Christopher Trundle on the hymns of John Mason Neale

O what their joy and their glory must be, Those endless sabbaths the blessèd ones see! Crown for the valiant; to weary ones rest; God shall be all, and in all ever blest.

O quanta qualia Peter Abelard, tr. J. M. Neale

It has often been said – and rightly so – that Anglican hymnody is one of the most notable parts of our patrimony; the contribution of John Mason Neale (1818-1866) to this tradition, in both hymn writing and translation, remains unparalleled today. I have written previously about Anglicanism’s ability to take elements of the Catholic tradition and incorporate them into the liturgy and devotion of the Church of England over the years, and Neale provides a perfect example.

He is responsible for the largest number of entries in the New English Hymnal, most of which (but by no means all) are office hymns translated from ancient Latin and Greek sources. Favourites such as ‘Jerusalem the golden’ and ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’ are other examples of his rich and expert translations. Above all else, Neale is responsible for the introduction to the English-speaking world of ancient Catholic and Orthodox hymnody and its attendant devotional power.

Neale is known today not only as a hymn writer and translator, however. While at Cambridge University he became a Tractarian, and was instrumental in the founding of the Cambridge Camden Society (later the Ecclesiological Society) a body which exerted the most significant and positive influence on Victorian church architecture. As Warden of Sackville College, a community of alms houses in West Sussex – a position he held from 1846 until his death – he founded the Society of St Margaret, an Anglican religious order devoted to care for the sick, which is still in existence today.

But like many High Churchmen of his time he suffered a great deal of suspicion and persecution. He was forbidden from exercising priestly ministry in his diocese by the then Bishop of Chichester for some sixteen years on account of High Church trappings and ornaments set up in the chapel at Sackville. On more than one occasion he was physically assaulted, once at a funeral of one of the sisters of the religious order. He enjoyed no preferment or honours in England (an honorary doctorate did come from an American university), and the most senior clergy to attend his funeral were of the Orthodox Churches.

Neale, though, saw the importance of the hymn as a means of re-awakening the Church of England to its Catholic heritage, and went about the ever-risky business of acting on it. The introduction of many now well-known hymns from the Latin and Greek traditions brought into the Anglican tradition a whole wealth of Orthodox and Catholic spirituality, devotion and theology. This is about more than catchy tunes, for many of his translations have been used as office hymns for centuries, forming the backbone of daily Anglican worship, and placing it firmly within an ancient and unbroken tradition.

Here Neale writes of the disastrous effects of the reformation on the English liturgy, and points to a future which he himself would help to bring about:

“The Church of England had, then, to wait. She had, as it has well been said, to begin over again. There might arise saints within herself, who, one by one, should enrich her with hymns in her own language; there might arise poets, who should be capable of supplying her office-books with versions of the hymns of earlier times. In the meantime the psalms were her own; and grievous as was the loss she had sustained, she might be content to suffice herself with those, and expect in patience the rest.”

J. M. Neale, ‘English Hymnology,’ in The Christian Remembrancer, 1849