300th Anniversary of the Death of Bishop Thomas Ken.

ST. JOHN'S CHURCH, FROME. May 14th 2011

“Give me the Priest these graces shall possess-

Of an ambassador the just address:

A father’s tenderness, a shepherd’s care.

A leader’s courage, which the cross can bear,

A ruler’s awe, a watchman’s wakeful eye,

A pilot’s skill, the helm in storms to ply:

A father’s patience, and a labourer’s toil

A guide’s dexterity to disembroil;

A prophet’s inspiration from above,

A teacher’s knowledge, and a Saviour’s love’

This poem about priesthood sums up for me the character of the man we have come to remember here in St.John’s on the 300th anniversary of his death in 1711:  Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells- a priest, a bishop, a man of God, a Statesman and a friend of the poor.

What kind of man was he? This is moderately easy to answer. In appearance, he was a small man, of dark complexion. Undoubtedly he was a very intelligent man, a Don, indeed. In temperament, he comes across as a shy, reserved, compassionate and sensitive man. He came from a wealthy, well connected family with links to izaak Walton, George Herbert and Nicholas Ferrar. As a Christian, Thomas Ken was a deeply committed Anglican with no truck with Roman Catholics but very little love of nonconformists either. Today we would call him a genuine High Church man, not an Anglo-Catholic. I would dare to say that we might characterise him an ‘evangelical Catholic’ but it is unwelcome to project such titles backwards. He was a Christian leader whose spirituality touched every part of his being.

But let’s dig a little deeper in this question: What kind of man was he?

I have already partly answered that, but we need to note that

1.   He was a man who lived his faith.  Right from his youth it seems he felt a strong calling to be a priest. He could so easily have stayed within the cosy circle of privilege that he shared in Berkhamstead but no real priest can do that. Faith is a gift to be shared and to be given away. Ken’s spirituality was very deep and nurtured through the scriptures, through the teaching and ministries of the Church, and then dispersed through his poems, hymns and writings. When I was bishop of Bath and Wells and often walked along the long pathway overlooking the farmland leading towards Glastonbury I often wondered if it was here on what is now called ‘Ken’s Walk’ that he wrote his hymns and poems? Was it there that his wonderful doxology ‘Praise God from all blessing flow’ emerged? Possibly. But Ken not only believed with fervency in the gospel, he lived it. The story that he always welcomed twelve poor men to dine with him every Sunday in itself is very impressive, but his life was an engagement with anything that challenged the faith he believed in: whether it was with challenging monarchs, judges and other authorities – he did so with enormous courage.

2.   He was a man who was a pastor and father.  Isn’t there a temptation these days for us to glorify days of yore, as if they were golden days, and that today is an age of ungodliness and unbelief without equal in the past? What nonsense! The 17th century was a century of enormous unrest. Articles of Visitations done by bishops reveal a time of appalling neglect, with many churches lacking proper altars, no surplices for the clergy, few prayer books and often no bibles. In some places no chalices or patens; buildings were neglected and many clergy were as ignorant of their faith as many of the people. It reminds me of what was said with Bishop King started his ministry in Lincoln in the 1870’s that ‘one third of his clergy were out of their minds, one third were going out of their minds, and the remaining third had no minds to go out of!’

Ken was appalled and wrote in 1685:’ Some never pray at all, pretending that they were never taught, or that their memories are bad, or that they are not book learned, or that they want the money to buy a book, and by this means they live and die rather like beasts than men’.

But Thomas Ken was not a man to give up. He set about educating both clergy and people. He set about writing devotional material for clergy and people; he preached and, by all accounts, he was a brilliant preacher who preached with passion. He sought to put an end to the practice of multiple livings. The diocese began to see the results as rates of clergy absentiism went down. From this desire for clergy improvement emerged his poem: ‘Give me the priest, these graces to possess’.

3.   He was a man with a social conscience. Ken saw very early on in his ministry that corruption at the top, filtered down to every of society. It is remarkable that this small, cultured and rather sensitive man was courageous to tangle sin wherever it was to be found. When Charles II visited Winchester and openly took his mistress, Nell Gwyn with him, it was His Majesty’s wish that she should take of Thomas Ken’s home. A weaker man would have kept silent and given way. Not so Ken. One commentator put it this way: ‘Whatever the lady’s charms and however human the sovereign’s failings, Ken knew sin when he saw it and he had the disconcerting habit of calling it by its name’.  And, curiously, it was that same Sovereign who wanted Thomas Ken to become bishop of Bath and Wells. Charles II said ‘Odd’s fish. Who shall have Bath and Wells, but the little black fellow who wouldn’t give poor Nellie a lodging’  If Ken could not bear to see privileged people undermining the morals of the country, he couldn’t bear to see others suffer, whether they shared the same faith or political aims or not.  Although he had no sympathy with the Duke of Monmouth cause and his rebellion against the King, he intervened when he saw the brutality given to the wretches caught by the Army and subjected to appalling abuse. Thousands were locked up in our churches in Somerset, and Ken represented all the best and noblest in England’s spirit of mercy and compassion. It was he indeed, who was with Monmouth on the scaffold when the duke was hanged.

4.   But here comes a fourth element which has a great surprise within it – He was a man of deep principles. For a good part of the second half of the 17th century two of the Monarchs, Charles II and James II,  had deep Roman Catholic sympathies. The previous one hundred years had seen war between England and Scotland as new protestant countries and the catholic countries of Europe clashed over religion. The tension between the faiths was political in nature. In 1687 James II, an open Roman Catholic, ordered all churches to read a Declaration of Indulgence, the effect of which would strengthen Catholicism in the country. Ken and six others refused and submitted a Petition to the King. Their disobedience was rewarded by being sentenced as traitors to the sovereign and were sent to the Tower. The people admired their courage and adherence to freedom. To this day in the corridors of Parliament two paintings of these seven non-Jurors may be seen. I rather think that the majority of the people who pass- including our MPs – haven’t a clue to what these paintings address and why seven bishops are singled out in this way! The paintings are there for a reason – they commemorate the courage to resist tyranny of any kind.  The sequel was dramatic. The king fled to the continent and William and Mary ascended the throne- two clear cut Protestants.

And this is the curious thing. Thomas Ken, although High Church and sympathetic to many Catholic customs, was deeply opposed to Roman Catholicism returning to England. Theologically, he welcomed the security that William brought- but he had given his allegiance, his oath, to first Charles and then James II. James was deposed but still living.  Because that sovereign was still alive Thomas could not swear an oath to another.  

Was Thomas Ken right to do so? I rather think not. Was not this  a principle carried too far? Some of us might think so – resulting in such a lost to the church and nation. For the final twenty years of his life, he languished without a ministry and this diocese deprived of a brilliant, caring, devoted pastor.

But I cannot but admire a man, a priest, a bishop, who has such deep principles at the heart of his very being.

And this takes us to the heart of this extraordinary man. In an age where everything had its price, in an age of widespread corruption and venality, Ken stood out as an Englishman without reproach. A man who loved God abundantly, a man to whom principle was everything and expediency nothing.

How we need more Ken’s today! Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said of his day that his society ‘knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing’? So it might seem as we consider our times also.

Ken teaches us that that the love of God is everything, and if you put that central in your life, everything else falls into place.

Sadly, Ken is little known today, even in his own church. He is remembered with a lesser Festival on June 8th each year. But here in St.John’s Frome he is remembered with affection and admired for his Christ-centred life.

“Give me the Priest these graces shall possess-

Of an ambassador the just address:

A father’s tenderness, a shepherd’s care.

A leader’s courage, which the cross can bear...


This why we celebrate his life today.

© George Carey