Monday, March 28, 2005

In Memory of Keeble

JOHN KEBLE 1792~1866
IN REMEMBRANCE OF (29 March 1866)
JOHN KEBLE, 1792~1866

The following was preached by Austin Farrer at Hursley Church in 1961. Can be found here.

John Keble appeared to his contemporaries to be a saint. Unlike, certain of his associates, he kept clear of Romish influences, and perhaps for this very reason came nearer to the traditional type of Catholic sanctity than those who were more flamboyantly Catholic and more assertively traditionalist. For sanctity of the Catholic sort flourishes in the setting of a Church whose authority is never questioned, but patiently obeyed. The saint is a man in whom a well-established Catholic life comes to perfect expression. He is too busy living his religion to question it or to change it; or (to put the same thing the other way round) his contentment with the Church in which he is, excuses him the painful disquiet of alteration, or the egoism of private choice; and so leaves him free to live out his faith in holy self-forgetfulness.

Keble is seen by us as a leader in new paths, the father of a movement. He saw himself in no such light. He was the defender of an established religion of true Anglicanism against dangerous innovation. He held the faith and followed the practices which Charles and Laud had maintained against Puritan enemies, and which High Church divines had subsequently clarified. Alas, government and prelates had gone far in laxity and Whiggism, but sound parish priests, like Keble' s own father, had kept the flame burning. Keble was the son of his father, never quite happy about any position unless he could persuade himself that it was what his father virtually or explicitly held. He was devoted to the old man, and until he was over forty, and his father died, he was virtually his father's curate. The positions he held from time to time in Oxford were episodes in the pursuit of the family business, if I may so call it, of pastoral duty in the Cotswolds.

Keble was the tutor, not the contemporary, of the restless spirits who pushed the Victorian movement forward. He was nine years older than Newman, and these nine years bring his youth back into the world of Jane Austen's novels. The gentleman-parson, who is her hero, pursues his holy calling with sober devotion in the family neighbourhood and without ever passing outside the family orbit. We are inclined to think of Keble as an academic theologian who got sidetracked into a country living. He was in fact an hereditary rural clergyman, unusually successful at the university, who lingered in academic positions longer than his education absolutely demanded. As the country gentleman of the old school took an intelligent and it might be a stubborn part in national politics, so the gentleman-incumbent of a country parish should keep abreast of the Church's affairs and declare himself inflexibly on all important issues, with a proper sense of responsibility.

Keble, then, accepted his tradition and struck his roots deep into the soil of family, country, and Church. The principle of his being was piety, as much in the old Roman as in the modern Christian sense. He was a lover and an acceptor, not a critic. The Church of Hooker and Laud was founded on scripture and the Fathers: and back, back into the Fathers, and into scripture, Keble pushed the fibres of his mind. The stuff of the good tradition was all splendour and divinity; the faces in his family background were all as bright as angels. This dear, and humble man saw Christ everywhere in his Christian relatives, his tutors, pupils, friends; only in his own heart he saw an unilluminated emptiness; and yet he knew, for all his ceaseless penitence, that he had the grace of God, and that he was forgiven.

He was, to start with, a kind son and brother, and a heavenly friend; and it was the supernatural overflow of such natural kindness onto all sorts of people, that made him the excellent pastor he was. He spent the last thirty years of his life in this parish, indefatigable in teaching the children, visiting the sick, recalling the impenitent, bearing all his parishioners in his heart, always interceding, supplying everyone's every need, answering with his own hand letters in request of religious direction, which flowed to him from every side. He was able to do all this work in company; he scarcely saw his study, except for solemn interviews. He could do his work with a pleasant smile, and many interventions in the conversation, sitting with his wife and her friends in the drawing room.

And, of course, he built his parishioners this church, with his own money —and he had no money. But there were the royalties of The Christian Year, that immensely successful and, in its time, sanctifying book of religious verse. He would sell the royalties out and build the church. His friends supplied an even better plan; they gave him the money for the church, and impounded the royalties from his book year by year until they were repaid. Still there was not enough: he wrote the Lyra lnnocentium and published that, to make up the difference.

He wrote The Christian Year anonymously, and he was always worried by its success. He could never understand how it was, that the pure and heavenly overflow of a Christian heart could be read in its pages. For he could see that his heart was hollow and full of cowardice. Surely, he thought, I must be the greatest hypocrite alive.

He died, still vicar of Hursley. God granted him the happiness to die suddenly in a full age when he was just waiting for his beloved Charlotte's death. She did not survive him many weeks. Husband and wife were buried here in one grave. We will not say, 'May they rest in peace'; but, 'Dear servants of God, pray for us'.


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