Monday, 7 July 2008

Day of Prayer to mark anniversary of Oxford Movement

Patrick Comerford

This month marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement. The movement can be traced to the sermon preached on 14 July 1833 by John Keble, scholar, priest and hymn writer. That sermon had an effect beyond anything Keble could image: soon John Henry Newman, Richard Hurrell Froude and William Palmer would join him in publishing a series of Tracts for the Times and they were later joined by Edward Pusey.

The anniversary is being marked throughout the Anglican Communion on Monday 14 July, with many parishes and churches inviting people to join an hour of silent prayer to commemorate the events of the past, to listen to God, to pray for his help to discern and carry out his will in this generation, and to introduce others to the insights and riches of the “Catholic Revival” within Anglicanism.

The Oxford Movement began with a small group in the University of Oxford who argued against the increasing secularisation of the Church of England, and who sought to call it back to its heritage of apostolic order, and to the Catholic doctrines of the early Church Fathers. Their success was so great that it is now often difficult to distinguish between those who were known as Tractarians and the later Anglo-Catholic Movement which built on and developed their ideas.

Origins of Oxford Movement

In the early 1830s, a growing number of young Fellows at Oriel College Oxford began to gather informally around the slightly older John Keble (1792-1866). In the words of Dean Richard Church, these leading figures of the Oxford Movement were “men of large designs.”

The spark that ignited the Oxford Movement was a proposal from the Whig government to suppress half the bishoprics in the Church of Ireland. Those Oxford clerical dons took grave exception to the proposals included Keble and Newman, as well as Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-1836), then a junior fellow at Oriel, Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, and the Revd Sir William Palmer (1803-1885), a fellow of Worcester.

Newman said the Oxford Movement began on 14 July 1833, when Keble preached his Assize Sermon in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, where Newman was the Vicar. In his sermon, Keble castigated the proposed legislation on the Church of Ireland as “National Apostasy.”

The thinking behind Keble’s protest was crucial. Should Parliament legislate for the Church? Was the Church a department of the Hanoverian state, to be governed by the forces of secular politics, or was it an ordinance of God? Were its pastors priests of the Catholic Church, as the Book of Common Prayer declared, or were they ministers of a sect? Keble, Newman and their friends argued that the Church is a divinely-founded society, with Christ at its head, and that its reform has nothing to do with a secular Parliament.

Tracts for the Times

Over the next eight years, the Oxford dons published a series of 90 Tracts for the Times, which gave the authors the label Tractarians. They asked whether Baptism bestows an indelible character. What does the consecration of the Eucharistic elements signify? Were the Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement a release from papal bondage, a disaster imposed by a heretical state, or a via media between two extremes? How were the “golden ages” of the early Church Fathers and 17th century Anglican theology to be recovered?

They argued that while the Church of England had passed through the Reformation, it is not simply of the Reformation, nor is it a Protestant Church, and they pointed out that the word Protestant does not appears in the Book of Common Prayer or in any of the Anglican formularies. Instead, they argued, the Church of England is a Reformed Catholic Church. As the historic Catholic and Apostolic Church of the land, it is part of the wider Church of Christ – a claim made on the title page of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Although cleansed of mediaeval abuses and unscriptural accretions in the 16th century, in all other respects it is in continuity with the Church that was there before. Anglicanism had retained the historic three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and Anglican priests are identifiable with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests, exercising the same priesthood and the same sacramental ministry.

Controversy and conversion

In 1836, the Tractarians failed to block the appointment of Renn Dickson Hampden, whose theology they viewed as being Arian, as Regius Professor of Divinity. Despite further protests, Hampden went on to become Bishop of Hereford in 1848. The greatest explosion erupted in 1841 with the publication of Tract Ninety, in which Newman argued that there was nothing in the 39 Articles contrary to the Council of Trent.

With the furore created by Tract Ninety, Newman became increasingly withdrawn, and Pusey became the leading figure in the movement. In 1843, Pusey preached a sermon before the University entitled “The Holy Eucharist: a comfort to the penitent.” In this sermon, he appealed to the Early Church Fathers and the Caroline Divines.

But Pusey’s sermon was too much for too many, and he was suspended from preaching for two years.

No sooner had Pusey served his suspension than he was thrust into an even more prominent position. Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church in October 1845, and his conversion created new controversy. Dean Church’s history of the Oxford Movement ends with Newman’s conversion, but the “Puseyites,” as they were often called, continued to be seen as controversial figures.

In the Gorham case, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council overturned the refusal of Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, to institute the Revd George Gorham to the parish of Brampford Speke for holding Calvinist or unorthodox views about baptismal regeneration. The clergy who left the Church of England after that case included Archdeacon Henry Manning, who later became Cardinal Manning.

In the 1850s, Archdeacon George Anthony Denison of Taunton was prosecuted for teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The case failed but the controversies continued.

Liturgy and architecture

The Tractarians inspired a revival of interest in liturgy and church architecture. The Cambridge Camden Society and its journal, the Ecclesiologist, argued for the importance of symbol and decoration in the mysteries of worship. The society championed the ideas of a young Roman Catholic architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who saw Gothic as the only proper style of Church architecture. Pugin’s influence spread throughout Ireland and his famous buildings in the south-east include Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, and Saint Peter’s College, Wexford.

The patrons of the Cambridge Camden Society included Richard Mant, Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. Other Irish bishops closely associated with the Oxford Movement included Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin, who was a close friend of Keble at Oxford and a former curate and chaplain of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford; and Archbishop William Alexander of Armagh, and his wife, the hymn-writer Cecil Frances Alexander.

Revival of religious life

In 1841, Pusey heard the profession Mother Marian Hughes, the first profession of a nun in the Church of England for three centuries. In 1852, the widowed Harriet Monsell was professed a religious by Canon T.T. Carter, the “Last of the Tractarians,” and became the first superior of the Community of Saint John the Baptist at Clewer, near Windsor. Mother Harriet was born in Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, in 1811, a sister of both Lord Inchiquin and the Irish Patriot, William Smith O’Brien.

These inspiring men and women soon turned to the problems of the industrial working class in their slum parishes. Their liturgical and sacramental life gave them fresh insights into desperate pastoral needs. Priscilla Sellons’s Devonport Sisters of Mercy worked with the clergy of Saint Peter’s, Plymouth, in the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s. The parish priest, Father George Rundle Prynne, arranged a celebration of the Eucharist each morning to strengthen them for their work – and so began the first daily Mass in the Church of England since the Reformation. In Leeds, the clergy of Saint Saviour’s laid what medicines they had on the altar at each morning’s Holy Communion, before carrying them out to dozens of parishioners who would die of cholera that very day.

One of the best known slum priests in the next generation was the Irish-born Father Robert Dolling (1851-1902), who fought against the evils of slum life while he was working at Saint Agatha’s, Landport. In the East End of London, the “slum priests” were known for their audacity and their piety.

In places such as the mission church of Saint George’s in the East, thuribles were swung, genuflecting was encouraged, the sign of the cross was made frequently, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was taken for granted, confessions were heard, and holy anointing was practised. But Father Charles Lowder, as he lived out his Tractarian ideals, also knew the poor must be brought the ministry of Christ in the celebration of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel. Beauty and holiness had to be brought into the midst of squalor and depression, as a witness to the Catholic faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, present and active in his world. The sick and dying were to receive this sacramental presence as far as was possible; deathbed confessions, the oil of unction, even occasionally Holy Communion from the reserved sacrament became the priests’ weapons against the horrors of the cholera epidemic in East London in 1866.

Nevertheless, priests who were regarded as ritualists were jailed, dismissed, assaulted and even jailed for practices that are now the norm, including the use of lighted altar candles. Eventually even a bishop – Edward King of Lincoln – found himself in court defending his practice of the Catholic faith.

A rediscovery

By then, the Oxford Movement proper had ceased to be. Pusey, who died in 1882, lived to witness his theology of a Catholic Church of England carried into all areas of the land. The rediscovered emphases on apostolic succession and the Catholicity of the church, on priesthood, on sacrament and sacrifice, on prayer, holiness and the beauty of worship, are the Tractarians’ gifts to their successors.

The Oxford Movement was the most important religious reawakening in England during the 19th century, giving us a renaissance of spirituality, theology, scholarship, liturgy, music, art, architecture, and the revival of religious orders and communities.

To mark the 175th anniversary of Keble’s Assize Sermon, Anglicans around the world are being asked to observe an hour of silent prayer on 14 July, giving thanks for the rich inheritance of the Oxford Movement. Parishes can register their hour of silent prayer on

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first publiushed in the July editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).