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Religious Thought in the Oxford Movement

By Clement Charles Julian Webb, M.A., F.B.A.

London: SPCK, 1928.
New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Section II. The "Via Media" of Anglicanism


A PHRASE which played a considerable part in the theological controversy initiated by the Oxford Movement was that of the via media used to describe the historic position of the Anglican Church. The claim was not a new one; it finds, perhaps, its most striking expression in the well-known lines of the typically Anglican poet, George Herbert, in which, after describing the Church of Rome as the painted lady on the hills, and the Church reformed after the Genevan model as the undrest lady in the valley,

"So shy of dressing that her hair doth lie
About her ears,"

of whom it may be said that--

"While she avoids her neighbour's pride
She wholly goes on the other side,
And nothing wears,"

he thus addresses the Church of England (which he here calls, by the way, "the British Church"):

"But, dearest Mother (what those miss),
The mean thy praise and glory is
And long may be!"

And it does in a very real sense indicate a characteristic of that Church which has been the source both of its peculiar strength and of its peculiar weakness.

The extremes between which the mean adopted by the Church of England lies are, of course, as organized institutions, the Church of Rome on the one side and the rest of the Churches which have accepted the Reformation on the other. The description of Herbert has in view, no doubt, especially those technically called "Reformed" along with the Puritans in his own country and time, who would have had the English doctrines and forms of worship conform more nearly than they did to those authorized by Calvin and his colleagues. The Lutheran Churches were less directly in his view, for their connection with and influence on the religious life of this country was, in his day, far less than that of the Churches whose spiritual metropolis was Geneva. But even the Lutheran Churches, though some of them had retained in some respects more of the outward ornaments of the medieval Church than the Anglican itself, and though some institutions of that Church were less completely in abeyance among them than in England, yet, representing as they did the first organized secession from the old Catholic unity, were more definitely and irretrievably ranged in the opposite camp to Rome, and, having (except, perhaps, indeed, in Sweden) broken the chain of the episcopal succession which still linked the Anglican ministry with that of the pre-Reformation Church, were not equally qualified to mediate between the two great branches of Western Christendom which are conveniently designated by the titles of Catholic and Protestant respectively.


It will be, I think, useful if I now attempt very roughly and summarily to set forth some of the salient features in which Catholicism and Protestantism are contrasted, not so much in their formal theology (though this, of course, lies behind their more obvious differences) as in their general type of piety and conduct. I shall then point out in what principal respects the Anglican type of religion may be said to mediate between the two; and this will form a natural introduction to a consideration of the principles of the Oxford Movement, a movement the essence of which consisted in a revival of attention to certain elements in the Anglican tradition, in virtue of which it was distinguished from the general tradition of Protestantism and approximated to the Catholic tradition, while at the same time claiming to retain others, in virtue of which the Church of England could not throw in its lot with the Roman Church as actually existing.

In the period in which the Middle Ages came to an end, the period of the double movement which we call in one aspect the Renaissance and in another the Reformation, the two sides of medieval life fall apart which had during the Middle Ages been held together in a unity by the international institutions which embodied the ideal of a culture at once classical and Christian. Such a culture in the period of the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire had been received by the invading peoples, as it were, en bloc, on their conversion and civilization by the Roman Church, without discrimination between its classical and Christian factors. On the other hand, when the growing secularization of the Church, after the cessation of the persecutions and its establishment as the religion of the State, led to a reaction in the shape of an exaggerated asceticism, and the notion of a higher and a lower moral standard, of a technically "religious" life and a secular life which is yet permissible for Christians, obtained currency, a dualism arose which worked itself out in results leading at the time of the Reformation to a violent attempt to establish a single standard of Christian conduct, without any recognition of a technically "religious" life, transcending in merit that of the secular Christian who discharged his duties as a householder and citizen.

To begin with the process of the disruption of the medieval unity. This process was a complicated one, and one may recognize two controversies which crossed and recrossed each other. There was the controversy between the classical culture, now revealed through the recovery of the knowledge of Greek in the West as Hellenism, and the religious tradition of the Christian Church; and there was the controversy between the international institutions which belonged to Christendom as a single community, a Church-Empire, and the national institutions which in the several countries of Western Europe had been, during the medieval period, advancing towards maturity within that single community. The local position in Italy of the Apostolic See of Rome, the religious centre of Western Christendom, led to consequences of vast historic importance. For it was in Italy that the scholars of the Greek Empire, flying before the armies of the Turk, first arrived with their treasure of Greek learning and letters; and it aided their welcome there that Italy was itself one of the ancient homes of the classical culture, in which it had never become wholly extinct. The result was that, seated as it was in Italy, the Papacy--the greatest, and, now that the Empire as an international power was but a shadow of its past greatness, the most effective of the international institutions of the Middle Ages--was, as we may say, captured by Hellenism. Religious discontent with the neo-paganism which consequently became rampant in the historic centre of Christendom thus tended to ally itself with national aspirations against the pretensions of the Papacy to exploit the devotion of countries outside Italy in the interest of the splendours of the art-loving and often irreligious or even unbelieving Court of the Roman Pontiffs, as when the proceeds of the sale of those indulgences, the preaching of which in Germany was the proximate cause of Luther's revolt, were devoted to the building of the new St. Peter's; or as when, under the system by which the Pope claimed the right to "provide" (as the technical expression went) incumbents for all ecclesiastical benefices, Italian kinsmen and favourites of the Pope were quartered on the rich bishoprics, dignitaries, and livings of countries with which they had no connection and which they regarded merely as sources of income. Hence we find the religious Reformation readily taking the form of insistence on the rights of national churches against the Pope, and--as the only effective means of securing these--on the rights of national princes to govern the Church each in his own dominions. It is well known how important a doctrine of the English Reformation in particular was that of the Royal Supremacy in matters ecclesiastical. On the other hand, the national sovereigns--and this, again, is especially exemplified in the history of England--utilized this religious discontent as a weapon against the international claims of the Papacy, which, when admitted, necessarily restricted their own autonomy.

Passing from the side of this movement which exhibits a disruption of the medieval unity to that complementary aspect which exhibits an attempt to abolish the old moral dualism, there can, I think, be no reasonable doubt that the moral standard of the later Middle Ages was low and that the great religious revival of the thirteenth century, whose central figure was St. Francis of Assisi--than whom the Church can, perhaps, show no more striking example of Christian sanctity--did not in the long run succeed in removing this reproach. The Reformation on its moral side was a revolt against hypocrisy. This word had long been familiar--we find it so used, for example, in the Policraticus of John of Salisbury, written in the middle of the twelfth century and dedicated to the author's friend, Thomas Becket, whose shrine at Canterbury afterwards became the great object of English pilgrimage--as especially applicable to "religious" persons in the technical sense--monks, that is, and, later on, friars. For these, while pretending to a higher life than the secular Christian's, did often, in fact, lead a lower one; one less industrious, because they had not the duties of bread-winners and citizens to perform; in many cases more self-indulgent, where the wealth of the monastic foundations made easy and assured a comfortable life within the limits of a rule which was sometimes not very severe and had become habitual to those who had always been under it; and often also less chaste, as was inevitably the case where marriage was impossible and great numbers of the monks and friars had adopted their profession not through any enthusiasm for a stricter life, but rather for a secure maintenance, much as a modern Frenchman becomes a fonctionnaire if he can. Of this last-mentioned fault the parochial clergy, upon whom celibacy was enforced, were also often accused in comparison with the married lay-folk; though it was recognized that these "secular" clergy were, unlike the monks and friars, as much occupied as their neighbours, and for the most part no better off than they.

Thus the Reformation naturally involved the abolition of the religious Orders and the permission of marriage to the clergy. The unification of the moral standard appeared in the light of a moral reform. It is true that there was much loss as well as gain in the disappearance of institutions which afforded an opportunity for the growth of certain fine types of character in special cases which could hardly otherwise be secured; although they had doubtless lent themselves also to certain kinds of scandalous "hypocrisy"--that is, discrepancy between high pretensions and low conduct.

Eventually the end of the wars of religion, as they are called, which followed on the heels of the Reformation, left Western Europe divided between Catholics and Protestants. Since the early seventeenth century there has been practically no alteration of the boundaries between the two confessions; since the later seventeenth century no real expectation of any such. I will now endeavour, as I said above, to indicate some of the main differences between the respective ideals of Catholicism and Protestantism and their effects where they have been adopted.

No doubt the differences which are observable between peoples who are in the main Protestant and those who are in the main Catholic are to a large extent national or racial, but I am only here concerned to mention points which seem to be intimately connected with the difference between the two forms of Christianity.

Protestantism, as we have seen, aimed at the unification of the moral standard, and thus at making all life moral and religious alike. Thus, as has been remarked already, it abolished the technically "religious"--that is, the monastic--life, allowed the priest to be a married citizen, and was (in varying degrees) on the whole more or less indifferent or even hostile to the observance (with one marked exception, presently to be mentioned) of specially sacred times. In these results of Protestantism was involved the danger that where no part of life was to be specially religious it would be easy for none to be so; and as regards morals, for the general standard, especially in regard of such virtues of secular social life as truthfulness, honesty, industry, economic independence, to be, on the whole, higher in Protestant countries than in Catholic, but what we may perhaps call sanctity to be rarer. The retention of the technically "religious" or monastic life in Catholic countries, and of the modes of thought which go with it, have encouraged the more frequent appearance there of such special "sanctity"; but there is a greater danger, inherent in the very same circumstances, of inducing acquiescence in a lower standard for the mass of the people, especially in respect of such virtues as I enumerated above; for the extraordinary chastity of Catholic Ireland shows that in respect of that virtue, which has less direct connection with worldly activities, Catholicism need not fear comparison with Protestantism.

Again, the greater stress laid in Catholicism on religious observances seems to hinder the submergence of religious by secular interests, which is the special temptation of Protestantism. It is true that in some, though not in all, Protestant countries, a greater stress has been laid on one particular outward observance, that of the Lord's Day, than in Catholic countries. But this selection of one day in the week for strict observance, and abandonment (more or less) of other holy days, and even of religious worship on other days than Sunday, has tended in some respects to a more complete separation between the religious occupations of the Sunday and the undilutedly secular occupations of the rest of the week. In my own lifetime, however, I have seen a remarkable obsolescence of Sunday observance in this country, which makes this a matter of less present importance than it was even a very short while ago.

Again, Protestantism lends itself much more readily than Catholicism to the extension of religious diversity and non-conformity; though this is more markedly true in the Anglo-Saxon than in the Teutonic and Latin lands which have adopted the Reformation. Why this should be it is easy to see. It is related of Queen Victoria that she once asked Lord John Russell whether he thought it was ever right for a subject to resist his Sovereign. "Speaking, madam," he replied, "to a Sovereign of the House of Hanover, I am bound to say 'Yes'!" In the same way as a Hanoverian monarch cannot consistently claim to receive a passive obedience from his subjects, a Protestant Church which has itself separated from the unity of Western Christendom, whose centre was at Rome, cannot so whole-heartedly discourage further separation as the Church which has never thus separated itself. Now, a result of this, the bearing of which on the politics of the present day is important, is that in Protestant countries--and especially, as I said, in Anglo-Saxon Protestant countries--there are many Churches, and the number tends (or has, until very lately, tended) to increase. Religion comes thus to be less closely associated in men's minds with one Church only, and opposition to one Church is not identified in men's minds with opposition to religion. In Catholic countries the reverse is the case. Hence the ordinary Frenchman identifies religion with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church with religion. To be religious is to be suspected of clericalism by one party; to be anti-clerical is to be suspected of irreligion by the other.

Once more, Protestantism has been, on the whole, more favourable to freedom of thought than Catholicism. This is, I think, to be explained on the same principle as I illustrated before from the story of Lord John Russell's reply to Queen Victoria. It does not imply that Protestantism is in itself necessarily more philosophical than Catholicism. In some ways it may even be said to be less so. But in Protestant countries the resistance offered to freedom of thought by established dogma is necessarily less, because that dogma is itself the result of a comparatively recent criticism of a previously established dogma, than where it can at any rate be asserted that the established dogma has continued unchanged since the earliest times. We may add to this explanation that the spirit of freedom and of resistance to the established order, when once awakened in the ecclesiastical Reformation, naturally seeks outlets in other directions. Hence there is no doubt that intellectual progress has been actually much greater, on the whole, in Protestant countries than in Catholic; but I do not think it equally true that Protestant theology has had in all respects the advantage in philosophical profundity, or Protestant religion the advantage in spirituality over its rival.

Now, it is to be observed that for the greater part of the time which has elapsed since the Reformation, England is to be reckoned, in the main, among Protestant countries; and in respect of the comparisons I have instituted I do not think any qualification is necessary in applying them to England as a Protestant country; but we must not overlook the presence in Anglicanism, the religious system to which the majority of Englishmen have adhered, of Catholic elements, which the Oxford Movement sought to reinforce, and which may often make generalizations about Protestantism inapplicable to the religion of this country.


In the lectures to which I referred above on A Century of Anglican Theology I called attention to a certain isolation as a note of Anglican theology, at least in the period from the close of the Civil War until quite recent days--an interval of some 250 years, during which it ran its course, on the whole, apart from any regular or continuous influence upon it either of contemporary Roman or of contemporary Protestant theology; in no very close connection with the contemporary movements of European thought, and in a less close than one might expect even with the main currents of English philosophical speculation. The Reformation had detached the Church of England from Rome; the Civil War, by the severance which it caused between the Puritans, who had for a time overturned its polity, and the ultimate victorious upholders of its peculiar tradition--the most conspicuous features of which were its maintenance of the episcopal succession and its close association with the ancient monarchical constitution of the State--had detached it also from the Protestantism of the Continent. The Universities, where its ministers were trained, were closed to all but signatories of the Thirty-nine Articles. Thus isolated, it had few dealings with foreign Churches, although from time to time there was a movement of sympathy toward communities or individuals in whom was combined, as in Anglicanism, adhesion to the ancient episcopal organization of the Church with antagonism to the pretensions of the Roman Pontiffs. A scholar like the Prussian Lutheran Grabe, or like the French Calvinist Casaubon at an earlier date, might find in England an order more easily recognizable as continuous with that of the Church of the Fathers and Councils than the presbyterian constitution and unsacramental worship of their own original communions, though without the submission to claims which seemed to them no less remote from the primitive model. The Gallican Church, determined to resist papal encroachments, and relying in its resistance on the support of a powerful Crown, was naturally not wholly indifferent to the Anglican, which had pushed the same line of conduct to the length of making itself, under the royal supremacy, independent of the Roman Court. A certain sympathetic interest in the ancient episcopal Churches of the East which repudiated the supremacy of the See of Peter was a recurring feature of Anglican ecclesiastical life. The great religious movement of the eighteenth century--that of which the Wesleys and Whitfield were the protagonists--was undoubtedly indebted in its origin to the influence of German Pietism and of Moravianism; but it assumed in England a characteristically English form, both within and without the Church in which it originated; and on the whole, as I have said, a certain isolation characterized throughout the life and thought of the Church of England. This isolation on the part of Anglicanism has sometimes led to its being practically overlooked by its neighbours. There is a curious example of this in a modern work of immense erudition, the Soziallehren of the late Ernst Troeltsch. The knowledge shown in it of English Nonconformity is remarkable; but he seems to regard the Anglican contribution to the problems of religious social life and thought, so far as he notices it at all, as little more than an appendix to that of the bodies which in their separation from her had linked themselves more closely with the religious life of Continental Protestantism. A singular instance of this failure in a very eminent scholar and thinker to appreciate the place of the established Church of this country in the religious history of the nation is to be seen in the fact that, when speaking of the influence exerted by the great German mystic, Jacob Boehme, or Behmen, Troeltsch does not omit to mention a minute sect of Behmenist dissenters in England, but ignores the illustrious Anglican religious writer who in his later years devoted himself to the interpretation of Behmen's message, William Law, the author at an earlier period of one of our religious classics, The Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, as well as of some controversial works, whose intellectual force and literary merit have given them a permanent interest far beyond that to which the great majority of treatises on polemical theology can pretend.


In my lectures, before quoted, on A Century of Anglican Theology I mentioned Platonism as being one of the two salient characteristics of Anglican theology, its isolation, which I have now sufficiently described and discussed, being the other. The Oxford Movement certainly exemplifies its isolation; less noticeably its Platonism. The spirit of Oxford at that day had been moulded by Aristotle rather than by Plato: the intensive study of the Republic, which has been a feature of the school of Literae Humaniores during living memory, was a later development, a development, however, which the Oxford Movement seems to have had its share in producing. The analogy between the ideal of a Christian Church with an' hierarchy of divine institution controlling and inspiring all departments of life, which haunted the imaginations of the Anglo-Catholics (this name, now associated with what we may call the extreme right wing of the school which counts itself continuous with that of the Oxford Tractarians, was the one which these latter themselves, on the whole, preferred as their own designation), and that of the rule of the Philosopher-King adumbrated by Plato in the Republic attracted them to that great dialogue; and the beginning of the regular lectures thereon, which have since become so important a feature of Oxford philosophical training, is said to have been due to an eccentric adherent of the Movement, William Sewell of Exeter, the founder of Radley College. But the Oxford Movement, on the whole, cannot be said especially to illustrate the Platonism which has been a recurrent characteristic of Anglican theology.

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