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