The Oxford Movement

I have promised to blog this year about Charlotte M Yonge. This is not that blog. But knowledgeable people sometimes call her the “novelist of the Oxford Movement.”

Novelist of the what?

The definitive 1930 history book “1066 and all that” by Sellars and Yeatman is comparatively accurate about the Oxford Movement:

“… this was a form of sinuflection which led men gradually in the direction of Rome; the movement was first made by Cardinal Newton at Oxford, and later, Peeble and Pusey Colleges were found there to commemorate his assistants. Many illustrated manuals and pamphlets were written by Cardinals Newton and Peeble, giving directions for the movement.”

This might be corrected (how dull) to: “this was a movement within the Church of England which encouraged greater use of sacraments (possibly including genuflection?) It was thought by opponents to be leading the C of E towards Roman Catholicism, and indeed several prominent members did convert, in particular Newman who was to become an RC Cardinal. Keble College Oxford is named after John Keble, one of the founders (along with Newman and Pusey.) A series of so-called “Tracts for the Times” by these men and others led to its being sometimes called the Tractarian Movement, which Sellars and Yeatman wrongly think has something to do with tractors.”

John Keble was Yonge’s local priest and mentor from 1838 until his death in 1865.

Tractarians were also sometimes called “Puseyites,” and their modern descendants are Anglo-Catholics aka High Church Anglicans. They were, and to some extent are, the Anglican non-evangelical wing; although opponents of women clergy can be found in both groups, for different theological reasons. In my approximately 45 years of church life, I’ve rarely attended a truly High Anglican church.

However, I’ve been reading “Confessions,” the memoir of the novelist, biographer and man-of-letters (his self-description) AN Wilson. Born in 1950, he seems to have spent a lot of his life swithering between atheism (or at least quite aggressive agnosticism), Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Describing his experience with a theological college in Oxford, he shows an obvious attraction to the implied demand made of him – “Rome, or if you must Anglo-Catholicism,”  as allegedly the only alternatives to atheism.

Apparently, it is in part the Oxford Movement that we have to thank for the fact that Anglican churches acquired hymn-books, carol services, vicars or choirs in robes, candles, and a greater emphasis on beauty (musical, architectural, liturgical) and sacraments (baptism, confirmation and especially of course communion) rather than a pure emphasis on Bible reading, preaching and prayer.

This sounds very attractive (maybe not the robes so much) but on the other hand, there are… Apostolic Succession and National Apostasy.

The original leaders of the Movement studied church history, and decided that only three churches in the world (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican) conformed to the ideal of Apostolic Succession – the concept of leadership by bishops who’d been ordained by bishops who’d been ordained by bishops who’d… right back to the twelve apostles.

All other churches in the world were to some extent therefore illegitimate. You may, and I do, find this attitude incomprehensible and offensive. Especially since the origins of the Church of England (Henry VIII didn’t want Protestantism; he just didn’t want to obey the Pope) are surely morally murky by anyone’s standards.

And the Movement began with Keble’s sermon on “National Apostacy” in 1833, significantly just after the 1832 Reform Act. The sermon was a denunciation of the English for abandoning essential aspects of being a Christian nation by, for example, allowing Catholics the right to vote, and letting Parliament alter the number of bishops in Ireland – in other words allowing the government to interfere with religious matters. The implication was that England deserved divine judgment, just as Old Testament prophets declared of Israel and Judah.

The relevance of this clarion call to some modern controversies seems obvious, but I think few of us today would have much sympathy with the specific causes of Keble’s anger.

The third thing I find intriguing about the Movement’s approach to religion is more particularly relevant to its novelist. This is the concept of “reserve.” Unlike evangelical Christians, such as (shudder) the popular Methodists and Baptists, ordinary Tractarians did not talk much about doctrine. One’s relationship with God was very important, but private. Faith was to be lived rather than chatted about, at least by the laity; no one was under an obligation to have their testimony ready at any gap in the conversation. They would probably have been horrified by expressions like “gossiping the gospel,” fearful of a lack of essential reverence.

This means that Yonge’s novels hardly ever in fact use words like “God,” “Jesus,” or “salvation,” despite her clear desire to promulgate (Tractarian) Christianity and glorify God in everything she wrote. Compared with the modern genre of evangelical “Christian fiction”, she is just as morally strict and arguably more narrow, but not preachy or Bible-bashing – surely no more so than say Louisa M Alcott in “Little Women,” or even Jane Austen in “Mansfield Park.” Her books contain conversions, but they’re not normally called by that name.

Is it only cowardice that makes me like this aspect of Tractarianism, both as the author of the Tales from Ragaris and in ordinary life?

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Malachi Malagowther

    31st March 2023 at 6:22 pm Reply

    This seems a heretical blog to me. It is surely rank heresy to suggest that Sellars and Yeatman could be wrong about something so fundamental as that the Oxford Movement was linked to tractors. The suggestion that they are not infallible makes any right-thinking person shudder. It clearly states in chapter 3 of Genesis (verses 23 and 24 in the NIV) that, “So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out,” This clearly shows that God intended Adam’s descendants to work the land by following his example and driving a tractor.

  • Matthew Perry

    1st April 2023 at 4:41 pm Reply

    My (agnostic) mother was a big fan of Charlotte Younge; I’m sure she would not have liked something more openly Christian.
    I think there is a fine balance to be struck, both in life and in literature. Most of the time our friends and family don’t want us to be preaching to them. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to live out our faith and do so in a way that shows that we believe.
    Like you I find it easier to keep quiet and not make myself awkward; I suspect too much so. On the other hand I am also aware that I come across as judgemental to some, which is not what I intend.
    As far as literature goes I suspect that the question is around who your target audience is and what you aim to achieve by your writing. One of my friends writes fantasy novels for Swedish early teens as a way to introduce spiritual concepts to a generation that has little contact with Christianity. Some are available in English translation

Post a Comment