Project Canterbury

The Oxford Movement
Twelve Years 1833-1845

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


THE proceedings about No. 90 were a declaration of war on the part of the Oxford authorities against the Tractarian party. The suspicions, alarms, antipathies, jealousies, which had long been smouldering among those in power, had at last taken shape in a definite act. And it was a turning-point in the history of the movement. After this it never was exactly what it had been hitherto. It had been so far a movement within the English Church, for its elevation and reform indeed, but at every step invoking its authority with deep respect, acknowledging allegiance to its rulers in unqualified and even excessive terms, and aiming loyally to make it in reality all that it was in its devotional language and its classical literature. But after what passed about No. 90 a change came. The party came under an official ban and stigma. The common consequences of harsh treatment on the tendencies and thought of a party, which considers itself unjustly proscribed, showed themselves more and more. Its mind was divided; its temper was exasperated; while the attitude of the governing authorities hardened more into determined hostility. From the time of the censure, and especially after the events connected with it,--the contest for the Poetry Professorship and the renewed Hampden question,--it may be said that the characteristic tempers of the Corcyrean sedition were reproduced on a small scale in Oxford. The scare of Popery, not without foundation--the reaction against it, also not without foundation--had thrown the wisest off their balance; and what of those who were not wise? In the heat of those days there were few Tractarians who did not think Dr. Wynter, Dr. Faussett, and Dr. Symons heretics in theology and persecutors in temper, despisers of Christian devotion and self-denial. There were few of the party of the Heads who did not think every Tractarian a dishonest and perjured traitor, equivocating about his most solemn engagements, the ignorant slave of childish superstitions which. he was conspiring to bring back. It was the day of the violent on both sides: the courtesies of life were forgotten; men were afraid of being weak in their censures, their dislike, and their opposition; old friendships were broken up, and men believed the worst of those whom a few years back they had loved and honoured.

It is not agreeable to recall these long extinct animosities, but they are part of the history of that time, and affected the course in which things ran. And it is easy to blame, it is hard to do justice to, the various persons and parties who contributed to the events of that strange and confused time. All was new, and unusual, and without precedent in Oxford; a powerful and enthusiastic school reviving old doctrines in a way to make them seem novelties, and creating a wild panic from a quarter where it was the least expected; the terror of this panic acting on authorities not in the least prepared for such a trial of their sagacity, patience, and skill, driving them to unexampled severity, and to a desperate effort to expel the disturbing innovators--among them some of the first men in Oxford in character and ability--from their places in the University. In order to do justice on each side at this distance of time, we are bound to make allowance--both for the alarm and the mistaken violence of the authorities, and for the disaffection, the irritation, the strange methods which grew up in the worried and suspected party--for the difficulties which beset both sides in the conflict, and the counter-influences which drew them hither and thither. But the facts are as they are; and even then a calmer temper was possible to those who willed it; and in the heat of the strife there were men among the authorities, as well as in the unpopular party, who kept their balance, while others lost it.

Undoubtedly the publication of No. 90 was the occasion of the aggravated form which dissension took, and not unnaturally. Yet it was anything but what it was taken to mean by the authorities, an intentional move in favour of Rome. It was intended to reconcile a large and growing class of minds, penetrated and disgusted with the ignorance and injustice of much of the current controversial assumptions against Rome, to a larger and more defensible view of the position of the English Church. And this was done by calling attention to that which was not now for the first time observed--to the loose and unguarded mode of speaking visible in the later controversial Articles, and to the contrast between them and the technical and precise theology of the first five Articles. The Articles need not mean all which they were supposed popularly to mean against what was Catholic in Roman doctrine. This was urged in simple good faith; it was but the necessary assumption of all who held with the Catholic theology, which the Tractarians all along maintained that they had a right to teach; it left plenty of ground of difference with unreformed and usurping Rome. And we know that the storm which No. 90 raised took the writer by surprise. He did not expect that he should give such deep offence. But if he thought of the effect on one set of minds, he forgot the probable effect on another; and he forgot, or under-estimated, the effect not only of the things said, but of the way in which they were said. No. 90 was a surprise, in the state of ordinary theological knowledge at the time. It was a strong thing to say that the Articles left a great deal of formal Roman language untouched; but to work this out in dry, bald, technical logic, on the face of it narrow in scope, often merely ingenious, was even a greater stumbling-block. It was, undoubtedly, a great miscalculation, such as men of keen and far - reaching genius sometimes make. They mistake the strength and set of the tide; they imagine that minds round them are going as fast as their own. We can see, looking back, that such an interpretation of the Articles, with the view then taken of them in Oxford as the theological text-book, and in the condition of men's minds, could not but be a great shock.

And what seemed to give a sinister significance to No. 90 was that, as has been said, a strong current was beginning to set in the direction of Rome. It was not yet of the nature, nor of the force, which was imagined. The authorities suspected it where it was not. They accepted any contemptible bit of gossip collected by ignorance or ill-nature as a proof of it. The constitutional frankness of Englishmen in finding fault with what is their own--disgust at pompous glorification--scepticism as to our insular claims against all the rest of Christendom to be exactly right, to be alone "pure and apostolic"; real increase and enlargement of knowledge, theological and historical; criticism on portions of our Reformation history; admiration for characters in medieval times; eagerness, over-generous it might. be, to admit and repair wrong to an opponent unjustly accused; all were set down together with other more unequivocal signs as "leanings to Rome." It was clear that there was a current setting towards Rome; but it was as clear that there was a much stronger current in the party as a whole, setting in the opposite direction. To those who chose to see and to distinguish, the love, the passionate loyalty of the bulk of the Tractarians to the English Church was as evident and unquestionable as any public fact could be. At this time there was no reason to call in question the strong assurances given by the writer of No. 90 himself of his yet unshaken faith in the English Church. But all these important features of the movement--witnessing, indeed, to deep searchings of heart, but to a genuine desire to serve the English Church--were overlooked in the one overwhelming fear which had taken possession of the authorities. Alarming symptoms of a disposition to acknowledge and even exaggerate the claims and the attractions of the Roman system were indeed apparent. No doubt there were reasons for disquiet and anxiety. But the test of manliness and wisdom, in the face of such reasons, is how men measure their proportion and how they meet the danger.

The Heads saw a real danger before them; but they met it in a wrong and unworthy way. They committed two great errors. In the first place, like the Jesuits in their quarrel with Portroyal and the Jansenists, they entirely failed to recognise the moral elevation and religious purpose of the men whom they opposed. There was that before them which it was to their deep discredit that they did not see. The movement, whatever else it was, or whatever else it became, was in its first stages a movement for deeper religion, for a more real and earnest self-discipline, for a loftier morality, for more genuine self-devotion to a serious life, than had ever been seen in Oxford. It was an honest attempt to raise Oxford life, which by all evidence needed raising, to something more laborious and something more religious, to something more worthy of the great Christian foundations of Oxford than the rivalry of colleges and of the schools, the mere literary atmosphere of the tutor's lecture-room, and the easy and gentlemanly and somewhat idle fellowship of the common-rooms. It was the effort of men who had all the love of scholarship, and the feeling for it of the Oxford of their day, to add to this the habits of Christian students and the pursuit of Christian learning. If all this was dangerous and uncongenial to Oxford, so much the worse for Oxford, with its great opportunities and great professions--Dominus illuminatio mea. But certainly this mark of moral purpose and moral force was so plain in the movement that the rulers of Oxford had no right to mistake it. When the names come back to our minds of those who led and most represented the Tractarians, it must be a matter of surprise to any man who has not almost parted with the idea of Christian goodness, that this feature of the movement could escape or fail to impress those who had known well all their lives long what these leaders were. But amid the clamour and the tell-tale gossip, and, it must be admitted, the folly round them, they missed it. Perhaps they were bewildered. But they must have the blame, the heavy blame, which belongs to all those who, when good is before them, do not recognise it according to its due measure.

In the next place, the authorities attacked and condemned the Tractarian teaching at once violently and ignorantly; and in them ignorance of the ground on which the battle was fought was hardly pardonable. Doubtless the .Tractarian language was in many respects novel and strange. But Oxford was not only a city of libraries, it was the home of what was especially accounted Church theology; and the Tractarian teaching, in its foundation and main outlines, had little but what ought to have been perfectly familiar to any one who chose to take the trouble to study the great Church of England writers. To one who, like Dr. Routh of Magdalen, had gone below the surface and was acquainted with the questions debated by those divines, there was nothing startling in what so alarmed his brethren, whether he agreed with it or not; and to him the indiscriminate charge of Popery meant nothing. But Dr. Routh stood alone among his brother Heads in his knowledge of what English theology was. To most of them it was an unexplored and misty region; some of the ablest, under the influence of Dr. Whately's vigorous and scornful discipline, had learned to slight it. But there it was. Whether it was read or not, its great names were pronounced with honour, and quoted on occasion. From Hooker to Van Mildert, there was an unbroken thread of common principles giving continuity to a line of Church teachers. The Puritan line of doctrine, though it could claim much sanction among the divines of the Reformation--the Latitudinarian idea, though it had the countenance of famous names and powerful intellects--never could aspire to the special title of Church theology. And the teaching which had that name, both in praise, and often in dispraise, as technical, scholastic, unspiritual, transcendental, nay, even Popish, countenanced the Tractarians. They were sneered at for their ponderous Catentae of authorities; but on the ground on which this debate raged, the appeal was a pertinent and solid one. Yet to High Church Oxford and its rulers, all this was strange doctrine. Proof and quotation might lie before their eyes, but their minds still ran in one groove and they could not realise what they saw. The words meant no harm in the venerable folio; they meant perilous heresy in the modern Tract. When the authorities had to judge of the questions raised by the movement, they were unprovided with the adequate knowledge; and this was knowledge which they ought to have possessed for its own sake, as doctors of the Theological Faculty of the University.

And it was not only for their want of learning, manifest all through the controversy, that they were to blame. Their most telling charge against the Tractarians, which was embodied in the censure of No. 90, was the charge of dishonesty. The charge is a very handy one against opponents, and it may rest on good grounds; but those who think right to make it ought, both as a matter of policy and as a matter of conscience, to be quite assured of their own position. The Articles are a public, common document. It is the differing interpretations of a common document which create political and religious parties; and only shallowness and prejudice will impute to an opponent dishonesty without strong and clear reason. Mr. Newman's interpretation in No. 90,--new, not in claiming for the Articles a Catholic meaning, but in limiting, though it does not deny, their Anti-Roman scope, was fairly open to criticism. It might be taken as a challenge, and as a challenge might have to be met. But it would have been both fair and wise in the Heads, before proceeding to unusual extremities, to have shown that they had fully considered their own theological doctrines in relation to the Church formularies. They all had obvious difficulties, and in some cases formidable ones. The majority of them were what would have been called in older controversial days frank Arminians, shutting their eyes by force of custom to the look of some of the Articles, which, if of Lutheran origin, had been claimed from the first by Calvinists. The Evangelicals had long confessed difficulties, at least, in the Baptismal Service and the Visitation Office; while the men most loud in denunciation of dishonesty were the divines of Whately's school, who had been undermining the authority of all creeds and articles, and had never been tired of proclaiming their dislike of that solemn Athanasian Creed to which Prayer Book and Articles alike bound them. Men with these difficulties daily before them had no right to ignore them. Doubtless they all had their explanations which they bona fide believed in. But what was there that excluded Mr. Newman from the claim to bona fides? He had attacked no foundation of Christianity; he had denied or doubted no article of the Creed. He gave his explanations, certainly not more far-fetched than those of some of his judges. In a Church divided by many conflicting views, and therefore bound to all possible tolerance, he had adopted one view which certainly was unpopular and perhaps was dangerous. He might be confuted, he might be accused, or, if so be, convicted of error, perhaps of heresy. But nothing of this kind was attempted. The incompatibility of his view, not merely with the Articles, but with morality in signing what all, of whatever party, had signed, was asserted in a censure, which evaded the responsibility of specifying the point which it condemned. The alarm of treachery and conspiracy is one of the most maddening of human impulses. The Heads of Houses, instead of moderating and sobering it, with the authority of instructed and sagacious rulers, blew it into a flame. And they acted in such a hurry that all sense of proportion and dignity was lost. They peremptorily refused to wait even a few days, as the writer requested, and as was due to his character, for explanation. They dared not risk an appeal to the University at large. They dared not abide the effect of discussion on the blow which they were urged to strike. They chose, that they might strike without delay, the inexpressibly childish step of sticking up at the Schools' gates, and at College butteries, without trial, or conviction, or sentence, a notice declaring that certain modes of signing the Articles suggested in a certain Tract were dishonest. It was, they said, to protect undergraduates; as if undergraduates would be affected by a vague assertion on a difficult subject, about which nothing was more certain than that those who issued the notice were not agreed among themselves.

The men who acted thus were good and conscientious men, who thought themselves in the presence of a great danger. It is only fair to remember this. But it is also impossible to be fair to the party of the movement without remembering this deplorable failure in consistency, in justice, in temper, in charity, on the part of those in power in the University. The drift towards Rome had not yet become an unmanageable rush; and though there were cases in which nothing could have stopped its course, there is no reason to doubt that generous and equitable dealing, a more considerate reasonableness, a larger and more comprehensive judgment of facts, and a more patient waiting for strong first impressions to justify and verify themselves, would have averted much mischief. There was much that was to be regretted from this time forward in the temper and spirit of the movement party. But that which nourished and strengthened impatience, exaggeration of language and views, scorn of things as they were, intolerance of everything moderate, both in men and in words, was the consciousness with which every man got up in the morning and passed the day, of the bitter hostility of those foremost in place in Oxford--of their incompetence to judge fairly--of their incapacity to apprehend what was high and earnest in those whom they condemned--of the impossibility of getting them to imagine that Tractarians could be anything but fools or traitors--of their hopeless blindness to any fact or any teaching to which they were not accustomed. If the authorities could only have stopped to consider whether after all they were not dealing with real thought and real wish to do right, they might after all have disliked the movement, but they would have seen that which would have kept them from violence. They would not listen, they would not inquire, they would not consider. Could such ignorance, could such wrong possibly be without mischievous influence on those who were the victims of it, much more on friends and disciples who knew and loved them? The Tractarians had been preaching that the Church of England, with all its Protestant feeling and all its Protestant acts and history, was yet, as it professed to be, part and parcel of the great historic Catholic Church, which had framed the Creeds, which had continued the Sacraments, which had preached and taught out of the Bible, which had given us our immemorial prayers. They had spared no pains to make out this great commonplace from history and theology: nor had they spared pains, while insisting on this dominant feature in the English Church, to draw strongly and broadly the lines which distinguished it from Rome. Was it wonderful, when all guarding and explanatory limitations were contemptuously tossed aside by "all-daring ignorance," and all was lumped together in the indiscriminate charge of "Romanising," that there should have been some to take the authorities at their word? Was it wonderful when men were told that the Church of England was no place for them, that they were breaking their vows and violating solemn engagements by acting as its ministers, and that in order to preserve the respect of honest men they should leave it--that the question of change, far off as it had once seemed, came within "measurable distance." The generation to which they belonged had been brought up with strong exhortations to be real, and to hate shams; and now the question was forced on them whether it was not a sham for the English Church to call itself Catholic; whether a body of teaching which was denounced by its authorities, however it might look on paper and be defended by learning, could be more than a plausible literary hypothesis in contrast to the great working system of which the head was Rome. When we consider the singular and anomalous position on any theory, including the Roman, of the English Church; with what great differences its various features and elements have been prominent at different times; how largely its history has been marked by contradictory facts and appearances; and how hard it is for any one to keep all, according to their real importance, simultaneously in view; when we remember also what are the temptations of human nature in great collisions of religious belief, the excitement and passion of the time, the mixed character of all religious zeal, the natural inevitable anger which accompanies it when resisted the fervour which welcomes self-sacrifice for the truth; and when we think of all this kept aglow by the continuous provocation of unfair and harsh dealing from persons who were scarcely entitled to be severe judges; the wonder is, human nature being what it is, not that so many went, but that so many stayed.

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