John Keble (1792-1866), an inspirational figure for the Church today, is commemorated in a beautiful stained glass window in St Chrysostom’s Church. He is remembered each year in the Church of England on July 14th and in some other Anglican churches on the date of his death (29th March).
In 1833 Keble preached his famous sermon on ‘National Apostasy’ at the University Church, Oxford. The sermon denounced the nation for turning away from God, and for seeing the Church as a mere institution of society. It marked an important stage in the revitalisation of the spirituality of the Church of England.
However, Keble’s influence was not in preaching great sermons, nor was it in a high public profile. For thirty years Keble was the faithful and devoted parish priest at Hursley, near Winchester. A historian has described his ministry as an Anglican ‘Ideal of a parish, where a humble man ministered for long years without expectation of earthly reward.’
By his example Keble gave new life to the spiritual life of the church. He taught the centrality of prayer and holiness by being a man of prayer and holiness himself. He taught the centrality of sustained pastoral care to all people by being an outstanding pastor to all (not just church goers) in his parish.
For Keble the sacraments and prayer were central. Creation was beautiful and reflected God. He joyfully wrote of his faith in his poetry, notably in his collection The Christian Year. In life, John Henry Newman wrote, Keble was ‘Gentle courteous and unaffected…[a man of]… playfulness and tender love for others.’
The fact that Keble was a parish priest and not a bishop or academic made his influence greater, for this influence arose from his personality and personal faith.
Keble’s saintly example challenges a church often caught up in conflict, zeal, future plans and synods to value what generations have ever treasured in the Church of England – gentleness, humility, prayer and pastoral care.
Still to the lowly soul
He doth Himself impart,
And for His cradle and His throne
Chooseth the pure in heart
(The final verse of The Purification in Keble’s The Christian Year).