Just before half-term, I received a text from my older brother, John. He had, by chance, found out about an event taking place in St Swithun’s Church, East Grinstead, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of John Mason Neale. Did I want to attend?
John Mason Neale was our great-great-great grandfather, who lived in East Grinstead between 1846 and his death in 1866. I knew very little about him, other than that, when I was a boy, his name appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific writer and translator of hymns.
I knew that he wrote the Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’. I also remember, as a boy, the only previous occasion when I had visited St Swithun’s: to attend the opening of an extension to the convent founded by JMN near to the church. My only recollections of this event were that it rained a lot; the service seemed very long and the Greek Orthodox bishop taking the service, upon hearing that my brothers and I were related to JMN, took out his wallet and pulled out an image of an orthodox icon which he gave to us as a gift. I recall both of us were very disappointed, as we thought he was going to give us some money!
The celebration of JMN’s anniversary was well attended. A choral evensong, in St Swithun’s, was followed by a procession to his simple tomb and then a closing ceremony in the chapel of Sackville College, where he was Dean. My brother and I were then allowed a special visit into JMN’s study, which has been preserved intact, including the desk at which he wrote ‘Good King Wenceslas’. The occasion concluded with Pimms in the delightful 17th century courtyard of Sackville College.
What new did I learn about John Mason Neale? He was a man of amazing conviction who, in spite of persistent ill-health, worked with dedication in the service of others. He improved the accommodation lived in by the destitute residents of the alms houses at Sackville College. His restoration of the dilapidated college chapel, beautification of St Swithun’s and foundation of the first religious order since the reformation met with violent opposition from the puritanical populous of East Grinstead, who harboured memories of the three locals burnt at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary. This opposition included Neale being physically assaulted and almost being burnt alive himself. His service towards others gradually won over even his most violent opponents. Furthermore, he was an exceptional linguist, who learnt 21 languages. This enabled him to translate many ancient hymns which became popular all over the world. Neale found the tune of Good King Wenceslas in an obscure ancient Scandinavian text and added the words familiar to us all.
What JMN seems to have most valued was people. He was a loving parent in an era when fathers could be remote figures. He seems to have been a caring servant of his parishioners. It was evident from those who I spoke to at the commemoration that he is still revered today.
Such service to others is what makes a community. Those who put others before self, build the bonds that inspire service in others.