Wednesday, March 29, 2023
Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember one of the “Big Three” of the High Church movement in the Anglican Church: John Keble.
It is the 29th of March, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
There was once a time when hymns- new poems put to music- were considered modern worship. Somewhat ironically, one of the most prolific hymn writers in 19th-century England was a man dedicated to upholding older church traditions and a founding member of the Oxford movement (also known as the Tractarians). He was John Keble, born on April 25th, 1792. He died on this the 29th of March in 1866.
We discussed him very briefly almost four years ago on this show- and it would make sense that we would- he is best known to some as the author of a very popular book called “the Christian Year”- a collection of poems for Sunday services and Holy Days on the church calendar. I’ve recited his poems on this show before, and that book, “the Christian Year,” made the Anglican priest the picture of a bucolic, Victorian parson and poet. And this he was. He was a professor of Poetry at Oxford, his alma mater. Today, Keble College at Oxford is named after the man whose friend and biographer was John Coleridge, nephew of famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
But while in both office and poetry, he was pastoral, he is also remembered as a firebrand- one of the leaders of the Oxford movement, the man credited with sparking the whole movement with a sermon. The Sermon was delivered in the Summer of 1833 at the University Church of St. Mary’s in Oxford. The occasion was the opening of the Assize Court- a county court for civil and criminal law. The audience was made up of lawmakers and thus aimed at social reform. The sermon was called “National Apostasy” and used Old Testament examples to explain what happens when the people of God diverge from their calling. Keble believed that lessening the number of Bishops in Ireland was emblematic of the broader problem of a decreased influence of the church on the state. Of course, in England, the state church- the Anglican Church was supposed to have a direct influence on the life and laws of the land (the American constitution was replying directly to this with the 1st Amendment). This sermon was the lightning bolt that motivated John Henry Newman and Edward (or E.B.) Pusey.
These three men, associated with Oxford, would lead the movement that took the school's name. All three would write tracts in the famous (or infamous) Tracts for the Times- 90 essays arguing for a conservative, some said “Anglo-Catholic” approach to the church of England, which stressed the apostolic succession of Bishops to the centrality of the Book of Prayer. There is some irony that Keble’s “Book of Days” would be used in churches that would not use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
The Evangelical faction in the Anglican Church did not have its fears assuaged when Newman bolted for the Catholic Church in 1845. Still, it was Keble and Pusey who would stress the Reformation roots of the Anglican Church with its concurrent connection to the early church. Keble was, of the movement's leaders, the one with the common background, but his intellect and ferocity shouldn’t give way to his interpretations as the common country parson who wrote poems. He was homeschooled but was accepted to Oxford at the age of 14. He was only the second student to take “Double Firsts” (think double major and top of the class in each one). Along with his poetry, he wrote fierce denunciations of things like recognizing the marriages performed by dissenting ministers or allowing the Royal children to have Lutheran Godparents. He was fierier than his later victorian image but also a poet and pastor- like hymns being contemporary worship at one time, he is a figure that gives us pause when we think about tradition and innovation in the church. Born in 1792, John was 73 when he died on this day in 1866.
The last word for today comes from John Keble- as many in the church are coming up to Palm Sunday, I’ll read an excerpt from Keble’s poem for the Feast Day:
Lord, by every minstrel tongue
Be thy praise so duly sung,
That thine angels’ harps may ne’er
Fail to find fit echoing here:
We the while, of meaner birth,
Who in that divinest spell
Dare not hope to join on earth,
Give us grace to listen well.
But should thankless silence seal
Lips, that might half Heaven reveal,
Should bards in idol-hymns profane
The sacred soul-enthralling strain,
(As in this bad world below
Nobles things find vilest using,)
Then, thy power and mercy shew,
In vile things noble breath infusing;
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who thought correctly that John Keeble (two e’s) was the drummer for the 80s new wave band Spandau Ballet. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who wonders if that’s not the worst of the New Wave band names- at least up there with Squeeze, the Cars, and Wham! I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.
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