From the Archives: the personal papers of Thomas Corbishley SJ (1903-1976)


Fr Thomas Corbishley SJ

One of the Archives’ most recent cataloguing projects is the fascinating collection of personal papers of Fr Thomas Corbishley SJ (1903-1976), Master of Campion Hall and later Superior at Farm Street. Since the personal papers of a deceased member of the British Province of the Society of Jesus are subject to a standard closure period of 40 years from the date of his death, as we steadily work towards producing a full catalogue of the Jesuits in Britain Archives, many of our cataloguing priorities are informed by these closure periods.

Thomas Corbishley was born in Preston in 1903. He entered the Society of Jesus at sixteen years old, 7 September 1919. At Campion Hall in Oxford he gained a double first in Mods and Greats (Latin, Greek and Classics) and in the 1930s published a series of academic articles on aspects of New Testament chronology, with a particular focus on the reign of Quirinius and the time of King Herod. Although clearly suited to an academic career in Oxford, the focus of Corbishley’s life and service centred on the core Jesuit tenets of preaching, retreat-giving, writing and communicating. Among his personal papers are over 200 articles, sermons, lectures and offprints in addition to a number of television and radio scripts. His published work includes Roman Catholicism (1950), Ronald Knox the Priest (1964), The Contemporary Christian (1966), The Prayer of Jesus (1976), translations of the Spiritual Exercises and numerous articles for The Month, The Tablet and the Catholic Herald.

In 1945 Corbishley succeeded Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ as Master of Campion Hall. He held this position for an unusually long period of 13 years until his appointment in 1958 as Superior of the community at Farm Street. Corbishley’s papers reflect his full and varied life, and the breadth of his interests and concerns. He took a keen interest in many of the great matters of his time, including nuclear disarmament, the role of the United Nations, the issue of Rhodesia and the entry of Britain to the European Economic Community. Corbishley’s papers contain material relating to the causes, committees and organisations with which he was associated including the Conference on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament, the Wyndham Place Trust, the International Ecumenical Fellowship and the Standing Conference on Jews, Christians and Muslims to name but a few.

Corbishley was elected to the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1957; he attended six provincial congregations and the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1974. On several occasions he served as Vice-Provincial while the Provincial was abroad.

Above all else, Corbishley is perhaps best remembered for his support for the ecumenical movement. Corbishley was a champion of the ecumenical cause long before the recommendations of Vatican II were published. A close personal friend of Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974), Corbishley was invited to preach at Westminster Abbey in 1966 and at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1968. His papers include both the text of his famous sermon at the Abbey and reaction to the sermon in the press. Corbishley’s approach to ecumenism was summed up by his opening remarks on that occasion:

May we begin by trying to rid ourselves of the almost inevitable feeling of self-consciousness that might spoil the reality of this occasion? May we try not to think ‘here comes a Roman Catholic Priest, and indeed a Jesuit, preaching in Westminster Abbey – how remarkable!’ Let us, on the contrary, try to realise in this great Christian shrine, a fellow Christian is coming to speak to his brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to help them and indeed to help himself, to make a greater reality of this week of prayer for Christian Unity. (ref: SJ/53/4/2/39)

Corbishley was the first chairperson of the Committee of Christians for Europe. For Corbishley, the arguments for British entry to the European Economic Community were less to do with the merits of the common market and more to do with the opportunity the EEC afforded for ecumenical co-operation and reunion.

Away from his involvement in committees and working groups, Corbishley began a tradition of luncheons at Campion Hall. He invited some of the most distinguished individuals of the day from a wide cross-section of society. The tradition continued at the refectory at Farm Street, which was said then to have the best fish chef in London. Corbishley’s guests at Farm Street included Archbishop Ramsey, Sir Alec Guinness, the former Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, Richard Dimbleby and the MP Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham).

Thomas Corbishley died on 11 March 1976 in London. His requiem mass was held at Farm Street. The chief celebrant was his nephew, Fr Philip Corbishley, and among the 600-strong congregation were the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl and Countess of Longford and a number of Anglican clergy. Fittingly, an ecumenical service of sung evensong celebrating Corbishley’s life was held at Westminster Abbey in May 1976.

If you are interested in finding out more about Fr Corbishley’s papers, the catalogue will soon be available to search online via the Catholic Heritage site. In the meantime, you can contact us to be sent an electronic copy of the catalogue, to find out more or to make an appointment to visit the Archives. 

Sally Kent, Assistant Archivist