From the lost generation of Catholic Anglican theologians Arthur Middleton recalls the words of N.P. Williams in 1933 at the centenary of the Oxford Movement
N. P. Williams, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Oxford, speaking at the final evening of the centenary celebrations of the Oxford Movement in 1933, described it as a ‘a night in which the great cloud of witnesses, of the saints and confessors who have gone before us, becomes all but visible to the eye of sense. Who can doubt that the great fathers of the Catholic revival are mysteriously yet truly present with us tonight; marvelling perhaps…at the worldwide harvest which has sprung from the tiny seed which they sowed, yet with us rendering all the praise to God who gave the increase? Such a night when the Communion of Saints blazes out before us as a dazzling reality of immediate experience, should nerve and hearten us all to confront the struggles which lie before us and are likely to be ‘more serious and more grim than anything of which any Christian now living has had experience.’
Williams saw the signs of the times indicating that between 1933 until 1960 there would be a great battle between the Christian religion ‘and the hostile forces which are impelling human civilization to organize itself more and more on an exclusively secular and. materialistic, on an explicitly God-denying, basis. This is the spiritual Armageddon to which the whole course of European history, ever since the renaissance, has been slowly leading up.’
A revitalized church
Williams sees that the sources of the power needed for the coming conflict are God in Christ, and Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church and the sacraments. In the light of this he advises that we ‘examine ourselves, scrutinize our instruments and equipment and resolve to eliminate everything that is weak or defective in our armament; in order that the supernatural power which is freely at our disposal may not be fruitlessly dissipated or hampered in its operation by any avoidable faults of our own.’ He admits a need for certain mental qualities or aptitudes such as ‘a clear and firm grasp of fundamental principles, a vivid and precise realization of the goal which it is desired to attain, prudence and scientific foresight in the right choice of means for the attainment of the goal.’
The objective was to reawaken the English Church ‘from the slumber of a complacent Erastianism and insularity’ to a consciousness of being the historic representative here of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Is there a new Erastianism in the wider apostasy of today’s governmental humanism? Socialist democracies think that through legislation they can dictate the belief and behaviour of the Church. The Catholic Movement was not to make the Church of England ‘Catholic’ but to recall her to recognize in her own principles, she already is ‘Catholic’.
Post-Reformation Anglicanism has always appealed to the apostolic faith and order. This is the essence of Trac-tarianism, because it was the position of all before them, the appeal to Christian antiquity, to the original freshness and purity of the faith once delivered to the saints. It was an appeal to Scripture, as interpreted by the undivided Church.
Williams thought that the proper use of that supernatural power in the battle with anti-Christ, will require ‘the conscious and intelligent possession of our own traditional theory of doctrinal authority. This is not ours alone, but is shared by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Old Catholics and will provide that sureness of touch, that dignity and self-confidence, which are essential preconditions of power in thought, speech, and action.’ He states that if ‘we can find no better status for ourselves than the poor relations of the Roman Church we will become diffident, hesitant and ineffective.’
We must have confidence in our membership of the Anglican Communion, with its characteristic appeal to antiquity as the test of truth and, despite its temporary weaknesses, we must treasure its ‘tradition of an authority which can
respect freedom and a devotion which is controlled by sanity’ There is no incompatibility between being an Anglican and a Catholic.
Being Catholic means holding the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation that continues in time and space through the Church, the Sacraments, and the Communion of Saints. Williams stresses that our religion is not merely ecclesiastical and sacramental. We believe primarily in ‘the Christ of historical Christianity, of the Creeds, in the virgin-born Word-made-flesh, true God and true man.’ A reduced Christology Williams warns will never defeat the storm of anti-Christ because it has no power to grip people’s affections and wills.
Debt to Evangelicals
Williams reminds us of the debt Catholics owe to the Evangelical Revival and that Evangelicals believe the Catholic faith, central to which are the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. We must not restrict the word ‘Catholic’ to ecclesiastical and sacramental doctrine and label the foundation truths of the Gospel as ‘merely Christian.’ Catholicism is not an extra, super-added to Christianity; it is Christianity itself. So Evangelicals are truly Catholic in the things that profoundly matter and we must embrace them as brethren and work with them.
For Williams our power implies being clear and precise about our goal, the realization of God’s kingdom upon earth; the conversion of the human race; the establishment of a Christian civilization where the State is not antipathetic to the Church but, through the Church, is consecrated to his glory and obedient to his Word.
Williams believed that in 2133 the pressure of the anti-Christian forces and the movement of the Spirit of God from within, will drive together all who truly believe in the Godhead of Jesus Christ. Yet final reunion cannot ever consent to a rejection of our Anglican past nor a repudiating of Keble, Pusey, and Neale as heretics and schismatics.
In the future let bishops, priests, and lay-folk advance as a united army to attack sin and ‘heathendom’ in complete mutual trust and loyalty in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.