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Life, and power, and thought

11 September 2015

Serenhedd James on lay people who put their faith into action

Anglo-Catholic theatrical legend: Lilian Baylis, at  a first night in the Old Vic with the critic S. R. Littlewood

Anglo-Catholic theatrical legend: Lilian Baylis, at  a first night in the Old Vic with the critic S. R. Littlewood

Eminent Tractarians: How lay followers of the Oxford Revival expressed their faith in their trivial round and common task
John Neville Greaves
Book Guild Publishing £17.99
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IN HIS famous Rambler article of 1859, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”, John Henry Newman simplified and paraphrased his memory of a conversation with his contemporary William Bernard Ullathorne, RC Bishop of Birmingham, in which Ullathorne had asked who the laity were, and Newman had replied that the Church would look foolish without them.

Foolish, indeed — but, like its secular counterpart, ecclesiastical history is more often than not the study of the work of popes and princes. The story of the Oxford Movement can be told in a similar way: erudite scholars, heroic slum-priests, ritualistic aesthetes, and faithful religious all toiling in their brightly lit corners of the vineyard, with the laity, led by the 2nd Viscount Halifax, appearing only now and then to write large cheques or utter “And with thy spirit” from the shadowy recesses of the nave.

John Neville Greaves presents his readers with four examples of what he calls Eminent Tractarians — but any similarity to Lytton Strachey’s hatchet-job ends with the title. Canon Greaves gives a thorough introduction to the early history of the movement, before presenting four lay people who were leaders in their fields as well as committed adherents of it: William Gibbs, William Butterfield, Sir Thomas Heywood, and Lilian Baylis.

“Eminent” is spot-on. Gibbs was a serious businessman, whose portfolio included the Great Western Railway; Butterfield, of course, was a leading architect; Heywood was a banker and a baronet; and Baylis ran the Old Vic.

In many ways, Baylis is the most interesting of the four, because in her lifetime it was deeply unusual to find a woman in a position of leadership outside the Church. In fact, Greaves’s description of her pursuing “her God-given vocation with a highly personal management style” could easily apply to a number of pioneering Mothers Superior from the 1840s onwards.

Greaves’s contention is that these prominent lay people, consciously or not, “absorbed the true Christ-like principles with their formation of lay discipleship from their praying, worship, and thinking in the ethos of the Anglo-Catholic revival”.

It is a compelling and scholarly argument, and Eminent Tractarians deserves to be taken seriously. But I enjoyed being confirmed in the belief that — because of William Gibbs’s business interests in the South American guano trade — Keble College, Oxford, was built on the proceeds from bird poo.


Dr James is Director of the Cowley Project, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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