Ian McCormack discusses Tractarian perspectives on our social duties

‘We maintain that the Church of England, whether or not she be in fact the Church of the poor, does not openly and unequivocally proclaim herself as such.’ This is a quotation from the British Critic, the informal ‘house journal’ of the Tractarian movement, from an article by Frederick Oakeley published in 1841. I quote it here as a reminder of just how long catholic Anglicans have been recalling the wider church to its duty toward the poor. Oakeley is most well-known as the author of the English version of the Christmas Carol, ‘O come all ye faithful’, which he wrote for his fashionable congregation at the Margaret Chapel in London, which stood on the site of the present All Saints, Margaret Street. During his time there, the chapel became one of the metropolitan centres of the Oxford Movement. His congregation consisted in large part of well-heeled and wealthy Londoners, but his tongue in the pulpit was no less sharp than his pen on the pages of the British Critic.

Oakeley was at one extreme of the Oxford Movement: he became a Roman Catholic shortly after John Henry Newman’s conversion. But his was a typical voice—albeit a powerfully eloquent one—in advocating as a Christian duty both almsgiving and direct works of charity. The zeal of the Tractarians and their successors for building churches and working in general amongst the poorest sections of society has long been known in its practical outworkings, and indeed I will come a little later to a brief survey of some of those outward manifestations. In more recent years, there has been an important rediscovery—led by the Oxford historian Simon Skinner—of the fact that the outward works were based on a coherent and compelling theological foundation, which was proclaimed by the fathers of the Oxford Movement not just in the pulpit but also in their journalism and in the novels that many of them wrote. Given that we are living in a church which has in many areas maintained outward structures whilst simultaneously holding loose to theological foundations, I thought it would be appropriate to explore the foundations of Tractarian social thought and commentary a little before considering briefly the actions which were the result.

Before I continue with that, a word of caution: the Tractarian conception of poverty and charity was distinct from ours in a number of ways. First, it has always anguished left-leaning academics that the Tractarians were defenders and advocates of private charity. As the quotation from Pusey suggests, the Tractarians saw the outsourcing of personal obligations of charity and almsgiving to the state or any other agency as an inexcusable avoidance of one’s own duties and responsibilities; indeed much of their output on this subject was in hostile response to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which they decried as ‘the philosophy of Antichrist’, and which paved the way for, among other things, the workhouses which were subsequently to become so vividly condemned by Charles Dickens among others. In the Tractarian system, property bestowed duties as well as rights, and it was the responsibility of the parochial system and its incumbents to administer almsgiving.

All of that is inherent in the series of sermons by Frederick Oakeley from which I’ve already quoted, where two other things are also made clear: first, that poverty is to some extent ‘retribution for sin’, though he makes clear that the innocent are involved in the punishment of the guilty, so that it is not necessarily the poor themselves who are more sinful than anybody else. And secondly, that poverty is to some extent a blessed estate because of the injunction of Our Lord, ‘Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’. The poor are especially close to God, their reward is in the kingdom to come, and so it is their duty in this life to, in Oakeley’s words, ‘submit with cheerfulness’ to their lot, and to ‘lend no ear to factious persons, who would tempt them to break through it.’

So whatever else the Tractarians were, they were not socialists—Christian Socialism was a distinct and subsequent movement within the Church, albeit one with a strong Anglo-Catholic streak running through it. What the Tractarians did absolutely insist on however was total and absolute equality inside the church, hence the campaigns to abolish pew-rents, the practice whereby the wealthy could rent their own private box pews. If the inequality of the world was to some extent divinely ordained, then the church was the one place on earth where all was level: ‘A king can approach no nearer the Altar than you,’ preached Oakeley, imagining himself speaking to the poor. Here we begin to touch upon the exalted place which was given to the poor within the Tractarian understanding of the Church. This was not just a negative thing, an absence of inequality; it was a positive, pro-active imperative. Oakeley was unequivocal in his preaching: ‘The Gospel is the Gospel of the Lord, and the Church… is the kingdom of the poor.’ Elsewhere, in the British Critic, he urged the Church of England to assert what he called ‘her guardianship of the “poor of Christ”, in the midst of a selfish and unbelieving people’.

So the Church of the poor must live up to her name and her birthright, and work for the spiritual and physical well-being of the poor. The fact that this would benefit the giver as well as the receiver was not incidental. Hence the repeated demands of Tractarian preachers and writers that people must help the poor both by their actions and by their giving—everybody involved would benefit. In the British Critic, Frederick Oakeley quoted Shakespeare:

‘The quality of mercy is not strained

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed;

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes’


Pusey preached, ‘There is no deeper source of blessing, nor more frequent means of enlarged grace to the soul, than love for Christ’s sake, to His little ones and His poor…’ Now for a man with as high a view of the sacraments as Pusey, this was quite a statement to make, but it was not untypical. Elsewhere, he described poverty as ‘the livery of Christ’, and as being endowed with ‘an almost sacramental virtue’. In the light of this reality, the Christian duty was clear. He told his listeners: ‘Visit the poor with great tender reverence, as having borne trials which God saw perhaps as too great for us, shining perhaps with a radiance of Divine lustre, the beauty of grace. Visit them, as visiting Christ in them.’

The Tractarians put their money where their mouths were. In 1836 Pusey gave at least £1,000 to the Metropolis Churches Fund—which was as much as the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury—and probably £5,000; he helped build two churches in one of the poorest parts of Leeds; he used his mother’s legacy to buy the land for the Convent of the Society of the Most Holy Trinity at what became Ascot Priory; he served a voluntary curacy in the middle of a cholera epidemic in Bethnal Green in 1866. The wealthy laity took their responsibilities every bit as seriously: it is estimated that by 1885 William Ewart Gladstone had given the equivalent of up to four million pounds in today’s terms.

The Tractarian determination to see the Church recover her proper status as the Church of the poor manifested itself in a number of ways besides personal generosity. I have mentioned some of them in passing already: new churches in deprived areas; the abolition of private rented pews; sisterhoods, which alongside their explicitly religious character were founded in part to work in the most deprived parts of the country such as Devonport in Plymouth, and slowly won grudging respect by so doing.

There were many other examples: The Society of the Holy Cross was founded (in 1855) by Fr Lowder, vicar of the newly established mission parish of St Peter’s London Docks, to give support and encouragement to priests working in slum parishes like his own; the Additional Curates Society was founded (in 1837) by a layman, Joshua Watson, ‘to provide for the spiritual needs of people who were moving into the new industrial estates’ of the Industrial Revolution; the College of the Resurrection was founded by the Community at Mirfield to provide formation for those men who could not otherwise afford to be ordained.

Much of the work the Tractarians and their successors did in the poorest parishes was not unique to them, but it was emphasized and prioritized within the movement to a unique extent. So the historian Simon Skinner is able to conclude: ‘that the church had a special duty to the poor was… an article of Tractarian faith’. My parish is one of five parishes in the Deanery of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, all members of The Society, who form a mission partnership. All five parishes are within the 12% most deprived in the country; three (including my own) are within the 5% most deprived. Among the projects run within these five parishes are a foodbank and two help/advice/drop-in centres. That’s in addition to all the work with, in, and for the local schools; with drug addicts; with funerals and baptisms; with the housebound and hospitalized; with the spiritually and materially deprived that make up the daily bread of parishes like ours up and down the country.

For the clergy, these things are among the privileges of our priesthood, even though they may be immensely challenging at times. But there are frustrations as well: we are no longer threatened with riots for lighting the candles on our altars, or with suspension for preaching the real presence in the Eucharist, as our Anglo-Catholic forebears were. We are, though, faced with a demand for 79.17% of our income in parish share, with the need for a portfolio of policy documents so large that we’ve had to find new shelf space just to fit them all in (in a parochial setting where the reality is that some of the people I meet cannot read) and an ecclesiastical culture which sometimes seems to value numerical growth as the only possible gauge of success. The Tractarians cared passionately about church growth, as must any Christian worthy of the name, but they also cared about holiness of life, about a growing and deepening faith, about a closer walk with God.

in some ways, the challenges that we face are strikingly different to those faced by our Tractarian forebears, but in other ways they are precisely the same, particularly when it comes to the care of the most vulnerable members of our society. We may no longer care to speak of ‘the poor’ in quite so condescending or romantic a way as Frederick Oakeley or Dr Pusey, but the fashionable word ‘deprivation’ in reality means exactly the same thing. For those caught up in the darkness of material and spiritual poverty, the same supernatural realities remain true; these people are still ‘part of the price of the Blood of Our Lord’ (to use another phrase of Pusey’s) and it is still our duty and our joy to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them, so that they might have life, and have it abundantly.

This address was given at the Forward in Faith National Assembly.