The Oxford Movements
Oxford, both town and gown, has given its name to many objects, groups and fashions — think Oxford bags, Oxford marmalade, the Oxford symphony. There is even Oxford oolite, a limestone composed of rounded grains, to be found apparently in the middle division of the Oolitic system.
But few such terms have had the importance and resonance of the Oxford Movement, originating by general consent in 1833, at its most influential from then until 1845 and still a subject of controversy and some passion.
Oxford has always had its share of religious movements and prophets: from the Franciscans and Dominicans to John Wyclif; from John Colet to the Wesley brothers and the early Methodists. But only one Oxford movement is known as ‘The Oxford Movement’. It was important not only ecclesiastically but also in the world of 19th-century politics, as a branch of the conservative opposition to an age of reform — and nowhere more so than in Oxford and her university.
The portmanteau term ‘The Oxford Movement’ is perhaps best described as a catholic, but not Roman Catholic, revival of the Church of England and in particular the beliefs and actions of a small group within Oxford University who disliked and fought against what they saw as the increasing secularisation of the Church of England and the growing influence of the State in Church affairs. They sought to replace it with the catholicism of the early church, ‘faithful in doctrine and ethos to the pure church of the Christian Fathers’.
The Movement is generally agreed to have been born on July 14, 1833, when John Keble preached the Assize Sermon in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.
This sermon, dating back to at least the 16th century, was given to mark the start of the assizes — the title of a visit by a High Court Judge to dispose of criminal and civil business in the county. Today, it continues in modified form as the Court Sermon, held annually at Christ Church.
Keble later published his sermon under the title of National Apostasy. In it, he attacked the suppression of ten Irish bishoprics, arguing that it was evidence of the State’s unwarranted interference in Church affairs. It did not matter that there were, at the time, a very large number of bishoprics in the Church of Ireland. What did matter was whether the Church of England was to become, in effect, a department of state to be governed by politicians or ‘an ordinance of God’.
John Keble at this time was one of a brilliant group of Fellows at Oriel College, an ancient institution founded in 1324. Just as Balliol was the blue ribbon college for brains and ability in the last half of the 19th century, so Oriel in the first half.
Under reforming Provosts, Oriel Fellowships were awarded on the base of academic merit and college tutors provided intense personal attention to their pupils. Dons like Keble, John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey and Richard Hurrell Froude all taught at Oriel, and all were leading lights in the birth and development of the Oxford Movement.
And as befitted a college with a common room of able and strongly opinionated dons, other Oriel Fellows such as Thomas Arnold and Dr Hampden opposed their views.
The undoubted moral and intellectual leader of the Movement was John Henry Newman. In 1828 he became vicar of St Mary’s, a post he held until 1843. He became something of a seer in Oxford, a mysterious veneration gathering round him.
“In Oriel Lane, lighthearted undergraduates would drop their voices and whisper, ‘There’s Newman!’ when, head thrust forward and gaze fixed as though on some vision seen only by himself, with swift noiseless step he glided by”. And in a famous description, the poet Matthew Arnold described Newman’s extraordinary presence. “Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon through the aisles of St Mary’s, rising into the pulpit and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music – subtle, sweet, mournful? Happy the man who in that susceptible season of youth hears such voices! They are a possession to him for ever.” James Morris writes of Newman as a baffling mixture of strength, uncertainty, gall and sweet saintliness.
John Keble by contrast was a retiring and gentle figure, though no less brilliant, called by Newman ‘the Movement’s true and primary author’. At one time a Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he spent most of his life as a country vicar and his cycle of poems, The Christian Year, went through 95 editions in his lifetime. His great memorial is Keble College, founded in 1868 with money raised by public subscription so that young men of moderate means might receive a university and Christian education.
Though there were other influential figures, the third of the trinity of founders, Edward Pusey, was equally academically distinguished, becoming Regius Professor of Hebrew at the age of 28. A member of a wealthy Berkshire family, stories abounded about his oddities.
The Reverend W Tuckwell, in his reminiscences of Oxford, described Pusey thus: “his exceeding slovenliness of person, buttonless boots, necktie limp, unbrushed coat collar, grey hair all-too-ruffled; and the almost artificial sweetness of his smile, contrasting as it did with the sombre gloom of his face in repose’. Later, as the Oxford Movement evolved and split, Pusey was to become the figurehead in Oxford.
What did this trio of young men, helped by such figures as Froude and William Palmer, a Fellow of Worcester, want to achieve? They wanted to put on a secure basis a Church of England free from links with foreign Protestantism, to establish her identity with the Church of the early Fathers and to place her — for the first time since the Reformation — as part of the Catholic church, alongside but apart from the Roman Catholic church.
And the methods employed were chiefly by preaching and writing tracts (hence an often used alternative name for the Movement, Tractarianism). For more than ten years, from 1833 to 1845, a group of writers, with Newman and Pusey particularly prominent, published a series of tracts that stated clearly and with vigour the ‘catholic’ view of the doctrine of the Church of England: its divine origin; its apostolic government; the sacrificial importance of the Eucharist or Holy Communion and the power of the priesthood.
These tracts — finally 90 in number — also emphasised increased ritual, the revived use of vestments, more frequent services, the building of new churches and many other ecclesiastical activities.
No wonder such beliefs and the importance of ritual raised alarm among opponents of ‘Romish’ ways. In time, The Movement managed to offend evangelicals, liberals and high Anglicans. A mighty theological battle resulted in Oxford, which soon spread far beyond.
R W Church, the historian of the Movement, wrote: “Oxford was as proud and jealous of its own ways as Athens or Florence. Like these, too, it professed a special recognition of the supremacy of religion; it claimed to be a home of worship and religious training. Dominus illuminatio mea, a claim too often falsified in the habit and tempers of life. It was a small sphere, but it was a conspicuous one; and though moving in a separate orbit, the influence of the famous place over the outside England, though imperfectly understood, was recognized and great”. And the writer, Richard Ford, returning to Oxford in 1842 after 20 years away, was shocked by the puritanical ways of the students, so different from the hunting and hard drinking undergraduates of his day: “This Oxford is indeed changed since my time. The youths drink toast and water and fast on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They have somewhat of a priggish, macerated look; der Puseyismus has spread far among the rising generation of fellows of colleges”.
But even if Oxford fellows had embraced ‘der Puseyismus’, the Oxford Movement as a whole possessed a startling ability to create controversy —most famously in 1841, when a rift developed in the Movement that became a national phenomenon.
In that year, Newman published tract XC, or tract ninety, the last one ever. Its subject was the Thirty-nine Articles of Faith, which every member of the University had to subscribe to.
These articles — often ignored rather than believed in by Anglicans — ensured that no Catholics, Jews, Non-Conformists, let alone atheists or agnostics, could attend Oxford.
Newman argued that the Thirty-nine Articles were compatible with Roman Catholic teaching and the Council of Trent. The reaction was immediate. Bishops condemned him, Oxford Heads of College repudiated him. He had gone too far.
A great split resulted, with Newman leaving St Mary’s and moving to a small religious community at Littlemore, outside Oxford. It was the first step on the road which was to take him to Rome. He finally converted in 1845.
It was an enormous blow to his Tractarian friends, while Gladstone described it as an event of ‘calamitous importance’ and Disraeli observed that it made the Church of England ‘reel’. Newman left Oxford for the last time in 1846, and as he recorded in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua: ‘Trinity (College) had never been unkind to me. There used to be much snapdragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman’s rooms there, and I for years had taken it as the emblem of my perpetual residence even until death in my university.”
Other Oxford figures also converted to Rome (though not as many as one might think) and 1845 is generally viewed as both the Oxford Movement’s climax and catastrophe.
Henceforth, The Movement — by now, sometimes called The Oxford Malignants — began to lose influence and personal animosities became all too familiar. Thus Dr Pusey was suspended from preaching for two years and a supporter of Newman, Dr Ward, was deprived of his degree in 1845. But all was not lost.
Keble and, above all, Pusey held fast, and their influence continued. Partly because bishops did not like to give livings to Tractarian priests, many ended up living and working in slums. There, they turned their attention to the social and evangelistic problems of the newly emerging industrial working class. But in the university itself, their power was spent.
The Oxford Movement had obsessed the university for two decades but Mark Pattison, a 19th century Rector of Lincoln College, was able to write in his memoirs: ‘if any Oxford man had gone to sleep in 1846 and had woke up again in 1850, he would have found himself in a new world. In 1846 we were in old Tory Oxford; not somnolent because it was fiercely debating its eternal Church question. In 1850 all this was changed by the wand of a magician. Theology was totally banished from the common rooms and even from polite conversations. A restless fever of change had spread through the colleges: University reform had been uttered. The sounds seemed to breathe new life into us.’ An age of reform had arrived.
But the achievements of the Oxford Movement lived on, not least in Oxford monuments — Keble College above all, Pusey House in St Giles, founded in 1884 in memory of Dr Pusey to house his large library of theological books and the Newman Room in St Aldates.
There are churches such as St Thomas the Martyr near the station and schools founded as memorials such as St Edward’s in North Oxford. And the influence of The Movement also lives on in church services: the prominence of the Eucharist, the wearing of vestments, ritual and much else.
The high tide of The Oxford Movement, from 1833-1845, may have been brief, but its consequences have been long-term, both in Oxford and the Church of England.