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Oxford Movement

The term ‘Oxford Movement’ is often used to describe the whole of what might be called the Catholic revival in the Church of England. More properly it refers to the activities and ideas of an initially small group of people in the University of Oxford who argued against the increasing secularisation of the Church of England, and sought to recall it to its heritage of apostolic order, and to the catholic doctrines of the early church fathers. The success of this theological task was so great, one might argue, that it is now difficult to distinguish between those who were given the name Tractarians (see below) and the wider Anglo-Catholic wing of the church which built on and developed their ideas.


In the early 1830s, at Oriel College in Oxford, a growing number of young and extremely able Fellows, informally grouped around the slightly older John Keble, were increasingly outspoken about the needs and shortcomings of the contemporary church. These were heady times in England. Catholic emancipation had come, and the forces surrounding the Reform Act of 1832 were felt in all walks of life. The old status quo was being threatened, but many questions about church government and doctrine were left unanswered. There was a feeling that there was everything to play for. In Dean Church’s words, the leading figures of the Oxford movement were ‘men of large designs’.

John Henry Newman dated the beginning of the Oxford Movement to Keble’s Assize Sermon of July 1833, on National Apostasy. The subject matter may seem remote: a protest against parliamentary legislation to reduce the absurdly large number of bishoprics in the Church of Ireland. But the theme was crucial. Was the Church of England 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 Prayer Book insisted) or ministers of a Calvinistic sect?

Newman, Vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Richard Hurrell Froude, a junior fellow of Oriel, and William Palmer, a fellow of Worcester, joined with Keble to launch a series of Tracts for the Times, developing these themes (hence the name Tractarians). During the following eight years, ninety such Tracts were published. Did Baptism bestow an indelible character on the soul? What does ‘consecration’ of the eucharistic elements signify? Was the Reformation and Elizabethan Settlement a release from papal bondage, a disaster imposed by a heretical state, or a sophisticated via media between these two extremes? How were the ‘golden ages’ of the early Church Fathers and seventeenth century Anglican theology to be recovered?

From the very beginning, the history of the Oxford Movement is a history of controversy. The jostlings of university politics which now might seem insignificant were in fact crucial to the future of the Church of England. The unsuccessful attempt of the Tractarians to prevent Renn Dickson Hampden (later Bishop of Hereford), whose theology they viewed with suspicion, from becoming Regius professor of divinity is a case in point. The publication in 1838 of Froude’s Remains, is another. Froude went much further than anything hitherto in asserting the Church of England’s inherent Catholic heritage. Catholicism is not confined to the Roman communion, nor Orthodoxy to the eastern churches. Perhaps the greatest explosion occurred in response to Newman’s Tract Ninety, which appeared in 1841, and argued that there was nothing in the Thirty-nine Articles contrary to the Council of Trent.

Edward Bouverie Pusey

In 1834, another young fellow of Oriel, Edward Bouverie Pusey threw in his lot with the Tractarians, contributing a characteristically learned tract on Baptism. Keble had retired from Oxford in the early 1820s. The weight of leadership of the Oxford Movement had largely been borne by Newman, the Vicar of the University Church, but in the wake of the furore which accompanied Tract Ninety he increasingly withdrew to his semi-monastic establishment at Littlemore. Pusey was inevitably seen as the emerging figurehead of the movement in Oxford.

In 1843 he preached a sermon before the University entitled ‘The Holy Eucharist a comfort to the penitent’. Much of the sermon appealed to the Fathers and to the Caroline divines but in an increasingly politicised situation it was too much for the Evangelicals - including Philip Wynter, the Vice Chancellor - to tolerate. Despite Pusey’s exhaustive explanations and massive public support, 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 Communion in October 1845. Pusey was the only one to whom his bereft followers could turn.

Richard Church’s celebrated history of the Oxford Movement ends in 1845, the year of Newman’s conversion. Certainly by this time the Tractarian disputes were a thoroughly national phenomenon. Encouraged by Tractarian theology there was a great revival of interest in liturgy and church architecture, stemming not least from the Cambridge Camden Society, which had been formed in 1839. Among its leaders was John Mason Neale, for whom the society was not simply artistic and antiquarian, but very much theological. Its journal, the Ecclesiologist, which first appeared in 1841, argued for the importance of symbol and decoration in the mysteries of worship and championed the ideas of a young Roman Catholic architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who saw Gothic as the only proper style of Church architecture, reflecting as it did the continual religious priorities of striving for heaven through prayer, sacrament and the Christian virtues.

The progress made by the ‘Puseyites’, as they were often called, continued to go hand in hand with controversy. Newman’s conversion was as notorious as any of his tracts. With the Gorham Judgement (which saw a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council overturn a bishop’s decision not to institute to a parish a priest who held an unorthodox doctrine of baptism), many left the Church of England, convinced that it was bound by an Erastian state, among them Archdeacon Henry, later Cardinal, Manning. In the 1850s Archeacon Dennison, of Taunton, was unsuccessfully prosecuted for teaching the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. At the same time there were increasing vocations to the religious life. On Trinity Sunday 1841, Pusey heard the first profession of a nun in the Church of England for three centuries, Mother Marian Hughes. Pusey, along with Neale and such other great names as Richard Meux Benson, Priscilla Lydia Sellon and Thomas Thelluson Carter, was a driving force behind this revival.

The strong doctrinal theology preached by the Tractarians had by now found its expression in contexts very far removed from the Universities. From the very first, the call to holiness - individual and corporate - had been at the heart of the Tractarians’ teaching. It was inevitable that their attentions would turn to the social and evangelistic problems of the industrial working class. Young men who had sat at Pusey’s feet found themselves called to work in new and demanding slum parishes. The ritual innovations of they were accused were entirely rooted in the desperate pastoral needs they encountered. Miss Sellons’s Devonport Sisters of Mercy worked with the clergy of St Peter’s Plymouth in the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s, and petitioned the parish priest, Fr George Rundle Prynne, for a celebration of the eucharist each morning to strengthen them for their work. So began the first daily mass in the Church of England since the Reformation. Similarly the clergy of St Saviour’s, Leeds (a parish Pusey had endowed), laid what medicines they had on the altar at each morning’s communion, before carrying them out to the many dozens of their parishioners who would die of cholera that very day.

These slum churches and their priests are far too many to mention, but their audacity and their piety are to be marvelled at. The Church of England, at this time, looked upon ritual as a wicked aping of a Papist Church. Vestments were horrific to most, and yet in places such as the mission church of St 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, holy anointing was practised. Here a group of priests, led by Fr Charles Lowder, were carrying through their interpretation of the Tractarian message. The poor must be brought the ministry of Christ, in the celebration of the sacraments and the preaching of the gospel.

Beauty and holiness were to go 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. And, perhaps most significantly, the sick and dying were to receive this sacramental presence as far as was possible. Deathbed confessions, the oil of unction, even, occasionally, communion from the reserved sacrament became the priests’ weapons against, for example, the appalling East London cholera epidemic of 1866.

The ritualists gave rise to a long and bitter battle, in which priests were imprisoned, many more dismissed, parish riots took place, rent-a-mob crowds were brought in, and bishops issued edicts from palaces to areas into which they would not dare set foot. Priests such as Alexander Heriot Mackonochie were persecuted and prosecuted zealously and repeatedly for practices which are now not just acceptable but actually the norm in the Church of England - using lighted altar candles, for example. Eventually even a bishop - Edward King of Lincoln - found himself in court defending his practice of the Catholic faith.

To tell the rest of the story would be to write the whole history of the modern Church of England. But by this time, the Oxford Movement proper had long ceased to be. Though he did not see the end of dissent and dispute, Pusey (who died in 1882) lived to witness the 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. A glance round the contemporary Church of England, still vastly divergent but nevertheless teeming with colourful decorations, revised liturgies, ancient hymns, and thousands of processions, aumbries, altars, oratories and retreat houses, reminds us just how dramatically the life of the English Church was renewed by the Catholic vision of those Oxford ‘men of large designs’.