Robert Keable and Anglo-Catholicism

Robert Keable and Anglo-Catholicism

December 06, 2022

As I explain in my book, Utterly Immoral, Robert Keable made a number of religious journeys during his life, perhaps the most significant being his move from Low Church evangelical to High Church Anglo-Catholic. His father had been a late recruit to the Church, becoming a priest in his late forties. He and his wife were very puritanical, and Robert was happy throughout his childhood to embrace their values and way of life.

Robert becomes an Anglo-Catholic

It was at Cambridge, particularly under the influence of Monsignor RH Benson, that Robert was attracted to Catholicism. A friend at the time recorded Robert’s father making a special trip to Cambridge to warn Robert of the dangers of Roman Catholicism and to perhaps prevent him from leaving the Church of England. After gaining a First in History, Robert decided to train to be a priest at the Cambridge Training School – now called Westcott House – which then welcomed ordinands from all factions of the Church. Even there Robert toyed with Roman Catholicism and came down to breakfast one morning admitting he had nearly gone over to Rome that previous night.

With his father’s encouragement he had one try in a Low Church parish, working as a curate in Bradford. Despite enjoying a successful year, he was by now a committed Anglo-Catholic and wanted a post with perhaps the most influential Anglo-Catholic of his day – the Bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston. He spent over a year in Zanzibar and was there at the time of the Kikuyu affair when Bishop Weston accused two other bishops in Africa of heresy for participating in a communion service with Presbyterian missionaries.

By the time Robert arrived in Htlose, Basutoland (Lesotho), in 1915, he was a fully committed Anglo-Catholic. Canon Dove in his book Anglican Pioneers in Lesotho takes up the story.

Keable was an outstanding priest and during his time big changes took place in the Hltose parish. He was well remembered by people in the 1950s and everyone spoke of him as a devoted priest and strong personality having an able mind. He was already known in England as a junior leader in the Anglo-Catholic movement. Their movement not only inherited the Catholic theology of all the leaders of the Oxford movement in the Anglican Church in the last century, but also were interested and succeeded in introducing Catholic practises of a ceremonial nature with which the early missionaries in Basutoland had not been familiar.

Keable maintained the earlier round of services in English for the handful of white Anglicans at Htlose consisting of one celebration of the Holy Communion on one Sunday of the month and matins or evensong on the other Sundays when he was at home; but in the Sesotho services many changes were made, which suited his view of Christian worship, commended themselves to the Basotho Christian and which later became more or less common practice throughout the Anglican Church in Basutoland. So, we read in the registers of Solemn Evensong with incense, Requiem Mass, Children’s Eucharist and daily mass. The Lesser Saints Days were kept and the principal service on Sundays was a sung mass at 9:30am with elaborate ceremonial. He introduced the three hours devotion on Good Friday, devotions to the Blessed Sacrament, and processions of Corpus Christi, Palm Sunday and Our Lady. The ceremonies of the New Fire and the Paschal Candle at Easter began along the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the Asperges and Extreme Unction. There were guilds of the Church of Mary and of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1915 the Bishop blessed a tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament was reserved at the High Altar at Saint Saviours Church. A baldachino was erected over the altar and the holy oils were used in various ceremonies.

Not only was Robert interested in introducing Catholic rituals, but he was also, according to Canon Dove ‘a man of vision and a hard worker’. He successfully expanded the Church with a missionary zeal. When he arrived there had been about 160 communicants attending the main church at Easter, and by the time he left, in 1920, there were 430. In addition, at the three outstations – two of which he had set up, there were another 198 communicants on Easter day.

The rise of Anglo-Catholicism

When Robert became an Anglo-Catholic, before the First World War, that faction of the Church was clearly on the rise. However, not many years before there had been a sustained effort to ban Catholic rituals and drive members of the Oxford Movement out of the Church of England.

According to Desmond Morse-Boycott (1892-1979), clearly a fervent Anglo-Catholic, the Church of England was in a bad state before the Oxford Movement – a movement of High Church members – began.

[in the 1830s] England was a land of closed churches and unstoled clergy. The Sacraments were seldom, and often irreverently, administered. The altar was a mean table, …Art was weeping in the wilderness, and old churches were as disfigured as new ones were hideous. The parson was often an absentee, not infrequently a drunkard. Bishops filled their aprons with emoluments from sinecures, and did but little work. The rich went to church to doze in upholstered, curtained pews, fitted with fireplaces, while the poor were herded together on uncomfortable benches. … The Church got the clergy she deserved, comfortable fellows who thought more of the things of earth than the things of Heaven. … It is beyond argument that the Church was, broadly speaking, spiritually moribund and discredited utterly.

It was quite a struggle for Anglo-Catholics in the nineteenth century. For many it proved preferable to follow John Newman into the Roman Catholic Church. Robert’s friend RH Benson being one such person. His move was particularly newsworthy as his father, Edward Benson, had been Archbishop of Canterbury.

A backlash against Anglo-Catholicism led to the 1874 Public Worship Regulation Act being passed, in an attempt to outlaw ritualism. The Act was a private member’s bill introduced by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Tait, and supported by both the Prime Minister, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria. The Act allowed church wardens, or three adult members of the parish, to report a priest for altering or adding ‘to the fabric, ornaments or furniture’ of a church; for using ‘any unlawful ornament’; for failing to observe the ‘directions in the Book of Common Prayer’; or for making ‘unlawful addition to, alteration of, or omission from such services, rites and ceremonies.’ Once reported, if the bishop was so inclined, the matter could go to trial and indeed many clergymen were bought to court and five were imprisoned for contempt of court.

The law remained in place until it was repealed in 1965. Robert’s cousin, Geoffrey Keable, working as an Anglo-Catholic vicar at St. Georges in Canterbury in the 1930s was actually bought to trial under the act for moving the pews and altar in his church – without permission. He was fined for his behaviour although the judge agreed that the changes to the layout of his church were a considerable improvement. I suspect if the changes Robert had made to his church in Basutoland in 1915 had been attempted by Robert in a similar church in England he would also have been prosecuted.

Eventually, after the First World War, Anglo-Catholicism began to dominate the Church of England. The first Congress of Anglo-Catholics was held in 1921 in the Albert Hall, attracting many bishops, clergy and laity from around the world. Geoffrey Keable suggested that in the early 1920s:

The Anglo-Catholic party had the ball at their feet and could have converted the whole nation. Their priest numbers had acquitted themselves well in the trenches; there was a thought-out theology for lay people and priests alike; the Albert Hall Congress had demonstrated their zeal both for slum clearance and overseas missions.

A few years later Desmond Morse-Boycott spoke of how eminent Anglo-Catholics were found in every walk of life. Among others he listed the actress, Sybil Thorndike; politicians George Lansbury, Sir Samuel Hoare and Viscount Halifax; and priests Maurice Childs, Wilfred Knox and ‘Nippy’ Williams of Oxford. And he named the hero of the movement the by then late Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar who he called ‘man in a million’ and ‘of a century’. He confirmed my understanding that Robert Keable had been an up-and-coming star of Anglo-Catholicism, listing him amongst five others (RH Benson, Ronald Knox, Miss Sheila Kaye-Smith and Father Vernon) who had been lost to the cause. About Robert he wrote:

that devoted missionary priest and writer of spiritual treatises, Robert Keable, better known to the general public as the author of a dreadful book called Simon called Peter.

The heyday of Anglo-Catholicism and Maurice Child

Robert left the priesthood in 1920 so he does not appear on lists today of significant post WW1 Anglo-Catholics. One man who does is Maurice Child who along with Ronald Knox and Samuel Gurney founded the Society of SS. Peter and Paul in 1910. The Society was an example of the public face of the Anglo-Catholic movement – according to David Hilliard – militant and uncompromising. The society made fun of bishops and annoyed the authorities by advocating liturgical practices and popular devotions of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. It was also behind the Anglo-Catholic congresses expounding the Catholic position to huge and enthusiastic audiences.

Maurice Child who later became general secretary of the Anglo-Catholic organisation was seen as the ‘mystery man’ of the Anglo-Catholic movement. According to David Hilliard:

[He] was regarded by critics as a flippant and pleasure-loving "sybarite" and by admirers as a dedicated priest of remarkable ability. Child was of a type that popped up regularly in Anglo-Catholic circles between the wars. A strong believer in clerical celibacy, he was also rich, witty, versatile, a bon viveur – nicknamed ‘the Playboy of the Western Church’. In London he lived with a male companion at a succession of fashionable addresses, where he entertained friends from many different walks of life. His glittering parties bore little resemblance to the usual clerical social gatherings. At one of them a young visitor was startled to see the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity from Oxford in conversation over a cocktail with the film actress Tallulah Bankhead. As a skilled counsellor, an old friend recalled after his death in 1950, his ‘greatest forte was with young men’.

I mention Maurice Child because intriguingly he is mentioned in Geoffrey Keable’s autobiography. Geoffrey remembers him appearing at Cuddeston, in Oxford, where Geoffrey was training to become a priest:

One day I met in the corridor at Cuddeston an extraordinary creature dressed for the hunting field complete with stock and breaches, it was Maurice Child the aesthete Anglo-Catholic priest who had been chosen by Queen Mary to rescue the Prince of Wales from the wildest excesses. He was supposed to be the prince's confessor and certainly was his instructor in the practise of the Christian religion. He was one of the influential priests responsible for the first Anglo-Catholic Congress, its pamphlets and follow up and under the nom de guerre of Mauricius Infans, had written a great many propaganda pamphlets. He was also instrumental in getting many important churches dolled up in a pseudo baroque style.    

It certainly showed how far the Anglo-Catholic movement had progressed. Queen Victoria tried to ban it, and yet, less than fifty years later, Queen Mary was asking the movement’s most vocal supporter to act as the future – short reigning – King Edward VIII’s, instructor. But for some Anglo-Catholics it was men like Maurice Child who prevented their movement from succeeding.

The end of Anglo-Catholic dominance

Robert Keable ultimately left the Church because he lost his faith. However, throughout his time as an Anglo-Catholic priest he was tempted to leave to join the Roman Catholic Church. His main character in his novel Peradventure propounded his dilemma:

Either the Holy Ghost has kept silence as to the essential authority of the Church till He showed it to Anglo-Catholics seventy years ago, the devil triumphing meanwhile or … or it is all a lie.

Geoffrey Keable was a staunch Anglo-Catholic and self-confessed socialist throughout his life. He was heavily influenced by both Frank Weston and, later, Conrad Noel the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted. He wrote about why he believed the Anglo-Catholic movement failed.

The ordinary decent Englishman of those days regarded as supremely abhorrent anyone who breathed out an atmosphere of homosexuality. It was this weakness which was so prevalent among a whole group of Anglo-Catholics with priests or their favourite Laymen. The other snag which stopped the success of the party was their insufferable arrogance and superiority. Parishes were classed by a number of points – was there a daily Mass? Was incense used at the Sunday Eucharist? Was the Blessed sacrament reserved? And there were three or four more. Instead of being glad that these helps were there for the building up of laity, this section of the party looked down on anyone who had not scored the requisite number of points. So, it came about that in spite of the heroic lives of priests who worked in the slums of London or the industrial north and the careful teaching and organisation in scores of Anglo-Catholic parishes, England was not converted, and the opportunity was missed.

Articles / books used include:

Dove, Canon R, Anglican Pioneers in Lesotho Some Account of the Diocese of Lesotho, 1876-1930, Anglican Diocese of Lesotho 1975

Hilliard, David, Unenglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality: Victorian Studies, Winter, 1982, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Winter, 1982), pp. 181-210 Published by: Indiana University Press

Keable, Geoffrey, The Expanding Horse, an autobiography of Geoffrey Keable, unpublished

Keable, Robert, Peradventure, Constable, 1922

Morse-Boycott, Desmond Lionel, Lead, Kindly Light: Studies of the Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement, Macmillan 1933