The Oxford Movement
The Oxford Movement
Objectives and Emphases. Also known as “Tractarianism” because its views were published in ninety religious pamphlets called Tracts for the Times (1833–1841), the Oxford Movement was launched in the early 1830s by Anglican clergymen at Oxford University. The primary objective of the movement was to bring spiritual renewal to the Church of England by reviving certain Roman Catholic doctrines and rituals that Anglicans had dropped during the struggles of the Protestant Reformation. The participants in the movement longed for a return to the ancient days before the universal church had been torn by the stresses of nationalism. Viewing the universal church as a divinely created and ordered society that was intended to transcend politics, geography, and time, these Oxford clergymen wanted the Church of England to be free from state authorities in matters of doctrine and discipline. To achieve “reunion” and to recover the lost heritage of the early Christian Church, the proponents of the movement insisted that the holy sacraments be administered by priests ordained by bishops who themselves were divinely authorized for ministry through a line of succession that dated back to the apostles. In addition to this assertion that ecclesiastical authority is passed through a line of apostolic succession, these “high church” clergymen emphasized other Catholic doctrines that Anglicans had neglected or rejected in recent centuries, including baptismal regeneration (the belief that baptism brings about the rebirth of the soul in Jesus Christ), auricular confession (telling one’s sins to a priest), and the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine served at Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Origins and Leaders The chief architects of the movement included the clergymen John Keble (1792–1866), John Henry Newman (1801–1890), and Edward Pusey (1800–1882). Keble achieved renown in 1827 with the publication of The Christian Year, a book of devotional poems fitted to the holy days mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer. This well-received publication—which was republished in more than 150 editions during the next half century—helped him to acquire a professorship of poetry at Oxford University in 1831. In 1833, responding to a controversial attempt by the British government to suppress ten redundant bishoprics in Ireland, Keble preached an explosive sermon, On the National Apostasy, decrying the power of Parliament over the Church. Calling for an autonomous, holy, and catholic (universal) Church, Keble insisted that the Church was a divine society with heavenly authority, not a plaything of politicians.
Tracts for the Times A few days after Keble preached his sermon, he was one of a small group of Oxford divines who gathered to pledge themselves to uphold “the apostolic succession and the integrity of the Prayer-Book.” From this meeting, the Oxford Movement was launched. To popularize the effort, the vicar of the university church in Oxford, Newman, began editing a series of pamphlets, Tracts for the Times, to encourage a return to the beliefs and customs of the early Church. Of these ninety tracts, Newman wrote or co-authored nearly one-third. Under Newman’s leadership, the Tractarians advocated an Anglicanism that was a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestant evangelicalism. In 1841 Newman published the controversial ninetieth tract, which moved him beyond the position of other Tractarians. In this tract Newman argued that the Thirty-nine Articles, which encapsulated the official doctrines of the Church of
England, were not contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. He argued for the validity of sacraments other than baptism and Holy Communion and for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as well as acknowledging the existence of purgatory—all Catholic beliefs that most Anglicans (as well as Protestant denominations) considered contrary to their dogma. This tract caused such controversy that Bishop Richard Bagot of Oxford promptly commanded the termination of the series. In time Newman and other Tractarians of his persuasion left the Church of England and were admitted into the Roman Catholic Church.
After Newman’s Conversion After Newman left the Tractarians in 1841, another Anglican clergyman and Oxford scholar, Edward Pusey, assumed a more important role in that Anglo-Catholic movement, becoming so closely associated with it that opponents sarcastically dubbed the Oxford Movement “Puseyism.” In addition to writing several pamphlets for the Tracts for the Times series, Pusey helped to edit and translate The Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (1838-1885), which encouraged Anglicans to study and appreciate the values of the early patristic fathers. In 1865-1870 he and Newman engaged in a “pamphlet war,” in which Pusey defended the principles of the Tractarian movement and Newman, who had become a Roman Catholic priest in 1845, espoused Catholic dogma. By the end of the nineteenth century the Tractarians were placing an increased emphasis on the need for Christians to respond to the social problems caused by the Industrial Revolution. This demand for a “Social Gospel” led to the establishment in 1889 of the Christian Social Union, headed by Brooke Westcott (1825-1901) and Henry Holland (1847-1918).
Owen Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement (Stanford, CaL: Stanford University Press, 1960).
Bernard M. G. Reardon, Religious Thought in the Victorian Age (New York: Longman, 1980).