|Saint Sidwell's, Exeter before it|
was destroyed in WWII.
A reader recently asked me if I were going to continue my series on the Church of England. I had left off with the Oxford movement and, frankly, thought it was as good a place as any to finish up. But the Church of England has continued beyond the Oxford Movement—some might say in spite of it—so maybe a few more entries are in order.
There was a High Church movement in the Church of England long before the famous Assize Sermon preached by John Keble at the University Church of Saint Mary Oxford on July 14, 1833 triggered the Tractarian movement. Originally the High Church movement was concerned not so much with questions of ritual as much as doctrinal orthodoxy and patristic sacramentology. But the romanticism of the early 19th century led some of the High Church party into a desire to restore medieval—i.e. Catholic—practices into the Church of England. This move did not fail to meet with opposition.
In 1844, 11 years after the famous sermon that triggered the Oxford Movement, three years after the final tract appeared, and one year before John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church, Henry Phillpotts, bishop of Exeter, along with his Cathedral chapter issued an edict that the priests of his diocese were—in accordance with the rubric in the Prayer Book—to wear the surplice while officiating at the altar or preaching. Even the most Puritan-influenced Prayer Book, Elizabeth’s 1559 Book, had required the surplice but it had, in practice, all but fallen out of fashion. Priests typically worn the black preaching gown with tabs over the cassock rather than any sort of vestments. One January Sunday in 1845 the Reverend Francis Courtenay, perpetual curate of Saint Sidwell’s Church in Exeter, mounted the pulpit in a surplice, per the bishop’s directions. John Henry Newman describes the ensuing scene:
"The uproar commenced," says a contemporary account, "with a general coughing down; several persons then moved to the door making a great noise in their progress; a young woman went off in a fit of hysterics, uttering loud shrieks, whilst a mob outside besieged the doors of the building. A cry of 'fire' was raised, followed by an announcement that the church doors were closed, and a rush was made to burst them open. Some cried out, 'Turn him out,' 'Pull it off him.' In the galleries the uproar was at its height, whistling, cat-calls, hurrahing, and such cries as are heard in theatres, echoed throughout the edifice. The preacher still persisted to read his text, but was quite inaudible; and the row increased, some of the congregation waving their hats, standing on the seats, jumping over them, bawling, roaring, and gesticulating, like a mob at an election. The reverend gentleman, in the midst of the confusion, despatched a message to the mayor, requesting his assistance, when one of the congregation addressed the people, and also requested the preacher to remove the cause of the ill-feeling which had been excited. Then another addressed him in no measured terms, and insisted on his leaving the pulpit. At length the mayor, the superintendent of the police, several constables, also the chancellor and the archdeacon, arrived. The mayor enforced silence, and, after admonishing the people, requested the clergy-man to leave the pulpit for a few minutes, which he declined to do,—gave out his text, and proceeded with his discourse. The damage done to the interior of the church is said to be very considerable."
Surplice riots took place not only in Exeter but in several places throughout England as High Church clergy tried to reintroduce the vestment, but it needs to be contextualized.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time when the ancestors of today’s prim and placid Englishmen were rife for trouble. Lord George Gordon had incited riots in 1780 when there was a move in Parliament to remove civil disabilities from Catholics. As Catholicism was growing in England there was a strong reaction on the part of the Protestant working class who resented any social change that benefited those other than themselves. The Industrial Revolution in England had created an enormous working class living in poverty and a small but rising bourgeoisie who were finding their way into parliament and power There was political turmoil as well. The young queen, Victoria, had incurred considerable unpopularity because of her dependence on Lord Melbourne even when Melbourne was out of power. Two attempts (both unsuccessful, of course) were made on Victoria’s life between 1840 and 1842. Riots would break out again when Pius IX restored a Catholic hierarchy to England in 1850. All in all politics, religion, economics would provide tinder for any explosion. Despite the fuss over surplices, Catholic practices such as vestments, altar ornaments, and incense, would find themselves at home in (many) Anglican churches very quickly.