Stephen Keeble on the origins of the Oxford Movement and today’s secular threats to the Church

A few years ago I found this two- handled vase in a junk shop. The lady who ran the shop did not know what it was but knew it was unusual so, unfortunately, I was not able to get it at a junk shop price. On the front the hand-decorated text says: ‘1833 – 1933 To Commemorate the Centenary of the Catholic Revival in the Anglican Communion’. Will there be anything made to celebrate the bicentenary of the Catholic Revival in the Anglican Communion, I wonder, or will that be a celebration only for people who have left?

Keble’s sermon

Yesterday was the anniversary of the event which sparked the Oxford Movement – the movement which was to have a great impact on the Anglican Church by drawing to its attention and reviving its Catholic heritage. On 14 July 1833, John Keble preached in the University Church of St Mary, Oxford a sermon entitled ‘National Apostasy’. The sermon was a response to the announcement that the newly elected Whig government, whose ranks were swelled in parliament by newly emancipated non-Anglicans, was going to reorganize the Anglican Church of Ireland by suppressing ten bishoprics.

For parliament to presume to re-order the Church – the divinely appointed body of Christ on earth whose authority was apostolic and not derived from the state – was nothing short of ‘a direct disavowal of the sovereignty of God’. For, as Keble said, we were ‘a nation that had for centuries acknowledged as an essential part of its theory of government that it was a Christian nation …part of Christ’s Church … bound in all her legislation and policy by the fundamental rules of that Church.’

Vote postponed

Last Monday was to be the end of the process, grinding on for years, whereby the General Synod would finally agree the arrangements to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England. Over the long years, time and time again, the proponents of women bishops have used their majority standing to veto any arrangements which would properly provide for those who continue to hold to the biblical and apostolic faith and who cannot, as a matter of conscience, accept this innovation. Worried that the proposals would, at this late stage, fail to command the necessary two-thirds majority in all three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, the House of Bishops made some minor amendments to improve the lot of the beleaguered band whose offence is to carry on believing what the Church had always taught.

Suchwas the outcryfromthemilitant feminists and their supporters that the Synod, faced with another prospect of the legislation failing to command sufficient support, has postponed the final vote and sent it back to the House of Bishops for further reflection. It remains quite possible that the whole fraught and damaging process will end in failure and recrimination, in what one politician has called ‘a train crash’.

Appeal to MPs

Perhaps the slash and burn feminists, who wish only to be made bishops on terms which would un-church Catholic Anglicans, have overplayed their hand. Their dog-in-a-manger (dare one say lady dog in a manger) attitude will not have endeared them to more inclusive minded supporters of advancing secularization. But the most shocking aspect of the campaign to clear the landscape of Catholic believers has been the appeal to secular laws and threats from Members of Parliament, particularly members of the ‘Ecclesiastical’ Committee. Members of this committee, who will have to vet any legislation sent by Synod for parliamentary scrutiny, have given clear warning that any arrangements for ‘traditionalists’, such as the recent bishops’ proposed amendments, would need to conform with the Human Rights Act and so might not meet with final approval.

Heirs of the Whigs

There are, no doubt, many sincere people who value the Church of England, not as the repository of divine truth, but as a form of light entertainment – a pantomime replete with a generous cast of transvestite dames and earnest ladies cavorting as men. Such are the metrosexual champions of human rights and diversity who would veto church legislation attempting to provide for people whose values and beliefs come from Christian rather than progressive secular doctrine. They are today’s heirs of the nineteenth-century Whigs whose presumption to treat the Church as a department of the state provoked the Catholic revival.

It may be, by the grace of God, that the secular assault on the Church today will provoke a new exploration and realization of the Church’s true grounding; that it stands, as we are told in the second chapter of Ephesians, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone’.

The outcome of the present troubles is uncertain, and yet we are called to faithfulness and purity of heart. Let us take as an example John Keble who, in the dark times of the early Establishment rejection of what he and his fellow leaders of the Oxford Movement stood for, and even in the dark time of the defection of Newman and others to Rome, maintained his ground, sowing seed which would ripen and bear fruit in time to come. ND

A version of this article
was preached as a sermon on
the first Sunday after the July Synod
(the Sixth Sunday after Trinity)