|All Saints, Margaret Street London|
built during the Oxford Movement
and archetype of the "Catholic
Restoration" in the Church of
On July 14, 1833 John Keble, a forty-one year old Church of England priest and professor of Poetry at Oxford, mounted the pulpit of the University Church at Oxford, Saint Mary the Virgin, and preached the sermon that began the Assizes—the semi-annual sitting of the circuit courts for Oxfordshire. The sermon, entitled “National Apostasy” was to be as momentous a declaration for reform of the Church as had been Luther’s 95 thesis nailed on the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church some 316 years earlier.
The immediate provocation was the “Church Temporalities (Ireland) Act of 1833” which was then before Parliament. The Whig government—which remember was tied to the languid Latitudinarian faction in the Church—proposed a reform of structure and economics for the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. Less than 10% of the population of Ireland was members of the Church of Ireland. The overwhelming majority of the Irish were Catholics and the few who weren’t were more often Presbyterians or Methodists with the occasional (very occasional) Quaker and even more rare Baptist. Yet the majority (the Catholics) and the various minorities (non-Anglican Protestants) were tithed for the support of the Bishops, clergy, and buildings of the State Church. This was causing a political crisis in as that the privileged position of the Anglican Church and its ties to the Royal establishment was encouraging a nascent nationalist movement to separate Ireland from British domination. To counter the resistance to English authority the Whigs proposed to reduce the number of Archbishoprics from four to two and Bishoprics from 22 to ten. This would save some £60,000 (in today’s money some 400 million dollars). Money for the Church was no longer to be derived from a tithe on the general population but from a tax on the landowners who rented to the (mostly Catholic) farmers and who were themselves predominately communicants of the Church of Ireland. It all sounds very reasonable—unless you believe that the Church is a Sacred Institution ordained of God and thus not subject to the machinations of Parliament or other civil governments for their own political ends. Keble and others of the High Church party saw the “Church Temporalities (Ireland) act of 1833” to be a subordination of the Church to the secular power and were determined to resist it.
The High Church movement, if you recall from earlier postings on this subject, was not yet primarily a liturgical movement but a theological one to restore and preserve the Patristic Tradition in the Church of England against the Enlightenment rationalism of the Whigs and their Latitudinarian friends on the Episcopal Bench. Keble’s sermon stirred them into action and a series of publications known as “The Tracts for the Times” surfaced issue after issue where the High Church faction thought the Church of England had slipped its historical anchors and compromised its theological integrity. The Tracts eventually numbered 90 and as they were published they began to articulate ever more Catholic positions first in theology and later in liturgical practice. The last Tract published, Tract 90, was a brilliant essay by the then still-Anglican John Henry Newman reinterpreting the Protestant doctrines contained in the 39 articles of the Book of Common Prayer in a Catholic sense. It made it clear that there were two Churches in the Church of England: an evangelical and Protestant “Low Church” and a theological and Catholic “High Church.” The High Church party also published The Library of the Fathers, 48 volumes in English Translation of the Church Fathers which gave the theological foundations for many of their catholicizing practices. Richard Bagot, the Bishop of Oxford, himself somewhat of a High Churchman theologically, stopped the publications because he realized that the growing reaction to the Tractarians on the part of the Evangelicals was threatening to bring down all sorts of legal and ecclesiastical censures on them. For the movement to survive they would have to prove themselves by routes other than polemics.
Corresponding to the Tractarian movement in the Church of England was a larger cultural movement sweeping Europe which we often call “Romanticism.” In reaction to the cold agnostic emotional sterility of the Enlightenment there was a desire for a return to an idealized past for which the High Middle Ages became the ground zero of cultural fantasy.
Within just a few decades the face of the Church of England was radically transformed. While there continued to be—and still continues to be—“Low Church” parishes which retain much of their Protestant identity, the combination of a romantic idealization of the Medieval period and the theological work of the Tracts found many priests putting the communion tables back against the east wall of their churches and covering them with heavy tapestried drapery to make them look like altars. Indeed, in many churches stone altars would be rebuilt along with elaborate reredos behind holding candelabra and crucifixes. In some of the more extreme “High Church” sanctuaries even tabernacles and hanging lamps were introduced. Surplices gave way to full Eucharistic vestments. Incense was being used again. Feast days were celebrated. Processions were held. And books were published to show priests how to celebrate the Anglican Liturgy in ways that looked like a Catholic Mass.
Some parishes were more extreme than others in this “Catholic revival” and the bishops often didn’t know what to do the check this undoing of the work for which Archbishop Thomas Cramner and other reformers had shed their blood three centuries earlier. Many bishops refused to appoint High Church clergy to established parishes and this created a very curious dynamic. The priests would go to slum areas where other clergy wouldn’t serve or to newly developed areas in industrial communities where there were no existing parishes and there open churches. It created a tie between the High Church faction and social work among the poor. The Low Church got a reputation for being “Low and Lazy” as part of the old establishment while much of the evangelical energy went to the High Church party.