V. The Ritualists

The Early-Victorian era saw a great revival of Church life. It had been justly called ‘the period of self-consciousness.’1 Under Tractarian influence, Ritual was re-introduced to the Church of England as it became more conscious of its very nature and responsibilities. “The character of the Anglican revival" could best be understood "as fundamentally a re-awakening of worship," and "a renewed response to the Holy”.2 Ritual practice would be fully realized in the late Victorian era when focus was placed on corporate devotion.

A typical service in the 1830’s consisted of Morning Prayer and Litany. The celebrant wore no vestments other than a simple black gown and the high point of the service was the sermon, which could last as long as an hour. Holy Communion was celebrated four times a year. The priest would wear a white surplice, academic hood, and black scarf, and would celebrate from the north end of the Holy Table, with no usage of ceremonial gestures.


The church building was plain, with no stained glass, pictures, or religious statues. “The dignified beauty of Caroline ceremonial was forgotten, liturgical services were badly rendered, both Saints’ days and days of abstinence were generally ignored.”3 To emphasise the importance of the sermon, a gigantic pulpit was the focal point in the interior, which would dwarf the small wooden Holy Table and other sanctuary furnishings.


While the low-church party emphasised evangelical preaching aimed at producing adult conversions, the High-Church party emphasised the sacraments and the apostolic succession. Where as the Low Church party stressed the similarities between the Episcopal Church and Protestant denominations, the High-Church party stressed the uniqueness of catholic worship.

Another problem that faced the Church was the matter of the expanding and overcrowded urban areas and the atrocious living conditions of the poor and working class. The Evangelicals were practical and philanthropic. They believed that Societies and Acts of Parliament would help bring relief to those suffering from poverty and injustice.

The Tractarians approached the problem from a different angle. Since they were more theological and eschatological, their answer to the problems was to send out socially active priests to work in the communities and offer hope to both the poor and oppressed. As a result of Tractarian influence, big changes were taking place in both dioceses and parishes. Churches were being built at a rapid pace and new schools and parsonages were being created. More and better liturgical services were being held. Clergy were energized in both their duties and responsibilities.

By the 1840’s, the Oxford Movement began to spread from the university to the parishes and Tractarian doctrinal influence set in motion the call for improvements in both church appearance and the manner of worship.

The Oxford Movement emphasized the authority of tradition, apostolic succession and communion as the centre of Christian worship.”4 They taught a doctrine of the Eucharist that emphasised the real presence of Christ and they demanded a greater reverence for the altar. Priests began to study the past and re-introduce customs and garments, which had died out in the sixteenth century. Priests began to appear in Chasubles or Copes, and introducing tapers and incense into services. Crosses and candles were introduced, and chancels filled with surpliced choirs.

Ecclesiastical furniture such as choir stalls, litany desks, and lecterns were produced in large numbers. Windows were now filled with highly coloured glass; walls were covered with stencilled designs and ornaments appearing everywhere. Fabric embroidery, as well as brass and marble were added to the re-designed churches.

Church music began to receive more attention. Settings for the canticles were added, as well as anthems. The best known composer of anthems of the age was Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876). In 1857, experts came together and formed a committee with the sole duty of producing a quality hymnal book for the entire church.

One of the most notable accomplishments of the Oxford Movement was to recover for the church, a faith deeply rooted both in Scripture and the early Church Fathers. They saw the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as the visible divine society founded by Christ to continue his mission on earth.

To the Tractarians, Christ gave authority in the Church to the apostles and their successors, the Bishops. The essential mark of the Catholic Church is the existence of the threefold order’s of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon in Apostolic Succession. For them, the Catholic Church is found fully in those historic denominations, which have maintained the apostolic succession and adhered to the faith of the ancient Creeds and Councils. They are commonly known as the ‘three great branches’ of the Catholic Church, the Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox Communions.


Entry into the Catholic Church begins with Holy Baptism, and is continually fed by Christ through the Sacraments. Therefore, faith is not the cause but rather the benefit of Christian identity and Church membership. All Christians are called to a life of holiness through the spiritual disciplines of Worship, Sacraments, and Prayer. These disciplines are central to a true understanding of faith. The Tractarians related faith to conduct and action. Faith “is not simply the entertaining of a view or an idea, but the uniting of such an idea or view to the springs of one’s actions.”5

The Oxford Architectural Society was founded in 1838, which was followed the next year by the Cambridge Camden Society which, in 1841, began to publish a magazine called the Ecclesiologist. It was devoted to the study of worship and its setting.


In 1840, Nova Scotia born, University of Oxford educated William James Early (W.J.E.) Bennett (1804-1886) became the Rector of the parish church of St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge. “He introduced lighted candles on the altar, the intoning of services, and a surpliced choir.”6 Wishing to do more, he began to preach in a surplice instead of a black gown, and adopted the eastern position at the altar.

In a very real way, Bennett was breaking ecclesiastical law. Lighting altar candles, for example, was an equal offence to not saying the daily office. Under church law, such offences were breach of the rubrics. Because of his approach to worship, as well as his theological understanding of it, W.J.E. Bennett and other Tractarian devotees became known as Ritualists.

Charles James Blomfield (1786-1857), the Bishop of London was not sympathetic to the Ritualists, yet he tolerated Bennett and the other priests, under his charge, who embraced Ritualism. He took a cautious approach toward them. This tactic, however, enabled Bennett in 1850 to build St. Barnabas, Pimlico. The ceremonial at this parish was even more elaborate than that at Knightsbridge, and it was not too long before riots broke out. A large number of people observed the ritual revival with deep suspicions, mostly because they feared that it would lead to the return of Roman customs.

Ritualism was not the only matter that troubled to the Church. For many, the danger of liberal thought and its undermining effect on the faith of the church was another problem. The conservative minded Oxford Movement, especially in its early days, had been the acknowledged counter-point to liberalism.

On the other hand, the liberals viewed the Tractarians as archaic and far too interested in dogmatism, sacerdotalism and medievalism. Their leader, Dr. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) thought the Tractarians were a very destructive party that would ultimately destroy the Church of England. He “rushed to the defence of liberalism by a counter-attack on the Tractarians in an article called ‘The Oxford Malignants’.”7 Arnold was a major contributor of liberal thought, especially as it related to the church and he wrote extensively on the subject.8

By 1850, much of the inspiration for change came from Bishops. There still existed the old-school prelates who considered their position as an accepted reward for political work, but they were quickly dying off. In their place stood a new type of Anglo-Catholic Bishop that saw the Church of England as a force for positive change and not a religious institutional dinosaur.

The most notable examples are Blomfield, Edward Stanley (1779-1849) and Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873). These men re-modelled the episcopate and showed a vigour that had been long abstinent from within the Church of England. And with these faithful and industrious Bishops, also came a countless number of parish priests who steadfastly transformed the parochial life of England.


The greatest of these priests was Walter Farquhar Hook (1798-1875) who became Vicar of Leeds in 1837. He discovered that his parish was bitterly divided, and for the most part under the influence of dissenting churchwardens who were elected primarily for the purpose of lowering church rates and opposing any change in the worship. Hook arrived with grand ideas of what the church should be and how worship would be conducted. Over the next twenty-two years he gradually overcame opposition and won the respect and the love of his parishioners. He rebuilt the parish church and introduced a surpliced choir and full Cathedral services. He preached five times a week; supported and advised the clergy; conducted a great amount of correspondence and found time for writing literary and historical work.

The early Ritualists based there style of worship on the Book of Common Prayer and in particular the Ornaments Rubric, which states that the ornamenting of the church and the vesting of ministers would be maintained and remain in use for the Church of England. The Ritualists held firm to these rules and because of this, legal action against them would prove to be very difficult. In 1854, legal action against the Ritualists did indeed begin. However, the Privy Council declared that crosses were lawful, so long as they were placed on the altar. They also permitted the use of the Credence Table and declared Eucharistic Vestments legal.


In 1860, those who were fighting for the ‘Ornaments Rubric’ and ‘Worship Reform’ established a new society called ‘The English Church Union’. The Ritualist Movement was now taking hold and the Church of England was fully in the process of reform. Yet, various competing religious and secular views continued to influence the Church. In many ways, the Anglo-Catholic struggle to enrich Church of England had only begun.


Sources for this Article


  1. Marginal Catholics - Protecting the Marginals - Chapter IV - Pages 43-53

  2. Worship - The Anglican Tradition The Ritualists - Chapter XV - Part III - Page 333

  3. IBID - Decline of Worship - Page 329

  4. The Story of Christianity - The Reformation to the Present Day - Political Horizons: Europe - Developments in Great Britain - Part III - Chapter XXVI - Page 272

  5. Discerning The Mystery - An Essay on the Nature of Theology Living the Mystery - Chapter VI - Pages 137-138

  6. A History of the Church in England - Divided Opinions - Chapter XIX - Part IV - Page 352

  7. IBID - The Industrial Age - Chapter XIX - Part IV - Pages 342-343

  8. Note* Arnold wrote several book including Principles of Church Reform (1833), History of Rome (1838) and Christian Life (1841). Source: Spartacus Educational Pavilion. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/EDarnold.htm


Next Article: Anglican Catholic Revival


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

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