On the morning of July 14, 1833, Anglican clergyman John Keble ascended the pulpit of Saint Mary’s—the university Church at Oxford and preached a sermon entitled “National Apostasy” that changed the course not only of Anglicanism but sent shock waves through every major Protestant denomination in Europe and North America as well as having a profound effect on Roman Catholicism. Keble’s sermon, meant to mark the opening of the courts, did not reach its goal of calling England to account in protecting its established Church from outside forces determining its future but it did generate an about face in the Church of England as many bishops, priests, and laity began to see how far the philosophical rationalism and political liberalism had driven the Church from its evangelical mission. Keble’s sermon is reckoned as the beginning of what is known as the Oxford Movement.
Originally the Oxford movement was not a call for “smells and bells” in Anglican worship but to return to the solid patristic tradition of classic Anglicanism, a tradition that had been largely abandoned during the Enlightenment and the successive Whig ministries in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Doctrine requires discipline and is only for the energetic. It was not long before the Oxford Movement—despite the best intentions of its leaders: Keble, Newman, Pusey and others—got caught up into a world of medieval restorationism as chasubles and incense and plainsong and processions created a vortex in which English Protestantism was magically transformed into a non-papal Catholicism with all the pomp and ritual of its Continental model.
This sudden burst of ritualism caught English Catholics by surprise. Theirs had long since been a discreet Catholicism—a Catholicism of the home and domestic piety. Due to the anti-Catholic legislation of the Elizabethan and Stuart eras English Catholicism had morphed into a religion without a public face—no processions, no capes or funny hats with pompoms, no roadside shrines. It was a Catholicism of Mass in small out of the way chapels or drawing rooms of private (wealthy) Catholic citizens. It was a religion of quiet prayers and spiritual reading. It had a depth to it, but lacked the colour of Continental Catholicism and now was being outshown by its old and once-so-Calvinistic foe, the Church of England.
This Catholic revival was very much influenced by the whole Romantic era and its rejection of the Enlightenment rationalism of the previous era. Suddenly “Gothic” was all the rage and Pugin was building churches faster than bishops—Catholic and Anglican—could consecrate them. Moreover, this Gothic revival spread from England to its very Protestant step-child, the United States and to the Episcopal Church where, especially in the North East, faux medieval and Catholic-wanna-be were all the rage.
As Anglicanism became more Catholic in its style, some Catholics thought that in order to distinguish themselves from the Anglican copycats, they should become more “Roman.” Converts such as Henry Manning, the dour former archdeacon of Chichester, were determined to abandon the Gothic of Anglican Revival for the baroque Catholicism of Rome. One simply could not be Roman enough. This movement was called Ultramontanism, from the Latin for “beyond the mountains.” It referred to those Catholics beyond the Alps who were more Roman than the Romans themselves.
In the United States, many American Catholic clergy who rejected the Americanism of Gibbons and Ireland, began to embrace the Roman fashions. American bishops began appearing more often in the elaborate court-dress of the papal household. Papal honours were sought for clergy (monsignorates) and prominent laity (papal knighthoods). Bishops applied to have certain churches designated as “basilicas.” Prelates began to live like princes and lords of the Church, bishops having elegant mansions, monsignors having well staffed-and elegantly appointed rectories. Some prelatial residences even featured throne rooms as did the palaces of Rome’s Black (papal) nobility with the throne turned to the wall until the day the Popes were returned to their rightful sovereignty as Kings of Rome. This was not the Church of the democratic Maryland Gentleman, Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore or the on-horseback circuit-riding bishop Edward Fenwick of Vincennes. It is somewhat ludicrous to think of these sons of carpenters and brewers dressing in silk robes and wearing jewelled rings over begloved fingers as they paraded through the streets of a Midwest farm town or an east coast slum to confirm children whose parents’ pennies had built their cathedrals and bought their fur capes and silk trains. At the time though it made sense. It was a huge spit into the face of bland, Protestant, and supposedly egalitarian America as we proclaimed we are Catholic and we, despite our poverty and being outsiders, have something that you sons of the Puritans have not.The image today is Henry Cardinal Manning, convert from Anglicanism, Archbishop of Westminster, and leader of the English Ultramontanes.