The Oxford heritage

This month sees the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement. Jeremy Sheehy looks at the Movement's origins, impact and legacy

There is something about anniversaries which excites people. The celebration of the millennium was very special. Institutions celebrate their centenaries. Silver and golden wedding anniversaries are marked with especial events. Most of us like to have our birthdays remembered. And so it is appropriate that we mark the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement, the name given to the religious campaign which led to the modern Catholic Movement in the Church of England and indeed in the wider Anglican Communion.

The Oxford Movement did not just lead to the Catholic Movement in the Church of England; it shaped Anglicanism and therefore English Christianity decisively. We keep this anniversary this year on Monday 14 July, in accordance with John Henry Newmans view that John Keble's Assize Sermon on 14 July 1833 was the real beginning of this Movement.         ---------------------

The early years

The Oxford Movement is so-called because its first leaders (Newman, who became a Roman Catholic in 1845; Hurrell Froude, who died young in 1836; John Keble, who preached the sermon and went on to be an exemplary and much-loved parish priest at Hursley; and Edward Pusey, who joined the Movement only after it had got going but became its most significant leader after Newman had moved aside and Keble had immersed himself in Hursley) were all leading members of the University at Oxford, where the Movement had its first developments, triumphs, and indeed disasters in the 1830s and 1840s. But before long, the men and women who had been influenced by the early stages of the Movement were moving out from Oxford into the rest of the land. And they took the Oxford Movement with them so that it became a national (and subsequently international) movement within Anglican Christianity.

Let me emphasize, as others have done, that to begin with the Oxford Movement was not about making services more 'high church' in the sense of increasing ritual and ceremonial. Pusey does not seem to have liked music in worship and Keble was never very happy with ceremonial developments. It was about getting people in the Church of England to grasp the doctrine of the Church. It was about proclaiming the truth of the Church as part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth that Jesus intended his Apostles to form a community, a society, a people (Michael Ramsey's The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936) is still worth reading for the way it explains this).

One, Holy, Catholic

And because the Nicene Creed said this Church was One, that meant being interested in what other Christians who were not Anglicans believed and practised, and sometimes adopting their ideas, even if this interest was thought by some to be un-English and disloyal. It is, for instance, comical to read nowadays the things that were said by bishops in the nineteenth century about those who first tried to restore religious community life in the Church of England.

Because the Nicene Creed said the Church was Holy, that meant setting before men and women the call he nineteenth century it was revolutionary to suggest that upper middle-class young men might go and be curates in the worst slums of Victorian London, or that nicely brought-up young ladies could go and join a religious community at work in those slums. The clergy would need to be trained for their work, and active and appropriately professional in it, not simply saying a couple of services each Sunday and spending the rest of the time as lesser members of the gentry, and so the theological colleges of the Church of England developed, very much as a consequence of the Oxford Movement (even those which were brought into existence so as to be Evangelical strongholds came into existence because the Oxford Movement had shown the Church of England the advantages of training the clergy before ordination).

Because the Nicene Creed said the Church was Catholic, that meant the leaders of the Oxford Movement insisting, as few had insisted since the seventeenth century, that in terms of the great divide between Western Christians in the sixteenth century between the Catholic and the Protestant forms of Christianity, the Church of England was Catholic, sacramental, ecclesial, believing in our co-operation servant-like with the work of salvation.

At a stage when the English character was still shaped (some might say scarred) by the way in which the stories of the Spanish Armada, the Popish Plot, and the persecutions of Mary Tudor were told (to say nothing of the centuries of the oppression of Ireland), telling members of the Church of England that they were really Catholic Christians was radical.

An influential inheritance

Because the Nicene Creed said the Church was Apostolic, that meant the Oxford Movement looked back for authority and guidance, not to the sixteenth century and to its religious debates and controversies, but to the early Church. It is indeed arguable that the importance the leaders of the Oxford Movement gave to the concept of the apostolic succession and the stress on the three-fold ministry (of deacon, priest and bishop) is part of the reason why we have too often demonstrated the symptoms of an over-clericalist Christianity and have sometimes seemed as though we were rather better at producing clergy inspired by the ideals of the Oxford Movement than at producing lay-people similarly inspired.

Most of you, like me, will know that you have been moulded by this inheritance. For me, that has been the case since before I can remember. You only need to see a picture of the church where my parents were married and I was baptized to know that. Overwhelmingly I am grateful for it, although I can also, I think, recognize that some of the areas where I am weakest or most easily outside my comfort zone are also a result of this inheritance.

For many, you will have entered into this inheritance in the course of life attracted by something about it. All of us could gain much by joining in the acts of prayer that will mark the 175th anniversary of the Oxford Movement on Monday 14 July 2008.

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