of Jeffrey Street. There they were met by the mourning throng, stretching so far and wide that the city fathers had to close the streets. They were men, women and children. They were old and young. They were poor, many of them. Perhaps most of them. Such was the living legacy of Canon Albert Ernest Laurie, D. D., M. C., Rector of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It is eighty-five years to the day since he died, literally, with his boots on.

They suffered, yes, but Christ had suffered more

He was born the fourth son of a lawyer and a socialite in 1866, in the Bonnington district of Edinburgh. You could have espied the pleasant suburb from a tall land (tenement) in the High Street, in the Old Town where buildings crumbled and souls languished in teeming slums of squalor. After an idyllic childhood, a business crime would ruin young Albert’s family while he was still in high school, driving the precocious boy to discern a religious vocation. At age twenty, he would cross from the one world to the other. For the rest of his life, he would never look back.

Though he never had his own family, Laurie became a spiritual father to countless souls, tirelessly shepherding his flock with an intense love that was both tender and exacting. In the community of Old St. Paul’s, no man was despised for his poverty, yet every man was expected to play his part in the whole. They suffered, yes, but Christ had suffered more. His Sacrifice compelled their sacrifice. This shared understanding would be the unbreakable tie that bound the parish together, sustaining it through the very worst of times.

By the dawning of the First World War, Laurie was entering middle age, well past the stage of life where his services would be required on the front line. Yet he felt compelled to offer them. Undeterred by rejection, he smooth-talked his way into a battlefield chaplaincy. Thus began the chapter of his priesthood that would bring him the most glory, and the most grief.

I first discovered Laurie’s story in Richard Holloway’s memoir Leaving Alexandria. With the thrill of a pilgrim in a secret holy site, Holloway vividly describes the experience of visiting the hidden-away city parish. The Warriors’ Chapel especially haunts him, with its sad regimental flags and oil lamps, its 149 names etched in bronze Roman letters. Holloway projects his own journey of spiritual doubt onto the place, conjecturing that the old Rector’s hope in the resurrection of the dead must have been less than sure. Otherwise, why would he build such a monument? Why carve their names here in stone, Holloway wonders, if their names are already written in the Lamb’s Book of Life?

This passage both fascinated and irked me when I first read it. Holloway’s lilting prose made Canon Laurie come alive so compellingly that I had to learn more. But I was unconvinced by the attempt to remake the Rector in Holloway’s own image of a doubting priest. I wished I could get closer to the man himself, so I could be the judge.

Experience teaches him that he cannot be always weeping

That wish came true last year when I came into possession of a windfall: a complete set of Laurie’s letters from war, as printed up monthly in the Old St. Paul’s parish newsletter. I obtained this treasure in batches of grainy iPad photos from Peder Aspen, the current parish curate, with humble apologies that it was impossible to scan the massive, delicately bound volume in his care. Then, slowly, I began to transcribe them. As I worked, I realized I had discovered a truly extraordinary record. Here was a priest who had carried a living faith through the crucible in which the faith of the West would go to die. For some men, after that War to end wars, it was impossible to go on believing. For Canon Laurie, it was impossible not to.

Laurie scribbled these letters in spare time he didn’t have, working under the most appalling conditions of trench warfare. Yet they are not hasty summaries but long, exquisitely crafted epistles. (Space doesn’t permit me to quote passages from them here, but readers can enjoy a preview at my Substack.) At the same time, Laurie is at express pains to write truthfully, without “the illusory glow of mere rhetoric”. His style is simultaneously pastoral and literary, a seamless blend of devotional reflection and keenly observed detail that holds up with the best in war reportage. He is pious, yet never pietistic; sober, yet never cynical; honest, yet never despairing. He is also modest to a fault, never mentioning the heroic actions that would earn him two Military Crosses.

Pulsing throughout is his signature theme of Sacrifice. The sacrifice of the men, like the Sacrifice of Christ, is expected to call forth a commensurate response from his readers. He is unshakably convinced that this sacrifice is “worth while” — words he shares verbatim from one gallant boy who died content in that conviction. Still, I wondered how he dealt with those boys who were not so unshaken, who saw no grand purpose in the frequently trivial maneuvers that would sacrifice them like so many expendable chess pieces. How would he have answered a young Wilfred Owen, with his bitter rejection of “the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori”? From the blazing candle of his own faith, how would he have relit others as they sputtered and died?

From his letters, we can guess he would have done so patiently, wisely, as a man not unacquainted with grief. For he, too, had seen the horror. He, too, was at the Somme, crawling through No Man’s Land again and again to snatch just one more brand from the fire. Experience teaches him that he cannot be always weeping. And still, he weeps. He weeps over a long row of stretchers in a dimly lit dug-out, contriving weak answers for “the endless question” of “Am I going to die, sir, am I going to die?” He weeps over the unfathomable “mad waste” of piled corpses, twisted steel, houses and churches and cities turned to rubble. He weeps over the little group of refugees with a paralyzed old man in a wheelbarrow, whom he must turn away from the too-full ambulance car. And finally, he weeps over the death of his own fellow Old St. Paul’s chaplain, Charles Meister, whose village grave he thrice risks his life to visit under heavy shelling before turning back, defeated.

But, contra Richard Holloway, a man of faith may weep, and not despair. A man of faith may climb the stairs of Calvary, and not be a man of doubt.

Laurie’s last epistle ends with the vision of a great Crucifix in the sky, stretched out and overshadowing all Europe like Eliot’s “infinitely suffering thing”. This to him is “the last word, the last ideal” of the human race. Not Caesar on a throne, but God on a tree.

“Say,” he asks us, “has this ideal found you? You will do no lasting work until it has.”

The war letters of Canon Laurie will be published through Helion Press, at a date still to be determined.

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