I. The Eve of the Oxford Movement



In the early nineteenth century, the Church of England was going through a period of transition. In the previous century, there began an erosion of religious education, especially for men studying for the Priesthood. “Neglect of orthodox theological reading had left the clergy of the early nineteenth century uncertain about what they believed.”1

Because of this decline, there was now a clear understanding, by both Traditionalists and High Churchmen that something had to be done in order to prevent further erosion. Traditionalists or Anglo-Catholics had been formed by personalities, movements and parties, going back to the development of the English church under the Elizabethan Settlement and it was no surprise that the first thing they did was to look to their past for inspiration.

Anglo-Catholicism has deep roots dating back to the Elizabeth and Jacobean period, with leaders such as Richard Hooker (1554-1600) and John Cosin (1594-1672), and continuing on through to “the Caroline Divines.2 This party, within the Church of England, was a minority group that held to a more catholic outlook of the faith and represented a counterpoint to the more protestant reform element within the church.

These men faithfully conserved traditional catholic values and rubrics; and under the leadership of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), William Laud (1573-1645), Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) and many others, they presented to the church an… “Catholic English tradition, based on the Divine Office and the Eucharist, and faithful to the ancient disciplines of ordered prayer, fasting and communion, which survived the disasters of the Puritan dominance and subsequent periods of reaction and of indifference, and is now again recognized as the classic norm of Anglican worship.”3


Anglo-Catholicism has had some of the greatest Nonjuring bishops 4 and writers within the Church of England. It has produced mystic spiritualists, in the persons of Thomas Ken (1637-1711) and Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637). However, it was the philosophical and theological thinkers of the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, which placed the greatest influence upon the Oxford Movement, in particular, Hugh James Rose (1795-1838).


Anglo-Catholics were simply traditional Anglicans who wanted the Church of England to return to its original catholic beliefs and doctrines. They believed that such a return would bring back vitality to the Church which had fallen on hard times. A number of reforms began to be introduced into the church during the sixteenth century. However, many of the old problems were left undisturbed. First of which was the inequity with regard to the distribution of the church’s wealth. This caused terrible grief and was further aggravated by pluralism and nepotism. Power in the church and the positions that held sway were in the hands of a few families. The richest rewards were given to friends and relations based on birth and not ability.


By the early nineteenth century, the class system, which had in place for so long, was showing some cracks. “It was clear that the Church of England would not long enjoy the same safe privileged position she had in earlier times. Reformers were murmuring that the Church must be shorn of her revenues and privileges.”5 Many of these injustices were revealed in two books, The Black Book, and The Extraordinary Black Book in 1831. These books attacked both the church and the controlling privileged classes. The authors of these books were openly propagandist and eager to make their case for reform. Their aim was to stir up indignation against obsolete customs.


As a whole, the bishops took their duties lightly and found plenty of time to enjoy the good things that their affluence provided. In the early nineteenth century, there were only a few devoted parish priests who fulfilled their duties with reasonable effectiveness. Absenteeism was considered the norm. Slackness and indifference to church life led to a general decay, not to mention the outward physical appearances of “ill-kept churches”6 that festooned both town and country. Rural churches paid the heaviest price, as urban parishes continued to grow due to migration into the cities, at the birth of the industrial revolution.


Many parishes had only a quarterly administration of the Eucharist, though there was a push for more frequent celebrations. A battle was also being waged during Sunday Services over the issue of Hymnody verses Psalmody. Hymn writers believed that the devil should not have all the good tunes, so they wrote hymns that could be sung to popular airs like ‘Rule Britannia’. It was this kind of thing that angered the advocates of psalmody. However, in the end the hymn-writers triumphed.


In many ways, this period re-awakened, the faithful, to the debate about the purpose and nature of the Church of England in the world, since it had, for so long, been regarded as nothing more than the “Department of State” and a “religious aspect of national life.”7 Some people were beginning to realise that the church was a divine institution that came down from Christ, and that its authority was not given to it by the state. Authority was handed down from generation to generation through the order of Apostolic Succession.


Also, a new era in the social and political life of England also began in 1832 with the introduction of ‘The Reform Act’. Society was now viewed in terms of ‘Abuses’ and ‘Reforms’ and the Church of England was no exception, as it came under the microscope. Church reform was demanded and events from both in and outside the church would play a role in changing the way it responded to the world. The Church of England represented the majority of the English population and at the time it was considered reasonable, by many people, to think that it could levy tithe and Church rates, even on the small minority who protested such taxing.


However, in 1832, ‘The Irish Church Bill’ was enacted and it caused a furor throughout England. This was even more problematic in Ireland where the vast majority of those obligated to pay tithes were Roman Catholic. What then followed was a great deal of resentfulness against the large sums of money demanded by the Church of Ireland. Many of the Landlords refused to pay and put up a fight against the tax collectors. The whole question of the relationship between ‘Church and State’ now entered the national consciousness.

On Sunday July 14th1833, John Keble (1792-1866) preached a Sermon before the Judges of Assize at Oxford on the subject of National Apostasy. To Keble, the Apostolic Catholic Church was greater than the Church of England, and although the Church of England is a very real part of it, ultimate loyalty belonged to the Universal Catholic Church. He made it clear that he saw church and state as separate and opposing forces. The Church of England must move away from being, “a mere Parliament Church” 8 For Keble ‘National Apostasy’ meant a disloyal church leadership who were under the influence of public opinion and chose the security of the state over the needs of the church. The Church of England should and must act as a separate entity from the State if it wants to be true to its traditions and part of the Catholic Church.

Keble had no idea that he was lighting a torch for a religious revival, but when his sermon was printed, “they reached followers who were waiting for a battle signal.”9 This battle cry was especially heard from a group of Oxford dons who decided to arouse their church. They wanted the faithful to consider Keble’s concern on just what churchmanship means and involves. From this point “the Oxford Movement may be said to begin.”10

Sources for this Article


1. Marginal Catholics - The Sheep Remembered - Chapter III - Page 30

2. Project Canterbury - http://justus.anglican.org/resources/pc/

Caroline Divines: The school of Anglican preachers and theologians living under King Charles I, the Interregnum and Charles II are known collectively as the Caroline Divines. Their extensive patristic and scriptural learning was put to use in defence of the continuity of the Church of England with the pre-reformation Ecclesia Anglicana, as well as the Episcopal form of church government against the contemporary claims of Presbyterians. They taught the Real Presence, the use of auricular confession, and the observance of the fasts and festivals of the Church year.

3. Worship - The Anglican Tradition The Caroline Church - Part II Chapter XV, Page326

4. Liturgies of the Nonjurors - http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Nonjurors.htm

The Nonjurors were a group of Anglican clergy who, after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 in which Parliament removed King James II and installed William and Mary; decline to take an oath to the new monarchs, believing that would violate their oath to the previous king. Because of this, they were relieved of their offices. Many continued to serve independent congregations as priests and bishops, giving rise to the first separation of clergy and bishops in apostolic succession from the Church of England.

5. Snapdragon The Story of John Henry Newman - New Friends - Chapter V - Page 46

6. IBID

7. History of the Church of England - Chapter XVIII - Page 335

8. Documents of the Christian Church - John Keble’s Sermon 1833 - Section-XII, Page 446

9. Marginal Catholics - A Fire Rekindled - Chapter II, Page 25

10. A History of the Modern Church - The Oxford Movement - Chapter XVII, Page 213


Next Article: The Oxford Movement and the Tractarians


© 2005 Article taken from Master's thesis The Oxford Movement: Anglo-Catholicism and the Birth of Anglican Catholic Identity.

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