The political dimension of the Oxford Movement – a short notice

I am currently reading the voluminous „Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement“. I hope to publish a review in the „Theologische Revue“ later this year. Article by article – there are 42 in total plus foreword plus afterword  – I am working my way through numerous aspects of the Oxford movement: theology, history, personalities, spirituality, arts … and politics.

I have to admit that for most scholars of the Oxford Movement, its political dimension seem to be of minor importance. When realising that the symbolic beginning of the movement is usually attributed to the very political „Irish Church Temporalities Act“ of 1833 and John Keble’s „Assize Sermon“ this lacuna is rather peculiar.  Simon Skinner, a historian at Oxford University, is right when he points to the fact that there has been a „perhaps inevitable preoccupation of religious and ecclesiastical historians“ with the Oxford Movement’s impact on the Church of England“ (Skinner 2017: Social and Political Commentary, in: Brown, Nockles, Pereiro: Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement, Oxford: OUP, 332). The political and social questions connected with the writings and actions of members of the Movement have so far been somewhat neglected. Skinner’s own 2004 contribution „Tractarians and the ‚Condition of England‚“, Stephen Kelly’s „A conservative at heart? The political and social thought of John Henry Newman“ (2012) and my own essay on Robert Isaac Wilberforce (2016) are only the most recent hints that this might be slowly changing.

Simon Skinner’s contribution to the Oxford Handbook looks more carefully at the social and political concerns which members of the movement regulary revealed in their publications. Most Tractarians revealed a political stance which today we might call conservative and „populist“. They were conservative when it came to questions relating to social and political hierarchy and the proper place of ecclesiastical and state authority. Their trust in the „social functions of the parish and romantic-medievalist panaceas such as a renaissance of the squirearchy and Sabbath recreation, national ‚Holy Days‘, and village fairs where squire and labourer might fraternize regardless of social rank“ (Skinner 2017: 339) can equally be regarded as conservative in today’s use of the word.

Populist might be called the strong and vehemently formulated oppostion to industralism, capitalism and worldly gain which we are able to find in Tractarian publications and pamphlets. This kind of populism was rooted less in any particular rational political motive but rather in the theological conviction of a sinful world, fallen and in need of spiritual redemption. „Sympathy with the poor“ (ibid. 344) was a necessary part of redemption but that had to be organized in an ‚old school‘ manner: on the local level and not through national schemes or acts of law (ibid. 341f.).

Underlying this social commentary or criticism was a very specific view of church-state-relations, a certain politico-theological vision. Skinner’s article makes plain that the members of the Oxford Movement were torn between their aspiration „that the Church’s guidance was indispensable to the political nation.“ (ibid. 337). At the same time the constitutional link between the state and the established church came under intense scrutiny. The Tractarians wanted the church to guide the state but they did not want the state to have a say in ecclesiastical matters. They abhorred the so-called Erastianism, i.e. the perceived meddling of the state in questions relating to the church’s teaching and governing. In the same Oxford Handbook, James Pereiro writes: „The Tractarians raised their protest against the conception of the Church as a department of (the) state“ (ibid. 560). Hence followed a strong preference for the apostolic succession as a pillar of ecclesiastical authority and later also for the revival of Convocation as the church’s self-governing body. It followed also an increased opposition to the so-called Royal Supremacy, the overarching authority of the monarch in both state and church matters.

Hence, we should say: Politics did matter for (some) members of the Oxford Movement. This short post can only raise attention to this political dimension of the Oxford Movement. Any interested reader should refer to the Handbook or the texts mentioned above for further reading.



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