The Peril of Backsliding: John Keble

John Keble is best known by his Assize Sermon (which is commonly quoted as the spark that lit the Oxford Movement) and by his poetic companion to the Prayer Book, The Christian Year. But this most gentle leader of the nineteenth-century Catholic Revival in the Church of England is best discovered, I believe, in the volumes of parochial sermons that amply repay long searches along the endless shelves of second-hand bookshops. Here the pastoral care and devotion of the incumbent of Hursley is seen to best advantage. I have selected sections from a sermon which was preached for the opening of a New Year, but it seems ideally suited to this season of Lent, when the themes of recollection and self-examination are to the fore. The sermon is entitled The Peril of Backsliding.

The Sermon

‘You will know what I mean by ‘drifting away,’ It is what happens, when a boat or a ship is left to itself at sea, or on a running river; of course the vessel will not stay for a moment in one place: the tide of the sea or the stream of the river, will carry it along, slowly perhaps but certainly; the motion maybe so very gentle, that the people on board are not at all sensible of it; but it is not the less real, and so they will find bye-and-bye, when they look round and find themselves in sight of objects, from which they ought to have been far and far away. This is called drifting with the tide or down the stream; and you see at once, how nearly it resembles the melancholy change, which comes over Christ’s disciples, when, after good beginnings, they allow themselves to relax and grow careless, taking one liberty after another, until, without knowing it, they have quite lost all the ground which the grace of God had enable them to win.

This drifting, this silent decay of goodness, is what we are all liable to. As the steadiest vessel will be wafted away from her station, if there be no anchor nor other means to keep her in it, so the oldest and most experienced Christian will fall away, fall utterly, and that perhaps without suspecting it himself, if he be not continually keeping fast hold of our Saviour by faith and prayer, and devout use of the Sacraments. If we have been, as it were asleep in the vessel, allowing it to drive where it would, now at least let us awake and cast our eyes around us, and see how far we have drifted, and use all prayer and endeavour to recover our lost ground, if possible, before it be too late. As persons on board a vessel find, how far they have drifted, by looking at hills or trees or houses or other objects on the shore, so this New Year supplies, as it were, a point, whereby we may judge of our own spiritual condition, comparing it with what we can remember of it last year.

We must go back to our first rules, the old standard, ‘the Old Commandment,’ ‘the word which we have heard from the beginning;’ what we vowed in Baptism, repeated in Confirmation, examined ourselves in, every time that we have duly received the Lord’s Supper. We must try ourselves, as in our best days, by the Creed, the Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Hold fast what thou hast done and believed well; repent of what thou hast done and believed amiss.’

Sermon on the Litany

In a sermon on the Litany, he reminds us how the Church instructs us to pray for deliverance from all evil and mischief, more especially from all sin.

Now this might seem almost too bold a prayer, seeing how, ‘a man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards,’ and how he is shaped in wickedness and conceived by his mother in sin. Therefore Holy Scripture is very express in making us promises, and teaching us to pray, as in the Lord’s Prayer, that we may be delivered, not from some evil, but from all; and making us promises like that in the text: ‘ the Lord is faithful, Who shall stablish you and keep you from evil.’ He is faithful, He may be depended on, He cannot deceive, nor fail you, He would not have taught and encouraged you to ask Him to deliver you from all evil, if it were not His gracious purpose so to do, on your properly asking Him. Therefore the Church, both elsewhere and here in the Litany, makes bold as a loving child to ask of her Father entire deliverance: and having mentioned in a former petition the great inward and spiritual sins, … blindness of heart, pride, vain-glory and hypocrisy, envy. hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness , she now, in the petitions on which we have been catechizing today, prays against their outward and visible effects, whether of sin or of punishment.

Christopher Collins is Vicar of St. Aidan’s Grangetown in Sunderland.