The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology
The Oxford Movement (Bill Fraatz, 2004)
Bill Fraatz, 2004
The middle third of the Nineteenth Century was a time of tremendous theological development in the Church of England (C of E). The primary outlines of the Anglican Communion as it exists today were shaped by and in reaction to a handful of Oxford academicians (hence the term “Oxford Movement”) who are referred to as the “Tractarians,” a name derived from a series of 90 Tracts for the Times which they published anonymously between 1833 and 1841. Some are quite short and others are book length. In the standard collected edition they require five volumes to reproduce. Several of the Tractarians contributed to theological discussions in other forms, most notably John Henry Newman, John Keble and Edward Pusey. Together, the Tractarians successfully reintroduced into the C of E a positive appreciation for the catholic heritage which it had, thereby influencing future generations of Anglican theologians and parish priests, reshaping worship, and providing Anglicanism with a self-identity as a part of the Catholic Church alongside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
It is essential to understand the social situation of the C of E at the turn of the 19th C in order to grasp the significance of the Oxford Movement (OM). The C of E had for three centuries been the established church in England, enjoying privileges and bearing responsibilities which other denominations did not have. Of particular relevance to the OM, only members of the C of E were allowed seats in Parliament and places in Oxford and Cambridge (then the only two universities in England). The C of E had pastoral responsibilities for the whole kingdom, including the care of those only nominally attached to the Church. Its typical expression tended to be formalistic, non-Eucharistic worship, Reformed in its public appearance, even if it lacked the quality of preaching evident among Dissenting (from the C of E) denominations. Reform efforts in the 18th Century had lasting effects on the English religious scene. An Evangelical Anglicanism influenced many, including the household in which Newman was raised. Methodism, which had begun with the C of E, had left the established Church after the deaths of John and Charles Wesley (both of whom died Anglican priests). In particular Methodists were frequently the only viable church option in certain parts of the country, where new population centers grew in areas where the C of E lacked a historic presence and the financial wherewithal to be effective. A “high church” party deeply devoted to the hierarchy and Book of Common Prayer provided an influential, even if numerically small, counterweight. But the majority of the church was under the sway of a lax latitudinarianism, seemingly committed to little more than the regular perfunctory performance of a liturgy which was not expected to move worshippers in any decided manner.
To understand the life of the C of E at this juncture it is essential to see that it existed in the middle of the religious options available in England since the Reformation of the 16th C. In the 16th C the Crown in Parliament separated England from the spiritual jurisdiction of Rome. A legal fiction was created to suggest that since the time of Magna Carta (1215) the Church in England was free of papal interference, even if it had not always acted free. Over a period of two decades (1534-53) in a series of measured steps the separation from Rome was accomplished. Unlike the Reformations on the Continent, the English Reformation met with nearly wholesale complicity among the hierarchy. Although religious communities were suppressed, the basic structure of the Church was maintained—episcopacy was not abandoned, nor were practices of plural livings (i.e. a cleric holding multiple parish or administrative positions which could not all be performed, but for which all stipends were paid) and appointments to benefices (i.e. the power to place a cleric in office being held by a non-ecclesiastical person or institution). The doctrinal positions of the C of E were in theory articulated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, glossed by the 39 Articles of Religion, which dealt with 16th C controversies in less than decisive language. The main articles to note with reference to the OM were those dealing with Scripture (nothing can be required for faith unless it is demonstrable for the Scriptures and no part of Scripture should be so interpreted as to be repugnant to another part), the fact that the church has in the past erred, the nature of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist together with the denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the rejection of other corruptions such as Adoration of the Sacrament and the invocation of saints. Finally, the liturgy retained the basic format of monastic hours with offices for Morning and Evening Prayer, and language of a decidedly Catholic bent in Holy Communion. The task to which the C of E devoted itself was that of providing a comprehensive framework within which a wide range of theological opinion could be accommodated, while maintaining common worship.
From the beginning there was opposition to the C of E from differing sides. Roman Catholics objected to the structural break with Rome, as well as the Reformed tone of some of the Articles. The five-year reign of Mary Tudor (Henry VIII’s daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon) saw a temporary reversion to Rome, together with the martyrdoms of some 300 leading Anglicans, including Thomas Cranmer, the Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury and compiler of the Prayer Book. This Catholic opposition was given damning assistance by a papal bull releasing Catholics from their allegiance to Elizabeth, the new Queen, encouraging them to revolt against her (as occurred in the Northern Rebellion of 1569) and promising absolution to any Roman Catholic who murdered her. (Cross, 39-41) The resulting suspicion of Roman Catholics which pervaded her entire reign was as much political and personal as it was religious. Roman Catholics were largely barred from participation in public life. These disabilities were maintained in the following centuries and reached a fevered pitch when James II, who converted to Roman Catholicism prior to his accession, was deposed by Parliament in 1688.
From the side of thoroughgoing Protestantism the C of E was attacked for its lack of Biblical adherence. Briefly stated, C of E taught that where the Bible was silent the Church was empowered to decide matters; Dissenters (largely of Presbyterian and Congregationalist orientation) taught that where the Bible was silent the Church should refrain from acting. Matters such as the giving of a wedding ring in Holy Matrimony caused strife. It is essential to understand that Dissenters prior to the 18th C were not proponents of freedom of worship; they sought to reform the C of E along Calvinist lines and to enforce this Calvinism on the kingdom. The English Civil War saw the brief ascendancy of Dissent from 1642-1660. Many Anglican leaders went into exile with the Royal Family or into hiding with noble families in England. In an irony which was not lost on Anglicans, when the Book of Common Prayer was banned by Parliament, the last legal service was the burial of Archbishop William Laud, who in January 1645 (new calendar) was executed in accordance with of a Parliamentary bill of attainder, following his acquittal at trial. The similar execution of Charles I by Parliament in January 1649 (new calendar) left the C of E a “royal martyr.” (Following the Restoration of the monarchy with the accession of Charles II, son of the murdered king, a day of national fasting was observed annually by the C of E on January 30th until 1851.)
Although the succeeding centuries saw a lessening of these tensions, both Dissenters and Anglicans settled into laxer forms of religion, the C of E retained its privileged position in society as the established church: Reformed in its practice of worship, Catholic in its structure, and medieval in its institutional life. Essential doctrine was based in Scripture that was presumed to speak with a unified voice. The Church’s authority in all other matters was asserted in the Articles of Religion and in the Prayer Book. It perceived itself as middle way between the extremes of a rigid Calvinism and a dangerous Romanism. It was tied to the Crown in polity and through the ordination oath of loyalty. Although claiming to be the church of the whole kingdom, it neglected large areas – particularly new urban expansion brought about by industrialization – where historic endowments did not exist. Bishops, who enjoyed virtually complete power in national church life, were, as members of the House of Lords, part and parcel of the political establishment and some local clergy were frequently prominent in their communities. Plural livings and absenteeism were widespread, resulting in lack of quality pastoral care in still more areas.
Reform of this increasingly formal and stagnant church life was a growing concern. In the 1820s there was a confluence of potential reformers at Oriel College in Oxford. As members of the clergy and senior members of the college they lived and ate together and shared chapel life every morning and evening. Thus, it was in Oriel that John Keble (the University Professor of Poetry), Edward Pusey (Regius Professor of Hebrew), and John Henry Newman (soon to become Vicar of the University Church) met and were drawn into close personal friendship and common concern for the C of E. But they were academicians, and their concern lacked a spark which could light a fire.
The specific occasion which marks the beginning of the Oxford Movement was a sermon preached by Keble on July 14, 1833. As an event, “National Apostasy” had the same character as Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Keble was reacting to an act of the new parliament which, due to the Reform Bill of 1832, was the first to include Dissenters and Roman Catholics. The Irish Temporalities Act suppressed 10 Anglican sees in Ireland, a country with an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic populace decidedly unappreciative of the centuries of subjection it had endured from England. The issue was not the merits of the suppression; indeed, had the C of E decided to consolidate its own dioceses there is little likelihood that Keble or anyone else would have reacted strongly. The dioceses were, in fact, superfluous. But Keble was roused by the Parliamentary means by which this move was made. The C of E found itself under the control of a Parliament which could no longer be assumed to be even nominally Anglican. There was a very real prospect of non-Anglicans legislating the life of the Anglican Church. Furthermore, only three years prior to this, the French king, Charles X, had been overthrown and vast Roman Catholic Church holdings had been nationalized in France. In the cloistered confines of Oriel College, fear of revolutionary change was not inordinate.
What came into clear focus at Oriel was the need to articulate convincingly the basis of the life of the C of E and to revive the sense of engaged faith in its adherents. Joined by others, but under the leadership of Keble, Pusey and Newman, a loose fellowship of scholars became a movement. Together they published The Tracts for the Times, a series of 90 pieces on various subjects. (Although initially published anonymously, authorship of the various tracts was later established; Newman wrote 28, Keble 8, and Pusey 7.) They preached erudite sermons, especially in St. Mary’s, the University Church, where as preachers they stood in the very place where three centuries earlier Archbishop Cranmer had been tried and convicted of heresy just before his martyrdom by burning at the stake a few feet down the road. They, especially Newman, wrote several books supporting their views.
Each of the three leaders made their own contributions, but they enjoyed wide consensus in many areas. Addressing his fellow presbyters, in Tract No. 1, itself a relatively short four pages in the standard edition, Newman posed the question of wherein the basis of the C of E lay. The answer in brief is articulated in terms of tactile apostolic succession. The C of E was not a department of government. It understands itself as the Church established by Christ and still connected to him through the unbroken line of episcopal ordination, what Newman calls “apostolic descent” (Tracts, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 2). To establish his argument Newman appeals to the Ordinal (i.e. the liturgy of ordination) where with the laying on of the bishop’s hands ministerial office is conferred as the Holy Spirit is given to the ordinand. He denies straightforwardly that any not thus ordained are truly ordained, because they have failed to follow the means given by Christ. Indeed, the tract oozes genuine disregard for Dissenting ministers, who Newman dismisses as “creatures” of their congregations (2). An exhortation to honor one’s bishop is followed by an urgent appeal to revival of clerical zeal: “Choose your side; since side you shortly must” (4).
As strongly as the belief in apostolic succession is stated, one senses that the Tractarians knew that by itself the doctrine did not establish a basis for church life. Connected to succession, but distinguishable from it, a core of ideas emerge. True to the Reformation principle of the sufficiency of Scripture, they turn first and indeed foremost to the Bible for their ideas. Whatever was happening in Germany, English scholarship was still largely pre-critical in its handling of Scripture. The Bible was heard to speak with a unified voice. The central doctrine of the Bible is understood to be the Incarnation, prefigured in the Old Testament, reported in the Gospels, and proclaimed in the remainder of the New Testament. The historic episcopate provides ongoing access to the apostolic preaching. There is no an assertion of episcopal infallibility; that the church has erred is firmly articulated in Article 19. Indeed, if the church had not erred, the rationale for the Reformation would have been attenuated.
But even if the Tractarians did not think the Church was protected from error, they were convinced that there was a consensus of teaching in the Patristic period (where most of the leading theologians were also bishops) which could be relied upon. In that consensus they saw truth emerging more clearly as the Church became more capable of grasping what was first revealed. Thus, doctrinal formulations in Christology and Trinitarianism were more a process of clarifying than of inventing. They did not defy the evidence by claiming that every Patristic writer was in nascent agreement with later formulas; rather, they asserted that genuine agreement was largely, even if imperfectly, present. They understood this in terms of the Vincentian canon (from Vincent of Lerins): the catholic faith is that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. They did not press for exactitude when they applied this rule, and that would become a stumbling point for Newman in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
The Tractarians also continually asserted the importance of the idea of the C of E as a middle way between the extremes of Calvinism and Roman Catholicism. The notion of the via media should be seen in two lights. First, there is a simpler question of polity. The C of E had the task of incorporating as much of the population in its life as was possible. This made imprecise statements of doctrine a useful strategy to allow a wide range of people to understand their own meanings to be the intent of words used in liturgy, even if they had to concede that an alternate meaning was also possible. Thus, the words of administration at Holy Communion say “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ … feed on him in thy heart by faith...” In these words one can find either hopeless ambiguity or incredible genius: both decidedly Reformed and Catholic views can be held about what is involved in Eucharistic action by those who say them. But the via media was more than a clever gimmick. It was a profound refusal to go the way of rationalism. Both traditional Roman Catholic transubstantiation and Reformed spiritual presence (which, because it suggested a change in the believer, rather than in the elements, appeared to the Tractarians to be a doctrine of “real absence”) theories missed the profound sacramentalism that the Tractarians found imbedded in the Eucharist. Sacramentalism was not opposed to the real, but to the natural (Rowell, 19). To the Tractarians, transubstantiation asked people to believe the absurd. But the Reformed denial that Christ was really present in the sacrament was a refusal of a divine gift. The via media was a way to affirm the truthfulness of both sides in a way that did not entail the acceptance of the errors of overstatement by either side.
The sacramental understanding of the Tractarians is a key to seeing how they thought about the life of the Church. They articulated the need for both individual and corporate faith, joining together the best impulses of Protestantism and Catholicism. In baptism one is made part of the Church as the Body of Christ. As part of that Body of Christ the baptized are to be individually transformed by the Word. The Tractarians thus refuse the propriety of the question of “what suffices” to make one a Christian, because it is a turning away from the call to holiness. To ask, “how little do I need to do to be saved?” is to miss the point. Similarly, although as a whole the Tractarians encouraged frequent communion (as opposed to a typical pattern of quarterly reception), they sought a return to auricular confession as a guard against unworthy reception. Sacramental life was not a substitute for, but rather an aid to, holiness.
Yet Newman became increasingly uneasy with the Tractarian perspective. He tried twice to resolve his difficulties. In Tract No. 90 he tried to articulate an interpretation of the 39 Articles in a decidedly Catholic manner. The principle of the argument can be easily stated: Although the Articles at times have a largely Protestant tone, they are ambiguous, and the Reformers gave the C of E a liturgy that was still largely Catholic, while retaining the ancient creeds and orders of the undivided Church. We cannot necessarily know what the Reformers intended, but we can see what they did and a Catholic view is therefore appropriate. The argument was widely rejected outside of Tractarian circles and was actually condemned by the Bishop of Oxford, among others. Having earlier argued that bishops provided a direct link back to the apostles, Newman was in a bind. It is not surprising that no more tracts were written after this. Newman’s second attempt received form in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. As he wrote the book he essentially wrote himself out of his sympathies for the Church of England and into those of Roman Catholicism. Newman was deeply troubled by the failure of the Vincentian canon actually to account for the Patristic data. To Newman the notion of a consensus of the Fathers did not explain how Vincent was helpful when it was manifestly not the case that doctrines were held everywhere, by all, and always. Furthermore, Newman also found flaws in the notion of the via media. Sitting in the middle is no virtue if the truth is decidedly with one side or another in a debate. If the via media was always proper, should not the Arian controversy have been won by the Semi-Arians, rather than by Athanasius? (We might want to ask if in fact they did not win!) No, via media by itself was not helpful. In 1845 the publication of the Essay and Newman’s reception into the Roman Church were nearly coterminous. Two years later he was ordained a priest and eventually was elevated to the College of Cardinals.
But it is worthwhile noting that the Oxford Movement continued even after Newman’s departure for Rome; his hopes of bringing fellow Tractarians with him for his swim across the Tiber did not materialize. Perhaps the primary reason they remained is that they did not feel the force of Newman’s qualms. Both Keble and Pusey were deeply committed to holiness and could not consider it as an abstraction rather than as a lived reality. Given their personal sensibilities, holiness was fostered more by an Anglican ethos, than by a Roman one. They also were unwilling to allow the Church to define as necessary for salvation that which went beyond the clear warrant of Scripture. They might agree with Newman that a dogma such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary could be linked to the doctrine of the Incarnation, but they would not concede that its Scriptural basis was clear. Indeed, although sympathetic to many Roman Catholic practices to which the C of E had historically objected (e.g. Keble on adoration of the sacrament as an extension of Incarnationalism, cf. Article 25 “not ordained by Christ to be gazed upon”), the remaining Tractarians would distinguish between devotional practices and doctrine, a principle that remains a bulwark of contemporary Anglicanism. Despite Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, a genuine respect continued to exist between the leading Tractarians. It is perhaps fortunate that none lived to see the day when Pope Leo XIII, having divined a lack of sacramental intention on the part of Archbishop Parker in the 16th Century, declared Anglican orders to be null and void.
The Oxford Movement endured for the lives of Keble (d. 1866) and Pusey (d. 1882), but gave way to a more liturgical and parochial revival of Catholic thinking and practice in the C of E and growing worldwide Anglican Communion. The reintroduction of Eucharistic vestments and heightened ceremonial yielded what is today referred to as “high church” liturgy. As hard as it is to believe, some priests were actually imprisoned for using candles on their altars (not tables). Today this is the presumed style of most Anglican congregations, at least in the Western world. Priests who shunned the conservative tendencies of the Tractarians went into the slums of the large cities to work with the destitute, who a previous generation of Anglicans had abandoned to the Methodists. Within two generations of “National Apostasy” some of the major Christian Socialists were Anglo-Catholic clergy. Perhaps a visual illustration will provide the greatest sense of the change the Tractarians brought about. An early 19th episcopal tomb in Salisbury Cathedral depicts the ministry of its inhabitant. The bishop is seen confirming, ordaining, preaching and speaking in the House of Lords. Today, the first task mentioned in the charge to one being ordained bishop is to celebrate the sacraments of the new covenant, something the tomb never showed at all.
John Keble (1792-1866) was the eldest of the three Tractarian leaders. Raised in a high church rectory he was a fellow of Oriel College and Professor of Poetry in the University. His Christian Year is a collection of poems celebrating the Church Calendar. First published in 1827, it went though nearly 50 editions prior to his death (Rowell 27). Keble insisted that theology was the commingling of reason and holiness; genuine theology must be prayable. He understood faith to be the joining together of intellectual assent to doctrine and a loving response to the received love of God. Yet he was ever suspicious of (even Anglican) Evangelicalism, which he regarded as emotionally shallow. In distinction to the Roman Catholic veneration of saints as a way to obtain a miracle, Keble celebrated the saints in poetry and song as Church triumphant companions for the Church militant. Entering the danger infested-waters of Marian devotion, Keble articulated what would become the Anglican “sister and mother” approach in which the Christian both kneels beside her in prayer and also knows, though does not see, her to be crowned with glory (Rowell 30). Keble was ever vigilant against rationalism divorced from faith and saw theological error as the result of such an approach. With a devotional heart he pushed hard against the strictures of the Articles of Religion; always careful, ever nuanced, he avoided the censure that Newman faced for injudicious boldness. After Keble’s death Newman would write of him “he did for the Church of England what none but a poet could do: he made it poetical” (Rowell, 32). This is perhaps both the curse and the glory of Anglican theology.
E.B. Pusey is the other great Tractarian leader. If Keble was the poet of the Oxford Movement, Pusey may have been its leading scholar. Born in 1800 in a noble family, he was elected a fellow of Oriel College in 1823, but soon went off to Germany. Although he found Lutheran scholasticism dead and deadening, he was deeply influenced by Schleiermacher’s idea of absolute dependence. He rejected Schleiermacher’s Christology as too focused on the teaching of Christ as compared to Christ’s person, but from him gained the central insight that receiving Christ entails receiving Christ’s divine work within us (Rowell 83). Pusey was deeply ascetic, fasting often and preferring simplicity in architecture and ceremony. Yet like his fellow Tractarians he was deeply sacramental, so much so that he was suspended from preaching in the University Church because he was suspected of teaching a view indistinguishable from transubstantiation. Pusey insisted on the conjoining of rationalism (as the clear apprehension of a narrow field of thought) and faith (as the less clear, but deeper and broader apprehension of reality). He was the leading force behind the Oxford Movement’s two other major publishing ventures, the multi-volume Library of the Fathers, and Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology (the 17th C Caroline Divines). Pusey was also the first of the Tractarians to appropriate not only the Fathers, but also medieval theologians and even the Counter-Reformation 16th C Spanish Carmelites, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Under his direction communities of vowed religious were reintroduced into Anglicanism following a 300-year hiatus. It is sometimes rumored by contemporary detractors that he was the theologian who claimed against Darwin that God made fossils to fool impious scientists, but I have found no confirmation of that assertion in his writings.
Chadwick, Owen. The Mind of the Oxford Movement. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Church, R.W. The Oxford Movement. London: Macmillan and Co., 1891.
Cross, Claire. The Royal Supremacy in the Elizabethan Church. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc. 1969.
Faber, Geoffrey. Oxford Apostles: A Character Study of the Oxford Movement. London: Faber and Faber, 1933.
Rowell, Geoffrey. The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Tracts for the Times. 5 Volumes. London: J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1840.
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