Beautiful City! so venerable, so lovely, so unravaged by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene! …. whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages …. Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties
Is the Oxford Movement one of those lost causes and forsaken beliefs? Certainly when Matthew Arnold used those words in 1865 he seems to have had the Oxford Movement particularly in mind. It is not an entirely fanciful view, even then. What Arnold may have intuitively felt was the cultural shift that occurred in the University in the middle to late nineteenth century. To the Tractarians the University was essentially an ecclesiastical institution; and they saw it as the fulcrum from which they hoped to move the Church of England. Initially they infused the life of the University with a moral purpose, religious zeal and earnestness not witnessed since the days of [William] Laud. The Tractarians were remarkably successful in attracting the junior members of the University. They were young themselves. Senior members were, by and large, more resistant to their charms. Much of this attraction may be attributed to the perception of the Tractarians, certainly in their early vigour, as seeking to launch a counter-attack against the prevailing political and religious ethos. Whereas the county clergy initially saw the Movement as a conservative force in the University and in national church life, the junior members of the University saw it as much more a revolution against the dominant liberal ethos in Church and state. It was less a conservative force than a reactionary one, an Anglican counter-reformation.
Perhaps equally important, however, was the personal attractiveness of the leaders of the Movement within the University. John Keble’s radiant goodness, modesty, winning reserve and restraint was much attested by contemporaries. Dr Pusey’s seriousness of purpose, immense charity and great learning and personal holiness overcame his rather prolix prose and outwardly severe character. John Henry Newman had what the present Chancellor of the University called star quality. William Gladstone said, I do not believe that there has been anything like his influence in Oxford, when it was at its height, since Abelard lectured in Paris, and, again, Matthew Arnold captured something of his compelling quality when he described him gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles [of St Mary’s] rising into the pulpit, [and] in the most entrancing of voices [he broke[ the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music, subtle, sweet, mournful. His eloquent enunciation of the ideals and aspirations of the Movement made him its natural leader and literary focus. A generation of undergraduates and younger MAs subscribed with enthusiasm to the vision he fostered and the political and ecclesiastical programme he articulated.
The spur to the shift that Matthew Arnold perceived might be dated to 1845 and to Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism following his painful break with Oxford. After 1845 Tractarianism continued to flourish in the University, as it did within the wider church, but it was more on the basis of a toleration by the state and the University authorities of all theological opinions and not because they had captured the commanding heights of the Anglican or University establishment. Peter Nockles, whose book The Oxford Movement in Context has done so much to alter our perception of the origins of the Movement, has commented elsewhere:…. the Oxford Movement had failed in its attempt to effect a restoration of ecclesiastical authority either in the University or more broadly in Church and state. The Tractarian counter-revolution, begun with such high hopes in the early 1830s, had been fatally maimed by the internecine theological strife of the following decade. It survived 1845 but in 1854, with the enactment of University reform, it was given the last rites.
Any cursory, and no doubt prejudiced, examination of the current state of Anglicanism, never mind Anglo-Catholicism, in the University reveals a fairly depressing and dispiriting picture. The days of the great scholars steeped in the Oxford Movement, Liddon, Gore, Brightman, Stone, Cross, Parker, Mascall, Demant, Kelly, Farrer and the rest are long gone. Colin Stephenson’s Merrily on High is a memoir of an already faded golden age. Kenneth Kirk accompanied by Arthur Couratin’s flying circus is no more. Colleges vary, as they always have, and very much depend on the churchmanship and pastoral vigour of their chaplains. Very few are tenured Fellows and as appointments come to be made there is increasing pressure from secular governing bodies to alienate the religious endowment for secular purposes. The University and its constituent colleges are entirely secular institutions that have little, if any, understanding or appreciation of the impulses which led to their original foundation. The traditions of a University Sermon, attended by few (the Archbishop of Armagh had a congregation of six last year), of the celebration of the Latin Communion in 0th week, and of Master of Arts degrees being given in the name of the Trinity are no more than quaint survivals of a departed age. And I have not even descended to gossip: of the consecration of a cheese sandwich during communion celebrated by one College Chaplain al fresco, of the abandonment of daily Mass in one Chapel with solid catholic tradition, of the liturgy being rewritten week by week by a Chaplain who, I was told, clearly has no interest in the Chapel, of the Prayer of Consecration rewritten to remove references to the Resurrection to salve the conscience of the celebrant. I have not begun to mention the sheer pastoral and liturgical ineptitude that is evident day in and day out in too many colleges. But I was trained at St Stephen’s House: I am not one to gossip. That the influence of the Oxford Movement should have come to this in the place where it began would be comically ironic were it not so tragic. But it is to those beginnings that I now turn.
The commonly accepted starting-point for the Oxford Movement is, of course, John Keble’s Assize sermon on the National Apostasy preached in the University Church on 14 July 1833. It was the date which the anniversary conscious Newman kept. Yet the sermon did not spring from a vacuum. Many of the political tenets of the Movement, for example, can be seen in the campaign to ensure the defeat of Sir Robert Peel in the election for the University seat in 1829 after his volte-face on the question of Catholic Emancipation in the previous year. A movement in embryo could be seen in that campaign in which Newman played a prominent part. Before that, however, the founders of the Oxford Movement drew on a substantial High Church background both within the University and beyond which has been shown by recent scholarship to have been both more extensive and more deeply embedded within the fabric of society than popular myth would have us believe. The work of Dr J. C. D. Clark and that of Peter Nockles and others that have followed in their steps have rescued the eighteenth century from a perception of religious aridity and have shown the strength and importance of an Anglican confessional state. Dr Clark argued persuasively that the dominant ideology in the long eighteenth century was Trinitarian orthodoxy with the Church of England, far from latitudinarian and idle, as the principal source of moral values and the sanction of the political and social order with a continuous tradition that could be traced back to the conversion of England to the Christian faith. The conjunction of these historical forces with the personalities which gave them shape and voice formed a potent mixture that needed something to trigger their response and that came with the government’s proposal to suppress certain Irish sees and to use their funds and endowments for secular educational purposes. It was a proposal which in practical political terms had much to commend it and which seemed to be a modest reform. It was, of course, an alienation of historically religious money by a House of Commons that was no longer exclusively Anglican. Keble’s sermon gave voice to the indignation felt by many at the political development which seemed to them to lead inevitably to the destruction of the role of the Church in the life of the nation and to the enslavement of the Church to a secularised state. His sermon was a signal to action. It rallied a body of young Oxford dons and MAs led by Newman, Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude, and later Edward Bouverie Pusey, in defence of the High Church or catholic tradition in the Church of England in response to a liberal and Erastian challenge to the rights and independence of the Church. It was to transcend the original cause of the protest. The method they chose to employ was tracts.
The nineteenth century was very much the period for tracts and pamphlets. They were the common currency of controversial discourse, as the large and unique collection in the Archive at Pusey House bears witness. It was at a meeting in Hadleigh Rectory that it was decided on the form and the content of a series of tracts. It was decided that the doctrine of the apostolic succession should lie at the core of the appeal and form the basis of the battle. The first reference Newman makes to the enterprise is in a letter to John William Bowden on 31 August 1833 in which he writes:
As to the state of the Church: I suppose it was in a far worse condition in Arian times, except … that there was the possibility of true-minded men becoming bishops, which is now almost out of the question. … we are just setting up here Societies for the Defence of the Church. We do not like our names known but we hope the plan will succeed. We have already got assistants in 5 or 6 counties. Our objects are to rouse the Clergy, to inculcate the Apostolic Succession and to defend the liturgy. We hope to publish tracts.
The series was launched with Tract 1 written by Newman but published anonymously. It was of four pages, cost 1d and was an Ad Clerum which posed the question to his fellow clergy on what grounds do you stand, O presbyter of the Church of England? It was an urgent, crisp, compelling appeal; a trumpet call to battle. Other tracts in the series were serious, sometimes prolix works of theology or extracts from the Caroline Divines or the Early Fathers, but Tract 1 was a clarion call, much more in the nature of a battle cry, polemical, brief, insistent.
Newman sought first to challenge clerical complacency with the urgency of the danger facing them: the times are very evil, yet no one speaks against them … Do we not all confess the peril into which the Church is come, yet sit still each in his own retirement, as if mountains and seas cut off brother from brother? The central concern of the Tract is with authority and the grounds upon which the Church could claim authority formulated as a response to the political changes that had occurred. Newman asks upon what can the Church of England’s authority be based once the prop of the state has been removed. In such circumstances what can be said to be the authoritative basis for the Church. Hitherto, he wrote, you have been upheld by your birth, your education, your wealth, your connexions; should these secular advantages cease, on what must Christ’s ministers depend? On what are we to rest our authority when the state deserts us? His answer is that the real ground on which our authority is built [is] our apostolic descent. He goes on, We have been born, not of blood, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Lord Jesus Christ gave his spirit to his Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who should succeed them: and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives. His call to his fellow clergy is to live up to and to live out the high calling of their ordination. He exhorted his brethren to act up to your professions. Let it not be said that you have neglected a gift, for if you have the spirit of the Apostles on you, surely this is a great gift. He reminded them that theirs was a divine commission and that they should Exalt our Holy Fathers, the bishops, as the representatives of the Apostles, and the Angels of the Churches.
Newman’s rhetoric is intoxicating and his appeal and literary power convinced and enthused many to rally to the cause. It equally alarmed many. Whatever the reaction the Movement had been launched and in the very first Tract had set the terms and the context of the debate which was to reverberate through Anglo-Catholicism and through the Church of England from then until now. For Newman bishops were the successors of the Apostles, not state functionaries, not the administrators of an ecclesiastical organisation, but the authentic and authoritative guardians of a divine institution. Their authority in teaching and in government was of divine origin. It was insisted that the apostolic ministry was essential for any particular church to have a claim to be part of the true Church, and for its sacraments to be valid sacraments. From the Apostles bishops had inherited the plenitude of apostolic power and authority. At its most extreme, for Newman, a bishop’s lightest word was to be obeyed.
The controversies that have beset the Church of England from the dawn of the Oxford Movement have been disputes which centre on questions of authority: the authority of the Church against the state: the authority of the Church to act as an autonomous body independent of state control: the nature of the authority which can be ascribed to the sources of the teaching of the Church: the authority of Scripture: the authority of the tradition, of the Fathers of the Church, of the Book of Common Prayer. This is not, however, unique to the Church of England, although, arguably, it presents the dilemmas more sharply than elsewhere. The growth of the Ultramontane Movement in the prolonged aftermath of the French Revolution which stressed the authority of the Papacy over national churches which could be controlled by unsympathetic or secular governments can be seen as part of that large question of which the Oxford Movement is an English expression. As Geoffrey Rowell has pointed out, the Pope was exalted in Rome, and bishops were exalted by the Tractarians.
In their campaign the Tractarians felt themselves to be apostles, not in any episcopal sense, but by their preaching and writing proclaiming the catholic faith and recalling the Church of England to a fully catholic understanding of herself. Their appeal was to the Vincentian canon of doctrine, that which had been believed at all times, everywhere and by all:
We within the Catholic Church are to take care that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all men, [ubique, semper, ad omnibus] and that we shall do if we follow universality, antiquity and consent.
Whereas it is true that considerable differences can be identified between different Tractarians, or groups of Tractarians, they are nonetheless united in their appeal to an authority superior to, and above, that of the Anglican formularies themselves. Whatever the differences of opinion or nuance between different Tractarians, or group of Tractarians, they all adhered to the dogmatic character of Christianity. Their battle was for the Catholic faith and for catholic authority against the contemporary forces of rationalism, scientific empiricism, liberalism and private judgement. The catholicity which the Tractarians has as their ideal was clearly manifested in antiquity and they asserted that there was no contemporary instance of authority which could claim universal recognition. This was not without its intellectual and practical difficulties.
The fault-line in the Tractarian understanding of the Church and its reliance upon the doctrine of apostolic succession as its authoritative expression is clearly identified by a Swedish academic, Alf Härdelin who wrote:
The Church of England is, according to the Tractarian theory, a Catholic Church, indeed the Catholic Church in England. Consequently it is bound to the Catholic faith of Antiquity, particularly as expressed in its Creeds. But the Church of England is also a reformed Church and so bound to doctrinal formularies which are not, as a matter of fact, recognised by the Church Universal. In this simple fact lies hidden the germ of many conflicts for the Tractarians. If, in the end, it were to become evident that the Anglican formularies were incompatible with their Catholic standard, this would have been disastrous to the Tractarian theory of the Church. The Tractarians as a rule thought that they were not incompatible provided they were correctly interpreted.
That problem becomes progressively more acute, not least after the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and later in the century the condemnation of Anglican orders by Pope Leo XIII. By seeking salvation from an ecclesiastical nationalism by reinvigorating the doctrine of apostolic succession and binding the English Church to the Primitive and Universal Church through apostolic descent the Tractarians had put at the heart of their ecclesiology a dangerously flawed intellectual position. John Henry Newman found it increasingly difficult to sustain and converted to Rome in 1845. Others stayed; some like Keble maintaining that whatever the Church of England did or believed the Catholic Faith would repose in his parish; others were aware of the paradox and tensions in their position but were able to reconcile themselves by a catholic interpretation of the Anglican formularies and rites. The Oxford Movement continued and flourished as long as the question of authority was not raised in an acute form. Henry Edward Manning had been aware of the problem when he asked himself in his journal:
What right have you to be teaching, admonishing, reforming ,rebuking others? By what authority do you lift the latch of a poor man’s door and enter and sit down and begin to instruct or to correct him? If I was not a messenger sent from God, I was an intruder and impertinent.
Manning’s question By what authority? nagged him and when the issue was raised for him in acute form in the Gorham Judgement he resolved the paradox and answered his question by converting to Rome. Others stayed. Again, the Oxford Movement continued and flourished. The slum priests devoted themselves to their heroic work. The ritualists won their battles. Technically, of course, they lost most of them in the courts but by ignoring their reverses, by-passing their inhibitions and censures they changed the appearance of the Church of England. As the angry young men, became senior men of influence, Liddon, Church, Gore, King: as devotional societies flourished, as bishops became, by and large, less antagonistic, as the high water-mark was reached in the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, as Catholics of sorts began to occupy the Metropolitical Sees of York and Canterbury, as ecumenical developments, and significantly Vatican II, opened new possibilities of co-operation and convergence, it was possible to believe that all was well. There might be hiccups. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham might fight battles whose time had passed. Bishop Jenkins might be theologically provocative and silly. Flawed schemes for pan-protestant unification might be proposed and disposed. These could be dealt with. They could be accommodated.
However, the debate over the ordination of women to the presbyterate and to the episcopate brought to a head the fundamental issues of authority and the nature of the authority of the Church of England that had been dormant for over a century. For those schooled in the doctrine of the apostolic succession, who believed in the Catholic nature of the Church of England, it was clear that the Church of England possessed no authority of its own to interfere with or to alter presbyteral or episcopal orders since the priesthood did not belong to the Church of England alone, but was something shared with all those claiming the continuity of Catholic order and apostolic succession. Since the authority of the Church and of her bishops came directly through the Apostles from Christ himself, the priesthood lay within the essence of the Church Catholic. To change the priesthood, to alter it, to extend it without consultation, without ecumenical agreement with other Catholic churches would make the Church of England effectively guilty of schism.
Inevitably in the wake of the ordination of women to the priesthood and on the threshold of their ordination to the episcopate in the Church of England, there has been much written and spoken about the question of authority. There have been several interesting contributions to the debate for those who remain conscientiously opposed to the ordination of women and who seek a theological modus vivendi in present circumstances. Some took the decision in November 1992 to be the end of the adventure and left the Church of England. Others remained from principled or pragmatic reasons. By its vote the General Synod of the Church of England made a statement about its self-identification and denied its catholicity, at least in the terms in which the Oxford Movement had understood it. It was a defining moment. As Father Ian Ker, the distinguished Newman scholar wrote in The Daily Telegraph this was the end of the Oxford Movement, the spell has been broken.
Dr Rowell made an early and important contribution to the debate about the place of the Catholic Movement within the Church of England after the vote. In a sermon preached at All Saints’, Margaret Street on Christ the King in 1992, he reminded his congregation that ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church, its order, ministry and sacraments lay at the heart of Keble’s sermon on the National Apostasy. Apostolic order and priesthood were a divine gift of the Church, part of its fabric and structure. As the Tractarians argued it was not to be altered by secular, national governments. He said:
By implication the Church of England, through its constitutional organs of government, agreed to enact legislation which can only be justified ecclesiologically as a development of doctrine … If the Church of England claims authority to develop the tradition in this way we should be clear that it is claiming for the first time an authority to discern what is such a development of doctrine, where Scripture or tradition are either silent or may be cited against it … It is acting in a protestant way … but it is applying Roman Catholic arguments.
He went on to call for a permanent and protected place within the Church for those who could not in conscience accept the new order. He was prescient in his remark that any provision would be an untidy understanding of the Church. That it should be so was inevitable and unavoidable. As Newman would have pointed out we have moved from a notional to a real situation.
The real situation throws up real problems day by day in parishes and dioceses. There are problems of impaired communion, highlighted by recent correspondence in the Church Times, or relationships with bishops, relationships with the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, of relationships within Rural Deaneries, of participation in synodical and diocesan structures, of divisions within parishes, of patronage. Of course, it can be immense fun. It is like the old days when parishes were under the ban for ceremonial excesses. It is stimulating to be contra ecclesiam.
Although pragmatic solutions may have been found, uneasy compromises made, the fundamental problem remains. It is a problem which has ramifications beyond the rather narrow confines of Anglicanism. In a characteristically eirenic article before the Lambeth Conference last year Father Edward Yarnold SJ pointed out the damage done to Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, not only by the decision of November 1992 itself but by the method of arriving at the decision and the lack of an authoritative heart. He argued that decisions taken by parliamentary procedures and by majority votes instead of decisions based on consensus and a discernment of the promptings of the Holy Spirit were not authoritative or conclusive. He urged the bishops at the Lambeth Conference to take seriously the recommendation of Archbishop Runcie at the 1988 Lambeth Conference that the Anglican Communion should adopt a clearer and firmer system of authority. To be frank, Father Yarnold wrote, your Church sometimes seems to lack a doctrinal spine. Admittedly we ourselves sometimes err in the other direction, but at least people know what we stand for. I am not looking for the establishment of an Anglican Inquisition but nor is comprehensiveness an ultimate value. He also noted, what many of us had noted, that the Meissen and Provoo agreements had not only undermined a Tractarian understanding of apostolic succession, it seemed much more bums on thrones rather than hands on heads in Arthur Couratin’s lapidary phrase, but had also exposed ecumenical inconsistency. Both the Meissen and Porvoo protocols not only had involved mutual participation of Anglican and Lutheran bishops in future ordinations but had in the interim recognised existing orders even though there had been an acknowledged breach in episcopal succession. He conceded that the drafters of the Porvoo Agreement had made an attempt not to contradict the different principle agreed in ARCIC, the need for ordination to have taken place within an unbroken episcopal succession but, in his own lapidary phrase, he says that although I have looked again and again, I cannot see that they were successful.
Against that background, were Newman to write Tract 1 today in the present condition of the Church of England, what might he say? The question would be the same, on what grounds do you stand, O Presbyter? He would doubtless be able to deploy his eloquent polemical scorn against the same sort of targets. The liberalism which he attacked is still with us, perhaps even more so. Liberal churchmen and women see the only hope for Christianity in an age of scepticism and scientific dominance to lie in the ruthless up-dating of the way religion is presented by reducing to the lowest common denominator, taking away all the pain, judgement and seriousness of purpose. The liberal establishment which prides itself on its tolerance of each and every religion and sect but its own, is intolerant of traditional faith. In a contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Doctrine, Gerard Loughlin subjects liberal theology to a devastating critique and pinpoints the central flaw in its method:
… many theologians in the Western Church, rather than refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Enlightenment accept the challenge to defend the Church’s doctrine at the bar of an impartial and universal reason. It was a trial they could not win. This was not just because reason is never impartial …but …because Enlightenment reason was conceived in opposition to Christian faith, claiming to exist in its own right as pure reason. The Enlightenment imagined reason sovereign in its own domain … taking no account of its relation to the font of all reason, the divine logos … the legitimate foundations of doctrine – Scripture and tradition – were transformed in subtle and not so subtle ways into history and experience, which individually and together were to prove unstable and too weak for anything other than a liberal theology that is finally no theology at all.
Liberal theology becomes self-referential, increasingly inadequate to deal with philosophical problems beyond its own competence. It has begun to drown in a sea of faith. Their tenets that Jesus is just a good man, that talk of God is simply the way that human imagination tries to express its highest thoughts, that faith is but a category of thought, that Christianity is but one ethical option among many leads to a position scarcely distinguishable from atheism. In the course of his sermon at the Centenary Service of Thanksgiving for the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, which began with him quoting the eminent theologian George Gershwin, The things that you’re liable to read in the bible – ain’t necessarily so, Bishop John Saxbee outlined the new liberal agenda and manifesto, a mixture of the politically correct and the theologically suspect. He called for the abolition of the Act of Synod and for the consecration of women bishops. He advocated solidarity with lesbians and gays, inter-faith dialogue, redistribution of wealth and all the other nostrums of the age. He had identified that modern people … want to be nourished by a contemporary Christianity which is prepared for the world to set the agenda. He concluded by praying the good and gracious spirit of God [to] be liberal in her gifts. That such slovenly sloganising, imprecise thought and intellectual vacuity should be given credence beggars belief. He represents the reductio ad absurdam of any sense of authority beyond personal opinion and conviction. It is not so much theological thinking as an emotional spasm. What it represents in acute form is precisely the kind of theological liberalism that Newman identified and exposed over a century ago. In an Appendix to the Apologia he argued, inter alia, that the theological liberal believed that no religious tenet was important unless reason showed it to be so. That no one can believe what he does not understand. That no theological opinion is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men. That it is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not been given actual proof. That Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation and by the exigencies of time. That there is a right of private judgement. That there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the bible and its contents as they please. That characterisation is as accurate and as valid now as it was then.
However, there are some contributions to the contemporary debate about authority and the fault-lines in Tractarian ecclesiology that Newman would have taken seriously. Dr Mark Chapman of Ripon College, Cuddesdon has written a lucid monograph in the series published for Affirming Catholicism. From a liberal catholic perspective he is very fair in his assessment of the ecclesiology of the Oxford Movement. He recognises the importance for the early Tractarians to set down the grounds upon which they believed the Church possessed its own authority to teach and to govern its own affairs in contradistinction to the Erastian principle of parliamentary sovereignty and how that was enshrined in apostolic succession. He both recognises that the Tractarian argument was not the only one deployed in the Victorian Church and that the second generation of Tractarians modified the ecclesiology of their forebears. Dr Chapman, while sympathetic towards the desire of the Tractarian Fathers to restore independence to the Church, says that it is difficult to see their emphasis on submission to what amounts to ministerial authority as in any real sense a viable alternative to the breakdown of a unified model of Church and society under the divinely appointed sovereign which had guided the original Anglican settlement. He seeks to construct a less rigid authority that would be able to accommodate and include the kind of developments in the Church of England that have occurred. He revives the work of the Mirfield Father, Father Neville Figgis to argue his case. For Figgis, and for Dr Chapman, the authority of the Church is a consensual one. Figgis did not see it as deriving from an unchanging tradition, mediated through an apostolic hierarchy; but as a continual dialogue of Christians past, present and future. That ecclesial authority may be focused in the Church’s ordained ministers and may be articulated by them but it does not derive from them. The authority would exist even if they did not. This authoritative and continual dialogue, active participation rather than passive obedience, applies not merely to individual Christians in relation to the Church but between individual churches and the Universal Church. Figgis effectively takes up Newman’s doctrine of development and gives it a neat twist. Tradition cannot be regarded as static, as a dead deposit handed on unchanged. Rather, it is a living and developing organism which arises from the continuing exchange within the whole body. It follows that the Church’s institutional authority cannot be set in aspic, or fossilised in the amber of an infallible system. Authority must always be provisional, open to future possibilities and constantly subject to judgement and to reformation. It is as good an explanation of a liberal Affirming Catholic stance as we are likely to have and it deserves to be taken seriously. Not least because the arguments deployed within an Anglican context can be seen in parallel within the Roman Catholic Church.
The provisionality of authority has also appeared interestingly in a recent article by Bishop Christopher Hill. He is discussing the lack of recognition of Anglican Orders by Rome and her unwillingness to recognise non-episcopal ministries as direct equivalents of the three-fold ministry. This state of affairs he describes as an ecumenical provisionality and goes on to argue that it provides a precedent for describing the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England, and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion to the episcopate, as provisional. He comments, The difficulty of repudiating some kind of provisionality, short of a virtual ecumenical consensus, is that we would otherwise have to construe decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England as infallible; that is to say so certain as to be … irreformable. On this same basis he defends the anomalous but pastorally intentioned … provision for Provincial Episcopal Visitors.
Provisional authority and consensual authority that are explicated by Dr Chapman and which underpin Bishop Hill’s views depend ultimately on private judgement and conscience. They do not deal with the problem of an over-arching ecclesial society or communion that was once presupposed in the Church of England’s self-identity. There is nothing against which to judge an advance or development. There is no safeguard against a radical change in a fundamental aspect of faith or order that can be classified as prophetic in the hope, or conviction, that the consensus of the Universal Church will at some time in the indeterminate future, near or distant, authenticate it. There is an implicit claim to autonomy in matters of faith and order that is novel and self-authenticating; not something that the Church of England has claimed before. It does not seem consonant with what Newman believed to be the doctrine of development.
The Church has endured throughout the centuries forever changing, yet forever the same. Because it is organic, because it is a body of living people, it can assimilate developments in doctrine within an authoritative ecclesial community. It is demonstrable that through twenty centuries some doctrines have been accorded more significance than others. Advances in knowledge, cultural changes, political exigencies have prompted the Church to recast the way in which the mysteries of God’s love and salvation are communicated. What the Church has not done, because it cannot, is to invent or create new doctrines. It can define and declare them, but not invent them. This is commonplace. It is the sensus fidei of which St Vincent of Lerins wrote. It is the doctrine of development that Newman outlined. When disputes arose there had to be a mechanism for their determination and resolution so that ambiguity could be clarified, doubts resolved and error corrected. General Councils expressed the consensus fidelium, the mind of the Church, the mind of Christ. The authority of General Councils, of course, presupposes an ecclesial unity, an ecclesiastical authority, an ecclesial communion. It is those that we lack and the lack of which makes the question of authority so difficult and fragmented.
Once a break has occurred, where do we look for authority? Dispersed or provincial authority is clearly the way that the Anglican Communion has developed its thinking. Individual Anglican provinces have determined the question of Orders and have lived in the consequent impaired communion with other provinces for some time now. However, the concept of dispersed authority does not offer any means of resolving conflict. Truth must always remain contingent and provisional until the next challenge comes along. There is no mechanism, nor recognised consensus for resolution or for an orderly and definitive conclusion. Authority cannot be determined by unceasing process. As Canon Edward Norman has pointed out the danger in a dispersed authority is an incoherence, a babble of voices most often expressed in the language of paradox: chaos is described as order, ambiguity is richness of comprehension, diversity is a special kind of unity. We might sum up the present position that they have created chaos and call it unity in diversity. It is not even living with paradox; it is self-contradicting, internally incoherent rhetoric. Canon Norman sums up the central difficulty of dispersed authority in typically pungent and authoritative words:
The most telling difficulty about dispersed authority is that more than four centuries of its operation in the Church of England has produced what most acknowledge: a crisis of identity, a crisis of unity and an inability to adduce a coherent ideology. It is hard to imagine that divine providence, disclosed in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can have entrusted the presence of Christ in the world to such an ideological shambles.
There is little comfort in this for Anglo-Catholics because the Tractarian doctrine of authority has been fatally undermined and has unravelled under the pressure of events and its own contradictions. A Movement which began by exalting bishops as the successors of the Apostles in whom divine authority inhered, rapidly became one where bishops were defied with impunity by priests secure in their private incomes and freehold, to become one where many Anglo-Catholic priests and people are only, at best, in partial communion with their diocesan bishops. As Dr Sheridan Gilley has commented, having begun by reclaiming the doctrine of the Church, the Anglo-Catholics ended up believing in every doctrine of the Church except the doctrine of the Church. The Anglo-Catholic appeal is to a past authority not to a living one. Newman’s defence of this anomalous position, that in the divided state of the Church all ecclesiological theories are bound to be unsatisfactory and untidy because the Church through human sin has fallen short of God’s purposes, still remains the most convincing. Anglo-Catholicism flourished and changed the face of the Church of England because it successfully defied authority. It was successful because the resources of the state proved inadequate to control it and the judicial means employed were held in contempt and brought into disrepute. Equally inadequate was the control of the doctrinal teaching of the clergy. The same lack of authority that could countenance Gorham on baptismal regeneration: could accommodate, however unwillingly, Anglo-Catholic teaching on the sacrifice of the Mass. Liberalism resolves the ideological conflicts between protestantism and Catholicism by bypassing them.
This ideological polarity informed the debate over the ordination of women which has resurrected the question of authority in such pressing form. The a priori question concerns the identity of the Church of England. The schizophrenic nature of the Church is unsustainable when an issue bearing on authority had to be addressed and was pushed to a resolution. Anglo-Catholics do not regard the Church of England as a protestant church. Notions of priesthood and sacraments are shared with Catholics in other churches and it is not open to an individual province of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church unilaterally to admit women to the priesthood. The priesthood does not belong uniquely to us. Protestants and liberals have no such inhibitions. The alliance between protestants and liberals who rejected the Catholic understanding of priesthood and had strong feminist beliefs provided a majority for a protestant understanding of the Church, its authority and the nature of its priesthood. Yet ironically it was not protestantism per se that triumphed but liberalism. We have seen the floodgates open. It is only a matter of time. Newman’s prophesy that the Church of England will become a liberal institution has been fulfilled. In that sense we are forced to conclude that Father Ker was right and that the Oxford Movement is at an end. It is a lost cause. The non-juring element may continue for some time. The Jacobite strain may endure in some places to toast the Pope over the Tiber.
Is there anything that gives us hope that this does not have to be the end? There seems to be abundant anecdotal evidence of a firmness of resolve in many parts of what we call the constituency, of growth in the number of parishes opting to take one or more of the permitted Resolutions, of young men beginning to come forward in encouraging numbers with a sense of vocation. The big rallies give heart to the Movement and strike the fear of God into our opponents. Catholic Patronage Societies are working closely together and are willing to tackle the scandalous misuse of suspension by bishops, in the courts if necessary. The Caister Conferences have become a valued annual feature of Catholic evangelism and provide a dynamic impulse to a revivified sense of mission. And it is still possible to evangelise and engage in mission. It was one of the most important features of the Oxford Movement. Catholicism still has its power to attract. At the heart of our Catholic mission is priests in parishes. It may no longer be the sacerdotalism of the slum we are all middle class now, but it is the faithful and regular offering of the Mass, the involvement in the life of the community, loving the people with Christ-like compassion that will continue to be effective. The faithful witness to which we are called, the day to day implementation of the sacramental principle and the incarnational principle means inescapably that the Church can still be a vehicle of divine grace and that the great strength of Anglo-Catholicism still lies in its missionary zeal and its call to holiness of life which should remain undimmed. Yet, we must be honest. We can only do that if we turn a blind eye to ecclesiological problems of authority; and we have to ask ourselves how we can justify calling people to Christ and to participate in the sacraments of salvation within an ecclesial community in which there is sacramental disunity, impaired communion, and sacramental dubiety.
While we are where we are and doing what we are doing, we could do worse than reflect on some words of John Henry Newman, with whom we began. His penultimate sermon as an Anglican has been overshadowed by his final Anglican words in The Parting of Friends. Before that, however, he preached a sermon which he entitled Feasting in Captivity. Much of what he said then has an uncanny resonance now:
When we reflect upon the present state of the Holy Church throughout the world, so different from that which was promised to her in prophecy, the doubt is apt to suggest itself to us, whether it is right to rejoice, when there is so much to mourn over and fear …We know what prophecy promises us, a holy Church set upon a hill; an imperial Church, far-spreading among the nations, loving truth and peace, binding together all hearts in charity, and uttering the words of God from inspired lips; a Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, that is at unity within itself, peace within its walls and plenteousness within its palaces …What do we see? We see the Kingdom of God to all appearances broken into fragments – authority in abeyance, – separate portions in insurrection, – brother armed against brother, – truth, a matter not of faith but of controversy. And looking at our own portion of the heavenly heritage, we see heresies of the most deadly character around us and within us; we see error stalking abroad in the light of day and over the length of the land unrebuked … invading high places; while the maintainers of Christian truth are afraid to speak, lest it should offend those to whom it is a duty to defer. We see … the sacraments … open to those who cannot come without profaning them … the world and the Church mixed together, and those who discern and mourn over this, looked upon with aversion, because they will not prophesy smooth things and speak peace where there is no peace.
Yet he urges us,
To rejoice … and to keep festival, [it] is a Christian duty, under all circumstances … The Holy Eucharist is a feast; we cannot help feasting, we cannot elude our destiny of joy and thanksgiving, if we would be Christians. Pray that a Divine influence may touch the hearts of men, and that in spite of themselves … they may confess and preach those Catholic truths which at present they scorn and revile.
This is an edited version of a lecture given to the John Keble XII Conference earlier this year.
Father Davage is Priest Librarian and Custodian of the Library at Pusey House, Oxford