Besprechung: Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement (2017)

Die Seligsprechung von John Henry Newman im Jahr 2010 durch Papst Benedikt hat den Bekanntheitsgrad der anglikanischen „Oxford Movement“ auch in Deutschland erhöht. Es hat aber den Anschein, dass das Interesse sich hierzulande vorwiegend auf Newman selbst als dem bekanntesten Protagonisten der Bewegung konzentriert. Das vielfältige Geflecht an Personen und Ideen, welches die Bewegung ausmacht, ist im deutschsprachigen Bereich hingegen nur Wenigen bekannt. Ein Indiz für diese relative Unbekanntheit der Bewegung hierzulande ist auch, dass der hier zu besprechende Band – in der Tat keine günstige Anschaffung – auch zwei Jahre nach seinem Erscheinen nur in einer Handvoll bundesdeutscher Bibliotheken zu finden ist.


Lesen Sie weiter in der Theologischen Revue Jg. 115, Nr. 2, Sp. 119-120. Bei Interesse am Text gerne auch unter rotsinn(at) melden.

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.


The Politics of a Conversion. The Case of Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-1857).

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)