Yesterday the Church commemorated John Keble—priest, poet, teacher, preacher, pastor, and unlikely prophet. It was through Keble’s ministry that the Oxford Movement began. More than most involved in this movement, Keble kept grounded and focused, refusing to fall in with any of the various “-isms” arising from the conflicts in the Church of England of his day. When others felt the call to leave for the Roman Catholic communion, he remained faithful to Anglicanism through good times and bad over a long life, demonstrating the gift of stability in a time of tumult.
Though an Oxford academic and leader of an important spiritual movement, Keble had the good sense to know his limits. He was not a master Church politician or innovator. Neither was he a born activist. He was instead a man of faith so deeply grounded in the Gospel that he could see where the culture (and the Church) was heading. His witness of faithfulness, integrity, and deep continuity with the Scriptures and the Fathers was a reproach to the indolent and self-indulgent Regency era in which he had grown up. Holiness of life is always a critique of worldly corruption.
Keble knew that the Church of England, though reformed, was a catholic Faith. He knew that it had been through a period of laxness and decadence. He could also see that the forces of government and economy in his day were aligning themselves to reduce the Church to an utterly “harmless” entity. Those forces wanted the Church to be entirely the lap-dog of the State, devoid of its connection to an ancient, pre-industrial vision for humanity. Keble knew that to accept this would lead to a nation without meaningful foundations for conscience or ideals. His sermon “National Apostasy,” which challenged this decent into secularism, is the usually-accepted beginning of the Oxford Movement.
For me, one of Keble’s best characteristics was integrity. When some began to take the recovery of the catholic dimension of the Church to mean an obsession with ritual and microscopic exactitude in observance, he was clear that “high” Anglicanism was no “knock-off” or wanna-be Roman Catholicism. His was not a “theoretical” catholic Anglicanism: it was the real, lived, vital thing. He did not need to embrace various fads or trends in order to look catholic: his whole life in the Church was the practice of the catholic Faith as an Anglican.
Keble also knew something that many of us today have forgotten: that the soul of the Anglican tradition is pastoral in nature. This means that the parish (or whatever one is going to call the local sacramental faith community gathered in prayer and study for mission) must be a place where human life is deeply interrelated with the Divine Life through all its stages and in all its activities. For Keble, the “cure of souls” was not a burden but a gift, and the parish clergy were to engage in the care and formation of parishioners with eagerness and skill.
During his lifetime, and for many decades after, Keble was best known for his collection of poems entitled “The Christian Year.” This little book, along with his sermons and pastoral work for many long years at Hursley Parish, expresses beautifully Keble’s ideas. In it one finds poem after poem integrating the Scripture lessons and the collects with the feasts and fasts of the Church Year. With this volume (now admittedly dated in many places—but still quite valuable), many average Anglicans began to understand the value and meaning of the Liturgical Year anew. We could use a modern analog in the Episcopal Church today.
In his famous sermon about the spirit of apostasy and our response to it, Keble the professor and poet showed that practical character which was to make him a witness to the enduring qualities of Anglicanism: prayer, faithfulness, constancy:
After all, the surest way to uphold or restore our endangered Church, will be for each of her anxious children, in his own place and station, to resign himself more thoroughly to his God and Saviour in those duties, public and private, which are not immediately affected by the emergencies of the moment: the daily and hourly duties, I mean, of piety, purity, charity, justice. It will be a consolation understood by every thoughtful Churchman, that let his occupation be, apparently, never so remote from such great interests, it is in his power, by doing all as a Christian, to credit and advance the cause he has most at heart; and what is more, to draw down God's blessing upon it.
And elsewhere, he reminds us of the need to remain balanced and whole-minded in the midst of our struggles, not becoming small-minded or resorting to the bald use of power:
As to those who, either by station or temper, feel themselves most deeply interested, they cannot be too careful in reminding themselves, that one chief danger, in times of change and excitement, arises from their tendency to engross the whole mind. Public concerns, ecclesiastical or civil, will prove indeed ruinous to those, who permit them to occupy all their care and thoughts, neglecting or undervaluing ordinary duties, more especially those of a devotional kind.
It is this way of being a catholic Christian—doing all with "piety, purity, charity, and justice"—that continues to draw many to Anglicanism (where it is practiced). We know we fill fail, and we know we may repent and return to Christ when we do. His was a vision that can inspire and not wear out, encourage but not cajole.
But in our day, when the Church’s focus is so often distracted by an anti-intellectual trendiness, fears of becoming “irrelevant,” ideological fixations, and witch-hunts for those not sufficiently “toeing the line,” it is refreshing to be reminded of Keble’s witness for stability, depth of piety, personal integrity, and commitment to the highest and best in the Faith: and Anglicanism still (in some sense) waiting to be born.
Collect for the Commemoration of John Keble, Priest
Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know thy presence and obey thy will; that, following the example of thy servant John Keble, we may accomplish with integrity and courage that which thou givest us to do, and endure that which thou givest us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.