THE 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been marked by a slew of distinguished books. There have been biographies of Martin Luther and of his wife, learned studies of Protestantism, and of the Catholic response to it. With a wonderful irony, 2017 has also brought the publication of a learned, lively, and indispensable account of a group of Victorians who thought the Reformation a dreadful mistake, and believed the Reformers themselves to have led the Church astray. “The only good I know about Cranmer”, observed Newman’s friend Hurrell Froude, “was that he burnt well.”
Edited by three leading scholars of Tractarianism — Stewart Brown, Peter Nockles, and James Pereiro — The Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement is an essential read for anyone seriously interested in the subject — even if, at £95 a pop, it could hardly be described as an essential purchase. We can only hope that libraries will do their duty, and that a cheaper edition in paperback will swiftly ensure; for this is a volume that will be well worth acquiring.
Professor Brown is renowned for his work exploring the religious history of all four nations within the 19th-century UK. Dr Nockles helped transform Tractarian studies with his research on the origins of the movement. Fr Pereiro has written sensitively about the intellectual life of the Oxford Movement. Their contributors are no less expert or various in their interests. Standout chapters include Nigel Aston on 18th-century precursors, Kirsty Blair on the Oxford Movement and literature, Jeremy Morris on liberalism, Simon Skinner on the social and political thought of the Tractarians, and Rowan Strong on their imperial context.
With 42 chapters — plus an introduction and a somewhat parti pris “afterword” by Colin Podmore, the director of Forward in Faith, who offers a particular and not uncontroversial account of the Tractarians’ legacy — there is something here for anyone interested in the subject. To be sure, there is an occasional tendency to employ the safely clerical rather than the self-evidently expert. A few subjects that readers might have expected to see covered go unnoticed, not least Christian Socialism — a key feature of some sorts of Anglo-Catholicism.
There is also a lack of engagement with issues of sexuality and gender — a hot topic for contemporaries, and one that subsequent historians have proved increasingly keen to explore, not least given their ongoing questions about Newman’s strong emotional attachments to other men, especially Ambrose St John, another former Anglican who had seceded, and with whom he insisted on being buried.
This is, none the less, a minor criticism of a remarkably rich and varied collection, which takes the study of the Oxford Movement well beyond the all-too-familiar hagiographies or narrow focus on a few notable individuals. Instead, these authors seek to explore the phenomenon in all its breadth and variety. As an account of the current state of play in the field, it is unsurpassed. As a prompt and provocation for future work, it is likely to have a long-lasting influence. What better way to commemorate another, 19th-century sort of Reformation?
The Revd Dr William Whyte is acting President of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
The Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement
Stewart J. Brown, Peter Nockles, and James Pereiro, editors
Church Times Bookshop £85.50