Rejected Priest: Fr. Bryan Houghton


Fr. Bryan Houghton

I have always made a mess of things in my life. I had the intellectual capacity to make a brilliant agnostic, but converted to religion. I had studied to become an international banker, then used my inheritance to build schools and churches. Finally, while Secretary of the Conferences on Higher Studies, I was listed for episcopal election but criticised Teilhard de Chardin as heterodox. Here I am, a priest rejected, unusable even as a curate or convent chaplain, utterly good for nothing”.’ —  Father Houghton.


Thus did Bryan Houghton -convert, priest and author- assess his life and times in his autobiography Pretre rejeté” (“The Rejected Priest”). A blend of his renowned wit and understated British humour, penetrating insights on the state of the Church and a quality of prose second-to-none, it was the last of three remarkable books written during his lengthy, self-imposed exile in southern France.

The consummate English gentleman – refined, erudite and of independent means – Father Houghton ’emigrated’ to the little city of Viviers in 1969 where he resided, in a fascinating apartment within a stone tower of an ancient “chateau”, where he passed to eternal life on November 19th, 1992 in his eighty-second year.

What prompted him to suddenly quit England after three decades of priestly service in two parishes, one of which he established in a London industrial zone, and pass more than 20 years on foreign soil with neither responsibility nor employment? A very brief history of events must suffice.


Liturgical scandals were already commonplace in England prior to the conclusion of Vatican II, burgeoning immediately after the introduction of vernacular language into the Mass in 1963/64. Yet they had not fiddled with the Canon and Fr. Houghton still felt able to offer the Mass of 1964 with a “certain devotion”, even as his peers were switching into experimental-mode around him.

He wrote, however, to his Bishop, in shrewd anticipation of the liturgical anarchy to come, submitting his resignation “from the day on which they touch the Canon”. The Bishop, of course, replied that “nobody is thinking of reforming the Canon” and assured him that the bishops were there precisely in order to prevent it from being touched. “Poor dear Bishop!” wrote Fr. Houghton, “he did not have the slightest idea about what was going to happen”.

Five years later this ‘suspended’ resignation was activated and, with the Bishop’s approval, he resigned as parish priest of Bury St. Edmunds with effect from midnight 29 November 1969. The following day, the New Mass came into force-they had “touched” the Canon and restricted the Old Mass to retired or aged priests, sine populo (alone and in private).

Rather than stay in England bearing the endless quarrels between bishops, priests, reformers and traditionalists (which he had already experienced for the best part of a decade), he promptly left, driving south through France along the right bank of the Rhone until he reached his target, the first olive tree – marking more or less the northern border of “le Midi” (the South of France) – Fr. Houghton purchased a house in “La Grand’ Rue” of Viviers that same afternoon. “In terms of sheer speed”, he recounted, “the solicitor had never seen the like of it”.


And so we find the principal reason for Fr. Houghton’s “rejection”; his “emigration”, the subject at the centre of his autobiography and two earlier novels; his raison d’tre – the Mass: “A certain dose of interior discipline is therefore required to pass 20 years without responsibility or employment of any kind… But it is precisely the CONTEMPLATIVE nature of the Old Mass which gave me this necessary discipline. Thus you have before you a priest rejected because of the Old Mass, but to whom the Old Mass alone gives life”.

The Holy Sacrifice had played a decisive part in the conversion of the young Bryan from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church and engendered his three favourite subjects – prayer, the Mass and liturgy.

One of his former altar boys, a monk of the traditional Benedictine abbey of Le Barroux, recently recalled Father’s very brief Sunday sermons: “He never developed more than one idea per sermon. There were few quotations: they were personal meditations, Fr. Houghton was a contemplative who didn’t know it”.

Several of these meditations were included in “Prtre rejeté”, within the longest chapter – “Prayer, Grace and Liturgy”. Here is how he spoke of prayer:

“The Christian, when he prays, assists and supports a super- natural act accomplished by the Holy Spirit ( … ) It is an act of habitual, sanctifying grace. The activity of a man in prayer is therefore an adhesion to grace and the less he encroaches upon the Holy Spirit the better. This interior assent is not achieved through pious thoughts but by hiding oneself in the present moment … He must recollect and empty himself in order to leave room for the operation of the Holy Spirit”.

For Fr. Houghton, this Divine initiative emerged in the Mass and his most profound meditations were on this theme. They drew their strength and vigour from his early childhood when, as a nine year old sent to France to board in a school of only 20 students, he conversed one day with his friend Hippolyte. About fifteen years old, and a “packet of nerves”, Hippolyte spent his afternoons perched in an olive tree singing Greek and Latin canticles to Our Lady. Bryan, a lone little Protestant in this tiny Catholic school, went to join him in the tree. Seventy years later he related the dialogue: “Je suis protestant… I am a Protestant and I would like you to tell me – what is the Mass? I go to it every day but understand nothing”. – “Yes, I have seen you at the back of the chapel. I thought you were a Jew”. – “No, I am a Protestant. I have attended our Protestant services. They are very beautiful: they speak constantly there about Jesus”. – “That’s it”, replied Hippolyte, “there they talk about Jesus. They are surely very beautiful. But it is not the Mass. You see, the Mass IS Jesus”. He hesitated a moment, then continued: “You see, God was made flesh in order to redeem us on the cross. At the Last Supper, He left us His Body and His Blood under the appearances of bread and wine, as pledges of our Redemption, That is the Mass: the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Before such an act, there is nothing to do or to say. One can only be silent. I would love to join you at the back of the chapel”.

From the mouths of babes of yesteryear! What young Catholic today could produce such a definition, so full of serenity and faith? For Fr. Houghton the response was, decisive and from this lesson he drew one essential idea and one fundamental liturgical rule: – “Protestantism talks about Jesus; Catholicism IS Jesus”. – “In front of the Redemption, there is no place for any human action other than silence”.

Commenting on the Traditional Rite of the Mass, he explained how the priest had to lose himself before the Real Presence:

“The Mass is a divine act; it is a liturgy in which God acts, and not men. It includes generous bands of silence in order to permit adoration of the ineffable Presence. What is said in a loud voice is said in Latin to limit intrusions by the personality of the priest”.

He did not hesitate to use concrete images to stress this point: “The priest is barely a craftsman. Basically, he operates the altar like a plumber with his apprentice. Once the water is connected, the tap of Eternal Life opened, he leaves again carrying his tools”.


It was to prayer that Fr. Houghton turned, as early as 1964, to explain the inexplicable: why 98% of priests in his diocese had rushed to embrace a new “active” Mass, requested neither by Pope nor Council, in place of this old “contemplative” Mass which they had said daily for so many years with care and apparent devotion? Obedience, apathy, fear of reprisals, the desire for a quiet life? Certainly all that. But he boiled it down to this: “they could not possibly have loved the Old Mass”. They had considered the Mass as just something “they had to do, and not something that God made”.

Lex credendi, lex orandi: faith governs prayer, prayer governs faith. – Convinced that all bar one of his brother priests had the Faith, he concluded that the clerical deficiency lay on the side of prayer. From the outset, unlike his peers, Fr. Houghton was never content to cast a superficial eye over the multiple problems developing at parish level even as the Council sat. The crisis was profound because it emerged from the spiritual depths, resting on the broken link in the relationship between man and God. Man’s encounter with God, always gratuitous on God’s part, takes place in prayer which, for Fr. Houghton, reached its apogee in the Mass.

Before the Council, had they taught seminarians to pray? In a lecture, transcribed in the French revue “Itinèraires ” of May 1981, he responded: “the old seminaries had enormous merits, and I am very grateful myself for what I received there. Yet, from all the evidence, they failed”. A little further on in the same article he explained the reason: “to my knowledge, there is not a seminary in the world willing to integrate into its teaching programme a serious study of prayer: its physics, metaphysics and theology”.

In his memoirs he further explained that priests of his era were far too busy saying the Mass, saying the breviary or doing something else to spend a moment in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament: “We encouraged the laity in a form of prayer that we hardly practised ourselves”. His own ascetic formation at the Beda college in Rome had been extensive – “they had taught me how to perfect myself. But they had not taught me to pray – that is, how to adore God”. What he knew of this subject he owed to his reading of mystics like St. Gertrude or St. Teresa of Avila, or writers on spirituality such as Surin and Grou. As soon as one perceives the difference between ascetism and prayer, he reflected, one can understand the revolution in the Church: “Priests notably the most efficacious priests, that is the bishops – were fed up with a liturgy in which they had nothing to do. They therefore wanted an ascetic Mass in place of an adoring Mass – action in place of contemplation. They got it”. This failure of the seminaries explains in large part the current crisis in the Church although, clearly, it is not the only reason. There is always the complicity of weak and cowardly men. But the rejection of Fr. Houghton’s thesis on the basis that it cannot be applied to everyone, is perhaps an indication of how superficial we have become in our analysis and critiques of the postconciliar Church. In exasperation over the continued failure to transmit essentials of the Catholic Faith, our vision is often limited to the sociological aspects of things. This is necessary but insufficient. To remedy the effects one must return to the cause. As one French writer recently commented on this theme: “Priests, bishops, cardinals did not suddenly become strangers to the Catholic Faith. We had theologians more or less intelligent, more or less faithful,. We did not have men of prayer”. More precisely, according to the Houghton thesis, we did have men who “prayed” – good priests and good men – but not “men of prayer” adequately versed in why and how to empty them- selves- of self in true adoration of God. Without this acquired, contemplative disposition they viewed the Old Mass as Rite one could change as simply as one changed trousers. At some time, we have all encountered the seemingly inexplicable clerical mentality implied here. In my experience, the most striking example occurred several years ago at the Camberwell Civic Centre, Melbourne, during the “question-time” which followed two fine talks given by noted American clerics, Monsignor George Kelly (a priest of Fr. Houghton’s vintage) and Fr. William Smith. In response to a concern voiced about liturgical reform, in which he predictably stressed the sociological “abuse” factor rather than more profound causes and consequences, Msgr. Kelly suddenly declared, in voicing support for the New Liturgy – “Who wanted to say Mass facing a wall!” I was surely a liturgical ignoramus, raised on the New Mass, but this statement instantaneously pierced a tender spot somewhere deep within me. It just seemed an awfully perverse thing to say – theologically, spiritually, pastorally, ‘commonsensically’ – in fact from any perspective you care to name. Yet he made this comment boldly and unhesitatingly in front of 1200 Catholics. And I doubt that he ever regretted the statement because Msgr. Kelly is a man who speaks his mind, an indefatigable leader of the orthodox fight against American Modernists and undoubtedly an excellent priest and, pastor. A man who prays. An ascetic. But a “man of Prayer”? A contemplative? “.


All the erudition, wisdom, experience and humour of this priestly soul found its full expression in his two novels – “Mitre and Crook” (“Le paix de Msgr. Forster”)’ and “Le mariage de Judith” (“Judith’s Marriage”)’ which both deserve to be better known.

Mitre & Crook relates the conversion of Bishop Forester who, one beautiful day in January 1977, decides to put his diocese in order. He does it under the form of a long letter to his clergy in which, among many other things, he grants full permission to offe rthe Old Mass and also creates a “common” or “mixed” Mass – comprising the New up to the Offertory; the Old from the Offertory to the priest’s Communion; reverting to the New and vernacular for the Communion of the Faithful and conclusion. In response to a semi-serious question from an episcopal friend as to how, he would handle the liturgical situation if he was bishop, Fr. Houghton did in fact send that very letter, appearing on pages 3-12 of “Mitre & Crook”, to the Bishop of Northampton in 1977.

Although, needless to say, the Bishop did not act on it, in the book the letter acted as a veritable “bomb”, provoking multiple reactions from as far afield as Rome – all of which Bishop Forester confronted courageously. The genius of this novel is that it is composed solely of letters written by Bishop Forester. Through them, the reader follows the developing affair with an astonishing precision. To have succeeded in constructing a whole novel around the letters of the hero is in itself a tour de force.

Always, sensitive to the distress of the faithful, particularly through the usurption of their rights by the clergy, it was to his former parishioners that Fr. Houghton dedicated his most im- pressive book, “Judith’s Marriage”. In it he wrote: “In twenty years nobody has published anything to exalt the virtues and mourn the sufferings of the laity. When they tried to protest, one reproached them for being disobedient and disloyal or for being divisive ( … ) I dedicate this little book to my old parishioners of Slough and Bury St. Edmunds. It is only the humble token of my admiration for their attachment to the Faith and my gratefulness for the example of ineradicable piety that they have given me”.

In this regard, it is worth noting that what struck Fr. Houghton most about the 1969 instruction restricting the Old Mass to retired/aged priests sine populo was the absence of common decency i.e. the total lack of charity in respect of those priests who wished to say the Old Mass, and its failure even to acknowledge “the existence of the unfortunate laity” (a standard rigorously maintained by church leadership in Australia to this day). In contrast, of Fr. Houghton’s own attitude to the laity it was said that “he always welcomed them, as envoys from Heaven”. “Judith’s Marriage” is a novel more classical in form and probably more accessible to the public. It is the story of a young English woman who, some years before Vatican II, converts to Catholicism after a chance meeting with a young Catholic man and, above all, thanks to the Mass. A romance ensues between the two young people, who marry and establish a true Catholic home. But little by little they are confronted with the progressivism spreading throughout the Church. The Council liberates forces, controlled as well as could be expected until then, which turn the couple’s life upside-down. What attitude to adopt facing the deceitful demolition which strikes the local church and the Catholic school? In dealing frankly with hard realities like contraception and the ongoing confrontation between exasperated mothers and trendy curates which characterise Church life today, the situations and dialogue are imbued with a sharp-edge that may not always appeal to those more comfortable with the romantic religious novels of yore. Yet in “Judith’s Marriage”, as well as the usual ingredients of the genre (romance, twists, suspense), one finds numerous theological considerations presented in a very accessbile form together, with incisive and illuminating reflections on the Catholic crisis of our times. As soon as he arrived in Viviers, Fr. Houghton had contacted the Bishop who gave him permission to say the Old Mass daily, in “private”, at the high-altar of the cathedral, barely 100 metres from his residence.

It was then not long before Providence also gathered around him a small congregation of about one hundred faithful for whom he offered Mass each Sunday (with episcopal permission) in a twelfth century chapel Notre Dame de la Rose. In a tribute to their late priest and pastor, one female member of this little ‘parish’ wrote that the faithful who united around Fr. Houghton in Viviers: “were a faithful people who all, in their intimate life, to varying degrees, had suffered the drama related in Bryan Houghton’s most beautiful book (“Judith’s Marriage”): to suddenly feel that the visible Church – of bureaus and bulletins, conferences and connivances – scorns and disowns so many humble efforts, and obscure sacrifices, so much courageous fidelity and self-denial, all that swept aside as old-fashioned, historically useless, politically non-existent, worthy of a good psychoanalysis… In these bitter times, in a canton of France, some wounded souls, some outraged fathers, some humiliated mothers will have kept the Faith: because a young Englishman, thirty-five years earlier had left his (Anglican) Tradition in order to embrace a higher tradition”.

Indeed, aspects of Fr. Houghton’s own conversion experience are doubtless reflected in those of his heroine, Judith – like the pivotal role of the Mass and the consequent estrangement from his family. He accepted this estrangement with the same equanimity he later displayed in uprooting his comfortable parish life, dealing with the considerable publicity and unfavourable mail it generated and quitting his native land. This internal calm, manifested in a gentle reserve more English than the Tower of London, derived from his estimation that the major events of his life were imposed on him; that he had not had to choose but only to accept; and consequently, that the principal character of his existence was that ineffable mystery – the grace of God. This gave him great peace in his later years: “I have no regrets”, he said. PROVIDENCE “utterly good for nothing”. He consented, however, to be nothing. And therein lay his success. “I must confess”, he wrote, “that the ways of Providence in my regard leave me flabbergasted. I am a failed priest… But my situation is not very different from that which I would have if I had flown from success in triumph. I live in a very beautiful house, one hundred metres from a cathedral where I say Mass at the high-altar on weekdays. Every Sunday, I offer Mass in a Roman church ust big enough to hold the aproximately eighty-five faithful who desire to attend it. In the eyes of God, without any doubt, success and failure are hardly distinguishable”.

God …

To his last breath he had no other desire than to be with Him in Paradise. Several days before he died, paralysed, reduced to silence, he welcomed all visitors in the same manner. ”

A simple look, but one which said so much”, wrote his old altar boy, the Benedictine, “rested on those who came to keep him company. And with his good hand, the index finger pointed to Heaven”.


“Prtre rejeté”, Dominique Martin Marin, 1990.

“Mitre & Crook”, Roman Catholic Books, 1979. (“La Paix de Msgr. Forester, DMM, 1982).

“Le mariage de Judith”, DMM, 1984. (“Judith’s Marriage”, Credo House, 1987 – out of print).

With thanks to Patrice de Plunkett, Christophe Geffroy, Philhpe Maxence and a monk of Le Barroux for their recollections of Fr. Houghton in “La Nef”, Jan. 1993.