Project Canterbury

The Oxford Movement
Twelve Years


by R. W. Church, M.A., D.C.L.,
Sometime Dean of St Paul's, and Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford

London: Macmillan & Co. 1894

Transcribed by The Revd R D Hacking
AD 2003


WHILE the movement was making itself felt as a moral force, without a parallel in Oxford for more than two centuries, and was impressing deeply and permanently some of the most promising men in the rising generation in the University, what was the attitude of the University authorities? What was the attitude of the Bishops?

At Oxford it was that of contemptuous indifference, passing into helpless and passionate hostility. There is no sadder passage to be found in the history of Oxford than the behaviour and policy of the heads of this great Christian University towards the religious movement which was stirring the interest, the hopes, the fears of Oxford. The movement was, for its first years at least, a loyal and earnest effort to serve the cause of the Church. Its objects were clear and reasonable; it aimed at creating a sincere and intelligent zeal for the Church, and at making the Church itself worthy of the great position which her friends claimed for her. Its leaders were men well known in the University, in the first rank in point of ability and character; men of learning, who knew what they were talking about; men of religious and pure, if also severe lives. They were not men merely of speculation and criticism, but men ready to forego anything, to devote everything for the practical work of elevating religious thought and life. All this did not necessarily make their purposes and attempts wise and good; but it did entitle them to respectful attention. If they spoke language new to the popular mind or the "religious world," it was not new--at least it ought not to have been new--to orthodox Churchmen, with opportunities of study and acquainted with our best divinity. If their temper was eager and enthusiastic, they alleged the presence of a great and perilous crisis. Their appeal was mainly not to the general public, but to the sober and the learned; to those to whom was entrusted the formation of faith and character in the future clergy of the Church; to those who were responsible for the discipline and moral tone of the first University of Christendom, and who held their conspicuous position on the understanding of that responsibility. It behoved the heads of the University to be cautious, even to be suspicious; movements might be hollow or dangerous things. But it behoved them also to become acquainted with so striking a phenomenon as this; to judge it by what it appealed to--the learning of English divines, the standard of a high and generous moral rule; to recognise its aims at least, with equity and sympathy, if some of its methods and arguments seemed questionable. The men of the movement were not mere hostile innovators; they were fighting for what the University and its chiefs held dear and sacred, the privileges and safety of the Church. It was the natural part of the heads of the University to act as moderators; at any rate, to have shown, with whatever reserve, that they appreciated what they needed time to judge of. But while on the one side there was burning and devouring earnestness, and that power of conviction which doubles the strength of the strong, there was on the other a serene ignoring of all that was going on, worthy of a set of dignified French abbés on the eve of the Revolution. This sublime or imbecile security was occasionally interrupted by bursts of irritation at some fresh piece of Tractarian oddness or audacity, or at some strange story which made its way from the gossip of common-rooms to the society of the Heads of Houses. And there was always ready a stick to beat the offenders; everything could be called Popish. But for the most part they looked on, with smiles, with jokes, sometimes with scolding. Thus the men who by their place ought to have been able to gauge and control the movement, who might have been expected to meet half-way a serious attempt to brace up the religious and moral tone of the place, so incalculably important in days confessed to be anxious ones, simply set their laces steadily to discountenance and discredit it. They were good and respectable men, living comfortably in a certain state and ease. Their lives were mostly simple compared with the standard of the outer world, though Fellows of Colleges thought them luxurious. But they were blind and dull as tea-table gossips as to what was the meaning of the movement, as to what might come of it, as to what use might be made of it by wise and just and generous recognition, and, if need be, by wise and just criticism and repression. There were points of danger in it; but they could only see what seemed to be dangerous, whether it was so or not; and they multiplied these points of danger by all that was good and hopeful in it. It perplexed and annoyed them; they had not imagination nor moral elevation to take in what it aimed at; they were content with the routine which they had inherited; and, so that men read for honours and took first classes, it did not seem to them strange or a profanation that a whole mixed crowd of undergraduates should be expected to go on a certain Sunday in term, willing or unwilling, fit or unfit, to the Sacrament; and be fined if they did not appear. Doubtless we are all of us too prone to be content with the customary, and to be prejudiced against the novel, nor is this condition of things without advantage. But we must bear our condemnation if we stick to the customary too long, and so miss our signal opportunities. In their apathy, in their self-satisfied ignorance, in their dullness of apprehension and forethought, the authorities ,of the University let pass the great opportunity of their time. As it usually happens, when this posture of lofty ignoring what is palpable and active, and the object of everybody's thought, goes on too long, it is apt to turn into impatient dislike and bitter antipathy. The Heads of Houses drifted insensibly into this position. They had not taken the trouble to understand the movement, to discriminate between its aspects, to put themselves frankly into communication with its leading persons, to judge with the knowledge and justice of scholars and clergymen of its designs and ways. They let themselves be diverted from this, their proper though troublesome task, by distrust, by the jealousies of their position, by the impossibility of conceiving that anything so strange could really be true and sound. And at length they found themselves going along with the outside current of uninstructed and ignoble prejudice, in a settled and pronounced dislike, which took for granted that all was wrong in the movement, which admitted any ill-natured surmise and foolish misrepresentation, and really allowed itself to acquiesce in the belief that men so well known in Oxford, once so admired and honoured, had sunk down to deliberate corrupters of the truth, and palterers with their own intellects and consciences. It came in a few years to be understood on both sides, that the authorities were in direct antagonism to the movement; and though their efforts in opposition to it were feeble and petty, it went on under the dead weight of official University disapproval. It would have been a great thing for the English Church-- though it is hard to see how, things being as they were, it could have come about--if the movement had gone on, at least with the friendly interest, if not with the support, of the University rulers. Instead of that, after the first two or three years there was one long and bitter fight in Oxford, with the anger on one side created by the belief of vague but growing dangers,  and a sense of incapacity in resisting them, and with deep resentment at injustice and stupidity on the other.

The Bishops were farther from the immediate scene of the movement, and besides, had other things to think of. Three or four of them might be considered theologians--Archbishop Howley, Phillpotts of Exeter, Kaye of Lincoln, Marsh of Peterborough. Two or three belonged to the Evangelical school, Ryder of Lichfield, and the two Sumners at Winchester and Chester. The most prominent among them, and next to the Bishop of Exeter the ablest, alive to the real dangers of the Church, anxious to infuse vigour into its work, and busy with plans for extending its influence, was Blomfield, Bishop of London. But Blomfield was not at his best as a divine, and, for a man of his unquestionable power, singularly unsure of his own mind. He knew, in fact, that when the questions raised by the Tracts came before him he was unqualified to deal with them; he was no better furnished by thought or knowledge or habits to judge of them than the average Bishop of the time, appointed, as was so often the case, for political or personal reasons. At the first start of the movement, they not unnaturally waited to see what would come of it. It was indeed an effort in favour of the Church, but it was in irresponsible hands, begun by men whose words were strong and vehement and of unusual sound, and who, while they called on the clergy to rally round their fathers the Bishops, did not shrink from wishing for the Bishops the fortunes of the early days: "we could not wish them a more blessed termination of their course than the spoiling of their goods and martyrdom." It may reasonably be supposed that such good wishes were not to the taste of all of them. As the movement developed, besides that it would seem to them extravagant and violent, they would be perplexed by its doctrine. It took strong ground for the Church; but it did so in the teeth of religious opinions and prejudices, which were popular and intolerant. For a moment the Bishops were in a difficulty; on the one hand, no one for generations had so exalted the office of a Bishop as the Tractarians; no one had claimed for it so high and sacred an origin; no one had urged with such practical earnestness the duty of Churchmen to recognise and maintain the unique authority of the Episcopate against its, despisers or oppressors. On the other hand, this was just the time when the Evangelical party, after long disfavour, was beginning to gain recognition, for the sake of it past earnestness and good works, with men in power, and with ecclesiastical authorities of a different and hitherto hostile school; and in the Tractarian movement the Evangelical party saw from the first its natural enemy. The Bishops could not have anything to do with the Tractarians without deeply offending the Evangelicals. The result was that, for the present, the Bishops held aloof. They let the movement run on by itself. Sharp sarcasms, worldly-wise predictions, kind messages of approval, kind cautions, passed from mouth to mouth, or in private correspondence from high quarters, which showed that the movement was watched. But for some time the authorities spoke neither good nor bad of it publicly. In his Charge at the close of 1836, Bishop Phillpotts spoke in clear and unfaltering language--language remarkable for its bold decision--of the necessity of setting forth the true idea of the Church and the sacraments; but he was silent about the call of the same kind which had come from Oxford. It would have been well if the other Bishops later on, in their charges, had followed his example. The Bishop of Oxford, in his Charge of 1838, referred to the movement in balanced terms of praise and warning. The first who condemned the movement was the Bishop of Chester, J. Bird Sumner; in a later Charge he came to describe it as the work of Satan; in 1838 he only denounced the "undermining of the foundations of our Protestant Church by men who dwell within her walls," and the bad faith of those "who, sit in the Reformers' seat, and traduced the Reformation."

These were grave mistakes on the part of those who were responsible for the government of the University and the Church. They treated as absurd, mischievous, and at length traitorous, an effort, than which nothing could be more sincere, to serve the Church, to place its claims on adequate grounds, to elevate the standard of duty in its clergy, and in all its members. To have missed the aim of the movement and to have been occupied and irritated by obnoxious details and vulgar suspicions was a blunder which gave the measure of those who made it, and led to great evils. They alienated those who wished for nothing better than to help them in their true work. Their "unkindness" was felt to be, in Bacon's phrase, injuria potentiorum. But on the side of the party of the movement there were mistakes also.

1.     The rapidity with which the movement had grown, showing that some deep need had long been obscurely felt, which the movement promised to meet, had been too great to be altogether wholesome. When we compare what was commonly received before 1833, in teaching, in habits of life, in the ordinary assumptions of history, in the ideas and modes of worship, public and private--the almost sacramental conception of preaching, the neglect of the common prayer of the Prayer Book, the slight regard to the sacraments--with what the teaching of the Tracts and their writers had impressed for good and all, five years later, on numbers of earnest people, the change seems astonishing. The change was a beneficial one and it was a permanent one. The minds which it affected, it affected profoundly. Still it was but a short time, for young minds especially, to have come to a decision on great and debated questions. There was the possibility, the danger, of men having been captivated and carried away by the excitement and interest of the time; of not having looked all round and thought out the difficulties before them; of having embraced opinions without sufficiently knowing their grounds or counting the cost or considering the consequences. There was the danger of precipitate judgment, of ill-balanced and disproportionate views of what was true and all-important. There was an inevitable feverishness in the way in which the movement was begun, in the way in which it went on. Those affected by it were themselves surprised at the swiftness of the pace. When a cause so great and so sacred seemed thus to be flourishing, and carrying along with it men's assent and sympathies, it was hardly wonderful that there should often be exaggeration, impatience at resistance, scant consideration for the slowness or the scruples or the alarms of others. Eager and sanguine men talked as if their work was accomplished, when in truth it was but beginning. No one gave more serious warnings against this and other dangers than the leaders; and their warnings were needed.

2.     Another mistake, akin to the last, was the frequent forgetfulness of the apostolic maxim, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient." In what almost amounted to a revolution in many of the religious ideas of the time, it was especially important to keep distinct the great central truths, the restoration of which to their proper place justified and made it necessary, and the many subordinate points allied with them and naturally following from them, which yet were not necessary to their establishment or acceptance. But it was on these subordinate points that the interest of a certain number of followers of the movement was fastened. Conclusions which they had a perfect right to come to, practices innocent and edifying to themselves, but of secondary account, began to be thrust forward into prominence, whether or not these instances of self-will really helped the common cause, whether or not they gave a handle to ill-nature and ill-will. Suspicion must always have attached to such a movement as this; but a great deal of it was provoked by indiscreet defiance, which was rather glad to provoke it.

3.     Apart from these incidents--common wherever a number of men are animated with zeal for an inspiring cause-- there were what to us now seem mistakes made in the conduct itself of the movement. Considering the difficulties of the work, it is wonderful that there were not more; and none of them were discreditable, none but what arose from the limitation of human powers matched against confused and baffling circumstances.

In the position claimed for the Church of England, confessedly unique and anomalous in the history of Christendom, between Roman authority and infallibility on one side, and Protestant freedom of private judgment on the other, the question would at once arise as to the grounds of belief. What, if any, are the foundations of conviction and certitude, apart from personal inquiry, and examination of opposing arguments on different sides of the case, and satisfactory logical conclusions? The old antithesis between Faith and Reason, and the various problems connected with it, could not but come to the front, and require to be dealt with. It is a question which faces us from a hundred sides, and, subtly and insensibly transforming itself, looks different from them all. It was among the earliest attempted to be solved by the chief intellectual leader of the movement, and it has occupied his mind to the last. However near the human mind seems to come to a solution, it only, if so be, comes near; it never arrives. In the early days of the movement it found prevailing the specious but shallow view that everything in the search for truth was to be done by mere producible and explicit argumentation; and yet it was obvious that of this two-thirds of the world are absolutely incapable. Against this Mr. Newman and his followers pressed, what was as manifestly certain in fact as it accorded with any deep and comprehensive philosophy of the formation and growth of human belief, that not arguments only, but the whole condition of the mind to which they were addressed--and not the reasonings only which could be stated, but those which went on darkly in the mind, and which "there was not at the moment strength to bring forth," real and weighty reasons which acted like the obscure rays of the spectrum, with their proper force, yet eluding distinct observation--had their necessary and inevitable and legitimate place in determining belief. All this was perfectly true; but it is obvious how easily it might be taken hold of, on very opposite sides, as a ground for saying that Tractarian or Church views did not care about argument, or, indeed, rather preferred weak arguments to strong ones in the practical work of life. It was ludicrous to say it in a field of controversy, which, on the "Tractarian" side, was absolutely bristling with argument, keen, subtle, deep, living argument, and in which the victory in argument was certainly not always with those who ventured to measure swords with Mr. Newman or Dr. Pusey. Still, the scoff could be plausibly pointed at the "young enthusiasts who crowded the Via Media, and who never presumed to argue, except against the propriety of arguing at all." There was a good deal of foolish sneering at reason; there was a good deal of silly bravado about not caring whether the avowed grounds of opinions taken up were strong or feeble.  It was not merely the assent of a learner to his teacher, of a mind without means of instruction to the belief which it has inherited, or of one new to the ways and conditions of life to the unproved assertions and opinions of one to whom experience had given an open and sure eye. It was a positive carelessness, almost accounted meritorious, to inquire and think, when their leaders called them to do so. "The Gospel of Christ is not a matter of mere argument." It is not, indeed, when it comes in its full reality, in half a hundred different ways, known and unsearchable, felt and unfelt, moral and intellectual, on the awakened and quickened soul. But the wildest fanatic can take the same words into his mouth. Their true meaning was variously and abundantly illustrated, especially in Mr. Newman's sermons. Still, the adequate, the emphatic warning against their early abuse was hardly pressed on the public opinion and sentiment of the party of the movement with the force which really was requisite. To the end there were men who took up their belief avowedly on insufficient and precarious grounds, glorying in the venturesomeness of their faith and courage, and justifying their temper of mind and their intellectual attitude by alleging misinterpreted language of their wiser and deeper teachers. A recoil from Whately's hard and barren dialectics, a sympathy with many tender and refined natures which the movement had touched, made the leaders patient with intellectual feebleness when it was joined with real goodness and Christian temper; but this also sometimes made them less impatient than they might well have been with that curious form of conceit and affectation which veils itself under an intended and supposed humility, a supposed distrust of self and its own powers.

Another difficult matter, not altogether successfully managed--at least from the original point of view of the movement, and of those who saw in it a great effort for the good of the English Church--was the treatment of the Roman controversy. The general line which the leaders proposed to take was the one which was worthy of Christian and truth-loving teachers. They took a new departure; and it was not less just than it was brave, when, recognising to the full the overwhelming reasons why "we should not be Romanists," they refused to take up the popular and easy method of regarding the Roman Church as apostate and antichristian; and declined to commit themselves to the vulgar and indiscriminate abuse of it which was the discreditable legacy of the old days of controversy. They did what all the world was loudly professing to do, they looked facts in the face; they found, as any one would find who looked for himself into the realities of the Roman Church, that though the bad was often as bad as could be, there was still, and there had been all along, goodness of the highest type, excellence both of system and of personal life which it was monstrous to deny, and which we might well admire and envy. To ignore all this was to fail in the first duty, not merely of Christians, but of honest men; and we at home were not so blameless that we could safely take this lofty tone of contemptuous superiority. If Rome would only leave us alone, there would be estrangement, lamentable enough among Christians, but there need be no bitterness. But Rome would not leave us alone. The moment that there were signs of awakening energy in England, that moment was chosen by its agents, for now it could be done safely, to assail and thwart the English Church. Doubtless they were within their rights, but this made controversy inevitable, and for controversy the leaders of the movement prepared themselves. It was an obstacle which they seemed hardly to have expected, but which the nature of things placed in their way. But the old style of controversy was impossible; impossible because it was so coarse, impossible because it was so hollow.

If the argument (says the writer of Tract 71, in words which are applicable to every controversy) is radically unreal, or (what may be called) rhetorical or sophistical, it may serve the purpose of encouraging those who are really convinced, though scarcely without doing mischief to them, but certainly it will offend and alienate the more acute and sensible; while those who are in doubt, and who desire some real and substantial ground for their faith, will not bear to be put off with such shadows. The arguments (he continues) which we use must be such as are likely to convince serious and earnest minds, which are really seeking for the truth, not amusing themselves with intellectual combats, or desiring to support an existing opinion anyhow. However popular these latter methods may be, of however long standing, however easy both to find and to use, they are a scandal; and while they lower our religious standard from the first, they are sure of hurting our cause in the end.

And on this principle the line of argument in The Prophetical Office of the Church was, taken by Mr. Newman. It was certainly no make-believe, or unreal argument. It was a forcible and original way of putting part of the case against Rome. It was part of the case, a very important part; but it was not the whole case, and it ought to have been evident from the first that in this controversy we could not afford to do without the whole case. The argument from the claim of infallibility said nothing of what are equally real parts of the case--the practical working of the Roman Church, its system of government, the part which it and its rulers have played in the history of the world. Rome has not such a clean record of history, it has not such a clean account of what is done and permitted in its dominions under an authority supposed to be irresistible, that it can claim to be the one pure and perfect Church, entitled to judge and correct and govern all other Churches. And if the claim is made, there is no help for it, we must not shrink from the task of giving the answer. And, as experience has shown, the more that rigid good faith is kept to in giving the answer, the more that strictness and severity of even understatement are observed, the more convincing will be the result that the Roman Church cannot be that which it is alleged to be in its necessary theory and ideal.

But this task was never adequately undertaken. It was one of no easy execution. Other things, apparently more immediately pressing, intervened. There was no question for the present of perfect and unfeigned confidence in the English Church, with whatever regrets for its shortcomings, and desires for its improvement. But to the outside world it seemed as if there were a reluctance to face seriously the whole of the Roman controversy; a disposition to be indulgent to Roman defects, and unfairly hard on English faults. How mischievously this told in the course of opinion outside and inside of the movement; how it was misinterpreted and misrepresented; how these misinterpretations and misrepresentations, with the bitterness and injustice which they engendered, helped to realise themselves, was seen but too clearly at a later stage.

4. Lastly, looking back on the publications, regarded as characteristic of the party, it is difficult not to feel that some of them gave an unfortunate and unnecessary turn to things.

The book which made most stir and caused the greatest outcry was Froude's Remains. It was undoubtedly a bold experiment; but it was not merely boldness. Except that it might be perverted into an excuse by the shallow and thoughtless for merely "strong talk," it may fairly be said that it was right and wise to let the world know the full measure and depth of conviction which gave birth to the movement; and Froude's Remains did that in an unsuspiciously genuine way that nothing else could have done. And, besides, it was worth while for its own sake to exhibit with fearless honesty such a character, so high, so true, so refined, so heroic. So again, Dr. Pusey's Tract on Baptism was a bold book, and one which brought heavy imputations and misconstructions on the party. In the teaching of his long life, Dr. Pusey has abundantly dispelled the charges of harshness and over-severity which were urged, not always very scrupulously, against the doctrine of the Tract on Post-baptismal Sin. But it was written to redress the balance against the fatally easy doctrines then in fashion; it was like the Portroyalist protest against the fashionable Jesuits; it was one-sided, and sometimes, in his earnestness, unguarded; and it wanted as yet the complement of encouragement, consolation, and tenderness which his future teaching was to supply so amply. But it was a blow struck, not before it was necessary, by a strong hand; and it may safely be said that it settled the place of the sacrament of baptism in the living system of the English Church, which the negations and vagueness of the Evangelical party had gravely endangered. But two other essays appeared in the Tracts, most innocent in themselves, which ten or twenty years later would have been judged simply on their merits, but which at the time became potent weapons against Tractarianism. They were the productions of two poets--of two of the most beautiful and religious minds of their time; but in that stage of the movement it is hardly too much to say that they were out of place. The cause of the movement needed clear explanations; definite statements of doctrines which were popularly misunderstood; plain, convincing reasoning on the issues which were raised by it; a careful laying out of the ground on which English theology was to be strengthened and enriched. Such were Mr. Newman's Lectures on Justification, a work which made its lasting mark on English theological thought; Mr. Keble's masterly exposition of the meaning of Tradition; and not least, the important collections which were documentary and historical evidence of the character of English theology, the so-called laborious Catenas. These were the real tasks of the hour, and they needed all that labour and industry could give. But the first of these inopportune Tracts was an elaborate essay, by Mr. Keble, on the "Mysticism of the Fathers in the use and interpretation of Scripture." It was hardly what the practical needs of the time required, and it took away men's thoughts from them; the prospect was hopeless that in that state of men's minds it should be understood, except by a very few; it merely helped to add another charge, the vague but mischievous charge of mysticism, to the list of accusations against the Tracts. The other, to the astonishment of every one, was like the explosion of a mine. That it should be criticised and objected to was natural; but the extraordinary irritation caused by it could hardly have been anticipated. Written in the most devout and reverent spirit by one of the gentlest and most refined of scholars, and full of deep Scriptural knowledge, it furnished for some years the material for the most savage attacks and the bitterest sneers to the opponents of the movement. It was called "On Reserve in communicating Religious Knowledge"; and it was a protest against the coarseness and shallowness which threw the most sacred words about at random in loud and declamatory appeals, and which especially dragged in the awful mystery of the Atonement, under the crudest and most vulgar conception of it, as a ready topic of excitement in otherwise commonplace and helpless preaching. The word "Reserve" was enough. It meant that the Tract-writers avowed the principle of keeping back part of the counsel of God. It meant, further, that the real spirit of the party was disclosed; its love of secret and crooked methods, its indifference to knowledge, its disingenuous professions, its deliberate concealments, its holding doctrines and its pursuit of aims which it dared not avow, its disciplina arcani, its conspiracies, its Jesuitical spirit. All this kind of abuse was flung plentifully on the party as the controversy became warm; and it mainly justified itself by the Tract on "Reserve." The Tract was in many ways a beautiful and suggestive essay, full of deep and original thoughts, though composed in that spirit of the recluse which was characteristic of the writer, and which is in strong contrast with the energetic temper of to-day. But it could well have been spared at the moment, and it certainly offered itself to an unfortunate use. The suspiciousness which so innocently it helped to awaken and confirm was never again allayed.

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