Homily – Commemoration of John Mason Neale
Commemoration of John Mason Neale, Priest
COLLECT Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your presence and obey your will, that, following the example of your servant John Mason Neale, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Have you ever sung the hymn “Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation,” or
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” or “Good King Wenceslas”? If so, you have the Rev. John Mason Neale to thank for that.
John Mason Neale was a 19th Century Anglican priest, who helped to enrich the devotional life of the Anglican Communion in a variety of ways. He studied at Cambridge and was ordained in 1842. Difficulties with his bishop obliged him to look beyond parish ministry, so he became the warden of a home for elderly pensioners and began his career as a writer and spiritual director. In 1854, Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women religious in the Church of England dedicated to nursing the sick. This Anglican order of nuns prospered under his guidance and cared for the sick, the poor, and orphans in many lands, including Canada, where it established a house at Montreal and for many years staffed a mission in the diocese of Algoma.
Neale was influenced by the Oxford Movement, a renewal that began in the Church of England in 1833. It saw the Church as a sacred vehicle of divine grace and not merely as a human institution. It saw the Church as being instrumental in the way God and human beings relate. The people of the Oxford Movement, later known as Anglo-Catholics, attempted to restore a more profound sense of reverence and sacramental holiness to the life and worship of the Anglican Church, which could accurately be described as dreary and complacent up until that point. You could probably have called it stuffy, pretentious, uncompelling and only vaguely Christian if you wanted to be truthful. The Church of England was in desperate need of renewal and had virtually become synonymous with (and subject to) the culture of the English gentry.
Our (Anglican) sense that the Eucharist is the central act of worship is a direct result of the Oxford Movement. It wasn’t just a matter of recovering the ceremony itself, whether for its beauty or its historic roots. What was truly important was what the Eucharist conveyed: the real presence of God in our midst, and the majesty of God expressed in sacramental worship.
Neale was one of the first Anglican priests to wear full eucharistic vestments, which are intended to express the holiness of the Eucharistic celebration, and he also made a rule of celebrating the Eucharist facing eastwards, to signify that our worship is directed beyond ourselves, toward God, and is not confined to the parish church or the individuals present.
Believe it or not, some of this was controversial at the time, and these anglo-catholic innovations infuriated his diocesan bishop, who withdrew Neale’s license and for fifteen years refused to let him celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist was absolutely central to Neale’s life, so this was a very cruel punishment. The anguish which this judgement caused him, together with his heavy commitments as spiritual director and writer, contributed to his death at the age of forty-eight on August 6th in 1866.
This godly man was subjected to a lot of violence, much of it coming from people who probably understood themselves to be Christians! There are always those, who, if they don’t understand what you’re about, will try to destroy you. He was subjected to abuse from thugs who objected to change – he was once beaten up at a funeral for one of the nuns of the order he founded! He was also threatened by crowds who warned that they would stone him or burn his house down.
As a writer, Neale excelled at translating ancient Christian hymns for modern use, and many of his versions have become classics in their own right — for example, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain,” “Christ is made the sure foundation,” and “Jerusalem the Golden.” More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. The English Hymnal (1906) contains 63 of his translated hymns and six original hymns by Neale. His translations include: All Glory, Laud, and Honour; O come, O come, Emmanuel; Of the Father’s Love Begotten; Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle; and To Thee Before the Close of Day. He also wrote a large number of new hymns and carols, the best known being “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “Good King Wenceslas.”
At the heart of the Oxford Movement was a profound sense of the reality and majesty of God, of the challenge to follow Jesus as Lord, especially toward the poor, and a powerful sense of the Church militant and catholic.
The fact that we have gathered today for a mid-week Eucharist, and indeed are praying at all together, is in large part attributable to the Oxford Movement and people like John Mason Neale.
One of the contributions of the Oxford Movement was a renewed focus on the sacred schedule – the liturgical calendar – which helps to cultivate a distinct liturgical spirituality. He died, appropriately enough, on the Festival of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1866, and so we remember and give thanks for his life and witness on August 7.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+ (with acknowledgement to For All the Saints)