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How the Tracts really became acts

13 January 2017

Colin Podmore on part of an answer


The Oxford Movement in Practice: The Tractarian parochial world from the 1830s to the 1870s
George Herring
OUP £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50


THIS important study liberates Tractarianism from the shadows of both Newman, its lost leader, and the Ritualism that transformed it in the 1860s. It corrects misapprehensions resulting from excessive focus on the Oxford leaders and from reading characteristics of Ritualism back into the movement’s first quarter-century. A distinctive picture of pre-Ritualist parochial Tractarianism emerges.

Many Tractarians, owing the leaders no personal debt, regarded Newman’s secession as almost providential. Removal of practically all the movement’s romanisers around 1845 probably strengthened it. Secessions, mostly of curates and much fewer than previously estimated, did not dent a steady increase in Tractarian incumbents (81 in 1840, 442 in 1872).

Disappointment in the (mainly high-church) episcopate’s failure to lead Catholic revival shifted the focus from episcopacy to priesthood and the parish. Tractarian clergy predominantly served where the Church was strongest — in small, rural, southern parishes. They were never more than five per cent of the clergy, but their influence went far wider.

They promoted reverence in worship, restoring chancels and removing socially divisive box pews and galleries. Spiritual life was key — fed by weekly communion and daily offices (ideally with a surpliced choir of men and boys leading congregational plainchant). A proportion of the confirmed were selected as communicants — a committed eucharistic community at the parish’s heart. Notable for visiting the sick, Tractarians encouraged repentance — and (voluntary and exceptional) confession. Their pastoral strategy, focused on parochial schools and visiting, was similar to that of other contemporary clergy, albeit with different emphases; their distinctiveness was chiefly doctrinal.

Tractarian changes in worship, promoting faithfulness to Prayer Book rubrics and resting on post-Reformation precedent, were introduced with caution, reserve, and economy, after teaching, and with lay assent. Relations between bishops and Tractarians were characterised by mutual restraint and compromise: there was no episcopal persecution or priestly defiance. Crisis came not in 1845 but in the early 1850s, when Dissenters and rural conservatives whipped up opposition in the wake of “papal aggression”’ but it was localised, uncoordinated, and relatively short-lived.

The period 1857-58 was a watershed. Robert Wilberforce’s advocacy of “real objective presence” in The Holy Eucharist (1857), the Privy Council’s allowance of altar frontals at St Barnabas’s, Pimlico (1857), and John Purchas’s Directorium Anglicanum (1858), whose frontispiece depicted an eastward-facing celebration with three sacred ministers in mass vestments, combined to encourage wearing of chasubles. Within a decade, the scene was transformed.

Ritualism differed radically from earlier Tractarianism. Authority was located not in Antiquity but in the medieval Church. Vesture and ceremonial unsupported by the Prayer Book, post-Reformation precedent, or episcopal authority exposed Ritualists to accusations of private judgement — a nonconformity of addition rather than subtraction. It betokened a shift from education in the Church of England’s existing Catholicity to re-Catholicising it, and fostered a sectarian sub-culture.

Continental mass settings (supplanting congregational plainsong) and non-communicating attendance made the eucharist less participatory. Externals became a means of attracting people and imparting doctrine, instead of expressing doctrines successfully taught. Changes were often introduced with a zeal that jettisoned reserve and economy and sometimes provoked opposition (though many Ritualist churches lacked established customs, being urban and newly built, with self-selecting eclectic middle-class congregations, arriving by public transport). Pusey warned Ritualists against being “Presbyterian towards their bishops and Popes towards their people”.

This analysis is illuminating, but the disjunction between Tractarianism and Ritualism is too starkly drawn. Herring’s hostility to Anglican Ritualism (echoing that of other ex-Anglicans such as Oakeley and Manning), and to developments in the Church of England since 1960 which he blames on Ritualism’s having “diverted [the Oxford Movement] from its main purpose”, prevents his offering a dispassionate account of Ritualism or an entirely cogent explanation of the transition to it. Could Ritualism have progressed as it did without more acquiescence, defence, and support from older Tractarians — more continuity — than Herring is willing to acknowledge?

Herring’s account of Tractarianism is magisterial, but the transition to Ritualism, and the part played in it by Tractarian priests ordained in the 1830s and 1840s, deserve further study.


Dr Colin Podmore is the Director of Forward in Faith.

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