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What is the Oxford Movement?

London: The Catholic Literature Association, no date.

ON the feast of St. Mark, 1876, preaching at the opening of Keble College chapel, Oxford, Dr. Liddon, Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral, uttered a prophecy and said: 'The days will come, I suppose, when young men, looking at these buildings, will ask the question, "Who was Keble?" To have made it inevitable that that question should be asked by successive generations of Oxford students is to have added to the moral wealth of the world: for the answer to that question cannot but do good to the man that asks it.' During the forthcoming months, between now and July, 1933, when the Centenary of the Oxford Movement will be celebrated all over the Anglican Communion, probably thousands of men and women, their curiosity aroused by references in the public Press, will likewise be led to inquire, 'What is the Oxford Movement?' The answer to such a question can alone explain the most remarkable feature of the history of the English Church in the last hundred years.

The Movement sprang from an heroic and courageous desire to recover for the Church in this land its long-forgotten heritage as an integral part of Christ's One, Holy, Catholic Church, and to claim for her her rightful place in Christendom with her sister Churches of West and East.

The need for a great religious revival was painfully evident to all spiritually-minded men, of whom here and there a few were still to be found. It is difficult for us today to realize the utter deadness and decay of religion before Queen Victoria came to her throne. Thoughtful men saw that there must come a change in the Church in England if she were not to be torn down and laid in the dust. The famous Dr. Arnold of Rugby, in 1832, declared that as it then stood no human power could save it, and his own plan for her recovery was to join hands with the dissenting sects. Ten bishoprics had recently been suppressed in Ireland. Was the Church in England to be the next to suffer from a like concession to popular clamour? Pamphlets were in wide circulation recommending the abolition of the Creeds in public worship, and the removal from the Prayer Book of all mention of the Blessed Trinity, of the doctrines of Baptismal Regeneration and Priestly Absolution. The bishops were threatened and intimidated; the Government was subservient to agitators who sought the destruction of the Church; there was total oblivion of its character as a divine institution; the grossest Erastianism was widely prevalent; Convocation was muzzled; many of the bishops were pluralists and nonresident in their sees; 'their names were in the peerage as well as in the Book of Life'; that they were in direct line with the Apostles was difficult to believe, and many probably hardly dreamt of it themselves; the majority were mediocrities, men of low intelligence who cringed before public opinion and had no prophetic outlook. The parish clergy were un-spiritual and totally ill-equipped as shepherds of souls, and many of them lived in dire poverty. The Sacraments were almost wholly neglected, and when used were regarded as occasional badges of respectability rather than as channels of divine grace. The Bishop of London lamented in 1800 that on Easter Day there were only six communicants at the only Communion Service at St. Paul's Cathedral. The parish churches were, for the most part, in a truly deplorable condition. In The Memories of Dean Hole the following typical description is given: 'The Altar was represented by a small rickety deal table, with a scanty covering of faded and patched green baize, on which were placed the overcoat, hat, and riding-whip of the officiating minister, who made a vestry within the sacrarium, and, sitting there in a large surplice, had a conversation with the sexton before the service began, and looked as though he were about to have his hair cut. The font was filled with coffin-ropes, tinder box and brimstone matches, candle-ends, etc. It was never used for Baptism; Zebah and Zalmunnah would not have countenanced such an unseemly interruption of the service. Sparrows twittered and bats floated beneath the rotten timbers of the roof, while beetles and moths, and all manner of flies, found happy homes below. The damp walls represented in fresco a green and yellow melancholy which had a depressing influence on the spirit, and the darkest and most dismal building of the parish was that called the House of God.' But at last the morning star, which announced the advent of a brighter day, shone through the darkness, and gradually the gracious light broke upon the dreary scene.

It was given to a small band of brilliant young Oxford graduates to launch the great adventure which was to rediscover for the English Church the glorious truths of the Gospel, and to restore the ancient verities of the Catholic Faith to a disobedient and gainsaying people.


These young enthusiasts, Fellows of Oriel College, Oxford, were ready to fire the train, and to lead what must have seemed a forlorn hope. They were vastly different men in temperament: John Keble, shy and retiring, the son of a Gloucestershire parson (he had gained a brilliant degree and the most coveted distinctions in the University at an age when most youths are just leaving their public school); Hurrell Froude, son of a Dorset Archdeacon, playful, gay, venturesome, a daring cross-country rider and sailor, a high-souled English gentleman; John Henry Newman, son of a London banker, brought up a strict Evangelical, sensitive and scholarly; Isaac Williams, a first-rate Harrow cricketer and Latinist, and, like Keble, one of the future poets of the Movement. These men were typical of the best brains and most cultured intellects of the Oxford of their day, and they were destined, in Froude's words, 'to make a row in the world'; each had the heart of a child and the courage of a lion. The first shot in the great battle was fired when, in July, 1833, Keble preached from the pulpit of the University church a sermon on 'National Apostasy.' The same church of St. Mary's was the scene of Newman's compelling oratory, whither he would come forth from the seclusion of prayer and strict asceticism to speak, week by week, of long-forgotten truths. Another method of propagating the principles of the Movement was the publication of a long series of 'Tracts for the Times,' at first merely four-page leaflets, and, later on, weighty treatises on the fundamentals of the Faith. Written in perfect English, they were intended to startle the world, and they succeeded. Like the sharp rapid thrusts of a rapier, they were the deadly earnest utterances of intellectual men in pain and danger. In the Long Vacation Newman and his friends rode round on horseback, and distributed bundles of the Tracts at country parsonages, and very soon they were being sold all over England: they even reached the bishops in their palaces, and one bishop, after reading the tract on Apostolic Succession, could not decide whether he believed the doctrine or not.


The aim of these zealots was not to discover any new patent remedy for the sickness of the nation's soul: it was to unlock the medicine chest, of which the keepers, the bishops and clergy, had lost the key. The old Catholic doctrines they sought to revive were there in the Prayer Book and the Bible, and in the age-long tradition of the Church, but they were hidden from men's eyes by the dust of long neglect. Any slavish imitation of Rome was absolutely undreamed of by the early leaders, and they only longed, with a passionate loyalty to the English Church, to recover for her children her forgotten heritage as a true part of Christ's Holy Catholic Church. They had no axe to grind, but they did labour to open the drowsy eyes of the type of Churchman who once blandly remarked, when confronted with the preface of the Book of Common Prayer, 'Oh, I thought that was only advertisement!' The early success of the Movement received its first checks in 1841, when Newman's famous Tract XC, giving a Catholic interpretation to the Thirty-nine Articles, was condemned by the heads of the Oxford colleges, and in 1843, when Dr. Pusey was suspended for a year for preaching in the University pulpit a sermon on the Real Presence. Newman was unable to weather the storm: he retired to the hamlet of Littlemore, and in 1845 he was received into the Roman Communion. He leant on the bishops, and when they failed him he felt that he had no more place in the Anglican Communion: Pusey, on the other hand, went behind the bishops and fell back on Catholic tradition, and therefore he remained loyal to the English Church. Of all the original leaders and writers of the Tracts, Newman was the only one who became a Roman Catholic. Pusey and Keble lived in the Scriptures, and their reverential love for the Bible saved them both from Romanism and Rationalism. Edward Pusey's association with the Movement at once gave it distinction and strong leadership: of high birth, he had at the age of twenty-eight become Regius Professor of Hebrew and a Canon of Christchurch. He was famed for his profound scholarship in all the great universities of Europe: he was a man of deep religious seriousness and the strictest self-discipline. On him, after Newman's secession, fell the brunt of the coming struggle; though he instinctively hated controversy, he entered the lists in defence of truth, and his whole life unmistakably bore the print of the nails. Where such a man as he could be content to work and die, countless others were content to stay, who, but for him, would have wandered far from the English Church or the Faith of Christ.

When Newman left Oxford, the Movement ceased to be confined to the University, and it spread rapidly to the cities and towns of the country. Men who had received their inspiration at the feet of such pioneers as Keble and Marriott and Pusey set out to put the Tractarian principles into practice in the great centres of population, as London, Leeds, Plymouth, Bristol, and Birmingham, and they all suffered persecution, misrepresentation, and the massed fury of outraged Protestantism. To mention but a few of the names of such standard-bearers: Prynne, the brothers Pollock, Mackonochie, Lowder, Upton-Richards, Denison, Bennett, Stanton, Dolling, Bell-Cox, Enraght, Tooth; Gregory, Church, and Liddon at St. Paul's; Gladstone in the House of Commons. It was, indeed, like Inkerman, a soldiers' battle, for with very notable exceptions, such as Philpotts, Wilkinson, and King, the diocesan bishops invariably failed to understand the Movement, and almost always hindered and opposed it. Mob violence, the hatred and suspicion of the Press, the undisguised animosity of the Court, and stern opposition of Parliament were arrayed in turn against these heroic men; but their holiness of life, courageous and indomitable zeal, and their deep conviction of the sacredness and solidity of their cause finally won the day. It was finely said that 'the Movement had its spring in the consciences and characters of its leaders. To these men Religion really meant the most awful and most seriously personal thing on earth. If there are those to whom it means anything less than this, these men will certainly fail, and deserve to fail.' It must be remembered that the prominent leaders of the Revival were priests richly endowed with evangelical fervour, whose passionate desire and ultimate aim was the conversion and sanctification of souls, and they sacrificed everything for the cause. Their critics and opponents, to a large extent, directed their attacks on the externals of ceremonial that naturally followed the teaching of the old Faith, and were never tired of denouncing the Movement as 'ritualistic.' The Tractarians were out for principles, and when the ceremonial revival became later on the obvious sequence, they always insisted that the introduction of mere ornamental adjuncts of Divine Worship, as being pretty or aesthetic, was a grave danger, and of no more utility, for their purpose, than a painted corpse. They began with, because they believed in, essentials; they dug deep; they made saints.


What has the Oxford Movement, or, as we call it today, the Catholic Revival, accomplished? As we look at the religious life of the English Church close on one hundred years after the inception of the Movement, what can we justly claim as its results?

(1) We have largely recovered belief in the spiritual nature of the Church as a Divine Society, and in the Anglican Communion as a real and integral part of Catholic Christendom. In other words, the long-forgotten claim of our Book of Common Prayer that she is the Catholic Church of this land has been substantiated once again. She is not a department of the civil State, as Erastianism imagines, much less an appendage of the Conservative party in that State. This claim, however, still waits for its complete triumph when the shackles of Establishment shall be finally torn away. Fifty years ago faithful priests preferred the ignominy of imprisonment to submitting to plead before a secular tribunal. The ill-starred Public Worship Regulation Act, designed for the express purpose of crushing the Movement, though still on the statute book of the realm, has long since become a dead letter.

(2) The restoration of personal spiritual religion as contrasted with religion preached as a hostage to conventionality and respectability, The Sacraments are regarded today as vital and necessary channels of divine grace, linking souls with the living Christ himself. Access to them has been reopened, and opportunities for receiving them are manifold. In the place of a single Communion a year, first monthly, then weekly, and finally daily Communion was claimed as the ideal. In approximately fifteen hundred churches in England today the Holy Sacrifice is offered daily. Whereas sixty years ago Archbishop Tait led a violent attack in the House of Lords against sacramental confession, and a certain Liverpool clergyman, afterwards Dean of Ripon, demanded capital punishment as the only effective preventative of the practice of hearing confessions, we find today that confessions are heard in thousands of churches and even cathedrals. Throughout the land, guilds and confraternities for the deepening of the spiritual life are commonplace things, and in recent years the Retreat Movement has rapidly developed.

(3) The outward transformation of our churches has naturally accompanied the restoration of the joyfulness and romance of Catholic teaching and Eucharistic life. No longer regarded as preaching houses for the edification of a congregation, they are now, in most places, treated as Houses of God and shrines of the Divine Presence. The Christian idea of worship in its highest sense has been recovered by the bringing back to its rightful place of the Lord's own service as the chief feature of the Lord's Day. The generous contributions of architecture, art, needlework, and music have given to our worship dignity, devotion, and beauty. The average church today, with but a simple ceremonial, surpliced priest and choir, a plain cross and two lights on the Holy Table, coloured stoles, hymns, weekly collection of alms, and perhaps an anthem and procession on occasions; free seats, daily offices, weekly Communions, yearly Confirmation, frequent Baptisms, intelligible sermons, a zealous parson, and a tidy churchyard-owes all these things, under God, to the benign influence of the Oxford Movement. Nay, more, even many Nonconformist chapels today, with their attempt to observe holy seasons, their stained-glass windows, stone images of angels, and even flowers on their Holy Tables, and their ministers attired like priests, are debtors to the Catholic Revival.

(4) The wonderful restoration of the Religious Life, in its technical sense, for men and women, as the highest of all vocations, has been. one of the most precious features of the history of the last seventy years. Neale at East Grinstead, Butler at Wantage, Carter at Clewer, Benson at Cowley, were the early pioneers, and today scores of religious communities shed their beneficent light on many of the darkest places of the great cities and towns of England.

(5) Then we must remember the remarkable impetus which the Movement has given to missionary zeal at home and abroad. Go to the poorest district of our chief centres of population, and there you will invariably find, amidst vice and squalor and material ugliness, a Catholic church, loved and used as a home for God's children, shedding around it joy and hope, and bringing sacramental grace to sin-laden souls. Overseas, the growth of the number of missionary dioceses has increased fourfold, and in them many of the most splendid triumphs of the Movement have been achieved: such names as Patteson, Steere, Selwyn, Chauncey Maples, and Weston are surely written in golden letters in the Book of Life. Through the influence of the Revival the old reproach that Catholics in England are too self-interested to care for the conversion of heathen lands is being steadily rolled away.

(6) Finally, may we not justly claim that the remarkable spiritual renaissance in the Anglican Communion in the last hundred years has provided, and still provides, an irrefutable answer to the taunts of our Roman Catholic brethren that the English Church is a Protestant sect? No withered branch, cut off from the parent tree, could manifest such signs of vitality and expansion. The restoration of the sacramental life has, as elsewhere in Christendom, produced the fruits of sanctity and self-sacrifice to a remarkable degree. A Richard Benson or an Edward King suffers nothing by comparison with a Curé d'Ars. It was not a friend of the Movement, but none other than Mr. John Morley, who wrote in his Life of Mr. Gladstone, 'Nobody will be so presumptuous or uncharitable as to deny that among the divines of the Oxford Movement were men as pure in soul, as fervid lovers of truth, as this world ever possessed.' The Oxford Movement is still moving on to its final and longed-for goal, the ultimate reunion of the separated parts of Christ's Holy Catholic Church. The achievements it has already won are the best cordial for the pessimistic spirit that bewails a local set-back here and there, but is blind to the general advance along the far-flung battle front.

During the past ten years the Catholic Revival has gained a new and remarkable impetus through the work of the Anglo-Catholic Congress. In 1920. when the first Congress was held, it was commonly said that the Oxford Movement had spent its strength. But the great Congress in the Albert Hall, and the provincial Congresses which followed it, revealed that, as a result of the patient and faithful work which had been going on for years in parishes throughout the country, there existed a large body of communicants living the Catholic life within the English Church. Since then the work of the Congress has developed enormously. For more than seven years now unceasing prayer has been maintained, day and night, for the conversion of England; millions of tracts and leaflets have been distributed; Conventions, Crusades, Missions, and Retreats have been organized in town and village throughout the country; large sums have been raised for the training of priests; and a great deal has been done to rouse the interest and sympathy of the faithful at home for Catholic Missions abroad.

The aim of the Movement, so richly blessed in the past, is today precisely what it was when Keble, Pusey, and their companions set out on their noble crusade 'to bring the men, women, and children of our country, through the full faith of Catholic Christendom, to the love and service of the Incarnate Son of God.' To its detractors and opponents we may throw down the original challenge, 'If this work be of men it will come to naught; but if it be of God ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found to fight against God.'

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