August 7th, John Mason Neale
Today is the feast day honoring John Mason Neale in “Lesser Feasts and Fasts.” A prominent scholar and writer of the Oxford movement, he was born in London in 1818 and attended Cambridge University where he came under the influence of the then emerging “high church” movement. He was a talented writer, but his greatest contribution to the church was his extraordinary ability to translate Greek and Latin texts into meaningful modern hymns.
I want to use his place in this movement to write about two particular dynamics of leadership, the ability to stand apart, and the ability to draw together. As I have looked at many movements in the history of Christianity, I noticed that the leader, or early leaders, of each movement show the particular ability to stand apart from the mainstream of the culture of the Church in their time. They persist on their vision and change often at the cost of great criticism, even personal criticism. Since criticism is not something that an intuitive feeling person like me, an NF in Meyers-Briggs terminology, can tolerate well, I know that starting something new and different is hard. That is why many of these leaders have been Intuitive thinking folks (NT’s). I would put people like St. Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and John Henry Newman is this category. The combination of intuition and thinking – “can’t you see the truth?” – gives them the ability to weather criticism and break from the flock (the current mindset) in a way that we feeling folks can only long for. Sometimes it seems that intuitive thinkers even thrive on criticism. This gives them the ability to persist in leading a movement that others simply cannot bear.
Having said this, however, it is important to realize that most effective movements in the Church have another component of success that is often overlooked, especially by the NT’s of our world. In the second layer of leadership, there is often a good “feeler” individual who can put to words and music the theology and philosophy of the movement in such a way that it can penetrate people’s hearts and then convert their minds. This is the other dynamic of being able to draw together. I believe John Mason Neale was one of these leaders in the Oxford Movement. It was his ability to use language to give voice and emotion to the vision that helped cement it into the culture.
I would also point to Charles Wesley as one of the major leaders who did the same thing for John Wesley and the Wesleyan Movement. While few Episcopalians identify with the theology of Wesley, yet, many still love to sing Charles’ hymns. These give voice to belief in Christ, longing for fellowship, and the desire for holiness that remains the great contribution of John and his followers. By the way, I have found that the same can be said of many Methodist; they reject the theology, but love the hymns.
This brings me to an important observation. When we look at the current movements in Christianity, and there are lots of them, we might ask how long lasting these will be? The answer may not rest in the current NT leaders, but in those who are able to give voice to the movement. This is one of the reasons that I believe much of the “Progressive Movement or Movements” of modern mainline Christianity will not endure for long. As one scholar has said, progressivism makes for a great criticism of the current status quo, put a poor substitute for it.
In summary, movements may be generated by intuitive thinking people, but unless the movement finds poets and songwriters along the way, there contributions may not last. When we remember John Mason Neale, we are reminded of this truth.