The Oxford Movement in Practice
The Tractarian Parochial World from the 1830s to the 1870s
In the years preceding the publication of the 1837 Lectures On the Prophetical Office of the Church, John Henry Newman had been laboring to establish a theological warrant for the continued existence of the Church of England in an apostolic ethos. Facing the political emancipation of Catholics along with dissenting Protestants, Newman and his Tractarian compatriots championed the unique apostolic succession of Anglican clergy, sacramental life, and the apostolic origins of its Book of Common Prayer as guarantors of their church’s future should it be disestablished. Newman’s ongoing study of the fifth-century monophysite controversy conspired in the summer of 1839 with Nicholas Wiseman’s review of the Tracts for the Times and the two proved devastating for Newman’s apostolic theory of the Church of England. This set Newman on an ill-fated quest of English catholicity with his infamous Tract 90 and its thorough repudiation by the English episcopate which led Newman to gradually depart the Church of England for Roman Catholicism between 1841 and 1845.
In The Oxford Movement in Practice, George Herring presents a new historical exploration of Tractarianism as it manifested in the wake of Newman’s conversion. The work is richly sourced, making important use of careful demographic and statistical research to locate the work of Tractarian clergy within English parochial life. The result is a broader, more-textured portrait than previous explorations focusing on the Oxford Movement’s standard luminaries—Newman, John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude, and Edward Pusey. As such, Herring’s work fills a significant lacuna in the field. As he argues, despite their having comprised no more than five percent of the total number of English clergy, the distinctive ideas of Tractarian-inspired clergymen continued to flavor English parochial life in a manner wholly disproportionate to their comparatively small number.
A second section summarizes the development of key Tractarian themes as they were implemented on the ground from the 1840s through the 1860s. Here, Herring makes rich use of the writings of local Tractarian clergy as they aimed to practically animate the apostolic ethos made popular by the voluminous literary output of Newman and his intimate Oxonian compatriots. Chapters on the distinctive role of the clergy, liturgy and ceremonial, daily prayer, sacramental practice, and pastoral practice demonstrate the concerted attention of local clergy to recover authentic Christianity from various modern lapses while remaining loyal to the episcopal governance that was not always supportive of their intended goals. Particularly delightful in this vein is Herring’s exploration of various practical initiatives undertaken by Tractarian clergy in the name of their more comprehensive theological vision. His particular account of the group’s campaign to remove rented box pews—symbols of worldly socioeconomic distinction in the 1840s and 1850s—illustrates the dynamic relationship between theology and church practice inherent in Tractarianism.
A third section presents a forceful rejection of Nigel Yates’s well-known argument for the fundamental continuity between Tractarianism and the later Ritualist movement. In its place, Herring argues for a fundamental discontinuity between the two based on Ritualist tendencies to circumvent episcopal/canonical authority, and in the corresponding inattention among Ritualists to the established Tractarian virtues of reserve and economy. Here, Herring clearly favors the Tractarian side—particularly for its attempt to establish apostolic practices through a less-controversial, bottom-up method rather than by the more abrupt, and contested, top-down means. In the end, however, his sharp arguments for discontinuity largely depend on the privileging of evidences overlooked by Yates while downplaying evidences that better establish a genuine line of succession. If one cannot judge that Herring has achieved thorough reversal, his presentation certainly serves as an important corrective counterpoint to standard treatments of the relationship between the two movements.
In many ways The Oxford Movement in Practice serves well as a speculative account of what might have been had Newman’s 1839 crisis not happened. Although Herring amply roots his case in the writings of later Tractarians, I was quite taken by Newman’s ubiquity throughout the volume. Certainly any treatment of the Oxford Movement cannot stray far from Newman’s long shadow, but the short-lived duration of Herring’s distinctive Tractarianism—from 1845 to the onset of Ritualism in 1858—gestures in its own way to the fundamental instability of Newman’s constructed “apostolical” religion. Apostolic connection to the church of history longs for a catholic connection beyond the local church. As Newman moved from his Via Media and began to explore the dogmatic potential for renewed communion between the churches of England and Rome, Ritualism might be profitably contemplated as a similar exploration on liturgical grounds. Newman spoke of his own experiment as “proving canon,” and his conversion bears witness to his judgment that the canon had failed. One wonders if Herring’s comparatively negative portrait of the transition from Tractarianism to Ritualism suggests a similar judgment.
Michael J. G. Pahls is a faculty member in the department of theology at Saint Agnes Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.
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