In Paris on the eve of All Saints Day 1854 Robert Isaac Wilberforce, fourth child of William Wilberforce and Anglican Archdeacon of the East Riding, was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Robert Isaac Wilberforce’s decision to leave the Church of England and to join the Roman Catholic Church came after a long struggle. This lasted over a decade and, in a way, was quite typical for high-church individuals in the Church of England in the mid-19th century. Motivations behind these conversions were manifold. People like John Henry Newman, Henry Manning and also Robert Isaac Wilberforce all had their own personal reasons for leaving the Church of England to join the Roman Catholic Church. Their individual motivations, however, were closely linked to general themes applicable to the Victorian society at large.
One of these general themes was politics. Or to be more precise: the relationship between the church and the state in mid-1800s in England. Church-state relations were in constant flux from the 1820s onwards thereby creating unease among conservative-minded clergy and laity. The transformation of the public role of the Church of England played a major part in the development of the Oxford Movement. John Keeble’s “Assize Sermon” of 14th July 1833 – John Henry Newman in hindsight called it the “the start of the religious movement of 1833” – was triggered by the political debate on the Irish Church Temporalities Bill. Keeble famously called the decision to dissolve ten Irish bishoprics an act of “national apostasy” thereby pointing to the doctrinal relevance which the Oxford Movement would attribute to any change in church-state relations in the British Isles.
Various political initiatives such as Catholic Emancipation (1829), the Reform Act (1832) and the aforementioned Irish Church Temporalities Bill (1833) led to numerous individuals within the church, both clergy and laity, expressing a feeling of being under political siege. From such a perspective the young William Gladstone wrote in 1838 that “probably there never was a time in the history of our country, when the connection between the Church and the State was threatened from quarters so manifold and various as at present.” A few years later Robert Isaac Wilberforce describes the motivation behind the publication of the Tracts for the Times during the 1830s in retrospect as follows: “For what were called the Oxford Tracts, were a series of publications which aimed at meeting the new position in which the Church of England was placed by the events of 1828, 1829, and 1833. They were begun in the autumn of 1833, and were called ‘Tracts for the Times,’ because they professed to be called forth by the existing dangers of the Church.”
This was the “rhetorical situation” (Hans Blumenberg) within which many high church men came to perceive the Victorian state as a threat for the church and no longer as its ally. On the one hand the bond between church and state had been weakened through the growing religious pluralism of English society. On the other hand the state was still exerting considerable influence within the Established Church and was a driving force behind institutional change. These incongruities became the target of Robert Isaac Wilberforce and his contemporaries. For them this transformation did not only have a political side, it also had spiritual and existential aspects. In Owen Chadwick’s interpretation of the historical situation: the alliance of (Anglican) church and state was one of the major questions that was at stake in Victorian England.
The full text has just been published in: International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church Vol. 16, Issue 3, pp. 1-15, see (payment required) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1474225X.2016.1221591