The Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion are confusing institutions. In the case of most Christian denominations, one can know simply by their name what one might expect to encounter in their worship or their preaching. But in the Church of England this is not the case. Here in Oxford, where St Mary Magdalen's is situated, one can find churches which might be mistaken for conservative evangelical churches in the United States, and churches which might be thought to be traditionally Roman Catholic; with plenty of other churches falling somewhere in between these two. All of these churches, in fact, belong to the Church of England.
The term 'Anglo-Catholicism' describes a range of theological views and traditions within Anglicanism which emphasise the continuity of the Church of England - and those churches born out of it - with the teaching and practice of Christianity throughout the ages, rooted in scripture and the teachings of the early church. 'Anglo-Catholics' have always valued the sacramental life of the church, adhering strongly to doctrine such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the continuity of the apostolic orders of Bishop, Priest and Deacon. A significant stress on liturgy and worship - performed in order to maintain the beauty of holiness - makes worship in an Anglo-Catholic church an experience which is intended to appeal to one's whole person - to heart as well as head, to senses as well as to intellect.
Oxford has a special significance for Anglo-Catholicism because it was here, in the 1830s, that a group of academic churchmen sought controversially to denounce the increasing secularization of the Church of England, and to recall it to its heritage of apostolic order, and to the catholic doctrines of the early church fathers. In the early 1830s, at Oriel College in Oxford, a growing number of young and extremely able Fellows, informally grouped around the slightly older John Keble, were increasingly outspoken about the needs and shortcomings of the contemporary church. Reform was in the air in England, the 17th century religious settlement was long gone, uniformity of religious practice, if it ever existed, had been replaced by the growth of Protestant churches which did not 'conform' with the established Church of England, and the continued presence of Roman Catholicism had been acknowledged and liberated by the act of Catholic Emancipation. Parliamentary attempts to reform the Church of Ireland provoked the wider questions which men such as John Keble and John Henry Newman sought to ask via conversation, preaching and most importantly, a series of Tracts for the Times.
John Henry Newman
These questions concern the doctrinal character of the Church of England - from where does it learn? What does it teach? What are the authorities which govern its preaching and its practice? John Henry Newman dated the beginning of the Oxford Movement to Keble's Assize Sermon of 14 July 1833, on National Apostasy, but it was really the Tracts, launched shortly afterwards by Newman, Vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Richard Hurrell Froude, a junior fellow of Oriel, William Palmer , and Keble himself, which began "the Oxford Movement". During the following eight years, ninety such Tracts were published.
Did Baptism bestow an indelible character on the soul?
What does "consecration" of the eucharistic elements signify?
Was the Reformation and Elizabethan Settlement a release from papal bondage, a disaster imposed by a heretical state, or a sophisticated via media between these two extremes?
How were the "golden ages" of the early Church Fathers and seventeenth century Anglican theology to be recovered?
Edward Bouverie Pusey
The Tractarians (so-called after their publications) were political controversialists. They were sharp, usually young men who drew upon a remarkable depth of learning and a facility with written arguments. One of them, called Edward Bouverie Pusey, continued to engage in fiercely intellectual theological controversy on behalf of a Catholic interpretation of the Church of England, until his death in 1882. Newman, on the other hand, felt that his only course involved reception into the Roman Catholic Church, a move he made in 1845. Many 'Tractarians' followed him, but despite the opposition of voices both Catholic and Protestant, the 'Anglo-Catholic' presence in the Church of England persisted and grew stronger.
Encouraged by Tractarian theology there was a great revival of interest in liturgy and church architecture, stemming not least from the Cambridge Camden Society, which had been formed in 1839. Among its leaders was John Mason Neale, for whom the society was not simply artistic and antiquarian, but very much theological. Its journal, the Ecclesiologist, which first appeared in 1841, argued for the importance of symbol and decoration in the mysteries of worship and championed the ideas of a young Roman Catholic architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who saw Gothic as the only proper style of Church architecture, reflecting as it did the continual religious priorities of striving for heaven through prayer, sacrament and the Christian virtues.
The progress made by the "Puseyites", as they were often called, continued to go hand in hand with controversy. Newman's conversion was as notorious as any of his tracts. With the Gorham Judgement (which saw a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council overturn a bishop's decision not to institute to a parish a priest who held an unorthodox doctrine of baptism), many left the Church of England, convinced that it was bound by an Erastian state, among them Archdeacon Henry, later Cardinal, Manning. In the 1850s Archdeacon Dennison, of Taunton, was unsuccessfully prosecuted for teaching the catholic doctrine of the real presence. At the same time there were increasing vocations to the religious life. On Trinity Sunday 1841, Pusey heard the first profession of a nun in the Church of England for three centuries, Mother Marian Hughes. Pusey, along with Neale and such other great names as Richard Meux Benson, Priscilla Lydia Sellon and Thomas Thelluson Carter, was a driving force behind this revival. The strong doctrinal theology preached by the Tractarians had by now found its expression in contexts very far removed from the Universities. From the very first, the call to holiness - individual and corporate - had been at the heart of the Tractarians' teaching.
It was inevitable that their attentions would turn to the social and evangelistic problems of the industrial working class. Young Oxford men who had listened to people such as Pusey found themselves called to work in new and demanding slum parishes. The ritual innovations of which they were accused were often rooted in the desperate pastoral needs they encountered. Miss Sellons's Devonport Sisters of Mercy worked with the clergy of St Peter's Plymouth in the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s, and petitioned the parish priest, Fr George Rundle Prynne, for a celebration of the Eucharist each morning to strengthen them for their work. So began the first daily celebration of the Eucharist in the Church of England since the Reformation. Similarly the clergy of St Saviour's, Leeds (a parish Pusey had endowed), laid what medicines they had on the altar at each morning's communion, before carrying them out to the many dozens of their parishioners who would die of cholera that very day. One cannot underestimate the extraordinary transformation in Anglican practice which began with these early 'ritualists'. In the nineteenth century, vestments and candles were horrific to most, and yet in places such as the mission church of St George's in the East, thuribles were swung, genuflecting was encouraged, the sign of the cross was made frequently, devotion to the blessed sacrament was taken for granted. Confessions were heard, holy anointing was practised.
At the heart of such physical activity lay the Tractarian interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. God, in Christ, lives among us as a physical reality. The poor must be brought the ministry of Christ in the celebration of the sacraments and the preaching of the gospel. Beauty and holiness were to go into the midst of squalor and depression, as a witness to the catholic faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, present and active in his world. During such times of crisis as the East London cholera epidemic of 1866, the sick and dying were to receive this sacramental presence as far as was possible. Deathbed confessions, the oil of unction, even, occasionally, communion from the reserved sacrament began to be administered. At the time such things were unknown in the Church of England. Now they are officially sanctioned and encouraged by its liturgical texts and regulations. The ritualists gave rise to a long and bitter battle, in which priests were imprisoned, many more dismissed, parish riots took place, rent-a-mob crowds were brought in, and bishops issued edicts from palaces to areas into which they would not dare set foot. Priests were prosecuted and, in five cases, imprisoned for practices which are now not just acceptable but actually the norm in the Church of England - having lighted altar candles, for example, or using wafer bread at the Eucharist.
The overwhelming success of the early Anglo-Catholics is seen not so much in those parishes which, like St Mary Magdalen's, rejoice in proclaiming their part in such a tradition. It is the rest of the church which has been the theatre of transformation over the last five or six decades. The rediscovered emphases on apostolic succession and the catholicity of the church, on priesthood, on sacrament and sacrifice, on prayer, holiness and the beauty of worship, are the Tractarians' gifts to their successors. A glance round the contemporary Church of England, still vastly divergent but nevertheless teeming with colourful decorations, revised liturgies, ancient hymns, and thousands of processions, aumbries, altars, oratories and retreat houses, reminds us just how dramatically the life of the English Church was and is renewed by the movement which began in Oxford and spread, through the Anglican Communion, across the entire world.
The above images of Keble, Newman and Pusey are reproduced with the kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of Keble College, Oxford