Tracts for the Times 2.0

The launch of the Oxford Movement is traditionally dated (following John Henry Newman’s reckoning) from John Keble’s Assize sermon on Bastille Day, July 14, 1833. But it wasn’t until the inauguration of The Tracts for the Times, also in 1833, that the Oxford Movement became a public movement for the renewal of the Church of England. This renewal was effected by returning the Church of England to her apostolic and patristic roots and by reviving the impoverished Prayer Book Rule of Life upon which Anglican spirituality rests. It is from these Tracts that the disciples of the Oxford Movement obtained the name “Tractarians.”

It has occurred to me more than once that what traditional Anglicanism needs today is a second Oxford Movement, or what I am calling “Tracts for the Times 2.0.”

First, let’s clear the air. What I am decidedly not saying is that traditional Anglicans should seek their identity and spirituality by a return to the practices of medieval Roman Catholicism. Neither do I wish for a return to the pugnacious, pugilistic stance taken by many advocates of the Oxford Movement. Let all things be done with charity.

But I do desire a return to the heart of the Oxford Movement, as well as the means by which the Tractarians reformed the Church of England. The Oxford Movement was simultaneously a call for unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. The Tractarians expressed this desire for unity by their emphasis on ecumenical relationships, even while they fell short of embodying unity with their Evangelical brothers and sisters.

Unnoticed by most scholars, the true heart of the Tractarian project was a return to the beauty of holiness, and not just in terms of outward adornment. Keble, Pusey, and Newman did not themselves make changes to the outward liturgy, vestments, and architecture in which they prayed, but they did pave the way for others to seek a greater outward beauty. Instead, the Tractarian beauty of holiness was most manifest in their desire for unity with Christ and personal holiness which they desired just as eagerly as the most ardent Evangelical of the nineteenth century.

The Tractarian emphasis on catholicity, in terms of reviving the Catholic spirituality in the Church of England, is, perhaps, their most well-known trait. This catholicity was, essentially, a return to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the patristic era and was expressed not only in a number of the Tracts but also by the Tractarian publication of The Library of the Fathers. Closely related was the Tractarian emphasis on apostolicity, which they found a firmer foundation for the establishment of the Church than the prevailing Erastian model.

One testimony to the power of the Oxford Movement is to list some of the ways in which the Tractarians helped to reform the Church of England in the nineteenth century: greater frequency of the celebration of the Holy Communion; restoration of the Daily Office as a daily celebration; liturgical experimentation; more ornate ceremonial; revival of the practice of sacramental confession; founding of theological colleges; renewal of the monastic life; revival and interest in architecture and other arts; revival of patristic literature; emphasis on a poetic and sacramental worldview in contrast to rationalism and liberalism; and renewal of hymnody from past ages.

I am especially glad to see that the North American Anglican Journal is now publishing poetry because cultivating a love of poetry and a sacramental intuition are, I believe, keys to renewing Anglicanism today. Quite possibly, the most potent carrier of the Tractarian gospel was not the Tracts themselves but John Keble’s book of Prayer Book poetry, titled The Christian Year. My research indicates that approximately one million copies of The Christian Year were published in the nineteenth century, and everyone in nineteenth-century England was reading it. Some people learned it by heart, others used it as the basis of their sermons, and even Evangelicals who detested the Tractarians and what they stood for read The Christian Year with delight. Many said that Keble’s poetry did more to revive the Church of England than the Tracts, and Newman himself once said of Keble and his poetry: “He did that for the Church of England which none but a poet could do: he made it poetical.”

 If traditional Anglicans truly desire a renaissance of the Church, they must incarnate the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Tractarians. And they must do all things with charity.

I could say much more about the goals of the Tractarians, but I’m especially interested in their methods. Most notable among these is, naturally, the Tracts themselves, which were originally short tracts aimed at clergy and educated laymen. Over time, especially after Edward Pusey began contributing, the Tracts swelled to as much as a few hundred pages. Although they never achieved mass distribution, the Tracts found their mark and were quite effective in capturing the hearts of many younger clergy and lay leaders.

While the mission of The North American Anglican is not identical to that of the Tractarians and their Tracts, I’ve often thought that publications such as the NAAJ could serve a similar purpose in reviving North American Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. While the NAAJ may never reach a large readership (quantity), we might reach the right kind of reader (quality), especially the hearts and minds of the next generation. The NAAJ, and other publications and entities, may be one of God’s means of reviving traditional Anglicanism today.

But the Tracts didn’t work all by themselves. They were powerful precisely because they were born, written, distributed, and inwardly digested among the communion of saints. One of the many things distinguishing our cultural milieu from that of the Tractarians was the degree of proximity and intimacy. Nineteenth-century Oxford was a relatively small, tight community. Those who wrote the Tracts and lived them out knew each other in person, and they lived shared lives.

One thinks of the proximity and intimacy of The Inklings, as a more familiar analogy. The transformative nature of the literary publications of The Inklings was due, in part, to the community of churchmen, writers, and intellectuals they shared. How many walks through the paths and roads of Oxford, and how many pints in the pubs, did The Inklings share?

What I’m suggesting is that a kind of divine synergy ensues when churchmen live their lives as one. One of the most intractable of pastoral ministry today is the disconnected lives our parishioners live. While the publication of journals such as the NAAJ is an essential part of a traditional Anglican revival, I believe we also need to make efforts to live in greater proximity and intimacy. This may not necessarily mean that we all move to the same city: the technological gods not only curse, they also bless.

Are there ways that the NAAJ community could draw closer together through various means, beyond the individual contributions to the journal or the reading of these? Could the NAAJ, or some other vessel, act as a sort of central clearinghouse for all of the various traditional Anglican organizations, publications, etc., which too often reinvent the wheel? (I already have a name for the clearinghouse: “The Anglican Agora.”) Could technology be a means by which we more closely share our lives?

Learning to live and learn together will be an essential part of launching a Tracts for the Times 2.0. We can never replicate the past, and yet we should always be learning from it. A movement such as Tracts for the Times 2.0 not only has the potential to help revitalize traditional Anglicanism but also may contribute to the healing of one of the most significant of pastoral problems of the twenty-first century: our disconnected and fragmentary lives.

Let me conclude with Keble’s closing words from his Assize sermon, “National Apostasy:”

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 see any abatement in the triumph of disorder and irreligion. But, if he be consistent, he possesses, to the utmost, the personal consolations 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.


Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several books, as well as an even greater number in his head.


'Tracts for the Times 2.0' has 1 comment

  1. August 19, 2019 @ 5:54 am Charles F Sutton, Jr

    As an Evangelical, the idea of a reinforced \”catholicity\” in which Roman ideas of the Holy Communion, Baptism, and even salvation replace the apostolic catholicity of Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, and a host of other Reformation Anglicans distresses me. Those who formed the Church of England in the 1500\’s were scholars who knew, read, and used the Church Fathers as they argued for Reformation principles and the centrality of Scripture, using the Bible as the final authority for any theological claim. The Tractarians used the BCP, to be sure, but they reinterpreted the meanings of the words and phrases of the BCP, and the XXXIX Articles, to cast them in a Roman direction, and so moved Anglican theology away from the glorious doctrines of God\’s free grace bestowed upon repentant sinners and towards a theology of salvation through human cooperation and effort.

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