Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Oxford Movement

This morning our processional hymn was #10, or Kedron, the text of which was taken from a poem by The Rev. John Keble. As promised, here is further information about Keble and his colleagues.

It was one of those occasions, routine and familiar in the workings of both the Church of England and the Royal Courts. At the beginning of each annual session, judges, barristers, solicitors, and other court officials would gather for a service in the chapel at the Inns of Court and listen to a sermon on the topic of justice. Generally, this sermon was not at all memorable.

On July 14, 1833, The Rev. John Keble, chair of poetry at Oxford University and the author of a very popular collection of poetry entitled The Christian Year, was invited to give the “Assize Sermon”. While some may have been blithely looking forward to a sermon of some intelligence and even lyricism, a note of its title, “National Apostasy”, may have given them some clue as to what was to follow.

Remarkably, Keble, a clergyman of careful articulation and pastoral bearing, denounced both the nation and the leadership of the Church of England for turning away from God and coming to regard the Church as a mere institution of society, rather than as the prophetic voice of God. The sermon caused a tremendous sensation.

So sensational, that Keble’s fellow ordained Oxford dons, a group that included John Henry Newman, the vicar of the university’s church, and Edward Bouverie Pusey, professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, joined together to continue the address of this serious issue and to aid the return of more devotional elements in theology and worship. Namely, they strove to bring back a theology of the sacrament and an intellectual muscularity to common churchmanship.

The Oxford Movement’s rallying point was what was known as “Branch Theory”, which understands that Anglicanism, along with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, form three "branches" of one catholic Church. Correspondingly, most of the Movement’s leaders included traditional aspects of liturgy from medieval practice, in order to emphasize the non-verbal aspects of worship in whose absence the Church had become rather plain. Thus, there was a return to the so-called “high church” practices that are found in the stronger communities within the Anglican Communion to this day.

This was not a popular notion to the leadership of the Church of England. In true episcopal fashion, Keble, Newman, and Pusey were all subjected to some form of punishment for their efforts. Keble was banished to a parish in Hampshire. Pusey was forbidden from preaching for five years. Newman became so alienated that he "swam the Tiber" and beacame a Roman Catholic priest, and eventually a cardinal. The students of the dons were largely denied positions in the church, thus forcing them to find ramshackle ministries in either the slums of London or in the less savory portions of the British Empire.

However, the effect of the Oxford Movement was not so easily suppressed. The zeal known by the students of the dons, fueled as it was by their sense of employment injustice and the bureaucratic martyrdom of their favorite professors, was fed into a variety of organizations that became dedicated to addressing issues of social inequality, especially the seminal Christian Social Union.

Effects of the Oxford Movement may be seen in our own practices, too. The fact that we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, that our clergy wear vestments, and that men and women are welcome in Holy Orders all grow from the writings and practices of those simple academicians.

Keble’s Assize Sermon may be found here. A sound history of the Oxford Movement may be purchased through the link supplied below.