ANGLO-CATHOLICISM in its heyday never lacked sympathetic historians to cast around it a rich romantic aura, from Dean Church’s classic history of the Oxford Movement to Roger Lloyd’s valedictory The Church of England 1900-1965. Always a Movement attentive to aesthetics, it produced in John Henry Newman the most fluent aestheticist of conversion since Augustine.
When it came to writing its own story, it was attentive to ensuring — in the words one Anglo-Catholic, W. H. Auden, used to describe another, John Betjeman — that it created the taste by which it was to be appreciated. The stakes, too, were high: was the Established Church of the paramount world power, the richest and most powerful nation on the face of the earth, about to transform itself from the engine of Protestantism into a simulacrum of Rome? No wonder incredulous English tourists found themselves quizzed by Italian policemen about Dr Pusey.
It all looks rather different now. If not exactly “one with Nineveh and Tyre”, Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England and indeed the Anglican Communion feels like a very marginal habitation. Presenting issues — etiolating division over the ordination of women, and a traumatic want of self-awareness about homosexuality, first properly noticed in Geoffrey Faber’s Oxford Apostles — seem simply to exacerbate a more fundamental failure of “high” religious culture to connect any more. Jeremy Morris, in this intriguing and stimulating collection of essays, is soberingly frank about this: “High Church aspirations to change the religious life of the Church of England achieved much, but ultimately hit the ‘invisible wall’ of a popular religious culture which proved largely resistant to their brand of sacramentalism.”
This collection contains nine essays, several of which have been published elsewhere, although with fruitful revision here. Some are quite particular: one on sacramental renewal draws on a variety of local sources with regard to communicants’ guilds, and there are two intriguing chapters on the way in which High Churchmen engaged with Continental Catholicism, particularly in France.
Morris is an astute analyst of how themes and practices characteristic of Anglo-Catholicism — Ritualism, monastic revival, a renewed sense of sacral ecclesiology — are closely paralleled in the work of such figures as Lacordaire and Dom Guéranger in the French Church. It is interesting to see how quickly this cross-fertilisation got going: one of Newman’s curates was castigated for being seen at mass in a recusant household, but, within a few years, there seems to have been hardly any difficulty about holidaying English ecclesiastics’ attending Roman Catholic rites on the Continent. Bishop Edward King of Lincoln, a very competent modern linguist, was one of the principal conduits of contemporary Continental Catholic pastoral practice into the Church of England.
Less ecumenical is the chapter about Austin Farrer’s ferocious attack on the papal definition of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950, in which he used the lapidary phrase “the papal fact-factory . . . going full blast”.
The 1950 definition had an odd effect on several prominent Anglo-Catholics: Eric Mascall wrote a pamphlet in which he said the assumption probably happened about 400 years after Mary’s death, thus accounting for the lateness of the historical record; and the patristic scholar R. M. Grant preached a University sermon at Oxford in which he caused great offence by stating that now the assumption had been defined, it was plausible to believe in the ascension of our Lord. Morris is engaging about this particular theological cul-de-sac, and how developments since the Second Vatican Council make it seem a remote and distant strife.
Other essays in the collection compare the ecclesiology of Newman and F. D. Maurice, look at the growth of Tractarian faith and practice at a local level, and consider the historiography of the High Church revival in its various manifestations. Morris is sympathetic to the achievements of the Movement, both institutionally in its spiritual, aesthetic, and educational culture, and in the outstanding contribution made by saintly and dedicated individuals to the life of the Church. He identifies one of the key contributions to be a broadening of horizons, intellectual and ecumenical.
These essays are a significant contribution towards explaining how all this came to be what the popular monastic historian of the Movement, Dom Anselm Hughes, chose to describe in his writings using the words of the psalm: “The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God.”
Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.
The High Church Revival in the Church of England: Arguments and identities