A Saint at Oxford

John Keble

by Georgina Battiscombe
Knopf, 395 pp., $8.50

This is apparently the first full-length life of John Keble (1792-1866), but there is nothing to be surprised at in the placid patience of the years. Of the dignitaries of the Oxford Movement, Keble was the dullest, lacking either the sharpness of intellect of Newman or the stubborn hardihood of Pusey. The Movement itself now has a tinge of the tragicomic. Determined to restore to a dusty Church of England the color, traditions, and authority of a “Catholic Church,” the worthies watched with pained bemusement as one by one their supporters decided that if you really wanted the virtues of a Catholic Church, you have to seek them in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a tellingly compact account of Keble in Sir Geoffrey Faber’s classic study, Oxford Apostles—a book more effective than Mrs. Battiscombe’s in relating Keble to the Movement as a whole. Not that she tells the life ineptly. We pass from the dim religious light of Keble’s childhood to his faintly priggish years at Oxford, culminating in the Fellowship at Oriel College which was then the highest of honors. So begins the friendship with Newman, a friendship never shattered though often imperiled. (The most moving moment in the book is when, long after Newman’s defection to Rome, the two old men meet again with awe and affection.) Then Keble’s winning of a larger fame and influence with his best-selling “poems,” The Christian Year (1827). And the first fine careless rapture of the Tracts for the Times, their aspiration that the Church of England could be protected against all its encircling enemies: Romish beguilements, Low Church aridity, Broad Church liberalism (i.e. impiety). Then the shock of Newman’s remorseless strictness with himself, ending in his departure. And so into a series of tarnished controversies: the Gorham case (he being unsound on baptismal regeneration), the Colenso case (he doubting the literal accuracy of the Pentateuch).

In all this Keble seems to have been important and marginal. Important, because of his personal influence and prestige. Marginal, because in the end he was insufficiently interested in the one problem which the Oxford Movement was really about: authority. Whence the authority of Christian teaching? Not always from Scripture, but then from what institution? If the Church of England defied the ancient authority of Rome, on what grounds could it ask obedience to its own authority?

Keble alone of the three leaders of the Oxford Movement was not primarily concerned or convinced by this question of authority, although, of course, he regarded it as a matter of very great importance.

But in that case, what was Keble primarily concerned with? Hence the feeling that he was marginal. There is something appealing about his total unawareness of the level of mind at which Newman worked, but really what would a thinker think of this sort of thing? Keble’s conversation as summarized by Charlotte Yonge:

No doubt we could ask Roman Catholics many questions they could not answer, and they could ask us…

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