02 March 2019

Opening the church doors
to a prayer of welcome
by Bishop Thomas Ken

‘O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all’ … Bishop Thomas Ken’s prayer was inscribed on the doors of Saint Stephen’s Walbrook (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

We are planning a small celebration in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, tomorrow afternoon, to mark the completion of work on the façade and west front of the church.

The scaffolding has come down and as a parish we are ready to show the work to our neighbours and friends.

As I was preparing for this weekend’s celebrations, I found myself thinking a few times this week about a well-known prayer by Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711):

O God, make the door of this house
wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship,
and a heavenly Father’s care;
and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and hate.
Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children,
nor to straying feet,
but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power:
make it a gateway to thine eternal kingdom.

His prayer was inscribed on the door of Saint Stephen’s Church, Walbrook, in London, which I visited two weeks ago. The prayer is found in many sources, including the King’s Chapel Prayer Book at King’s Chapel, one of the oldest churches in Boston, and The Oxford Book of Prayer, edited by George Appleton, and is found inside the doors of many churches in the Church of England.

But Bishop Thomas Ken, who is one of the founding figures in Anglican hymnody, had an often-fraught relationship with the Church of England and was one of the non-juring bishops at the time of the Williamite Revolution.

Thomas Ken was born in 1637 at Little Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire. His father was Thomas Ken of Furnival’s Inn; his mother was the daughter of the poet John Chalkhill; and his stepsister Anne married Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler and biographer of key Caroline divines and poets, including George Herbert and John Donne.

Ken was educated at Winchester College, Hart Hall, Oxford, and New College, Oxford. He was ordained in 1662, and was the rector of parishes in Essex, the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, before returning to Winchester in 1672 as a prebendary of the cathedral, chaplain to the bishop and a fellow of Winchester College. There he prepared manuals on prayer and wrote many of his hymns, including ‘Awake, my soul, and with the sun,’ ‘Glory to thee, my God, this night’ and ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.’

Ken visited to Rome with Izaak Walton in 1674, and the journey seems to have in confirmed him in his commitment to Anglicanism.

King Charles II Ken appointed chaplain to Princess Mary, wife of William of Orange, in 1679. However, he incurred William’s displeasure at the court in The Hague, and when he returned to England in 1680 he was appointed one of the king’s chaplains.

When Charles II visited Winchester with his court in 1683, Ken refused to provide lodgings for Nell Gwynne, the king’s mistress. Later that year, he accompanied Lord Dartmouth to Tangier as chaplain to the fleet.

When the fleet returned, Charles II appointed Ken as Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was consecrated at Lambeth on 25 January 1685, and one of his first duties was to attend the king on his deathbed. That year he also published The Practice of Divine Love.

When James II issued the Declaration of Indulgence in 1688, Ken was one of the seven bishops who refused to publish it. Ken and the other his six bishops were sent to the Tower of London on charges of high misdemeanour, but were acquitted at their trial.

When the Williamite Revolution followed, however, Ken believed his sworn allegiance to James II prevented him from taking an oath of loyalty to William of Orange. He became one the non-jurors, and in 1691 he was replaced as Bishop of Bath and Wells by the Dean of Peterborough, Richard Kidder.

For the next 20 years, he lived in retirement as a guest of Lord Weymouth at Longleat in Wiltshire. There he wrote many of his famous hymns, including ‘Awake my soul.’

Queen Anne failed to persuade him to return to Bath and Wells when Bishop Kidder died in 1703, but he persuaded George Hooper to accept the vacant see. But at Hooper’s request, Queen Anne granted Ken a pension of £200. He died at Longleat on 19 March 1711.

One of Ken’s last sayings was, ‘I am dying in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West; and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation, and adheres to the Doctrine of the Cross.’

At dawn on 20 March 1711, while his friends sang ‘Awake, my soul,’ he was buried below the East Window of Saint John’s Church in Frome in Somerset, the nearest parish in the Diocese of Bath and Wells.

Thomas Ken is remembered in the Church of England with on 8 June and in the Episcopal Church on 20 March. He is also commemorated with a statue in a niche on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral.

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