John Keble, priest and poet
On July 14th, in our Church Calendar, we commemorate John Keble, priest and poet, who was born in 1792 and who became a leader of the revival of Anglicanism known as the Oxford Movement.
Keble was a scholarly man who became a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford at the age of 19. He was the dutiful son of a country parson. He was a man of deep and constant prayer and after his ordination he was much sought after as a spiritual guide. In 1827 he published a book of poems called The Christian Year which took as its theme the festivals of the Christian year.
To date over 158 editions of the book have been published and it has fed the meditations of countless Christians. We sing a number of the poems as hymns including, New every morning is the love and Blest are the pure in heart.
One consequence of the book was that he was elected Professor of Poetry in Oxford in 1831
It was in 1833 that he was called upon to preach the Assize Sermon before the Judges in Oxford. It was at the time when the Government of the day had decided to amalgamate Dioceses in Ireland, known as the ‘suppression of the bishoprics.’ Keble objected to the interference of the State in church matters and the subject of his sermon, National Apostasy, became a clarion call not only against the Government but against a church that had grown lax and had lost its way.
John Henry Newman, arriving back from Italy in 1833 after being becalmed in Rome. (His hymn Lead Kindly Light was a result.) He joined forces with Keble and other studious and pious men and the Oxford Movement was born. It was to sweep the nation and it called people back to a purer form of Christianity and Christian practice.
Because the means of doing this was through pamphlets, they become known as ‘Tractarians.’
The Tracts ended with Tract 90, and they resulted in a growth of Theological understanding underpinned by scholarly learning.
Later some of the leading lights left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church but Keble remained steadfast in his conviction that the Anglican Church offered a better way to God for him and for the people he served.
He is a fine example of that high calling which has been the bedrock of the Church of England – the Parochial Ministry. He eschewed the limelight and the controversy of the other leaders and sought nothing more than to serve his Lord and His Lord’s church as a Parson.
In every movement for change and growth, there will always be those to whom it falls to bring the vision to fruition. The leaders were scholars, theologically trained and well versed in Scripture and Church history. Keble was also a poet. The leading lights of the Oxford Movement were great men but as enthusiasm grew there was also divergence of opinion as to how things should grow and transform.
The Bishops of the Church of England were hardly welcoming and tried to thwart what the Oxford Movement was trying to achieve. Eventually leaders such as John Henry Newman (recently canonized by the Pope) felt a pull towards the Roman Catholic Church, whilst others stayed in the Anglican Church, such as Dr. Pusey. This moment is sometimes referred to as the parting of friends’, for such it was.
Amidst all the turmoil, John Keble, whose words had become the clarion call for the Movement, remained steadfast and true to his roots in Anglicanism.
All Renewal movements in the Church need one vital element to keep them focussed on, and rooted in, God. Through his poetry and his devoted service to the people of his Parish, John Keble provided this.
Important and vital changes in the Church always produce exciting ways of growing closer to God but unless these are undergirded, and nourished by prayer, they will inevitably fail.
John Keble and the spirituality which ruled his life, expressed in the poems of The Christian Year, provided a focus which took people to the heart of the reason for the Oxford Movement.
It enriched the Church by a renewed emphasis on prayer and worship, on God and on His transforming love. It renewed the relationship Christians had with Jesus and it allowed for enlivening inspration by the Holy Spirit.
Keble was instrumental in bringing these renewed spiritual insights to the Church.
His was a heart pure with love for God. He was indeed truly blessed and in God’s Name and through God’s love, his life blessed the church.
From the Dedication of his poetry
When in my silent solitary walk,
I sought a strain not all unworthy Thee,
My heart, still ringing with wild worldly talk,
Gave forth no note of holier minstrelsy.
Prayer is the secret, to myself I said,
Strong supplication must call down the charm,
And thus with untuned heart I feebly prayed,
Knocking at Heaven’s gate with earth-palsied arm.
Fountain of Harmony! Thou Spirit blest,
By whom the troubled waves of earthly sound
Are gathered into order, such as best
Some high-souled bard in his enchanted round
May compass, Power divine! Oh, spread Thy wing,
Thy dovelike wing that makes confusion fly,
Over my dark, void spirit, summoning
New worlds of music, strains that may not die.
Oh, happiest who before thine altar wait,
With pure hands ever holding up on high
The guiding Star of all who seek Thy gate,
The undying lamp of heavenly Poesy.
Too weak, too wavering, for such holy task
Is my frail arm, O Lord; but I would fain
Track to its source the brightness, I would bask
In the clear ray that makes Thy pathway plain.
I dare not hope with David’s harp to chase
The evil spirit from the troubled breast;
Enough for me if I can find such grace
To listen to the strain, and be at rest.