The original Tractarians were interested not so much in ritual in as in refocusing the Church of England on its Patristic heritage which had been somewhat overwhelmed, on the right by the evangelical revival of the Low Church in the wake of Methodism and, on the left, by the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The revival of ritualism in the Church of England after the publishing of the Tracts For The Times is more a by-product of the Tracts than an effect, but it is the revival of ritualism that has come to define the Tractarians in particular and the Oxford Movement in general. Within twenty years of the Tracts chasubles, thuribles, crucifixes and even monstrances were make their reappearance from Yorkshire to Cornwall.
Ritualism gained ground for a variety of reasons and probably the most significant one was Sir Walter Scott. England was being swept by a romantic revival that in reaction to the Enlightenment contempt for the Middle Ages, looked upon the Medieval world as infinitely fascinating and even as the apogee of Western civilization. To the romantic mind anything medieval not only had an irresistible draw, but was ipso facto infinitely superior to anything modern. In art the pre-Raphaelite school became the heart and soul of Victorian taste. In architecture, it was the neo-gothic of Pugin and Sir Charles Barry. And this overflowed into the Church with an incredible abandonment of the Puritan contempt for all traces of papism.
A second factor in the success of the Ritualists was their willingness to take posts that no one else wanted, usually because the salaries were deemed insufficient by the more ambitious clergy or because the ministry was among the working or lower classes. Many parishes, including those that in the nineteenth century served the working classes had sufficient endowments to support clergy and even to pay for the liturgical gewgaws required for ritual upgrades, but, especially in the new industrial cities, there were many parishes that did not. Clergy who had independent means—and not an inconsiderable number did—did not have to rely on the parish for support—or for approval of their liturgical innovations. Ritualists actually got a reputation for working among the under-classes and this enhanced their reputation—especially among the politically liberal sections of society. William Gladstone, three-times Prime Minister, was perhaps the most notable liberal politician supportive of the Ritualist Restoration. Lord Halifax (Charles Wood, 2nd Viscount Halifax) was another.
One person who was not supportive—to the contrary was so anti-ritualist that the bishops dare wear only their black chimeres over their rochets when officiating in her presence—was Queen Victoria whose taste in liturgics ran to the Presbyterianism of the Church of Scotland. Victoria was ever-mindful that she was a Protestant Sovereign reigning over a Protestant England but ultimately, much like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, was not able to exercise her influence over Church ceremony far beyond her own chapel. Similarly while many of the old aristocratic families clung to low-Church tastes, the new blood and new money was quite gung-ho for smells and bells.
The ritualist revival drove a deeper and more clear wedge between the High Church and the Low Church. Just entering a church or seeing its clergy vested told you exactly where they stood. Before the ritualist revival, liturgy was fairly standard throughout England; as a result or the revival it ran the spectrum from low church quasi-dissent to high church quasi-Romanism.
The apogee of Ritualism was All Saint’s Margaret Street. It had begun as a dissenters’ chapel in the 18th century, plain and Spartan in its architecture, later coming into communion with the Established Church. In 1829 William Dodsworth was named as incumbent. Dodsworth was a Low Church Evangelical who was converted to High Churchmanship by the Tracts for the Times and won his congregation over to the Tractarian position. Dodsworth eventually “swam the Tiber” and became a Roman Catholic. He was succeeded by Frederick Oakeley who also—as a result of the Gorham Case—would become a Catholic but not before proposing that the chapel be rebuilt in a more suitable, i.e. pre-Reformation, style and raised £30,000 (today about 3.2 million dollars) for the project.
Oakley’s successor, William Upton Richards, decided to see the project through and enlisted the assistance of the Cambridge Camden Society, to build the quintessential Anglo-Catholic house of worship. The result was an exuberant tribute to romantic eclecticism. Inside is a kaleidoscope of mosaic, glass, painting, marble and tile. The Church is fitted out with brocaded dossals and antependia, gorgeous vestments and sacred vessels, candelabra, and altar crosses on a scale worthy of a Spanish cathedral. The final cost was over £70,000 (or approximately 8 million USD in today’s money. There was an attached school to provide the choristers for services and a parish house.Just as an aside, All Saint’s Margaret Street has a reputation for being not only “gay-friendly,” but “gay swamped.” Years ago I read an amusing little book by Father Colin Stephenson entitled Merrily on High. It is an entertaining, if campy, collection of anecdotes about some of the second and third generation leading lights of the Oxford Movement were There has always been a gay subtext to ritualism. This is not to accuse any individual of inappropriate behavior—indeed the moral tone set by the early Tractarians, both married and celibate, set a standard that remained unbroken for over a century. Nevertheless, high-Church parishes such as All Saints, Saint Mary the Virgin in New York, The Church of the Advent (Boston), and Ascension/Saint Agnes in Washington all have easily accommodated themselves to the more liberal views of the Anglican and Episcopal Churches in their respective countries wile correspondingly low-Church congregations such as Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate in London, The Falls Church (Falls Church, VA), or many of the parishes associated with the various new Anglican fellowships in the United States would take a more conservative approach to LGBT parishioners. Ironically the Church could survive the doctrinal and liturgical divergences created by Tractarianism, but are finding themselves torn apart on contemporary social issues such as the inclusion of women and of LGBT people.