VIII. Assessment of the Nineteenth Century Anglo-Catholic Movements



The Romantic Movement attempted to restore a sense of mystery which lay deep within the natural world, as expressed through arts and literature. The Oxford Movement was an extension of this movement, and a partner in the joint response to Rationalist thought as expressed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Rationalists would only accept the reality of things which are tangible. If you couldn’t quantify it, it could not exist. However, the Romantic could not and would not accept this. “Newman produced what he referred to as the doctrine of ‘the Sacramental System,’ the idea that material phenomena are both the types and instruments of real things unseen”.1

The Tractarians sought awareness of this transcendent mystery and aspired for a renewed sense of human life as guided by a transcendent power to a transcendent goal. “By insisting specially on the transcendence of God, we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation….”.2 They insisted that God is inside man and that man is always inside himself and therefore since God transcends man, man transcends himself.

The Oxford Movement was an affirmation of the Church’s God-given authority and inherent power. To them, authority of the church, meant witness to the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ. The Christian revelation was written down and accepted by the Church and by doing so, “the Church became its interpreter, being aided by the Holy Spirit.”3 This very Catholic Principle is a safeguard against erroneous methods of arriving at truth, which to Anglo-Catholic Tractarians, had occurred over the centuries in both the Roman and Protestant traditions.

The Tractarians believed that Protestantism preached about a Grace that, in essence, denied its real presence and power in human life. They also denied a Catholicism which backed up the proclamation of Grace with an affirmation of its objective signs and fruits. For the Tractarians, as it is for all Orthodox Christians, the centre of Christian soul holds the story of God’s saving and self-revealing action, which culminates in union between God and humanity through the person of Jesus Christ.


It is absolutely clear to Anglo-Catholic thought that the church by way of its Sacraments is an extension of the Incarnation and that it re-presents Christ through its actions in worship. The primary message is that Salvation comes from God alone and every day it penetrates and transforms humanity. Without this awareness, the integrity of the Church is in jeopardy.

The Tractarians could come to terms with Protestant view of Christian life. However, they saw the Evangelicals as harping too much on the single issue of ‘Justification by Faith alone’. For the Tractarians, this line of thought undermined the Sacramental instruments of grace and obscured the real moral affects of grace. It seriously compromised the objectivity of God’s gift of new life in Christ.


The Tractarians also held a different view, in comparison to the Evangelicals, of the gospel and its message. Influenced by the traditional High Church appeal to history, they saw the gospel as the story of God’s direct intervention in human history and the church as the tangible connection between the incarnation and believers throughout history.

The Tractarians regarded the Church of England as a willing slave to an increasingly secular state and a liberal culture represented by the state. In their way of thinking, as responsible citizens, they could not, and would not play a part in the secularization of the state, because they believed that this situation was ‘apostasy’ and a national failing.

However, their greatest worry was for the condition of the church. They felt that its growth was weakened and corrupted because of its ties to secular authority. They were ready to break with the state for the sake of the Church of England’s integrity and mission in the world. In this sense, the Tractarians stood more in line with the Nonjurors, but ultimately parted company with the majority of conservative High Churchman.

Perhaps because of a desire to part from state sponsorship, Tractarian ideas began to influence Bishop’s around the British Empire. Men like Robert Gray (1809-1872) in South Africa, George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878) in New Zealand and John Medley (1804-1892) in Canada. These Bishop’s played leading roles in the drive for responsible self-government in the colonial church. While in England, Ritualistic parish priests “fought and won a war of skirmishes against parliament and the privy council and the crown.”4

To the Tractarians, the Church possesses an innate authority outside the influence of the state. They base their authority on Apostolic authority and the Apostolic tradition of Christian dogma. The Church is created by God and is endowed with a divinely authorized order. The church also possesses a divinely inspired faith that becomes empowered if it chooses to look to its inherent capacity to provide authoritative teaching and action.

Given their views on the condition of the Church of England’s ills and their rejection of the Protestant tradition, it was a natural move for the Tractarians to search for ecclesiastical salvation in ‘Catholicism’ which affirmed all that Protestantism had denied. From this conscious choice, this conception, Anglican Catholic identity would be born.

The Via Media attempted to formulate a distinctive Anglican model of Christianity, neither Protestant or Roman Catholic. However, the predominant tendency of Anglo-Catholicism has been to assimilate doctrine and worship common to the ‘Catholicism’ of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches and in some cases, to a complete system of Post-Tridentine Roman Catholic worship.


Initiated by the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholics, the idea of Anglicanism, as ‘Western Orthodoxy’, has a “firm rooting within the Anglican Communion”.5 It introduced to the Anglican world a wide range of Patristic, Medieval, Modern Roman modes of thought, forms of spirituality and liturgical usages. A form of ‘Western Orthodoxy’ is realized today through a number of Continuing Anglican churches and Western Rite Faith Communities. They hold to orthodox Catholicism as its core ethos and proclaim their Catholic faith within the Anglican tradition.


This, of course, is not to be confused with the Evangelical Anglican Orthodox churches, which hold firm to their Reformation roots and faith in the supremacy in the bible. Many of these churches have parted company with the Anglican Communion, believing firmly that they have continued the Anglican faith in its original form and intent. These churches are now part of what is commonly known as the ‘Anglican Continuum’.

The Oxford Movement restored old forms of Spiritual discipline. Fasting was brought back, especially for Lenten observance; the Daily Office, retreats, mental prayer, and other traditional practices became part of Anglican Spirituality. Both lay and clerical were encouraged to participate in a more pious lifestyle. The private confession and sacramental absolution also came into the forefront and became recognized as part of the Anglican priest’s 'cure of souls’. All these developments are, for the most part, the result of the Tractarian call for personal holiness.

Another Anglo-Catholic achievement, very much related to the first was revival of the ‘Religious Life’ as a recognised path to Christian perfection. Against severe opposition, men and women’s communities were formed. From these centres the spiritual influence of Anglo-Catholicism grew and spread to the entire Anglican Communion.

Ritualism has also contributed a great deal to the transformation of Anglican Eucharistic worship. Even though the early Tractarians did not place much emphasis on elaborate ceremonial, they did try to promote more frequent and more reverential celebrations of the Eucharist. In the long run their doctrine of Eucharistic Sacrifice and Presence led to sweeping changes in Anglican Liturgy.

Above all, Tractarian theology was meant to be a medicine for a very sick Church of England, and administered accordingly to the condition of the patient. As a result, the theological literature was not timid when it came to taking on the serious issues confronting the church. Unfortunately, they did not present a wide range of systematic construction or go into areas of philosophical speculation or philosophical criticism. They theologically stayed very close to scriptural text and the early church fathers, while their main line of defence against contemporary rationalism was to assert the impotence of reason in the face of supernatural mysteries.

Because of this, their theology is open to criticism. First, it lacks clarity of definition and argument and secondly, it fails to respond as a Christian theology should; to the intellectual challenges of the day. Nevertheless, one should not be too critical. The end of the Georgian era was a time of spiritual crisis for the state, the church, and the English people. For the Tractarians, this was no time to depend on intellectual argument, especially because the predominant philosophy of the age was a major reason for the spiritual crisis.

The Tractarians believed that they were called to proclaim the word of God to a nation on the brink of Apostasy and the only suitable argument was an appeal to the conscience to submit reverently to divine truth. Within this framework, the founders of the Oxford Movement did in reality “make a substantial contribution to theological science, as well as to worship, spiritual discipline, and other aspects of the Church’s common life.”6 They possessed a broad understanding of the gospels as the story of the work of Jesus Christ, embodied in his life, death and resurrection, and continued in the life, teaching and sacraments of His Church.


It is because of the Tractarian revival that a renaissance of Patristic and other historical studies occurred, thereby providing a critical theological understanding of the Church and its history. “The Oxford Movement…was, in part, a movement of return to the Fathers.”7 However, what mattered most was their theological vision of Church history as the story of Christ’s ongoing work with humanity.

Christ’s ongoing work with humanity is accomplished through a ‘sense of faith’ within the Mystical Body of Christ. This ‘sense of faith’ is a consensus and a confident intuition proper to all believers. Newman described the ‘sense of faith’ as a kind of instinct that lies deep within the mystical body. It is the church’s intuition about particular aspects of its life, “its need to care for the poor and disadvantaged, its conviction about holiness of human love, its insight about the shape of Christian Ministry.”8

Faith is not simply belief, but Christian action in the world. “Faith is, as it were, a skill and not a method like ‘scientific reason’ with which Newman is contrasting it.”9 He argued that this community instinct about the faith preserves and protects Christian belief. It preserves the faith in times when the church’s official leaders are neglectful of their vocations. It is the whole Body of Christ, through its faith in action, and by the grace of God, which perpetuates the continuation of the Church.

Again according to Newman, “The Church of God in every age has been, as it were, on visitation through the earth, surveying, judging, sifting, selecting, and refining all matters of thought and practice; detecting what was precious amid what is ruined and refuse, and putting her seal upon it.”10 It is precisely this action which allows the Church to be open to any age. The church does not reject the world; it embraces it. In fact, this is in part what “catholic” means. Because the Church is so dynamic and universal, in its scope, it is able to show the world its vast hidden mysteries and “in this way they convey their reference to the mystery of God in the very act of opening themselves to the surrounding culture.”11


Sources for this Article

  1. Christian Theology - The Sacraments - Stephen W. Sykes; Chapter X - Page 292

  2. Orthodoxy - The Romance of Faith - The Romance of Orthodoxy - Chapter VI; Page 134

  3. The Catholic Religion - The Anglican Principle As To the Truth - Part II Chapter XII - Section II - Pages 78-79

  4. The Oxford Movement - A Library of Protestant Thought- Eugene R. Fairweather - Introduction - Section II; Page 7

  5. IBID - Page 10

  6. IBID - Page 14

  7. The Shape of Catholic Theology - Tradition as a Source in Theology - Fathers, Councils, and Creeds - Part IV; Chapter XV; Page 201

  8. The Emerging Laity - Returning leadership to the community of faith; Chapter IV: Communities And Power- An Authoritative Sense of Faith - Page 59:

  9. Discerning The Mystery - An Essay on the Nature of Theology - Living the Mystery - Chapter VI - Page 139

  10. The Heart of Newman - The Living Church - John Henry Newman - Discussions and Arguments: Chapter V; No.15 - Pages 106, 211-212

  11. God Encountered - A Contemporary Catholic Systematic Theology - Understanding the Christian Faith - The Loss of Catholicity - Certainty and Assurance? - Inadequate Systematizations - (Taken from An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine- Volume 1; Chapter 3; Section 19; Part E; chap 5, sec 3, chap 8) - Page 61


Next Article: Recognizing Anglican Catholic Identity


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

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