Arthur Middleton on the spirit of the Tractarians, and what we can learn from their approach to the problems of their day

Why was the Church so weak in the face of the dangers which threatened it? That question faced the Tractarians. They answered that ‘the dangers were not simply from the outside but were also there in the actual life of the Church of their day.’ William Palmer said, ‘we felt ourselves assailed by enemies from without and foes within … enemies within the Church seeking the subversion of its essential characteristics and what was worst of all there was, no principle in the public mind to which we could appeal.’

Palmer was alluding to the influence of Thomas Arnold and those associated with his latitudinarian views and for whom the Church was no more than the brotherhood of all those who professed the name of Christ. For them it was no more than an association for the promotion of religion and social virtue. Matters of dogmatic belief, ecclesiastical organization and liturgical observance were of secondary importance. ‘It was because of the widespread, if no doubt often unconscious, acceptance of such ideas that the Church lacked that clear principle by which it could define its true character and defend it against the world. Hence national apostasy and ecclesiastical apostasy were only two sides of the same coin.’

The same question faces us today: does the Church have a distinctive and independent witness to the society in which it is set or is it to be ‘conformed to this world’ or is its purpose to be very much more?

What we are up against is an à la carte approach to religion, an approach that is about adapting religion to a lifestyle rather than vice versa. In General Synod and elsewhere, theology has been edged out despite the valiant efforts of some. The danger lies in those radical reformers within the Church whose principles they don’t support, in order to change it into something else.

There is an insidious worldliness in today’s Church, an apostasy as real as what Keble preached against in his day. There is an uncharitable and intolerant opposition determined to drive others out of a church they love, caricaturing them as narrow-minded bigots forced to fight over issues that can easily be misrepresented to outsiders. This is akin to the religious temper of the age that faced the Tractarians. Today it intrudes itself as political correctness that is tearing the Anglican Communion apart in the struggle of two incompatible religions.

The bishops do not exemplify in their teaching and work their status and function as the apostolic ministry in and to the Church founded by Christ. This was the Tractarian complaint. They sought to recover it by their emphasis on the Apostolic Succession and the sacramental character of the episcopate, the true character of the bishop, and that this was the most important thing about him. It is the symbol of the divine origin of the whole Church. The bishop possessed ‘the commission of Christ and the authority of the whole body.’ Today the episcope is reduced to management, a functionalism that anyone can do; man or woman. It is the reason for so much confusion about it and why it is difficult to communicate its absolute centrality for the Church in reunion discussions. What obstructs that reappraisal of the Episcopal order, vital for our Church, is again a want of principle, a principle by which we can assess and reform: the Oxford Movement points us to where we should look for it.

The Tractarians were concerned with the renewal of the priesthood in emphasizing sacramental and priestly ideals that changed the whole character of priestly ministry and awakened the parochial clergy with their watch-cry, ‘Stir up thegiftthat is inyou.’ Priests need a true and profound understanding of their calling to receive a ‘divine commission’, an understanding that should permeate and inform the whole of their spiritual lives. Only then can genuine and effective priestly action flow and society learn that it needs this distinctive ministry which it can find nowhere else.

The Tractarians returned to the prescriptive sources of Anglicanism and made friends with the seventeenth-century Anglican divines and the early Christian Fathers. These sources became the bedrock of their theology. This resourcement is vital for the renewal of today’s Church but also vital for the intellectual and spiritual formation and nourishment of the clergy. Such studies must be the bulwark to protect the Church’s faith from those foes within and without; those who would water it down and conform it to a secular society’s values. ND