The Legacy of the Oxford Movement

Legacies are often difficult to evaluate, especially when they are attached to an historical movement that has influenced almost the Christian Church for over a century. This is true of the Oxford Movement, with its concern for the renewal of worship and a return to the theological values of the ancient Church, which, its leaders believed, had become undermined by a politicizing of the ecclesiastical structure of their day. Its legacy continues to influence the theological reflection more than 150 years later.

John Henry Newman considered the sermon preached in the University church on July 14, 1833, by John Keble, Professor of Poetry, to be the real beginning of the Oxford Movement. His subject was ‘National Apostasy’, and the congregation included representatives of the university, judges and magistrates of the region who had gathered for the Annual Assize sermon. Keble claimed that both church and state were ‘drifting’ or ‘slipping away’ from the calling which God had given to each for the fulfilment of His purposes. Keble’s remedy was for the Church to return to its central role as an instrument of salvation which had been brought into being by God through the work of Christ and the continuing witness of the apostles. Therefore, the Church did not receive its mandate from contemporary society or the requirements of the government of the day, but from God alone who had given the Church its ultimate authority. Few could have seen the full implications of this single sermon.

The initial result was the publication of a series of ’ Tracts for the Times’ by the leaders of the new movement who took as their chief aim the defence of the Church as a divine institution, a concern for apostolic succession in ministry and the use of worship as contained in The Book of Common Prayer as a rule of faith. Keble, Newman, and Pusey, were soon joined by influential supporters in R.H. Froude, R.W. Church and R.I. Wilberforce who added their intellectual vigour and literary skills. The ‘Tracts’ became lengthy and detailed theological treatises which called into question the status quo and were attacked by the liberal party within the university and the Church alike. After secessions to the Roman Catholic Church it seemed that the movement was dead.

Three factors ensured its continuing vitality. First, the intellectual foundation established by the early leaders in their scholarly and literary activities, notably the Library of the Fathers, that was a major contribution to the study of Church History and spirituality. Secondly, their emphasis upon a renewal of the Church’s liturgical life that made worship central and re-established the Holy Eucharist as normative Christian worship – a consequence of their reading of the early Fathers that has influenced the renewal of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life ever since. Thirdly, because it went beyond the academic and upper class environment in which it was born. In practical terms this resulted in sympathetic clergy being given the worst possible parishes by their superiors, usually the slums of city centres, which it was thought would kill the movement. It had the opposite effect as priests who made the Incarnation, the love of worship, and social concern central to their lives, filled their churches with those who lived on the fringes of society. The beauty of Jesus in worship was a light in the darkest industrial centres of America and England.

What will our legacy be and how will future generations evaluate our contributions to theology and worship? Will they consider them to be substantial or mere vanities, significant or trivial? We cannot answer such questions, yet in our day of suburban worship seminars, worship choruses with life spans measured in months, and publications aimed primarily for sales rather than insight, these questions must be asked. In looking for historical models for renewal, we might do well to look at the legacy of the Oxford Movement.

Douane Arnold is Principal of St. Chad’s College, Durham