William Davage on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Catholic Movement in the CofE

Hoity Toity!’ interjected Stevie with great vehemence. ‘Some people don’t know what’s good for them. If I was them I’d be jolly glad of a whiff of the old holy smoke on Sundays. A few processions of Our Lady of Walsingham wouldn’t come amiss either.’

‘I think there’s too much talk about the Virgin Mary, and the Holy Communion for that matter,’ said a disgruntled looking man who hadn’t spoken until this point.

Mention of these two topics seemed to make everyone in the room angry. Something of a quarrel developed and Stevie took part in it very robustly.1

 This scene from A. N. Wilson’s book Unguarded Hours has a certain timeless quality – as well as a degree of embarrassing realism – for it shows with comic vividness the tensions that exist in the Church of England over the place and the proper role of Our Lady. Indeed, even the use of the term ‘Our Lady’ marks us out as Catholics of one sort or another. Perhaps the quarrels are not as hot as they once were, although they still remain real enough. At my First Mass – where most, if not all of the privileges that conventionally attend such occasions were exercised, including offering flowers to Our Lady – a liberal Evangelical who had been ordained with me, and was part of a small, very friendly but diverse Post-Ordination Training Group, came and much enjoyed it; but he said that he was sorry not to have been able to sing all the hymns because they seemed to be all about Mary.

My friend had entered a different world in his encounter with Anglo-Catholicism; but we might experience similar feelings if were we to go, say, to All Souls, Langham Place, or to Holy Trinity, Brompton. For us, Our Lady is part of the indispensable ‘given’ of our Christian and our Catholic story. As Bishop Michael Marshall said at a Catholic Renewal Conference in 1978, the Blessed Virgin Mary is ‘crucial in any Catholic Spirituality’2; and his remark on that occasion was met by a burst of applause. Such a sentiment was still then something of a rallying cry.

On one simple and obvious level Our Lady has been part of the Oxford Movement from its very beginning. The three principal figures of the Movement in the early nineteenth century, John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Bouverie Pusey, were all Fellows of Oriel College in Oxford, whose corporate designation is ‘The Provost and Scholars of the House of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Oxford, commonly called Oriel College of the Foundation of Edward II of famous memory, sometime King of England’. Oriel is one of three Oxford colleges dedicated to Our Lady: the others are the College of the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Saints (Lincoln) and St Mary College of Winchester in Oxford (New).

The other early connection is with the University Church, where John Keble preached the Assize Sermon on National Apostasy in July 1833, and where John Henry Newman was Vicar until a little while before his secession to Rome in 1845. The church is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, and in a niche above the south-west door there is an image of the Virgin and Child, crowned and sceptred, set amidst barley-sugar pillars and cherub masks, which was set up there in 1637 when William Laud was Chancellor. This image of Our Lady as Queen and Mother was defaced in 1641 when Oxford fell briefly into the hands of the Roundheads: a rebel soldier shot off the head of Our Lady and that of the Holy Child. The statue was restored in 1662, shortly after the Restoration of the monarchy itself. Here, in this image, is a potent physical symbol and iconic link with the Oxford Movement and the time of the Caroline Divines to whom the founders of the Movement often made appeal.

The Oxford Movement did not spring out of nothing. It had antecedents and several fruitful tracks can be found through a High Church eighteenth century tradition – in Samuel Johnson, for example – to the Non Jurors, to the classical Anglicanism of the seventeenth century, to William Laud, and back to the Pilgrimage of Grace in the reign of Henry VIII. Our Lady did not disappear from English church life at the Reformation. She may have suffered an eclipse but Anglican theology from the Reformation to the Oxford Movement is not without a substantial body of Marian material. Much is based on the credal statement that Our Lord was ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. Central to the theology of the Oxford Movement was and is the doctrine of the Incarnation, the essential truth that God dwelt with man in the person of Jesus Christ: ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’.3 Christ was both God and man. This emphasis on the Incarnation of Our Lord, rather than upon the Atonement, which was more emphasised by Protestants, was the basis for the belief and practices associated with Our Lady, as well as with the fundamental realities of the dignity of man, the kingdom of God on earth, and the organic nature of the Church as a divine society rather than a merely social institution in and of the world.

The pivotal role of Our Lady in the Incarnation places her within the sphere of theological discourse, and places her within that sphere in the writings of Anglican Divines in the centuries before the Oxford Movement. There is a steady, if not overwhelming, stream of Anglican theology which engages with Our Lady as a woman of prophecy and the second Eve, as one pre-eminent in grace and perfection, as Mother of God, as Mother of the Faithful, as pre-eminent in glory.4 In the three hundred years of Anglican writing about Our Lady before the Oxford Movement, the most significant aspect dealt with was her virginity. This prominence given to her virginity was because the virgin conception was regarded as being directly related to Christ as the second Adam and the perfect sacrifice. Virginity was seen as a special grace and perfection, and an intrinsic part of the honour due to her for her freely given instrumentality in Our Lord’s Incarnation.5

However, it must be admitted that although serious and careful Marian theology may be found between the Reformation and the Oxford Movement, there is also a substantial – often vulgar and abusive – polemic, mainly directed against popular Marian theology and devotional practices in the Roman Church. As part of this antipathy the use of the title of Our Lady disappeared, other than in the commercial usage of Lady Day: 25 March, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it appears in the Book of Common Prayer. It re-appeared in 1843 in a children’s catechism, only to be denigrated: ‘What is this day commonly called in civil transactions? Lady Day. Is it right to give the Virgin Mother of Our Lord the title of Our Lady? It is very dangerous to do so; and the use of that title and the hundred others of Queen of Heaven, Mother of Mercies is much to be deprecated.’ By 1866, however, in the Annotated Book of Common Prayer, John Henry Blunt was able to say that the authorised title of 25 March was ‘the Annunciation of Our Lady, or the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary’.6

There are clearly advances and developments in the recovery of Marian doctrine throughout the nineteenth century, but the progression is not linear. There is, in fact, a rather complicated picture. There is certainly a discernible division between the early Tractarians and their successors who transformed into Anglo-Catholics. What we call ourselves to express our ecclesial identity has always been a problem: Catholics; Anglo-Catholics; Anglican Catholics; Catholic Anglicans; Prayer-Book Catholics; Anglican-Missal Catholics; English-Missal Catholics; Anglo-Papalists. Is it the Oxford Movement, or did that end in 1845? Is it the Catholic Movement, then, or perhaps the Catholic Revival? How many phrases are there? Putting aside these teasing problems of nomenclature, it is possible to say, in broad terms, that the early proponents of the Oxford Movement exhibited a caution and a circumspection about Marian doctrine and devotion which would not have pleased Stevie. However, by the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth – when Tractarianism had transmuted into Anglo-Catholicism, which seems the best overall title – there was a more overt and a markedly less cautious devotion to Our Lady that would have had Stevie swooning with joy. This early circumspection grew from political reality, exercising the art of the possible, rather than from any entirely doctrinal reservation – although there was some of that. At the base of the Oxford Movement, in its critique of the Church of England, was the appeal it made to the early, primitive Church: the Church of the Apostolic age. In that appeal there were no grounds for accepting one component, such as apostolic succession, and rejecting another component, such as the Marian doctrines. However, the early Oxford Fathers propounded that which was politically expedient and politically possible, and they were prepared to adopt what they believed was acceptable to the Church of England. That caution and political calculation should be set against the background of the endemic Protestantism and anti-Catholicism that had been inculcated in the English psyche and which still has its echoes today. Later Anglo-Catholics would have no such hesitation. ND

The Revd William Davage is a former Priest Librarian of Pusey House. We are grateful for permission to serialise this paper, which originated as a lecture given to the Society of Mary in 2003 and appeared in the Pusey House Journal in 2004.

1 A. N. Wilson, Unguarded Hours, London: Hamlyn (1978), 97.
 Church Times, 7 April 1978. In W. S. F. Pickering, Anglo-Catholicism: A study in religious ambiguity London: Routledge (1989), 39.
 John 1.14
 See James A. Shuel, The Blessed Virgin Mary in Three Centuries of Anglicanism, Ottowa: A. C. Convent Society (1978).
 Ibid, 33
 Ibid, 113