Worship at Atonement
Image by Tobias S. Haller, BSG
There are many “notables” in the August church calendar. Among them are John Mason Neale, Dominic, Laurence, Jeremy Taylor, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bernard, Bartholomew, Thomas Gallaudet, Henry Winter Syle, Augustine of Hippo, and Aidan. A personal favorite of mine for his Anglo Catholic ways and his founding of an Anglican Religious Order, John Mason Neale is the subject of this month’s cover letter.
John Mason Neale wrote the song that is often sung on the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26) — “Good King Wenceslaus” — and other hymns. As a translator, however, he brought us the poetry and hymns of the Fathers of the Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. John of Damascus and others, especially the Fathers of the East. He also translated the works of the great Prudentius (“Corde natus ex parentis”/”Of the Father’s Love Begotten”) and Venantius Fortunatus (“Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis”/“Sing my tongue the glorious battle” and “Vexilla regis prodeunt”/“The Royal banners forward go”). So Neale’s hymn translations are often a part of our liturgical celebrations of the Church year. In the Hymnal 1982, he is credited with writing or translating some 45 hymns.
He was an Anglican who was influenced by the Oxford Movement while studying at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. He continued the work of Blessed John Henry Newman and the other Tractarians in bringing the Fathers of the Church back to influence the doctrine and liturgy of the Church of England. Neale not only translated the poetry of the Eastern Church, however, but also wrote about its history.
John Mason Neale did not, however, follow Newman into the Roman Catholic Church. Neale remained an Anglican and faced the great opposition of Church and State against his Anglo-Catholic, High Church ideas and projects.
In 1854, nine years after John Henry Newman had left for Rome, Neale founded a religious order for Anglican women, the Society of Saint Margaret. The idea of a convent, even of active sisters, serving the sick and poor, was too much for some. Neale was attacked at a funeral for one of the sisters in Lewes and there was a riot, just three years after the order’s founding.
During his lifetime, Neale received no great honors from his church in spite of his good works and contributions to scholarship. Instead, he faced opposition and suspicion from his bishop because he was thought to be too “Roman” Catholic and perhaps even a secret Catholic working within the Church of England.
John Mason Neale died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1866 when he was 48 years old. He is remembered on the calendar on August 7.
The Sisters of St. Margaret Mother House is in Duxbury, MA, where our former interim priest, Fr. Daniel Dice, serves as Rector of St. John the Evangelist Church.
Br. Ronald A. Fox, BSG, ThM