Project Canterbury

The Oxford Movement: Its Contributions and Its Limitations

The Rev. Frank Gavin, Ph.D.

From Chicago Papers: A Record of the Church Congress in the United States on its Fifty-Ninth Anniversary

Spencer, Massachusetts: The Heffernan Press, 1933.

It is extremely difficult for me as satisfactorily to objectify the subject matter of my paper as to disentangle it from what is so intimately concerned with my own intellectual and spiritual life. I speak as one belonging to the stream of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, of that wing of it which is now being called "liberal" Catholic. I trust that in what I am to say it may appear that my own evaluation of it has not clouded my critical faculty. In fact, I am persuaded that the best service in the cause of truth may be done by those who love what they criticize, for the Apostolic precept to "speak the truth in love" is particularly incumbent on us all. My comments will concern a two-fold critical estimation of the movement and its consequences: its practices and its principles constitute the natural categories under which fall the particular emphases, currents, and other manifestations of the revival to which I shall invite your attention.

The Oxford Movement began with a threefold objective: there was, first of all the moralistic aspect of its ideals, so cogently presented by C. C. J. Webb and latterly by the brilliant Swedish scholar Yngve Brilioth. Secondly, the inception of the movement was in part due to a reemergence of the age-long dispute between Church and State. Thirdly, in both its intellectual and devotional aspects the Movement aspired to the repristination of Catholicism--both as to belief and to practice--within the life of the Anglican Communion. It had then its ethical, its political (and social), and its religious outlook. I might briefly enlarge on these points. During the second phase of the Oxford Movement--that of the fifties and following--Sir John Seeley's much valued Ecce Homo appeared as an expression of the sentiment of the times:

"When the Divine Society was established, what did Christ expect it to accomplish? To the question we may suppose he would have answered: The object of the Divine Society is that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the language of our day, its object was the improvement of morality." Much of the moralism of the Oxford Movement came from the Zeitgeist. This was one vehicle of the renewed impulse of life which Tractarianism caused to pulse through the Anglican Church. So far as concerns the principle involved, its limitations were quickly perceived by the leaders of the movement. As my colleague has been saying, this moralism was in part a rediscovery of sanctity, and in part, of pharisaism. The supernatural ideal came in to supplement where it did not supplant, the stuffy and stodgy respectability of contemporary Victorianism. So far as concerns the second impulse that I have mentioned (the Church-State issue) it became largely obscured, to reemerge in a very dilute form after the Parliamentary rejection of the Revised Prayer Books of 1927 and '28. Within the scope of the third objective there has been found room for two different emphases which might be called the progressive and the conservative, in both the thought and the life of Anglo-Catholicism.

These three objectives I suggest not because I plan to orientate what I wish to present to you about them, so much as to have them serve as the background of the Movement itself in its historical proportions. They were then a new ethic; a revindication of the Church's place in relation to civil, secular, and ethical society; and a revindication of the religion of Catholicism. These represented the ideals of the Movement.

I wish now to turn your attention to certain evidences of weakness and limitation which concern the movement in practice. We are dealing here, not with the underlying convictions of people who are exponents of Anglo-Catholicism so much as with the analysis of that peculiar thing called temper, ethos, and the like. I proceed to speak of three things which have caused me both concern and perturbation. First of all,, there is the singular anomaly presented by the existence of a Catholic party. The impression has gained ground that the Anglo-Catholic Movement has constituted itself a partisan group for purposes generally associated with a party, rather than a school of thought. One of the most mordant critics of this aspect of the movement is himself a religious. I refer you to Father Kelly's recent book. The inconsistency between the theory of claiming both the privileges and the responsibilities of the belief and practice of Catholicism and the practice of many of the members of this school organizing themselves into a party is glaringly apparent. Partisanship involves a disclaimer of universality. Yet the Catholic ideal is an affirmation of precisely this universality. Illustrations of this general conclusion appear on all sides: there is the instance, for example, of party organization--scarcely as yet a fact in America, but, however excusable and inevitable, a clear phenomenon in the life of the movement in the English Church. There is, again, the evidence in many quarters of an exclusive rather than of an inclusive temper. By the exclusive temper I understand an attitude of mind which emphasizes a psychological condition of fear: a single word in the description of our Lord's pre incarnate life in the gorgeous passage in Philippians ii: 6 explains what I mean, "Who thought equality with God a thing not to be grasped for." What is really yours by nature you do not need to claim or assert. Assertiveness and clamorous insistence betoken a mood of uncertainty. The strident affirmativeness of many of the school of Anglo-Catholicism seems to me to betoken a certain degree of fearfulness lest an alleged claim fail of recognition. When one is perfectly certain and utterly secured, his assertion of a claim does not need to be protected by the mood of exclusiveness. If the convictions of the movement we hold to, be as true as they are asserted to be the exclusiveness of outlook, and intolerance of mood ought to evaporate completely. I deplore any such evidence of narrowness and bigotry as would reduce to the level of cheap polemic and controversy the sacredness of deeply-held convictions. After all what Anglo-Catholicism claims is a divinely inspired and authorized way of living and of thinking. While it is perfectly true that we hold our treasure in earthen vessels, it is none the less true that the treasure is not of our own coinage and that we are not artificers of what is ours but to share. This emotional quality, of the spirit of partisanship is to my mind a grave weakness and limitation of the movement.

We were thinking above of the emphatic moralism so prominent at the inception of the Oxford Movement. As my colleague has indicated, there was a good and a bad side of the thing emphasized. The vehicle of this particular mood was found in contemporary thought and ideals. How far the Oxford Movement really transcended the accepted canons of the time constitutes another interesting historical analysis. I know I have not the time and I doubt whether I have the competence to make it, but one thing seems to me clear. It is that in a great deal of ethical and moral idealism of the practice of Anglo-Catholicism,, there is all too much of an individualism separate from a larger context: I mean that the necessary reference both God-ward and man-ward is sometimes absent. For example, a person may be pious and devout, a thorough-going "practicing Catholic," loyal to traditional Catholic discipline and practice, and yet fail to be efficient in life. I dare say almost all forms of organized Christianity, when a rigid self-examination is undertaken, find themselves inadequate in fully balancing religious impulse with the actual terms of human life. It is difficult clearly to state this aspect of what I am trying to present: it is the discrepancy between efficient, active, and full life, and the actuality in the lives of disciplined Anglo-Catholics which causes me--in large part on the basis of my own self-examination--much searching of heart. All too little of the spiritual direction of the Anglo- Catholic has concerned itself with principles of adjustment and larger intelligence. One or two dominical sayings epitomize the Catholic ethical idea: the words of our Lord in St. Matthew v.48, "Be ye perfect even, as your father which is in heaven is perfect", and the Johannine words which express the same idea: "I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (St. John x. 10). Surely the spiritual life (what we commonly speak of as "personal religion") should have a direct and penetrating relationship to the life of man in the world. This should appear in all his relationships and activities: family, social, cultural, vocational, political, economic, and creative. Again, all too often the devout and religious person may cherish and sustain a high level of personal religion, and yet fail to be vigorously and vitally aware of the coöperative and social quality of the implications of his religion. This is not the time to emphasize how vitally Catholic principle demands a revitalization of social, political, and ethical idealism. Complete de vitalization occurs at the very heart and core of Catholicism with its social, organic, and corporate character, if in practice it turns out to be primarily private, individual and personal. It is a complete contradiction in terms. It is a tacit denial of the very means whereby Catholicism both appears and has been mediated.

Perhaps it would be well at this point to assess the significance for us all of the distortion of Christian interest given at the Reformation. Historic Christianity had for centuries been presenting some kind of possibly uneasy equilibrium between the claims of the individual and the group. The same more or less insecure poise maintained as between the interests of man and of God. No one can be acquainted with the European Reformation without being struck with the enormous stress it gave, in its pre occupation with the problem of soteriology, to a man-centered outlook on religion. Catholics and Protestants in the Sixteenth Century were concerned to answer the question, What must I do to be saved? The usual statement of the question almost invariably emphasized the pro noun: first person singular nominative. The anthropocentricism of all Western Christianity has been one of its gravest defects these past four hundred years. The redressment of the balance has been recently sought in German Protestantism in the Barthian movement. From the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius through most of the devotional literature of Western Catholicism, in Protestant manuals of piety and expositors of Holy Scripture, this same implicit assumption is made. Man has become the center of all things. However fruitful and necessary a premise for the development of modern science, in matters of religion it has proved a calamity. We have come to think of God as the chief servant of the universe which He created, as an item in my life (the chief purpose of which is to afford me satisfaction, and as a means to my happiness. We have done despite as well to the rigorous austerity of the Gospel of God as to the social outlook of Christianity. This temper and spirit of Western Christianity is part of the very atmosphere we live in. We can scarcely become aware of it until by contrast with it we compare such a Christian tradition as that, for example, of the Eastern Churches.

While history may account for it, it ought not be deemed to excuse a lack in practice of perspective and proportion all too manifest in the working out of the principles of Anglo-Catholicism. Catholicism strongly emphasizes a three-fold focus of religious interest; on God, the fellowship of men and self. Where self is made supreme the obligations both to God and neighbor are obscured. Religion ceases to be thought of in fact as a way of eternal life lived in time, as a relationship to all men in Christ. It is dwarfed down to a private and personal behavior-and-thought pattern within a narrow groove with only a bipolar direction--God-to man and man-to-God.

I have just touched upon an emphasis which I feel to be strongly manifested in the religious literature of Western Catholicism: its anthropocentricism and individualistic preoccupation. It is not without significance that for lack of better, devotional, esthetic, moral, theological and dogmatic manuals based largely on Post-Reformation Roman sources appeared in early literature of the Catholic revival. I feel that until recently at all events, there has been too great an indebtedness of our writers to the Latin Post-Reformation tradition. Much has been adapted which was essentially unadaptable. Quite naturally the Anglican Catholic revival took place in the atmosphere and life of Western Christianity. Equally naturally, borrowing was inevitable especially from the practice both of the conventual and of the devout life from the seasoned and well-tried experience of the Latin Church. Much was gained, thereby. A technique that has experiences to recommend is better than one made up solely by new ventures of experiment. If human nature remains pretty much the same for centuries at a time, the experience culled from an intensely prosaic methodology of dealing with it are of immense value. All too often, however, they have been uncritically accepted. Characteristically Latin and Roman types of legalism have found them selves in extraordinary company with Anglican principles! The technique fashioned for an ultramontane Communion with a militaristic organization and the ideal frankly to retain the penitent on the level of the child, can hardly be deemed adequate in a Communion which, with all its failings, does hold even blunderingly to the ideal of spiritual adulthood. "Rule of thumb" methods are best adapted to those who rule by the thumb. They have their limitations, if one's digitory adornment includes the equipment of eight fingers in addition. Again, the emphases of practical Roman theology are in large part sacramental. One occasionally discovers an Anglo-Catholic whose whole religion is the Sacrament, not even on the level of "Atheistic-Jesualatry" but even subliminal stage, where quantities of grace are deemed to be tapped as one would draw water from a faucet or electricity from a floor plug. If, I repeat, the Anglo-Catholic regards himself as the legitimate heir of the fullness of the Catholic tradition, the grave limitations of that claim in practice are nowhere more manifest than when he slavishly adheres to the short-cut manuals of that sectarian form of Catholicism known as Roman Catholicism.

In these respects, then, I feel strongly that we Anglo-Catholics need to revise our practice on the basis of our principles. (1) Partisanship should have no place in our behavior; (2) the practice of the Catholic life must lead to a larger efficiency in fruitfulness, and a clearer grasp of the inevitable relations both God-ward and man-ward, and (3) a larger liberty of soul and mind action must be found, than by the addiction to a predigested programme of Post Reformation Latin piety.

We shall turn our attention now to some of the principles of Anglo-Catholicism. For one thing, we are not infrequently told that if we want to be Roman Catholics we ought to go to Rome. It is sometimes gently--and ofttimes vigorously--intimated to us that we are neither consistent nor intellectually respectable. What gives color and grounds for the charge is, I think, patent to us all: if Roman devotional manuals, Roman ceremonial, and Roman theology form the substance of our pabulum then it does not seem particularly respectable not to accredit the source and give our full allegiance where we seem already to have given a part. But, deeper than this, it is urged that Anglo-Catholicism has really no intellectually respectable justification for itself. For example, the Doctrine of the Church, we have all heard of the "Branch Theory." But it is a bit queer that, while the Anglo-Catholics urge this Branch Theory with its assertion of the existence of three branches of the Catholic Church, two of the three branches utterly decline to recognize, either in theory or practice, the legitimacy of the third! It may be true nevertheless, but it is rather a facer to find such a truth so little acknowledged. In other words, Anglo-Catholicism has nearly completely failed to urge a theory of the Church which gains any acceptance--or even intelligibility--at the hands of others than its own adherents. This is the desideratum. I am personally certain that it can be done, but to date no coherent, plausible, and convincing basis of Church theory has yet been advanced.

Again, the principles of Anglo-Catholicism have been attacked on the basis and from the point of view of their psychological bearings. Anglo-Catholics are told that in their craving for certitude and divine guarantee and assurance they betray a spiritual immaturity which invariably works itself out into the compensating principle of Catholic authority. Anglo-Catholics have not actually faced this allegation. It is a basic matter. How far is it true? Why must some men need "authority"? We touch here deep-lying instincts of the human animal religiously considered. I should say, despite some appearance to the contrary, that the Anglo-Catholic really has a passion for reality especially in the form of fact The only excuse he has to offer for his belief in the Catholic tradition is his conviction of its truth. He believes in the two-fold aspect of our under standing and grasp of truth: that it is both given and received. He also believes that the impartation of truth by revelation is a process from our human point of view; but that the process whereby we apprehend is distinct from what we apprehend. He could not think of religious experience alone as a guarantee or source--however much it may be the means--of man's laying hold of truth. He therefore values authority highly, and the authority he so values is primarily the Divine. He has a hard time explaining himself to himself and a harder time in attempting to explain himself to others. Catholicism is full of paradox. But so was the Gospel. "Whom to serve is to reign" means (as translated in our Collect): "Whose service is perfect freedom." This expresses one such paradox. The Catholic thinks of authority as a charter to freedom; of his dependence on allegedly divine guarantees as a declaration of independence. He is willing to go to school to the facts provided all the facts are included. Ideally he would not willingly fall short of the Apostolic maxim to "fall in love with reality." As an Anglo-Catholic, I believe my motives and my methods may be impugned by this criticism, though I am convinced that the principles which I hold are still unshaken and sound.

There are large tracts of theological investigation which Anglo-Catholics have not satisfactorily explored. One we have touched upon,--the doctrine of the Church. There are many others, among which is the moot point about the Episcopate. You have all heard the jibe in the contrast between Evangelicals and Catholics: "Evangelicals believe that bishops are not of the esse of the Church but are only of the bene esse. Anglo-Catholics believe that bishops are of the esse of the Church but not of the bene esse." What is after all at stake in the row about Apostolic succession is the principle of priesthood. Few of our controversialists on both sides have isolated this germ. The failure to do so has meant that the controversialists have not succeeded in understanding each other. It is as if two men were to box while one of the sparring partners was on the roof and the other in the basement. A really successful theological dispute can only take place when the controversialists have really understood the basis of their agreement. You are not even free to disagree until you have discovered the sound platform under your feet of what you agreed to agree about. (Incidentally, I am trying to be frank and outspoken at all kinds of risks, just because I have felt that all too often in our Church congresses we fail to engage because we have failed to discover grounds of agreement). To return to this point about the unworked territory of theological investigation. Anglo-Catholicism is after all primarily concerned with religion--not with candles and chasubles, nor genuflection nor ceremonial, nor even primarily with the theological structure of the body. Everybody must have some skeleton--not the skeleton in the closet but within his flesh. But like the skeleton in the closet the bony structure, grisly and grim as it may seem to be, ought not always to be prominent in public. While it is fashionable in lobster circles to wear the skeleton outside, the vertebrates long since decided that it would be better form to wear the skeleton inside. I mean by this simply to call your attention to the fact that Anglo-Catholicism is primarily religious and while it has failed and does fail adequately to deal with all points of theology, anatomy is not its primary aim, nor is even organic chemistry its sole pre-occupation. We are concerned with life. This may palliate though it does not excuse, on the other hand, the failure really and rigorously to ad dress itself to the undeveloped territories of theological research. However much the exigencies of the historical and particular situation have necessitated vast diversions of mental energy, some of this, at least, has been into wrong channels and should certainly have been directed to the end I am suggesting. Without this fundamental presentation of the intellectual claims of Anglo-Catholicism we shall only be making good the warning word of a great intellectual leader, Father Waggett, S.S.J.E. Of his many wise sayings, one frequently comes to my mind, "An unreasoned Gospel means an ungospelled reason."

Anglo-Catholicism has appeared primarily in two different guises at once. Its scholarship and theological leadership (despite the strictures I have just been noting as to the latter) have been addressed largely to the intelligentsia; at the same time it has bored deep--especially in England--into the malodorous slums and into the monotones of the dead dismality which seems inseparable from the human life of our industrial and capitalistic civilization. There is a gap then in the reach and spread of its appeal. It has not yet found any adequate method of addressing itself to the common man, who is neither a University graduate nor a member of the unprivileged classes. I wonder whether this is a defect of practice or of principle. Is there no Catholic gospel for Philistinism? Why can't the Anglo-Catholic make himself intelligible to a 100% Middle Westerner on any large scale? Is there any defect inherent in the principles of Anglo-Catholicism, or is the failure due solely to the advocates of these principles? I am not clear at all in my own mind as to what is the answer to this question. If you have any light on the subject please prepare to shed it now, because I should like to know the answer myself.

Lastly I will call your attention to the revolution that is taking place within Anglo-Catholicism. A few years ago there appeared a New Commentary on Holy Scripture which went through several editions in very short order. From the standpoint of us here in America its Biblical criticism was of the mildest sort. On the other hand in England--judging at any rate from the disputants--it was deemed in many quarters to subvert the whole structure of Catholicism. I was much amused that in rebutting some of the attacks launched against it, the sharp indictment of a colleague of mine at the General Theological Seminary (who thought the project one of high bound conservatism) was cleverly utilized by way of off-setting the explosion of conservative emotions in England. The fact of the matter is, there are broadly two tempers in modern Anglo-Catholicism and it is not going to be easy to reconcile them. There is a conservative and there is a liberal wing. The conservatives are on the whole rather Latin-minded. I hesitate to use the word in so far as I have been so indiscreetly using it, for it may here be deemed an aspersion. I do not mean it to be such. I am merely trying to tell the truth as I see it. On the other hand the Liberal group--from which emanated Essays Catholic and Critical, the writers against Father Vernon, and most recently Knox and Vidler, The Development of Modern Catholicism, are regarded as being peculiarly modernistic. This has given pause to many of the older High Churchmen, when men of this school really trouble themselves as to the course of events. Father Knox, for example, has invited the whole technique of historical criticism to make itself at home within Liberal Catholicism. He is candidly acknowledging that the traditional positions on the Church's infallibility, and the Doctrine of Original Sin have been surrendered, and writes in a distinctly critical vein of the three or four decades of the recent development of intellectual Anglo-Catholicism. The book may prove revolutionary. I am inclined to believe that some of the recent productions of this school are really epoch-making: Father Thornton's The Incarnate Lord, A. E. Taylor's The Faith of a Moralist, and possibly Kirk's Vision of God belong to this category.

While early Tractarians were for the most part static in their gospel of both dogma and religion, the new Liberal Anglo-Catholics are emphatically on the side of the dynamic interpretation of both. It is to my mind one of the most perilous aspects of our movement that these two points of view that I have so sketchily outlined may find themselves fundamentally irreconcilable. Of course, common sense and Anglo-Saxon muddle-headedness may lead us to a practical working out of the divergencies of these two outlooks. This has been so often the case that one may be justified in assuming it will prove the solution. Yet it makes me a bit uneasy to expect that fundamental divergencies can ever be ignored or allegedly solved by any such method. It is just possible that a radically new re-alignment of forces within our communion and hence outside it may take place in the very near future. As I did not appear before you in the guise of a prophet I shall suppress my urge to indulge myself in this exercise. I have been attempting to assess the limitations and weaknesses of the Catholic Movement. I have spoken not at all of its truths, of its persuasiveness to my heart and mind, of the joyousness of the adventure of faith to which it calls me, of the loyalty and allegiance that it evokes in me, of the majesty of the ideal which it holds before me. In fact I have been talking largely about myself and my own weaknesses. It may be bad taste but I have tried at least to be honest.

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