Book Review: “The Oxford Movement in Context”

The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760‒1857. By Peter B. Nockles. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 364 pp. $55.99 (paper).

In Orthodox Anglican Identity, Charles Erlandson identifies four different “spiritualities” that are commonly thought to be encompassed within “orthodox Anglicanism” as a whole: Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Global. The Anglo-Catholic spirituality is one subcategory of something broader that Erlandson calls “the Catholic spirituality,” and the other subcategory Erlandson mentions is the “High Church” spirituality. He does not, however, discuss the High Church tradition at length, his reason being that it “has not had a particularly diversifying or innovating influence on Anglican identity” (125), which is the phenomenon he is concerned with in the section cited here.

The reader is thus left wondering about the precise nature and role of the High Church tradition in Anglican history. There are various sources that provide insight on this topic, but the one I wish to bring to your attention today is The Oxford Movement in Context by Peter B. Nockles. Published in 1994, this book, as the title implies, is not simply about High Church Anglicanism in the abstract, but specifically its character in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in relation to the Oxford Movement.

Nockles’s goal in examining the relationship between these two discrete groups in the early-nineteenth-century Church of England is to respond to some common assumptions about the Oxford Movement, perhaps first and foremost the idea that “traditional High Churchmanship and Tractarianism” are “synonymous” (2). Relatedly, Nockles writes, “Tractarian historiography assumed that the Revolution of 1688‒9 marked the collapse of what [John Henry] Newman called ‘the experiment’ of operating the High Church theory in the Church of England.” It was further assumed that what followed was “a century and a half of decay…a decay which only the Oxford Movement helped to reverse” (4). In response to such claims, Nockles seeks to “set the Oxford Movement more firmly than hitherto within the historical context of a long and continuous as well as rich and varied High Church tradition in the Church of England” (10).

On Nockles’s account, a “broad definition” of High Churchmanship in “the pre-Tractarian era” reads as follows:

A High Churchman in the Church of England tended to uphold in some form the doctrine of apostolical succession as a manifestation of his strong attachment to the Church’s catholicity and apostolicity as a branch of the universal church catholic, within which he did not include those reformed bodies which had abandoned episcopacy without any plea of necessity. He believed in the supremacy of Holy Scripture and set varying degrees of value on the testimony of authorised standards such as the Creeds, the Prayer Book and the Catechism. He valued the writings of the early Fathers, but more especially as witnesses and expositors of scriptural truth when a ‘catholic consent’ of them could be established. He upheld in a qualified way the primacy of dogma and laid emphasis on the doctrines of sacramental grace, both in the eucharist and in baptism, while normally eschewing the Roman Catholic principle of ex opere operato. He tended to cultivate a practical spirituality based on good works nourished by sacramental grace and exemplified in acts of self-denial and charity rather than on any subjective conversion experience or unruly pretended manifestations of the Holy Spirit. He stressed the divine rather than popular basis of political allegiance and obligation. His political principles might be classed as invariably Tory though by no means always in a narrowly political party sense, and were characterised by a high view of kingship and monarchical authority. He upheld the importance of a religious establishment but insisted also on the duty of the state as a divinely-ordained rather than merely secular entity, to protect and promote the interests of the church. (25‒26)

Note that according to Nockles, the positions featured in this definition were not all upheld equally “prominently and unequivocally” by those “to whom the term ‘High Church’ has been applied” (26).

I lack space to explore all of the disputes that emerged between the “old High Churchmen” and the Tractarians. However, if I were to try to summarize the general nature of their differences based on Nockles’s survey, I would say the Tractarians tended to take positions that prioritized “catholicity” and the Church Fathers above all else, sometimes at the expense of the Reformation. The old High Churchmen, on the other hand, sought to remain “catholic” and “patristic” while also not neglecting their Reformation heritage.

To give just one example, concerning ecclesiology, Nockles writes that “the early Tractarians were in accord with the emphasis of Nonjuring divines such as William Law and [Charles] Leslie and a few later exponents such as [Charles] Daubeny who regarded episcopacy as the esse of the church” (151), i.e., a church without bishops is not truly a church at all. Many of the old High Churchmen, in contrast, upheld “episcopacy as the bene esse of the church” (151)—episcopal governance is good and scriptural, yet it is not so indispensable that a church without bishops can never rightly be called a church. This position allowed old High Churchmen to recognize as true churches those continental Reformed bodies that had been forced to preserve Christian orthodoxy at the expense of episcopacy (156), whereas some Tractarians believed such bodies “merited anathematisation” (160). Other disagreements arose on broadly similar lines, including differing views on justification, the sacraments, liturgy, and other issues.

Those who wish to learn more about the nature of High Church Anglicanism in relation to the Tractarians and other Anglican “schools” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries will find The Oxford Movement in Context to be a deeply informative read. The interest this book affords is not purely historical, though—insofar as self-identified Anglo-Catholics look to the Tractarians as part of their theological heritage and promote the Anglo-Catholic understanding of Anglicanism as the most truly “catholic” and “apostolic,” any who are interested in hearing a High Church response to such claims will benefit greatly from Nockles’s work.

On this note, one insight of The Oxford Movement in Context that especially resonates today is Nockles’s closing reflection that the Tractarians’ efforts toward a clearer Anglican identity actually resulted in greater confusion over the nature of Anglicanism:

In the short term, the Oxford Movement might be deemed a failure. The Church of England was weakened by the theological fragmentation of Anglicanism into constituent parts which the Tractarian ‘rediscovery’ of the seventeenth-century tradition spawned. Disunion, extremism and party spirit were all apparent consequences of a relentless quest for true catholicity and apostolic purity. While originally only aiming to restore to the Anglican tradition its understated continuity the Tractarians eventually tested that tradition to destruction. (326)

This observation bears more than a passing resemblance to Erlandson’s prediction that contemporary efforts to clearly and coherently define orthodox Anglicanism are likely to lead to more ambiguity concerning Anglican identity, not less. Nockles thus provides us with a sobering historical corroboration of Erlandson’s contention that our best attempts to pull unity and clarity out of disorder and confusion may result in even greater chaos.

I continue to think, as I stated in my review of Erlandson’s book, that a concern for truth, and a concomitant belief that the real essence of orthodox Anglicanism can be discerned, forbid us from dropping the debate over Anglican identity. Yet I must confess that reading the excerpt from Nockles quoted above gave me pause—can striving to defend one’s own understanding of Anglicanism only ever breed further discord and disunion? As it has been, so it shall be?

I want to believe that one day the true nature of orthodox Anglican identity will be apparent and recognized by all. But if such a neat outcome is too fanciful to entertain seriously, I still find comfort in the idea that, even if the right side will ultimately never command universal assent, it nevertheless might exercise a salutary influence on all the others. Indeed, according to the Evangelical Anglican James Garbett, this was precisely the legacy of the Oxford Movement. Nockles quotes him as follows:

Whatever judgment may be formed of their [i.e., the Tracts for the Times] ultimate tendency … so wide an influence could never have been exerted, or the approbation, however qualified, of wise and good men have been obtained, unless they had successfully struck some deep chord ‒ had hit on some real wants of the period ‒ and brought out distinctly into light certain substantive principles which, before their appearance, had required an adequate exponent, and had formed none … they possessed … occasionally a moving and almost tragic eloquence; and a rich scattering over them of really profound thoughts, which probed unsparingly the religious and political deficiencies of the times. (327)

To hope for this kind of influence is, no doubt, a humbler aspiration than outright victory. But it is no less worth striving for.

James Clark

James Clark is the author of The Witness of Beauty and Other Essays, and the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

'Book Review: “The Oxford Movement in Context”' has 1 comment

  1. March 26, 2021 @ 5:41 pm Will B

    This is a wonderful review of an important and neglected book; thank you. As you closed you affirmed your “concern for truth, and a concomitant belief that the real essence of orthodox Anglicanism can be discerned,” and then observed that you “find comfort in the idea that, even if the right side will ultimately never command universal assent, it nevertheless might exercise a salutary influence on all the others.” On this point, Archbishop Michael Ramsey had an amazing observation at the close of his work “The Gospel and the Catholic Church” (must reading for all): “While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced picture of Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, and it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as ‘the best type of Christianity,’ but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church in which all have died.” I have learned to be content, even rejoice, in this picture.


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