Reverend John Keble

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The fourth in a series of sermons on the four men depicted in the Lady Chapel window of St Mary, Moseley.

Revd. Duncan Strathie, Sunday 1 October, 2017

We have seen that from the Reformation’s outset the Church of England included a party of Puritans who pressed for further reform, including the removal of bishops. The extreme demands the Puritans made for chastity and sobriety did not endear them to others and their demand for continued reform threatened the compromise of the via media that was carefully in place after the reign of Elizabeth I.

James I of England was succeeded by his second son Charles I in 1625. Charles who had moved to England on his father’s accession was deeply committed to the Church of England and was ably supported by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Growing opposition to Charles exploded in what has become known as The English Civil War which ran from 1642–1651. This was a series of armed conflicts and political disputes between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”) over, principally, the manner of England’s government.

The first (1642–1646) and second (1648–1649) wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of what was known as the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ended with the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.

The overall outcome of the war was threefold:

  1. The trial and execution of Charles I (1649);
  2. The exile of his son, Charles II (1651);
  3. The replacement of the English monarchy with, at first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–1653) and then the Protectorate under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658) and subsequently his son Richard (1658–1659).

The monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England ended with the victors consolidating the established Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Constitutionally, the wars established the precedent that an English monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent, although the idea of Parliament as the ruling power of England was only legally established as part of the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

Because the monarch was crowned by the Archbishop and Parliament contained the bishops, the Church of England remained centrally located in the evolution of English society and culture.

Charles II was exiled to Holland following his defeat and it wasn’t until the death of Cromwell in 1558 that he was invited back and the monarchy was restored in two years later. The interruption of the Commonwealth was followed by the reigns of Charles II and James II who were both seen to be sympathetic to Catholicism.

Charles II had suspended penal laws against dissenters, that is those who would not recognise the Established Church and Catholics so that they were more free to worship in their own way. The people were more conservative than the King and would have preferred to exclude those of different persuasions.

In Charles II’s reign, Parliament pushed through The Act of Uniformity which countered his tolerance. James II pushed his legislation too far in an attempt to get greater recognition for Catholic practices, and the damage was done. There was no longer an unthinking belief in the Divine Right of Kings and the place of the Church of England as the Kingdom of God in England.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended the Restoration when it overthrew King James II of England. This revolution came about through a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch stadtholder William of Orange.

William’s successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his accession to the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England, James’ daughter.

After William and Mary, Mary’s sister Anne reigned for twelve years. They were the Protestant daughters of James II by his first wife, Anne Hyde.

All of this royal history is important as the pendulum swung between Catholicism and puritanism. The 30 years war was raging in Germany and central Europe as the same struggle went on there. The effects of the Reformation were being felt more than 150 years after Martin Luther nailed his 93 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

The Church of England limped on as political energy was given to English colonial expansion under the Georges in the seventeenth century. In that century and on into early Victorian times, Anthony Trollope’s wonderful Barchester Chronicles give a flavour of the church hierarchy which was made up of the educated middle classes who had scant experience of true poverty.

Those who were ambitious could not expect to rise in the ranks unless they could guarantee to have an influential political sponsor—even bishops secured political favours by allegiance to an influential aristocrat.

The patronage system was systematically abused as too many priests scrambled to be appointed to too few posts. Many livings were simply not enough to support the incumbent and so the holding of more than one benefice was rife.

Many parishes were, therefore, served by impoverished curates. Clergy were apt to be either academics in the ivory towers of Oxford or Cambridge exploring abstract theological propositions or just keeping themselves fed and warm in their draughty vicarages. Not much new there then!

Richard Hooker, in his Ecclesiastical Polity published at the end of the sixteenth century had outlined the lofty ideal that Church and State should be one society. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the ideal did not match reality.

The government and the Church of England were both feeling a financial squeeze. The cost of maintaining Empire was getting expensive. To make savings, the government published a Bill proposing to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland by ten to save money.

John Keble, an Oxford academic or ‘don’, saw this as a symbol of the abandonment by the state of any pretence of support for Christian authority, and the idea of suppression by government order deeply offended his High Church belief in the church’s right to order its own affairs. He embodied his unhappiness in a sermon to the Oxford Assize Judges on 14 July 1833.

This ‘Assize Sermon’ was to become famous as the beginning of the Oxford Movement, so called because so many of its important figures were also Oxford dons. These men could have a wide influence on Anglican church life because they were based in one of the two main training grounds for the church’s clergy.

The effect of Keble’s protest and the moves which he and his friends then made to publicise their cause showed that they had tapped a source of deep unease among Anglicans. The centre of their appeal was their concentration on the corporate life of the church—a Catholic emphasis which the eighteenth century Anglican Church had lost in its flight from High Church theology.

Keble and his supporters published a number of pamphlets or ‘tracts for the times’ and so, as well as being known as the Oxford Movement they were also known as Tractarians.

In their writing and preaching, they concentrated attention on a single article of the Christian creed: ‘I believe in one Catholic and Apostolic Church’, the meaning of which had been all but forgotten.

In fact they began by nailing to their mast a single doctrine, and a provocative one at that, ‘the apostolic succession’, by which they meant the maintenance of apostolic order in the Church through the episcopate. Apostles ordaining bishops who ordained bishops and so on.

In Tract 1, Henry Newman wrote ‘There are some who rest their divine mission on their own unsupported assertion, others who rest it upon their popularity; others, on their success; and others, who rest it upon their temporal distinctions. This last case has, perhaps, been too much our own; I fear we have neglected the real ground on which our authority is built—OUR APOSTOLIC DESCENT’.

He went to raise the stakes when he wrote that they could not wish their bishops, ‘the SUCCESSORS OF THE APOSTLES’, who would have ‘to stand the brunt of the battle … a more blessed termination of their course, than the spoiling of their goods, and martyrdom’.

Historian Alec Vidler writes:

It was as if the Tractarians were declaring that on the drab, dirty and distempered walls within which the English churchmen were accustomed to worship or doze, there were wonderful pictures that, when uncovered, would transform the whole building into something mysterious and sublime. That such a transformation of the Church might take place was a possibility that began to haunt and charm the minds of many who read the Tracts for the Times. As the series advanced (ninety tracts in all were published) one aspect after another of the Church’s rites and institutions that seemed dead or obsolete began to glow with new meaning.

Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution pp.50-52

The Tractarians were much more than a pressure group or simply men with a bee in their bonnets and mere writers of tracts.

Newman’s sermons and Keble’s verses and Pusey’s consecrated learning made a far deeper and more lasting impression than the tracts. Above all, and enlivening all, was an unobtrusive but intense spirituality which characterised the leaders of the movement and many of their followers.

E. B. Pusey hated the expression ‘Puseyism’ but a letter asking ‘What is Puseyism?’ elicited a reply from him that summarises Oxford Movement ideals:

  1. High thoughts of the two sacraments.
  2. High estimate of episcopacy as God’s ordinance.
  3. High estimate of the visible Church as the body where we are made and continue to be members of Christ.
  4. Regard for ordinances, as directing our devotion and disciplining us, such as daily public prayers, feasts and fasts etc.
  5. Regard for the visible part of devotion, such as the decoration of the house of God, which acts insensibly on the mind.
  6. Reverence for and defence of the ancient Church, of which our own Church is looked upon as the representative to us, and by whose views and doctrines we interpret our own Church when her meaning is questioned or doubtful; in a word, reference to the ancient Church, instead of the Reformers as the ultimate expounder of the meaning of our Church.

Keble made mistakes that could be described as ‘own goals’. He encouraged the publishing of a tract by Isaac Williams entitled On Reserve About Communicating Religious Knowledge about the need for clergy to be selective when communicating ancient truths. This sentiment was treated with suspicion on the assumption that Keble was advocating a conspiracy of secrecy.

It was Keble who advocated that his dear and often outspoken friend Hurrell Froude’s journal, with his less than tactful private thoughts, should be published after his death. Because these were not measured thoughts much of the book was seen as a sure sign that the Oxford Movement was seeking for the Church of England to return to the Roman Catholic fold.

Finally, it was Keble who urged Newman to publish Tract 90 in 1841. In Tract 90 Newman argued that the 39 Articles are not incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

Newman in his writings has been described as a spin bowler. He could deliver a spin that took the original subject subtly into a different and unexpected direction, but it was often a spin that did not stand up to deeper scrutiny. Tract 90 caused such an outcry that Newman brought the writing of the tracts to an end. Comby and McCulloch write:

The Movement was destined to suffer what seemed at the time a fatal blow to its aims, the loss of several of its leaders to Roman Catholicism. The most prominent of these was John Henry Newman (1801-1890), one of the former Evangelicals who found a wider appreciation of the Church in the Oxford Movement, and who advocated a view of Anglicanism as a middle way (via media) between Rome and Protestantism. However, Newman provoked a widespread outcry after writing Tract 90 of the Tracts for the Times, his shock at this hostile reaction fuelled his growing conviction that real authority lay in the Church of Rome, and in 1845, despite deep regret for his beloved Anglicanism, he became a Roman catholic.

Jean Comby and Diarmaid McCulloch, How to Read Church History, p.143

It is the date of Newman’s secession to Rome that is always cited as the end of the Oxford Movement. It had a 12 year life span but its legacy lives on.

One example is a church known to many people here tonight, St Alban’s, Highgate here in Birmingham and not too far away. On their website you can read:

Since the beginnings of our Mission in 1865, we have followed an Anglo-Catholic pattern of worship that offers the beauty of ancient liturgical traditions, prayerful celebration of the sacraments and spiritual communion in Christ with one another and with other Christians everywhere.

St Alban’s is a church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. We are particularly proud of our musical and liturgical traditions and of their reputations, of our magnificent building and of our roots in 19th century Anglo-Catholicism that sought to reach out to the most marginalized sections of a growing inner-city population.

So, how did Keble’s legacy help us get from Newman’s conversion to Rome to St Alban’s on the web today?

Science and reason led to the great mechanical inventions that revolutionised manufacturing and farming in Britain. The nineteenth century saw the growth of the Industrial Revolution. Populations were starting to leave rural areas and fill the cities. The Victorian era was the time of the city fathers who were patronising providers for the poor. In the 19th Century there was a general acceptance that the poor existed and that was unavoidable.

The scene now moves from Oxford to Cambridge and the Camden Society which was founded in 1839 by John Mason Neale, the prolific hymn writer.

It concerned itself with the history and contemporary practices of church architecture. This became the Ecclesiastical Society in 1845. Its interest in history and architecture gave the society a respectability that the controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement could never give.

The new churches were almost always in the ‘Gothic Style’ which put into stone the yearning to recover the faith of Christendom of the Middle Ages. In 1876 Parliament was told that 7,144 churches had been restored in the parishes of the Church of England since 1840, and 1,727 new churches had been built; these included two of St Mary’s daughters, St Anne’s and All Saints and 10 years later our third offspring, St Agnes—all in the gothic style.

David Edwards writes:

… up and down the country clergy and laity became enthusiastic for the new pattern: pews which were modest and free [i.e. no pew rent was charged on them], unobtrusive heating, a stone font near the entrance, on opposite sides of the church a brass lectern for the Bible and a pulpit for biblical preaching, an organ replacing the little band of often clumsy instrumentalists, a long sanctuary with a robed and surpliced choir, the altar as the climax beneath the stained glass in the east window.

David L Edwards, Christian England, Volume 3, p.202

The architecture chimed with romantic ideas about the past days of ‘merrie England’. Interest in furniture and buildings led to a renewed emphasis on the centrality of communion.

The Oxford Movement had been happy to continue celebrating worship in plain gowns and facing North to consecrate at communion. Focus now moved from the pulpit, favoured as central to Puritans, to the altar. Altars became permanent stone edifices and what took place at the altar during worship became elaborate liturgy.

In the Ritualist worship there were six central characteristics:

  1. The use of the eastward position by the celebrant of the Eucharist.
  2. The wearing of full Eucharistic vestments.
  3. Lighted candles on the altar.
  4. The use of unleavened wafer bread.
  5. Incense.
  6. Water mixed with wine in the chalice.

In addition Ritualist worship included altar crosses, crucifixes, holy water, the elevation of the host, signing with the Cross, genuflecting, preaching in a surplice rather than a black academic’s gown, auricular confession, veneration of Mary and the saints, and reservation and adoration of the sacrament.

These characteristics were seen as ‘dangerously’ Roman Catholic in nature. Indeed, legislation was passed to outlaw the use of unleavened wafers. The clearest result of these controversial activities was to elevate the role of the priest in the worshipping community to a place where it had not been since before the Reformation.

How could it have happened? Why did the Ritualist style of worship become so popular? There are five possible reasons:

  1. It was a practical application of the Oxford Movement’s emphasis on the church as sacred mystery.
  2. Many Ritualist priests went to work in slums where the lives of the people were so drab that their Sunday worship needed to be appealing and lift them beyond their earthly worries.
  3. There was a conviction that, although unfamiliar, many Ritualist practices were actually specified by the Ornaments Rubric, that is the margin notes giving ceremonial directions in the Book of Common Prayer.
  4. The retrospection of the liturgy chimed with the nostalgic spirit of architecture at the time.
  5. The revival of religious communities for both men and women led to a need for more varied liturgy than the simple offices of the BCP.

Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution, pp.158-160

The way that the Ritualists were pushing the boundaries of liturgy and church furnishings could not be overlooked by the Church authorities. Randall Davidson became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1903 and immediately had to act to persuade the Prime Minister to appoint a Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline. Its two main conclusions were:

  1. The law of public worship in the Church of England is too narrow for the religious life of the present generation.
  2. Secondly, the machinery for discipline has broken down.

From this came an attempt to revise the Book of Common Prayer but the efforts were interrupted by World War I. The final draft of the revised prayer book that the Church Assembly agreed satisfied neither the extreme Evangelicals or the extreme Anglo-Catholics.

Both parties actively lobbied their MPs to oppose the revision which gave a false impression of a greater division within the Church of England than was actually the case. As a result the measure was defeated in the House of Commons in 1927.

An attempt at revision of the proposals only managed to alienate more Anglo-Catholics and was defeated again in 1928. In the end churches adopted the revised proposals which they had used between 1927 and 1928 for another forty years until alternative liturgies were introduced experimentally to be used alongside the Prayer Book which culminated in the Alternative Service Book 1980.

For Advent 1997 the Church of England revised the liturgy once again and produced Common Worship, a liturgical handbook with varieties of options to suit a wide spectrum of liturgical and theological tastes.

There is so much in these four lectures that we have not considered:

  • The Great Schism of 1054 when the Orthodox Church broke away from Rome.
  • The Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th and 17th Centuries that culminated in the Council of Trent, the first Vatican Council.
  • The proliferation of so many non-conformist denominations adding a richness and diversity to expressions of Church.
  • The impact of the Enlightenment and the rise of rationalism and philosophy leading in turn to a blossoming of liberal enquiry.
  • The Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910.
  • The Chicago and Lambeth Quadrilaterals.
  • The move towards greater inclusivity which has made some in our church feel excluded.

There is so much more that I would delight to share with you, and maybe even involve my colleagues or our friends at the University!

Next time you visit the Lady chapel ponder for a moment Bede, Cranmer, Andrewes and Keble and give thanks to God for their legacy and for the Anglican Church of which we are a small but valuable part of today.