Arthur Middleton on John Keble, whose day is 29 March

Keble’s conviction that he belonged to the apostolic order with its roots in Christ formed the very character of his priesthood. It was a sacramental character and any priest worth his salt must ‘stir up that gift from God that was in him’. It also affected what he understood himself to be as a pastor. Keble, like Herbert, is one of the great exemplars of the parish priest. He did not use his priesthood to seek preferment nor to prove himself, and he spent almost his entire ministry in rural communities.

His religious thought was influenced by the seventeenth-century Anglican Divines: Nicholas Ferrar, who founded Little Gidding; George Herbert, poet and country parish priest; Richard Hooker and Henry Hammond, both parish priests and scholars; and the Early Christian Fathers, many of whose ideas he found compatible with his own.

Herbert inspired some of Keble’s own poetry. There are many similar thoughts and themes in The Temple and The Christian Year. More importantly, Keble’s mind and temper were greatly affected by Herbert’s prose work, A Priest to the Temple. It is in Keble’s personal library in Keble College, with Herbert’s poems and the life of Herbert by Izaak Walton. There is a similarity between the way Keble tried to lead his life, and the advice and rules that Herbert laid down for the country parson. Herbert’s writing is like a mirror image of Keble: ‘The Countrey Parson is full of all knowledge,’ or, ‘The Countrey Parson hath read the Fathers also, and the schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good proportion of all…’

The rules formulated by Herbert represented for Keble an ideal way of life, not always possible to follow, which Keble tried to imitate. He turned his back on an attractive academic career at Oxford, and shunned publicity except when he considered it necessary to speak out. He led a conscientious life as a proper parish priest, the shepherd of his flock, rejoicing when he married young people who were not forced into it through pregnancy. He encouraged the practice of Confession because it helped him to know the real state of mind of his parishioners. In George Herbert, he found an example that other priests
would do well to follow.

As with Herbert, the basic tenets of the Church of England underlie Keble’s prose, poetry and preaching. These were that after the Reformation, the Church of England maintained the Universal Catholic faith in Christ set forth in the Scriptures, the Creeds and in the decisions of the first four General Councils and the Catholic precept of the supremacy of Scripture in matters of doctrine and conduct; it upheld the provision of worship in a language understood by the people, encouraging reading of the Bible by the laity, the giving of Holy Communion in both kinds, and the laying on of hands by the bishop as an essential rite in the administration of Confirmation and Ordination. The Church maintained the three orders of the ministry, bishops, priests and deacons; the apostolic succession of bishops; and the liturgical order of the Christian year. It claimed continuity as the Catholic Church on English soil, a living and important part of the worldwide Church of Christ.

All these tenets of the Church of England were implicit in Keble’s religious thought. He held in the greatest respect the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, together with the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.