The Society had its beginnings in the 1880s when the Bishop of the newly established Anglican mission in Korea asked Fr Herbert Hamilton Kelly to train men for work in his diocese.
In 1893 Fr Kelly and two others were admitted as novices of the new community of the Society of the Sacred Mission, and before long many others joined.
The work rapidly expanded and developed into a theological college for Anglican ordinands, particularly those who would not otherwise have the opportunity, the means or the educational qualifications to train for the priesthood.
For much of its history the main work of the Society was running theological colleges, first at Kelham and later in Australia. The members have always been involved in other ministries as well.
In 1902 the Society began working in South Africa and was extensively engaged in pastoral, educational and mission work there and in Lesotho.
From 1903 until 1973 the College was located at Kelham, near Newark in Nottinghamshire, when the changing patterns of theological education resulted in its closure.
The Society has continued engaging in the sacred mission in a wide variety of ways, seeking always for any new opportunities for glorifying God that he may give.
The motto of the Society of the Sacred Mission is: Ad gloriam Dei in eius voluntate (To the glory of God in the doing of his will). Fr Kelly described it as ‘an idea in the working’, one that continues to evolve as we seek to discern God’s will today.
This film, made by the BBC in 1960, shows a fascinating glimpse of Kelham in its heyday – it really is another world…
“Fr Kelly had not really intended to start a religious community, but rather to train men for the new Korean Mission. Quite quickly he took up training priests for the Church in England, and formed a community of priests and lay-brothers as the best way of doing it. He himself was a bit of an academic failure, and he thought that the clergy of his generation spent too much of their time studying theology in the atmosphere of the universities. He viewed the move of the Bishops to restrict ordination to graduates as very foolish. But he was quite sure that men from non-academic, ‘working class’ backgrounds needed a formation which was demanding and rigorous: he aimed to teach his students to think, to do their theology, and not just to learn a series of ‘correct’ answers to be trotted out in sermons. So the life he created was all-embracing: Mass and the daily Office, lectures, housework, manual work – even sport – all were part of the day to day life of the College. Students lived alongside the Community, not in a separate building, and the Kelham way often saw senior tutors sweeping corridors and washing up under the direction of their students.” Scott Anderson
Late 70’s to Present Day
After the closure of Kelham, the Society began work at Willen in Milton Keynes, where they were invited to provide a “still centre on the edge of a new city”. Over time that grew into St Michael’s Priory, which offered various opportunities for education, training and prayer.
Also during the 1970s the Society was very much involved in chaplaincy work in Lancaster, both at the University and at St Martin’s College, as well as at Sheffield University.
In the 1980s it took on the task of providing pre-theological training for would-be ordinands in Durham who lacked the necessary background to go into the selection process. St Antony’s then developed into an Ecumenical Spirituality Centre, which continued until 2018, when a decision was made to refocus on core priorities.
St Michael's Priory, Willen
The Society of the Sacred Mission came to Willen from Kelham in 1973, and remind until the closure of St Michael’s Priory at the end of 2019. Among those who left Kelham for Willen was Fr Sydney Holgate, who had arrived at Kelham from Mildenhall, some 50 years earlier. Brothers Bertram and Jimmy, too, along with Fr Ralph, joined the new community, with Ralph as the first Prior.
This was to be a new chapter in its life, since the Society had withdrawn from the training of priests through the theological college system. The whole charism of the Society had to be reconsidered; and this was carried out against the background of the challenges facing the Society once the natural recruiting ground, Kelham Theological College, had closed.
During a period spanning more than 45 years of SSM presence in Willen, various forms of community have evolved and developed, including the ‘The Well’ project during the late 1980s and into the 2000s, as members of the Society sought ways to continue to live the values of SSM’s founder, Herbert Kelly.
During its final phase of its existence until closing at the end of 2019, the life of the Priory was centred around the daily rhythm of prayer and work. It has always been a place of peace, encounter and welcome; with a community that provided a space where all may meet as one, in Christ, seeing to share their life with all who came there and welcoming all around the common table. Strangers soon become friends, and many found there space to pray, somewhere to enjoy the silence of the gardens or enjoy a good meal.
Above all, St Michael’s was a place where men and women, lay and religious, could find God in contemplation, action and prayer, and in mission and ministry. It was a sign of peace and hope, not only for the town and region, but in a world which is broken and which seeks renewal and new life.