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The Oxford Movement

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

The Oxford Movement: Its History and Its Future. By J, Lewis May. New York: The Dial Press. $3.00. The Spirit of the Oxford Movement. By Christopher Dawson. New York: Shecd and Ward. $1.50. John Henry Newman. By J. Elliot Ross. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $2.75. The Social Implications of the Oxford Movement. By William George Peck. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. The Oxford Movement; 1833-1933. By Shane Leslie. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company. $2.00.

So many new books on the Oxford Movement, provoked by the centenary! And not one, it is pertinent to observe, was written to serve as a mere memorial to an event in the past, over and done with. Rather is each a reminder that what was begun must be finished. The gentlest of the voices seems to sound an end to a truce and a call to battle. Religion can be a very serious business, gentlemen! Something worth fighting about.

“Everything is tragic, nothing is serious.” These words of Elie Faure’s come back to me as I read of the beginnings of the Oxford Movement. That was the situation in which the founders of the Movement found the English Church a hundred years ago. It is not a very pretty picture with which Mr. J. Lewis May opens the first page of “The Oxford Movement: Its History and Its Future”:

“Erastianism flourished. . . . The Church had tended to sink more and more to the level of a mere department of State. Doctrinal zeal was frowned upon. . . . The Bishops were for the most part very dignified, very imposing people, keeping up great external state; but they owed their preferment to their politics rather than to their piety. Learned men, elegant classical scholars, lettered voluptuaries, sound judges of port wine, they lived lives of cultured ease. . . . Their pastoral duties sat lightly upon them.

And worse follows. The author is not chary of specific examples, many of them. We could perhaps regard leniently the Reverend John Russell, a popular parson of his day who when asked by one of his flock to define a miracle said: “Look down that hole in the hedge there and see if you can see a fox there.” The man obeying, the parson administered a resounding thwack to his posterior. “Did you feel that?” asked the parson. “I reckon I did, Sir,” was the reply. “Well, ‘twould have been a miracle if you hadn’t.” A silly anecdote, you will say. Yes, but one which furnishes the comic reverse of the medal, the obverse of which, if serious, does not, after all, differ from it in kind. There were many parsons, avers Mr. May, “who answer more or less to the type portrayed by George Eliot in the person of that engaging pluralist, the Rector of Broxton and Vicar of Hayslope.” In short, whether the high or the low, it was all of a piece. In the spiritual entity, called the Church of England, the fragments were related. The Church had the life sapped out of it. Because—on this point the writers agree—the Church had lost contact with those sources which first gave it life.

What are these sources ? The Protestant will answer, there is only one: Jesus Christ. But these Catholic writers say: yes, Jesus Christ, but via the Catholic Church and the traditions which the Catholic Church has built up. In any case, it is not as simple as all that. Nor will I attempt to elucidate in a short article a theme on which volumes have been written. I will pause on only one point, and that, it seems to me, the crux of the matter. The Catholics claim, with some truth, that in their Church they have built a more powerful bulwark against the spirit of soul-destroying modernism than any cult which sprang from the bowels of the Reformation. Mr. May, the historian par excellence of the Oxford Movement, puts it very succinctly: “Modernism begins as Christianity with an infusion of science. It soon becomes Science with an infusion of Christianity. It ends by dropping the Christianity.” Mr. Christopher Dawson, a brilliant scholar, the best interpreter of the Movement, implies the same thing when he states, in “The Spirit of the Oxford Movement,” that “the fundamental note of the Oxford Movement was its anti-modernism.” Whatever other differences of character and mentality existed between the leaders of the Movement, Newman, Keble, Froude, and Pusey, they were in complete agreement on this fundamental issue. “They all stood for Authority and Tradition against Liberalism,” says Mr. Dawson, “for Supernaturalism against Rationalism and Naturalism.” Mr. May puts the same thing differently: “Protestantism is a religion of words; Catholicism, of Symbols. The focus of Protestantism is the pulpit; of Catholicism, the Altar. Protestantism is a religion of reason; Catholicism, of the heart. Protestantism is Prose; Catholicism is Poetry.” And again, as Mr. Dawson points out, the anti-Rationalism of the leaders of the Oxford Movement does not by any means prove that they undervalued reason or the things of the mind. The quality of Newman’s intellect, surely, did not exclude logic! Indeed, if ever there was a case of conversion in which the mind reinforced the heart, it was Newman’s; it was what made the act one of “stern necessity,” to use Newman’s own words. In his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” he worked out a reasoned basis of the step he was going to take, and, if we are to believe Mr. May, the case is strengthened by the circumstance that Newman glimpsed the truth in the very act of creation which he had begun in the hope that it might settle his doubts.

Considered with a detached mind, it will be seen that the strength of the Catholic Church rests largely upon the deliberate exclusion of external, mundane facts. By which I mean that if I am persuaded that poetry, a thing of the soul, is preferable to machines, then it follows that I would not exchange a Keats for all the aeroplanes in the world, however much I may admire them as the most marvellous pieces of mechanism devised by the mind of man. And it is this attitude which has enabled the Catholic Church to withstand a theory like Darwin’s theory of evolution with better grace than the Protestant churches, into whose midst it dropped like a bombshell, encountering little resistance, because the Reformation itself was an act of disruption which left them defenceless against the progressive disruptiveness of science. Long before the Oxford Movement was thought of, the poet Blake realized this truth; hence his trenchant words: “Art, the Tree of Life. Science, the Tree of Death.”

The Oxford Movement stirred England out of herself. It seems incredible now that theological questions could wake a whole people to such a frenzy of excitement. The scenes described in Mr. May’s book, taken from transcripts of the day, are as fascinating as they are strange. Oxford itself was in a turmoil. The Convocation which assembled on the 13th of February, 1845, to demand the formal condemnation of Tract 90, was an extraordinary event which “aroused as much excitement and attracted as many onlookers as a prizefight or a horse-race. Every inn, every lodging-house was filled to capacity.” There was a snow-storm, but it did not hinder the crowds from gathering. Many walked miles to get there, and could not find beds. The undergraduates howled and cheered, as whim dictated. One undergraduate, more impetuous than the rest, climbed to the top of the Rad-cliffe Library and pelted the Vice-Chancellor of the University with snowballs. Altogether, there was a great hullabaloo.

As far as England was concerned, the great stumbling-block to the progress of the Oxford Movement was the obvious threat of Popery. Yet through the years, due to the persistence of Newman’s companions, who either faltered before the last step or saw no necessity for it, the English Church has assimilated some of the Catholic doctrines, and the individual conversions still go on, Mr. Dawson, a convert himself, evidently does not believe that the so-called Anglo-Catholic Movement can stop indefinitely in its present position. “No movement can live by Tradition alone. . . . It needs positive intellectual principles. But the men who gave the Movement its intellectual character were just those who left it for Rome. , . . The time for compromises is over. . . .” And at this point we leave the question, which time alone can solve.

The history of the Oxford Movement might have proved a different affair if its acknowledged leader, Newman, had not taken the ultimate step. As it is, friends and enemies alike have joined in their admiration of his honesty and genius; the discordant voices are few. In this connection, Mr. Dawson takes Mr. Geoffrey Faber severely to task for his effort at Freudian interpretation of the Oxford Movement, based on the character of its leaders, by which the history of the Movement becomes “an essay in sexual psychopathy. Newman appears not as one of the greatest of English religious thinkers but as an example of the unfortunate results of infantile repression. . . .” He is particularly, and rightly, incensed at Mr. Faber’s treatment of Hurrell Froude, one of the fieriest and noblest of the small group, who, it is true, passed his spark to Newman; but to attach dubious colour to the relationship by considering “every spiritual or self-transcending tendency as a, disguised form of the sexual impulse,” is as foolish and irrational as it would be to ascribe the Sermon on the Mount to a disorder of the glands.

There are aspects of “The Social Implications of the Oxford Movement,” by the Reverend William George Peck, neglected by the other writers on the Oxford Movement whose books are here discussed. And they are by no means negligible aspects. The author, originally a Methodist, who five years ago took Anglican orders and is now rector of St, John Baptist, Manchester, England—”a poor slummy parish, and the neighbourhood contained many of the worst crooks in this part of England”—considers the Movement in its relation to the social, economic, and industrial order. He is not behind the others in religious other-worldly fervour, yet is at the same time eminently practical. His contribution to the literature of the Movement consists precisely in demonstrating that not only are these two things not incompatible, but that the Church can maintain sovereignty only if it will join religious with secular issues, which are indeed one. The meaning of the Tractarian movement, he asserts, is misinterpreted if one fails to take into considera,-tion that it was a declaration of war on a whole system of values representing what men used to call “progress.” When the author quotes the words of Pusey, “The spirit of enterprise affects all; it is the very air men live on. Prosperity is their idol, the very end to which they refer all other ends; and what is this but their God?”—or when the author says that “Froude saw in the Church of England of his day a class Church which he believed to be in this respect utterly opposed to the meaning of the Gospel”—he uses these fundamental statements as texts, which he reinforces with much pointed erudition, with demonstrable data from the history of modern industry, of the machine, of that whole order which has brought us to war, depression, social and industrial chaos, the present tragic pass, which no one appears to know how to bridge with a kinder future. The State has made a lamentable failure of its task; the Church too has not profited by divorcing itself from life; the dualism of God and Machine has ended in the temporary triumph of the latter; humanity is in a position in which it cannot enjoy either world. The failure of capitalism—if I do not mistake the author’s meaning—involves the failure of the Church, unless the Church wakes to the duty which devolves upon it: “The Church must possess not only a social conscience, but a sociological intelligence, so that its criticism of the passing order, or of any proposed substitute, may be fundamental and realistic, and also that its own alternative may be valid.” The author’s contention is that “the alternative before mankind is the reformulation of civilization around a resurgent Christian Church, or a human chaos of which the dark possibilities are incalculable.” Mr. Peck shows that he has kept abreast of the social and religious thought of the time, and his book teems with diverse knowledge uncommon in a churchman. Many of his arguments and conclusions have much in common with those of the Russian thinker, Nicholas Berdiayev, whom he appears to have read, and whose words, “Where there is God, there is Man,” might have served as a, motto for Mr. Peck’s penetrating book.

I need scarcely say after this that I think Mr. May, Mr. Dawson, and Mr. Peck have all written excellent books of history and interpretation. To these I must add the very interesting “John Henry Newman,” by J. Elliott Ross, with the reservation that it is likely to appeal exclusively to Catholic readers rather than to those strongly Protestant by temperament and affiliation.

Finally, Mr. Shane Leslie’s “The Oxford Movement, 1833-1933,” is a, disappointing work. As a history it is too stridently dogmatic to be persuasive; the gentler mood of Mr. May’s history is far more convincing. The profusion of capitals makes Mr. Leslie’s pages fairly shriek. The chapter on “The Oxford Movement in Literature” is not without interest. I will permit myself the following quotation: “Newman begat Matthew Arnold, and Arnold begat Rus-kin, and Ruskin begat the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris and Rossetti and Burne-Jones, who were all the children or adopted of Oxford. And Morris begat Pater, and Pater begat Wilde, so that even the Aesthetic Movement can be traced to the first stirrings of unearthly beauty awakened by the Vicar of St. Mary’s.”


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