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More after Littlemore

01 July 2022

Jeremy Morris on how the Oxford Movement coped with the loss of John Henry Newman

Church Times

John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman

BY THE early 1840s Newman’s position had become so controversial that even sympathisers were wondering how compatible it was with historic Anglicanism. John Burgon, for example, later Dean of Chichester, and a “high-churchman of the old school”, was appalled by the “mischievous effect which Newman’s lapse to Romanism” had had; it was a “master-stroke of Satan’s policy”, effectively paralysing the Church’s newly recovered life.

Far from fading from view as it was replaced by the brighter, sharper lustre of Tractarianism, the movement of Catholic renewal in Anglicanism always had a much broader base than Oxford, and exerted a profound influence throughout the century, fusing, blending, and sometimes distinguishing again in unexpected ways various hues of High Churchmanship.

Yet, conceding that much, the central role of the Oxford leaders cannot be denied. Just how and why, then, did the Oxford Movement go from widespread support in 1833 to hostility and division by 1845?

In a nutshell, it began by reasserting supposedly neglected elements of the High Church tradition in defence of the Church’s spiritual independence, developed these in ways that brought it into conflict with the bishops, and finally fragmented into radical and more moderate segments, at odds with each other over the view they should take of Rome.

In this trajectory, Newman’s role was critical. As an Anglican, he was a fissile combination of breadth of imagination, logical deduction, and intellectual risk-taking. For him, the movement was, above all, about recovering a coherent, systematic understanding of Anglicanism as a via media between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

In his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), he argued that the Anglican via media was the closest approximation to the Church of the Fathers.

Both Protestantism (“Popular Protestantism”, by which he meant principally Evangelicalism) and Roman Catholicism had substituted something else for the testimony of “primitive” (i.e. ancient) tradition — in the former case, a plain assertion of scripture which, without any notion of mediation by the Church, resulted in an undue emphasis on subjective, private judgement, and, in the latter, an opposite assertion of the authority of the Roman hierarchy, or the Church as presently constituted.

But Newman was realistic enough to realise that what he was sketching was not actually what most Anglicans believed: it was a “paper theory”, needing to be embodied in practice, and recognised as the true spirit of Anglicanism.


BUT that did not happen. Instead, the movement was drawn into a series of controversies which cast it, not as the true inheritor of the authentic Anglicanism, but as a divisive splinter group, intent on subverting the Church’s Protestant character and easing the path to Rome.

Anti-Catholicism was still deeply embedded in British society, and reinforced by Protestant nationalism. From a strategic perspective, the actions of the Oxford leaders were disastrous, alienating significant sections of support in the Church and giving their opponents enough ammunition to discredit them as “Papist” fifth-columnists. Opposition to the appointment of a Liberal theologian in Oxford offended Broad or Liberal churchmen as well as some traditional High Churchmen.

Publication of Froude’s literary Remains (1838) after his premature death, with their disparaging comments about the Reformation, appalled a wide range of opinion. The Tractarians’ queasiness about the construction of a memorial to the Protestant Reformation martyrs in Oxford — a proposal that was in itself deliberately provocative — underlined Evangelicals’ growing suspicion of the movement.

church timesPusey preaching the “condemned” sermon on the eucharist and the penitent in 1843, from a sketch by the Revd Edward Kilvert

The heaviest blow was Newman’s Tract XC, Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-nine Articles (1841). His aim was to show that you could subscribe to the Articles conscientiously while holding to Catholic doctrine.

When Article XXII condemned, for example, the “Romish doctrine concerning purgatory”, Newman claimed this could not possibly include both the Early Church’s understanding of the doctrine and the position agreed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. Accordingly, this article could be affirmed “by the Anglo-Catholic as a matter of private belief”, i.e. without repudiating purgatory.

The argument persuaded few. It merely convinced many, including most of the bishops, that Newman and his followers were already practically Roman Catholic.

The reaction of the bishops unsettled Newman so much that he began a protracted withdrawal from his ministerial and university responsibilities. Through the Apologia, we can discern his intellectual journey, from the realisation that the “paper theory” of the via media was just that, unrealisable in practice, to a growing conviction that it was the Church of England that had departed from the spirit of early Christianity, not Rome:

“The proof of the Roman (modern) doctrine is as strong (or stronger) in Antiquity, as that of certain doctrines which both we and Romans hold.”

Newman’s conviction of the historical and theological correctness of the Tractarian position evaporated. A few hundred clergy and laity seceded to the Roman Church, as did Newman himself in 1845. But Pusey and Keble did not, and nor did many others.


ALTHOUGH Newman’s loss was a heavy blow, in retrospect it did not fundamentally change the direction of the Anglo-Catholic or High Church revival. By the mid-1840s, even the more distinctive theological emphases represented by the Tractarians were already becoming embedded in parishes outside Oxford.

Pusey was now clearly identified as the leader of what remained of the movement. In 1843, he had preached a sermon, “The Holy Eucharist a Comfort to the Penitent” — “perhaps the most important sermon of his life” — in which he asserted a strong doctrine of the real presence and of eucharistic sacrifice: as the eucharist repeated the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, it became a “comfort” to the penitent.

As Newman had, Pusey faced rebuke in Oxford and was inhibited from preaching for two years. But the sermon marked out what was to be an ever more significant double emphasis in the liturgical and devotional practices of the Tractarians, namely a rediscovery of the “Catholic” doctrine of the eucharist in Anglicanism, and a recovery of the theology and practice of sacramental confession.

In both respects, Keble, Pusey, and others continued well into the second half of the 19th century to take Anglo-Catholicism in a direction barely laid down in outline before Newman’s conversion.

What made Tractarianism distinct in Anglicanism was that, at first at least, everything flowed from its understanding of church order.

In the first of the Tracts, Newman had asserted boldly that the authority of the ministry stood above all on its historic connection back through the centuries to the Apostles themselves, a connection mediated in time through the laying on of hands in ordination by bishops, the “apostolic succession”.

When Newman said that this “sacred gift” was “the real ground on which our authority is built”, he meant that the ordained ministry could not ultimately be beholden to civil or state authority; the Church was in principle and in origin independent of the State and was not an equal partner, but of higher or superior standing to secular authority.

This went beyond traditional High Churchmanship, and could even be described as “theocratic”. That is why the Tractarians so resented government-led reform of the Church, though they were mollified when the Ecclesiastical Commission was expanded to include all the bishops.


BUT this political theology was only a starting point. Its salient feature was an intensified emphasis on apostolic succession. The Tractarians insisted, not just on the authority and providential character of the succession — the traditional High Church view — but its necessity for the Church: they “super-charged” the doctrine, making it a guarantee of the Catholicity of the Church.

church timesJohn Keble, from a drawing by John Bacon

The eucharist was only valid when celebrated by a priest or bishop ordained in the line of apostolic descent: they maintained the “exclusive validity of the orders and sacraments of episcopal ministries”.

This had two important consequences. First, in Tractarian eyes, it cut the Church of England off from other Protestant Churches, and denied that they were truly part of the Christian Church. This was startling, since most Anglicans saw their Church as part of the family of Reformation Churches, closer to them than to the Roman Church.

Second, it raised the spiritual significance of the ordained ministry higher than it had ever been. It smacked to contemporaries of “priestcraft” — the word of abuse levelled at the Catholic clergy.

With this raised status went new forms of clerical dress (the white collar, the black cassock rather than academic gown, the vestments worn by priests celebrating the eucharist), a renewed interest in clerical celibacy and devotional discipline, a revived practice of personal confession and sacramental absolution, and the rearrangement of liturgy and the internal ordering of churches to give expression to the growing emphasis on the eucharist.

Critics were quick to see in these developments an effeminate, un-English interest in the aesthetic and flamboyant, but this was to underestimate the theological seriousness and ascetic spiritual drive of the Oxford Movement. A reading of Keble’s or Newman’s parish sermons is a sober corrective to any suggestion that theirs was a superficial religion.

They shared an earnest commitment to saving souls with the most ardent Evangelicals. But, for the Tractarians, conversion was a lifelong process, a living into the pursuit of holiness that depended first and foremost on observing the disciplines of the Church, beginning with baptism and proceeding through catechism and confirmation to communion, with regular confession and penance.

For Keble, the whole of life was to be lived in anticipation of death and judgement. Christians needed to avail themselves of all the supports the Church could provide through the ordained ministry, especially confession and absolution; for “all have need of penitence,” even — astonishingly, to modern eyes — Keble says, the youngest children; for even a child but a day old “has need of penance, i.e. of God’s corrective discipline. For it is a sinner in the sight of God, and subject to his wrath, having in it that seed and spark of original sin.”

This was a demanding, severe religion. The Tractarian spirit was not first concerned with the external aspects of religion — the dress, the ceremony and ritual, the music and architecture — but with the inculcation of a high, demanding view of the Christian life, no less demanding than that of Evangelicals.

Yet the spirit of Tractarianism was not puritanical. For all that it elevated the doctrine of the Church and ministry, it did not make a sharp division between the Church and the world.

Its equal attention to the doctrine of the incarnation — Christ’s coming in human flesh — as to atonement meant that it was open to the aesthetic, and to the idea that the material world was a type or pattern of the divine (an idea that has obvious consonance with sacramentality). And that was also typical of its roots in Romanticism, the movement of thought and feeling that rose in reaction to the perceived rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Keble’s popular book of poetry, The Christian Year (1827) — a genuine bestseller, published many times in the 19th century in hundreds of thousands of copies — combined High Church theology with a Wordsworth-like appreciation of the natural world.

Although a renewed interest in medievalism, and especially in Gothic architecture, predated the movement, its religious sensibility worked in harmony with Gothic revivalism. In all this, the Oxford Movement, like the High Church revival in general, was of a piece with the Continent-wide movement of Catholic renewal that began in the early 19th century, as a reaction to revolutionary radicalism and as a determination to renew the faith and community of the Christian past in Europe.


This is an extract from A People’s Church: A history of the Church of England by Jeremy Morris, published by Profile Books at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £25); 978-1-78125-249-9.

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