It must be more than a dozen years ago that I met with a small pamphlet entitled Christian Experience throughout the Centuries. It was the report of an address delivered before the Assembly of the Congregational Union, I believe, and the title-page bore the name of Bernard L. Manning, M.A., Fellow and Bursar of Jesus College, Cambridge. I had never heard of Mr. Manning before, but the booklet was of such an extraordinary excellence that I began to look out for anything else that he had written. The next discovery came in 1933 when the London Quarterly and Holborn Review published an article under the title Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists'. This was a paper which had been read to the University Methodist Society at Cambridge a few months before. Now the early part of it was especially interesting to me, not only as a native of Lincolnshire, but because it gave some details of Mr. Manning's early life. I remembered that when I lived in Lincoln between 1911 and 1914, one of the Congregational ministers of the city was the Rev. George Manning. Evidently the writer was his son. I continued to read everything that Mr. Manning wrote, and in The Spirit of Methodism I paid him a sincere tribute of admiration. I am very glad now that I did, and I am also glad that I saw him once, when I was on a visit to Cambridge, and my friend the Rev. W. F. Flemington was good enough to invite Mr. Manning to lunch, so that we could meet. As one would expect, he was the most modest of men. Any one might have thought on that occasion that it was he, and not I, who was having the privilege of meeting a man of genius. I went on reading, and recommending to my friends, everything that bore Mr. Manning's name -- his two books, Why not abandon the Church? and Essays in Orthodox Dissent, and his various articles and addresses. Then a few months ago came the sad news of his untimely death -- in my deliberate judgement, the most serious loss that religion in this country has suffered for years past.
Bernard Manning was a religious genius, and one of a very uncommon type. He was a unique combination -- a scholar, a wit, a writer with a remarkably effective English style, and an Evangelical believer. It is not often that you find any one who is all these things at once. His scholarship was never obtruded, but it was always behind all that he wrote. His pleasantly acid wit was a perpetual joy: no one ever poked fun more delightfully at the follies and pretensions of unbelief and at the timidities of conventional religion. But, deeper than all this, there was beneath all that he ever wrote the soul-stirring passion of the Evangelical faith and the Evangelical experience.
Methodism owes a special debt of gratitude to Bernard Manning. I have tried, for forty years past, to recall Methodists to a sense of the greatness of their spiritual heritage in the hymns of the Wesleys. In these hymns we possess a unique treasury of devotional poetry, but we have been neglecting this, and singing instead the flabby and sentimental verses of modern poetasters. It was Bernard Manning, a devoted member of another communion, who told us again of the supreme excellence of our Methodist hymns, and said that the Collection of 1780 ranks with the Psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, the Canon of the Mass. In its own way it is perfect, unapproachable, elemental in its perfection ... a work of supreme art by a religious genius'.
It is pathetic to remember that the last printed words from Bernard Manning's pen are a sermon preached in Cheshunt College Chapel not very long before he died -- a sermon on The Burial of the Dead, afterward printed in the Congregational Quarterly. At the end of it he quotes some triumphant lines of Charles Wesley's, and nothing could be more appropriate as our farewell to this very gifted man, who was a humble and penitent believer:
No, dear companion, no:
We gladly let thee go,
From a suffering church beneath,
To a reigning church above:
Thou hast more than conquered death;
Thou art crowned with life and love!