Monday, July 14, 2008

175th Anniversary of the Oxford Movement

On Sunday, July 14, 1833, John Keble preached a sermon at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, England that launched a catholic revival within Anglicanism that would be dubbed 'The Oxford Movement.' Keble's "Assize Sermon" was published under the title of "National Apostasy."

Here is a bit of historical context for Keble's sermon:

The Oxford Movement began as a struggle for inner renewal, for reform, and for the freedom of the church by men who were already bound in close association at Oxford by their "High Church" or "Anglo-Catholic" views - notably John Keble (1792-1866), Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-82, Regius Professor of Hebrew and the principle leader of the movement after 1845, so that it was also frequently called Puseyism), John Henry Newman (1801-90, the leader until his entrance into the Roman church in 1845), and Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-36), who along with Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-57) was a pupil of Keble at Oriel College.

The immediate occasion for a public call to action was the Church Temporalities Bill of 1833, introduced by the new Whig administration. Its specific provisions were innocuous enough, involving a badly needed reorganizationof the Irish church, for example, suppression of ten sees and the redistribution of revenues. But in the immediate background were the acts of 1828-29, relieving both Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics of many civil disabilities and thus constituting the first step in limiting the remarkable privileges that the Church of England had possessed. Further, the Reform Bill emerged in the context of the Benthamite liberals' general overhauling of the political and social structure of the nation (which would include of course the church, as the religious aspect of the nation). There was talk of far-reaching proposals: that the Church of England should include every form of Christian creed and practice followed by Englishmen (except the Roman Catholic), that drastic liturgical reforms be made and that the church be disestablished.

The "calamity," as Keble called it, of the 1833 act was the principle that underlay both it and the other unrealized proposals - that a secularized government should act as if the church were one of the several departments of state. "National Apostasy" is not too hard a term, Keble said in the sermon of that title (which Newman accounted the true beginning of the movement), to describe the present scene of "the growing indifference, in which men indulge themselves, to other men's religious sentiments," of "scornful impatience ... when Christian motives are suggested and checks from Christian principles attempted to be enforced on their public conduct," and of "infringement on apostolic rights." That the church, even in matters of its own organization, should be at the mercy of a legislature whose members might be non-Christian! Against this the church must declare her rights and independence - and many of the early tracts were but manifestos and assertions of a long familiar claim that now required new acknowledgment and obedience [Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Volume I: 1799-1870 (Yale University Press, 1972) , pp. 209-210].

And here's an excerpt from Keble's "Assize Sermon":

What are the symptoms by which one may judge most fairly, whether or no a nation, as such, is becoming alienated from God and Christ?

And what are the particular duties of sincere Christians whose lot is cast by divine providence in a time of such dire calamity?

The case is at least possible, of a nation, having for centuries acknowledged, as an essential part of its theory of government, that, as a Christian nation, she is also a part of Christ's Church, and bound, in all her legislation and policy, by the fundamental rules of that Church - the case is, I say, conceivable, of a government and people, so constituted, deliberately throwing off the restraint, which in many respects such a principle would impose on them, nay, disavowing the principle itself; and that on the plea that other states, as flourishing or more so in regard of wealth and dominion, do well enough without it.

Under the guise of charity and toleration we are come almost to this pass, that no difference, in matters of faith, is to disqualify for our approbation and confidence, whether in public or domestic life. Can we conceal it from ourselves, that ever year the practice is becoming more common, of trusting men unreservedly in the most delicate and important matters, without one serious inquiry, whether they do not hold principles which it impossible for them to be loyal to their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier?

The surest way to uphold or restore our endangered Church will be for each of her anxious children, in his own place and station, to resign himself more thoroughly to his God and Saviour in those duties, public and private, which are not immediately affected by the emergencies of the moment: the daily and hourly duties, I mean, of piety, purity, charity, justice. It will be a consolation understood by every thoughtful churchman, that, let his occupation be apparently never so remote from such great interests, it is in his power, by doing all as a Christian, to credit and advance the cause he has most at heart; and what is more, to draw down God's blessing upon it.

These cautions being duly observed, I do not see how any person can devote himself too entirely to the cause of the apostolical Church in these realms. There may be, as far as he knows, but a very few to sympathize with him. He may have to wait long, and very likely pass out of this world before he say any abatement in the triumph of disorder and irreligion. But if he be consistent, he possesses, to the utmost, the personal consolation of a good Christian: and as a true churchman, he has that encouragement which no other cause in the world can impart in the same degree - he is calmly, soberly, demonstrably, SURE, that, sooner or later, HIS WILL BE THE WINNING SIDE, and that the victory will be complete, universal, eternal [quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 67-69].

You can read all of Keble's "Assize Sermon" here.

And you can read more about the history of the Oxford movement here, and more about the 175th Anniversary of the start of the Oxford Movement here.

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