“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst the encircling gloom…”
John Henry Newman (1833)
The past week has left me exhausted, and with more than a slight sense of alienation. Eugene Peterson’s initial statements in an interview seemingly endorsing same-sex marriage, the fierce and vehement reaction from conservative evangelicals, and the subsequent clarification of Peterson’s views reaffirming a traditional view, have filled the internet and allowed for an unleashing of vitriol by progressives and conservatives alike. I have been left saddened, rather than exultant. I am saddened not owing to the issue itself and/or its resolution, but rather by the so many unguarded, uncharitable and, at times, personally abusive comments made by both sides. One commentator made the observation that no matter what else took place, Peterson’s legacy has been undeniably tarnished in the eyes of many.
Legacies are often difficult to evaluate, especially when they are attached a man. It is, however, even more so the case when we try to evaluate the legacy of an historical movement that has influenced most the Christian Church for over a century, but has now increasingly faded into obscurity. Here I am speaking of the Anglican phenomena of the Oxford Movement, for it was a movement that has influenced almost every part of the Christian Church, even down to our own day and time, whether we know it or not.
The Oxford Movement had a concern for the renewal of worship and a return to the theological values of the ancient Church, which, its leaders believed, had become undermined by a politicizing of the ecclesiastical practices and structures of its day.
Central questions included:
“How much should contemporary culture influence the Church?”
“What is central and essential to Christian worship?”
“What is the role of the State in the life of the Church?”
“How is a Christian to view Church History?”
These are questions that continue with us to this day. For that reason alone, there might be value in reassessing the lessons and legacy of the Oxford Movement.
John Henry Newman considered a sermon preached in the University church in Oxford, England, on July 14, 1833, by John Keble, Professor of Poetry, to be the real beginning of the Oxford Movement. His subject was ‘National Apostasy’, and the congregation included representatives of the university, judges and magistrates of the region who had gathered for the Annual Assize sermon. Keble claimed that both church and state were ‘drifting’ or ‘slipping away’ from the calling which God had given to each for the fulfillment of His purposes. Keble’s remedy was for the Church to return to its central role as an instrument of salvation which had been brought into being by God through the work of Christ and the continuing witness of the apostles. Therefore, the Church did not receive its mandate from contemporary society or the requirements of the government of the day, but from God alone who had given the Church its ultimate authority. Few could have seen the full implications of this single sermon.
The initial result was the publication of a series of ‘Tracts for the Times’ by the leaders of the new movement who took as their chief aim the defense of the Church as a divine institution, a concern for apostolic succession in ministry and the use of worship as contained in The Book of Common Prayer as a rule of faith. Keble, Newman, and E. B. Pusey were soon joined by influential supporters in R.H. Froude, R.W. Church and R.I. Wilberforce, who added their intellectual vigor and literary skills. The ‘Tracts’, in time, became lengthy and detailed theological treatises which called into question the status quo and were attacked by the liberal party within the university and the Church alike. Not unlike blog posts of today, however, they enjoyed a wide readership and began to shift the nature of national and, indeed, international ecclesial debates. Some of the leaders, however, became increasingly disenchanted with the continuing debate. After many, including most notably, John Henry Newman, made their way to the “safe harbor” of the Roman Catholic Church, it seemed that the movement was dead.
Three factors, however, ensured its continuing vitality. These three factors, I believe, are still worthy of imitation in our own time and circumstances.
Firstly, the intellectual foundation established by the early leaders in their scholarly and literary activities, notably the Library of the Fathers, made a major contribution to the study of Church History and spirituality. Many of the Church Fathers had never even been available in translation. The study of the Fathers, once a key element in Reformation theology, had largely been abandoned by Protestants. Among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, the Fathers were the domain of the few, not the many. Now, the situation changed. Critical texts, once nowhere to be found, were prepared. The new movement honored learning and scholarship and provided opportunities for the same all the way from the smallest local parish to the oldest universities in the land.
Secondly, their emphasis upon a renewal of the Church’s liturgical life made worship central and re-established the Holy Eucharist as normative Christian worship – a consequence of their reading of the early Fathers – something that has influenced the renewal of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life to this day. Liturgical texts were revised, hymns were written, ancient prayers were translated, and people were instructed as to the meaning of what was said and done in church. Moreover, liturgy – literally “the work of the people” – allowed for the active participation of the laity in worship.
Thirdly, the Oxford Movement went beyond the academic and upper class environment in which it had been born. In practical terms this was a result of sympathetic clergy being given the worst possible parish assignments by their church superiors, usually in the slums of city centers, which it was thought would kill the movement. It had the opposite effect as clergy made the Incarnation, the love of worship, and social concern central to their lives, and filled their churches with those who lived on the fringes of society. The beauty of Jesus in worship was a light in the darkest industrial centers of America and England as almost abandoned churches were painted, restored, renewed and filled with those who had never before entered a place of worship.
Yet, with all of this, the Oxford Movement eventually failed, becoming a small subset of the Anglican world. They failed, firstly, because they succeeded. The Eucharist became normative in the Anglican communion and far beyond – Methodists, Lutherans, and Reformed to name a few. Liturgy and the study of the Church Fathers also gained adherents across the ecclesiastical world. They won the argument. In becoming a small subset of Anglicanism, they failed when they became more interested in the style of their chasuble, the length of their surplice and the arrangement of their altars, more than in the lost at their door or the theological enablement of their people. They eventually became a theological echo chamber counting externals as more important than the care of their people, outreach to the poor or the reaffirmation of their theological underpinnings.
These are lessons for us.
Denominational Christianity, as it has been known, is failing. Most denominations may well be beyond the point of recovery. The larger evangelical churches thrive, for the moment, in the suburbs, not in the slums. Many Christians, especially evangelicals, look to the State to uphold faith values. Meanwhile, other Christians, often progressives, call on the State to enforce their particular view. Scholarship is decried by some or embraced by others, but it has failed to take a central place in informing our actions or faith decisions unless one “party” or another can harness it to their particular point of view. American and Western European Christianity has become eclipsed as the faith increases at a staggering rate in Africa and Asia, often as they face real, not supposed, persecution.
So, we return to legacy.
I wonder as I look around us today in 2017, what will our legacy be and how will future generations evaluate our contributions to the faith, to scholarship, to theology and worship? Will they consider them to be substantial or mere vanities? Will they consider them to be significant or trivial? Or, as has been done in the case of Eugene Peterson, will they parse out the legacy, accepting what they want and rejecting the rest. Perhaps…
We cannot answer such questions with absolute certainty, yet in our day of suburban church planting seminars, worship choruses with life spans measured in months, and publications aimed primarily for sales rather than insight, these questions must be asked. In looking for historical models for renewal, we might do well to look to the legacy of the Oxford Movement. We might also wish to learn the lessons of what happens when we lose the vision that first impelled us.