An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Frederick Faber
Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 22nd June 2011
Most Irish people over the age of 50 will be familiar with the work of Frederick Faber—even if they have never gone to church. Each year at the GAA All Ireland Final matches at Croke Park, his hymn ‘Faith of our Fathers’ was sung by the assembled tens of thousands. An English hymn by an English writer, it became associated with traditional Irish Catholicism; a far remove from Frederick Faber’s origins.
Frederick Faber’s spiritual journey was a complex one. Born in a Yorkshire rectory, where his grandfather was incumbent, Faber enjoyed a rural upbringing. Attending school in Co Durham for a short time, much of his childhood was spent in Westmorland. From a comfortably wealthy background, he was sent to Harrow School and then gained a place at Balliol College at Oxford University; in 1835 he gained a scholarship to University College, Oxford. Faber was establishing himself as a promising writer, becoming a friend of William Wordsworth. When he told Wordsworth of his intention to be ordained in the Church of England, Wordsworth responded, “I do not say you are wrong; but England loses a poet”.
Faber had grown up in a Calvinist tradition, but became attracted by the Oxford Movement, with its emphasis upon beauty and ritual and tradition; he was an enthusiastic adherent of the views of John Henry Newman. A journey through Europe in 1841 seems to have done much to shape his views, and in shaping his views to have shaped his future. In 1842, he published a book called Sights and Thoughts in Foreign Churches and among Foreign Peoples, it was dedicated to William Wordsworth.
Faber found in the churches he had visited in Europe a sense of the presence of God; in the ceremony and the vestments and the liturgy of the Roman Catholic churches he visited he found something he believed to be lacking in the Church of England, which was dry and formal and cerebral. He published a series of a dozen tracts, celebrating those aspects of the church he believed were vital to its life and pointing out what he believed to be is faults.
In 1843, he was appointed as incumbent of the parish of Elton in Huntingdonshire. He sought to bring into his church the spirituality and the worship he had found during his European travels and which had come to mean so much to him. There was strong opposition to such ritualism in the parish—opposition attributed to a strong Methodist presence in the village. It is hard to imagine that John Wesley would have countenanced anyone going to a church in order to pour scorn on the clergyman , but it is claimed that dissidents packed the church each Sunday in order to ridicule Faber’s Catholic way of doing things.
The opposition he encountered pained Faber, particularly as the village had a name for immorality. In retrospect, his opponents seem like those in Northern Ireland who would declare themselves to be upholding the Protestant cause while having no regard for the beliefs or the ethics of the churches to which they claim to belong. There is certainly no basis in Methodism, a tradition that was so named because of its methodical discipline, for double standards or immorality.
Perhaps his inclination was to leave anyway, but in 1845, Faber joined the Roman Catholic church. His departure was a loss to the Church of England; he had been a good and faithful parish priest and was a gifted writer.
Faber was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1847 and threw himself whole heartedly into his new ministry, working as a translator and writer of spiritual and theological books, as well as founding a religious community. Faber took with him two distinctive Protestant characteristics. One was a love of the King James Version of the Bible, of which he wrote, “It lives on in the ear like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert hardly knows he can forget.” The other characteristic, which Faber himself acknowledges, is the sense of there being a need for hymns in English that would be available to ordinary Catholic people. He realizes what a powerful influence had been exercised in Protestant circles by the work of the Wesleys and John Newton and William Cowper, though it seems that he regards hymns as being for reading rather than for singing. This is what he wrote in an 1849 preface to his book of hymns:
“It seemed then in every way desirable that Catholics should have a hymn-book for reading, which should contain the mysteries of the faith in easy verse, or different states of heart and conscience depicted, with the same unadorned simplicity, for example, as the “O for a closer walk with God ” of the Olney Hymns; and that the metres should be of the simplest and least intricate sort, so as not to stand in the way of the understanding or enjoyment of the poor; and this has always been found to be the case with anything like elaborate metre, however simple the diction and touching the thoughts might be. The means of influence which one school of Protestantism has in Wesley’s, Newton’s, and Cowper’s hymns, and another in the more refined and engaging works of Oxford writers, and which foreign Catholics also enjoy in the Cantiques and Laudi, are, at present at least, unfortunately wanting to us in our labours among the hymn-loving English”.
Faber worked hard to remedy what he believed to be a deficiency—publishing three volumes of hymns, which, despite his 1849 comments, he intended for congregational use.
Faber’s health was never robust and he died from illness in 1863 at the age of 49, leaving a legacy that would reach across denominational boundaries.
Three of his hymns found a place in our hymnbook: ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy‘ reflects a comment from Faber that, “kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.”
The other two in the book, ‘Hark, hark, my soul’, a hymn sung at the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels’, with its sense of the angelic presence, and ‘My God, how wonderful thou art’, are a reflection of the Catholic tradition to which Faber belonged. There is a sense in the latter of the wonder and the awe that Faber sought in worship. There is a sense of the vision of God we find in Scripture:
. . . thy majesty how bright,
how beautiful thy mercy seat,
in depths of burning light!
How wonderful, how beautiful,
the sight of thee must be,
thine endless wisdom, boundless power,
and aweful purity!
This is a vision of God’s presence to which we should all aspire. Perhaps it was too challenging for the parishioners of Elton; perhaps such a God would disturb their lives, so they turned their backs. Some clergy, like Faber, followed Newman in becoming Roman Catholics, but many more stayed as part of a Catholic renewal of the Church of England.
Sometimes churches need people like Faber, people who have deep convictions about God, convictions so deep that, if necessary, they will leave. It is interesting that Faber notes the strong influence of the Wesleys, knowing that John Wesley also parted company with the church that had been his spiritual home.
Faber wrote at one point, “They always win who side with God.” It is a challenging question to ask ourselves, do we side with God? Or do we assume God is on our side?
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