John Keble – Simple Things: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
John Keble – Simple Things
One of my church history heroes is the nineteenth century poet and priest, John Keble. As some will know, he was a part of the Oxford Movement that sought the reform and renewal of the Church of England in the 1830s. Yet, apart from hymnody and poetry, Keble has tended to remain in the “theological shadow” of better known members of the movement such as Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman. Perhaps this is because Pusey and Newman were prolific writers and, in their time, widely read by clergy and laity alike. Additionally, both Pusey and Newman eventually achieved prominence, one as an esteemed professor at Oxford and the other, having left the Church of England, as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. Although Keble’s own book of poetry, ‘The Christian Year’, was a remarkable and popular book in the nineteenth century (eventually issued in 158 editions) he remained the least well known of the Oxford reformers.
This seems to have been a combination of circumstance and personal choice. For instance, his book, ‘The Christian Year’ was published anonymously. It’s authorship was only discovered when Keble was appointed to a professorial chair of poetry at Oxford. Despite giving the sermon that launched the Oxford Movement and made headlines in 1833, Keble devoted much of his time and energy to caring for his dying father and his one sister. In 1836, a year after his father died, Keble surprised many by accepting a call to become the vicar of All Saint’s Church, in the small village of Hursley in Hampshire. For the next 30 years, until his death in 1866, he served the village as its parish priest, saying Morning and Evening Prayer, presiding at Holy Communion, performing marriages, visiting those in his charge and burying the dead.
It is said that Keble never sought preferment in the Church of England. Instead, he concentrated on the practical. He found the village church in disrepair and oversaw its rebuilding having already directed the building of another church in an adjacent village. He carefully and thoughtfully introduced liturgical changes in the parish. Eventually he could claim that “If the Church of England were to fail, it could be found in my parish”. It was said that during the winter months Keble could be seen early in the morning clearing snow from the pathway that led to his church so that, as he said, “My people might worship with dry feet”. His manner of life defined his influence. At his death, Keble was buried in the churchyard of All Saint’s, just a stone’s throw from that pathway and the little parish church that he knew so well in life. The inscription on the gravestone simply says, “Here rests in peace the body of John Keble, Vicar of this Parish…” No other accolade was needed.
As we see the need for the reform and renewal of the Church in our own time, we could do worse than to consider the example of John Keble. He could have stayed in Oxford and opined about the dreadful state of the Church while having others care for his father and his sister. He could have followed Newman to Rome where, no doubt, he would have been honored and feted. He could have sought preferment in the Church of England where he might have found a more elevated platform for the expression of his views. Yet, he followed none of these paths. As another writer has said, “He was absolutely without ambition, with no care for the possession of power or influence, hating show and excitement, and distrustful of his own abilities….”
He simply chose to do what was on hand to do. As Keble wrote to a friend, “When you find yourself overpowered, as it were, by melancholy, the best way is to go out and do something.”
Simply put, we should not complain and decry all that we see unless we are also willing to get our hands dirty and do something. Keble’s life and ministry teaches us that it does not have to be something grand and glorious. If our concern is for the Church, then we have to do more than whine or complain. We have to be present. We have to do the small things. Let me be candid, it begins with finding a place of worship, fellowship and belonging; a place to offer one’s God-given gifts and talents. It begins with church. Yes, I know there are abusive churches and abusive pastors. Yes, I know there are churches preaching a toxic brew of faith and politics. And, yes, I know we are in a time of Covid. If you can do nothing else, however, say Morning Prayer in your own home on Sunday mornings until we’re past Covid and you can look for a church. When you can look for a church, realize that it won’t be perfect. It may mean sitting in a back pew and, initially, feeling like a stranger. I know… I’ve done it. It is a journey of doing small things, simple things, knowing that what you are doing will, in time, make a difference… even if you are just clearing snow off the path. Or, as Keble once said, “Once you make up your mind never to stand waiting and hesitating when your conscience tells you what you ought to do, you have got the key to every blessing that a sinner can reasonably hope for.”