Did the Oxford Movement Ruin Everything?

The Argument

It’s difficult to be an Anglican today. Visit a church with “Anglican” on the door and the chances that you will hear the words of Thomas Cranmer are pretty low. The odds of encountering liturgical dance, praise and worship, t-shirted pastors perched atop stools, priestesses, chasubles, moral therapeutic deism, progressive therapeutic theism, conservative therapeutic theism, and a host of other isms, are all quite high. Where did it all go wrong?

According to Rev. Gerald Bray in a recent chapter in The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism, Richard John Neuhaus in a classic First Things essay, and every single Calvinist on Twitter, it all went wrong in Oxford, in 1833, when John Keble ascended the pulpit of St. Mary’s and had the audacity to condemn a Whig government for interfering in the affairs of the Church. I’ll attempt to give justice to Bray’s and Neuhaus’s account before moving on to discuss a few more plausible explanations.

Neuhaus offers the more thoughtful and nuanced argument. He contends that after John Henry Newman, Cardinal Manning, and others abandoned the Anglican Church for Rome, they left the remaining Anglo-Catholics in a precarious position. They were at odds with the Victorian Establishment and had no hope of succeeding in an outright battle for Anglicanism’s soul. They realized in the 1870s that “any steps toward uniformity would be at the expense of the Anglo-Catholics.” Facing this possibility, they did an about-face. Rather than argue vigorously for a totalizing vision of Anglicanism, they asked for “tolerance and forbearance” and even proposed “that the National Establishment embraces in its bosom two separate religions.” In short, the Anglo-Catholics made orthodoxy optional. And according to Neuhaus’s now famous law, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”[1]

Others have similarly noted this inconsistency in Anglo-Catholic practice. After his conversion to Rome, Cardinal Manning argued that “Ritualism is private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colors.” C.S. Lewis dismissed them as “obedient neither to Canterbury nor Rome.”[2] This private judgment about rituals and ceremonies, we are led to believe, paved the way for liberals and modernists to bring their own private judgments into the church.

There is an argument here worth thinking about; but, unfortunately, there is a segment of Reformed Anglicans who have embraced the argument with abandon and pushed it to untenable extremes. Bray’s contribution to The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism represents the tenuous extent to which the argument can be pushed.

In his essay, entitled “A Church in Search of Its Soul,” Bray simultaneously and confusingly argues that the Oxford Movement destroyed Anglicanism, but also that there was nothing distinctive about Anglicans in the first place. In a few pages he dismisses the Oxford Movement as “men with an agenda that was far from scholarly,” a “con trick” pulled on romantic American anglophiles of the 19th century, “unashamedly elitist,” the cause of Anglicanism’s eventual estrangement from other Protestant denominations, of having no legacy other than in “superficial things like the vestments many clergy wear,” and, perhaps most bizarrely, as somehow single handedly responsible for Christianity’s credibility problem in the face of Darwinism.

Most of these arguments read as though they came directly from shriller corners of the internet rather than from the pen of an academic clergyman. The accusation about public confidence in the face of Darwinism is so obviously a stretch that I struggle to imagine how Bray had the gall to publish it. His only evidence for the claim is Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s embarrassing performance at the 1860 Oxford debate on Darwinism. Bray concedes that Wilberforce wasn’t an Anglo-Catholic but argues that he was nonetheless under their influence. That claim is rather difficult to substantiate. The Wilberforce family would see its members disperse to everywhere from the Clapham Sect to Rome by the end of the century, and Samuel seems to have waffled a great deal between the poles of religious influence in his day. Newman stopped accepting Samuel’s contributions to the British Critic as early as 1838. But Wilberforce’s religious sympathies are ultimately irrelevant. It’s preposterous to attempt to pin the broader Christian struggle to meet Darwin’s claims on a single man. If I were to attempt the stunt of throwing someone off a sinking ship, I would at least try to be less transparent about it.

Bray’s reduction of the Anglo-Catholic legacy to nothing more than “superficial things” requires an ignorance of the Oxford Movement’s influence on 20th century letters that can most charitably be interpreted as willful blindness. People are still finding their way to Anglicanism through the writings of G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis[3], and Dorothy Sayers, and also through the Newman-influenced Catholic revival in literature, which included authors like Charles Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Evelyn Waugh.

I’ll discuss some more of Bray’s claims below but for now it should be sufficient to realize that the conversation needs to be reset. There is a productive conversation to be had, but it cannot be had on the basis of caricatures, gleefully dispensed cheap shots, and outright lies. Unfortunately, we have reached a point where even more refined versions of this conversation can’t seem to rise above the level of preaching to the choir. A recent exchange at Mere Orthodoxy produced two essays that avoided shrill cheap shots but failed to offer much more than party talking points.[4]

Surely we have more to talk about.

The History

Gerald Bray’s claim that the Oxford Movement ruined Anglicanism’s ecumenical relationship with other Protestants is a good starting point. It is undoubtedly true that pre-Oxford Movement Anglicans saw themselves as heirs of the Reformation, but this does not mean that “Anglicanism” is a concept invented in the 19th century or that prior to the Oxford Movement the Church of England was seen as a Reformed body that could be exchanged for any other as prudence or circumstance allowed.

Most of what follows will focus on the 18th Century and onwards.[5] That there were disputes between “Anglicans” and more radical Calvinists in the British Isles before that should be common knowledge and does not need to be rehearsed. It’s the 18th century, situated comfortably after the Restoration settlement and before romanticism and radicalism find their voice, where we can see some answers about who the Anglicans were and what they thought. There are three episodes from the 18th century that are particularly enlightening.

The Yale Apostates and Other Converts

In 1722, Timothy Cutler had been the Congregationalist rector of Yale College in Connecticut for three years. Cutler had risen to some fame in the New England colonies in part due to his success in combating Anglican influence. All that was soon to change. While at Yale, Cutler and several of his colleagues discovered the Drummer library, reported to be one of the most complete libraries in the colony. Their obsession with the library, where they discovered the works of Richard Hooker and other Anglican divines, led to suspicion. Another Congregationalist minister took the time to write to Cotton Mather and complain of the “Arminian books” stored at the college and the controversy that their attention was causing.

The shoe dropped at the commencement of 1722. Cutler closed his prayer at the ceremony with words drawn straight from the Book of Common Prayer, which was received poorly. The next day, the trustees of Yale summoned Cutler and his suspected cohorts to a meeting to explain themselves⁠—and explain they did. Cutler and his friends announced that reading the Anglican divines in the Drummer Library convinced them that their Congregationalist and Presbyterian orders were invalid. They intended to resign their posts and seek episcopal ordination in England.

The implication was clear: these “apostates” (as they were soon labelled), by resigning their posts to seek episcopal ordination, believed that no valid ministry then existed in New England.[6] New England society went into hysterics over the news. The scale of the controversy was on par with the one that would surround Newman’s conversion in the next century. Cutler did receive ordination in England and returned to become the rector of a church in Boston. He and other New England rectors received aid from the High Church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which sent missionaries to New England throughout the 18th century (causing the local Reformed population to resent the implication that they were no better than heathens).

Curiously enough, the Yale Apostates were actually part of a larger trend of Nonconformist conversions to Anglicanism in the late 17th century and early 18th century. After the Restoration, both Anglicanism and the Nonconformist churches were equally rife with theological radicalism. Latitudinarianism, with its suspicion of Athanasian orthodoxy, had spawned Arians, Deists, Unitarians, and Socinians. While the Anglican Church was just as infected as the Nonconformists, orthodox Anglicans nonetheless seized the opportunity to tout Anglican distinctives as the only effective bulwark against radicalism. George Bull, William Sherlock, and Daniel Waterland, among others, attacked radicalism with great effect. Charles Leslie used the opportunity to call orthodox Nonconformists back into the Anglican fold by pointing out that radicals attacked episcopacy for a reason. Leslie was more than a little pointed when he described Arius as an “ambitious presbyter” who first broached the principle of apostolic succession.

Such polemical proselytizing may offend our modern democratic sensibilities, but it worked. While many orthodox Nonconformists continued to rehearse tired arguments against the establishment, Leslie and others effectively “memed” a significant cadre of more thoughtful orthodox Nonconformists into embracing orthodox High Anglicanism. Joseph Butler and Thomas Secker, to give just two examples, converted to Anglicanism and became Bishops. Butler would become one of orthodox Anglicanism’s foremost critics of radicalism and John Locke.

The Anti-Subscription Movement

While Anglicans consolidated the orthodox party, radicalism was not yet vanquished. Approximately forty years after the conversion of the Yale Apostates, in 1761, an anonymous pamphlet entitled Considerations on War and Religion was published in London. The pamphlet argued that religion needed to be “brought back to first principles” and that the “popish pomp and luxury” and the “the trappings of popery” and “the shackles of creedal restrictions” of the Church of England needed to be finally done away with. Similar calls were made over the next five years, until the volume grew such that Francis Blackburne, Archdeacon of Cleveland, felt emboldened enough to launch a petition movement calling for the further reformation of the Church of England. The petition asked that Parliament grant clergy relief from the requirement that they subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. At the very least, Blackburne wanted the freedom “to subscribe in different senses.”

Other clergymen soon joined Blackburne’s cause. They appealed to reason, science, and progress in language that eerily foreshadows that of early 20th century Mainline liberalism. They condemned those who “would have Christianity rigidly adhere to the opinions of their forefathers” and looked forward to the day when they could hear “every minister of the Gospel boasting that he has no principles but what are justified by scripture alone!” After years collecting signatures, the petition was presented to Parliament in 1772. It was, of course, voted down by a vote of 217 to 71. Many of the clergymen involved resigned their posts and became Unitarians.

This was one of the last gasps of radicalism as a force within Anglicanism. But the expulsion of the radicals had some unintended effects. The success of earlier Anglican polemics had created something of a brain-drain in the Nonconformist churches. Nonconformist laity were still a mix of orthodox Trinitarians and radicals, but they increasingly lacked sophisticated intellectual leadership. This void, unfortunately, was filled by the radicals who were being purged from the Anglican church. Anglo-American political history for the next few decades would see an intellectual radical elite consolidating both orthodox Nonconformists and radical Nonconformists in a political campaign against “priestcraft and tyranny.” An obvious example of this is the likes of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin leading a largely orthodox populace into revolution.

The Rise of the Anglican Literati

It’s been observed more than once that the English have been lucky to have wit and eloquence on the side of conservatism. The 18th Century was the age of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, William Blackstone, Jonathan Swift, and others. Not to put too much weight on a given age’s literati, but if the French had any similarly capable defenders of the Ancien Régime, instead of their Voltaires and Rousseaus, history might have been different. The Anglican literati of the 18th century should be considered among the crown jewels in the Anglican library, containing some of the best formulations of Anglican political and social thought. Their unique force and coherence draws energy from the fact that, for the first time, Anglicans were united in purpose. Zealous Evangelicals, Calvinist converts, and formalist Laudians were all engaged in the common project of shoring up orthodoxy within distinctly Anglican fortifications. If Dante and Aquinas represent the culmination of 13th century medieval Catholicism, the Anglican literati of the 18th century represent a similar moment for the Church of England.

One thing that distinguishes nearly all of them is that they knew “popery” was no longer a serious threat to English society. It was much more likely that they were on the cusp of living in Francis Blackburne’s radical world with which they could not make peace. Samuel Johnson, on his famous journey through Scotland, wouldn’t even darken the doors of a Presbyterian church, and denounced the “ruffians of the Reformation” at every ruined chapel he encountered. When John Wesley (who belongs among this literati in his own complicated way) visited the ruins of the shrine at Walsingham in 1781, he lamented that “these noble buildings need not have run to ruin.” The great American convert to Anglicanism, John Randolph of Roanoke, considered the doctrine of “faith without works” among the “great positions” that “are in a certain sense, in which they are hardly ever received by the multitude, true; but in another sense, in which they are almost invariably received by nineteen out of twenty, they are false and pernicious.”

Edmund Burke, in a speech to Parliament, confronted Blackburne and his petitioners directly. He conceded that “We all know that those who loll at their ease in high dignities whether of the church or of the state, are commonly averse to all reformation.” But the anti-subscription advocates, and their philosophy of being governed by scripture alone, were far more dangerous. “If we would preserve in the Church any order, any decorum, any peace, we must have some criterion of faith more brief, more precise and definite than the scripture for the regulation of the priesthood. If we have not, what will follow?” Burke answered with a list of absurdities that now seem all too prescient in our fractured age.

Burke had previously shown some sympathy for Nonconformists, but as time went on his sympathies faded. Burke’s passion for Catholic emancipation, however, remained a life-long project. The persistence of this passion is indicative of a broader shift. After the French Revolution, there was a new willingness among the Anglican literati (not shared by the populace, naturally) to see Catholics as trustworthy Trinitarian allies against political and theological radicalism in a way that Nonconformists were not.

Tractarians and The Real Culprits

This brings us to the 19th century, the eve of the Oxford Movement, and, I think, a little sympathy for their project. The radical campaign against “priestcraft and tyranny” was seeing some political success with the Whig reforms attacked by Keble in his “National Apostasy” sermon. The Second Great Awakening had reclaimed Nonconformist laity for Trinitarian orthodoxy, but only in a highly unstable form. In North America, Congregationalist and Presbyterians were a spent force. Those denominations would continue to see battles between conservatives and liberals, but the center of orthodox Nonconformism had decisively moved to the Baptists, Methodists, and other revivalists.[7] The first-generation Tractarians grew up in a world where they could be forgiven for thinking orthodox Nonconformism was either revivalism or an oxymoron. In this environment they attempted to extend the High Church orthodoxy of the 18th century to meet the new challenges of an Anglican Church that was facing a divorce from its longstanding alliance with the state.

This is not to deny that there were differences between the Tractarians and the old High Church orthodoxy, nor that those differences led to unfortunate divisions where there should have been strong alliances. But those differences are often unfairly exaggerated, and critics of the Oxford Movement have been prone to rewrite history themselves. The Nonconformist conversions to Anglicanism in the 18th century demonstrates that the Church of England was not just another Reformed church, exchangeable with any other. In fact, the dynamism of the 18th century church comes precisely from its consolidation against Nonconformism and radicalism. The Anglican polemicists like Charles Leslie and the converts like Timothy Cutler also provide evidence that Richard Hooker and other Anglican sources do lend themselves to the suggestion that episcopacy and other Anglican distinctives are not mere things indifferent. This is not a reading of Hooker that Keble invented out of whole cloth. Keble’s and Cutler’s reading of Hooker has more continuity with Hooker himself than does the latitudinarian reading[8] of Cutler’s day or the Evangelicalism of Keble’s day. Bishop J.C. Ryle (sometimes lauded as a more pure example of 19th century Anglicanism) is surely stepping away from the consolidated orthodoxy of the 18th century when he says the “true church” is “dependent upon no ministers upon earth” or when he and other 19th century Evangelicals insisted that individual conversion, rather than baptism, was the true mark of a Christian. Such utterances betray an influence that is due more to revivalism than to 18th century Anglicanism, where Ryle may have found himself numbered among suspected radicals for such an opinion.[9] In any event, when comparing Ryle’s and Keble’s definition of the Church, it is clear that Keble builds upon the 18th century while Ryle retreats from it (observing such an obvious fact shouldn’t depend on party affiliation).

The Tractarians were also not unique in their tendency to hedge Reformation principles in an age where those principles were being misinterpreted on a large scale. In 18th century Anglicanism there was a clear willingness to lament the excesses of the Reformation and even see in those excesses the seeds of radicalism. Such warnings, qualifications, and laments are often dismissed by the Reformed party today as Romanticist, Tractarian, or Chestertonian flourishes, but they really have their roots in the High Church classicism of the 18th century.

Margaret Sanger and other Radicals

Which brings us to where it really all went wrong. In the 19th century the radicals (who had been engaged in almost exclusively political projects) saw an opportunity return their focus to the reformation of religion, and this time something was different. Before the 19th century, radicalism had been a heresy in search of a doctrine. It was unable to offer a coherent positive philosophy, and only occasionally able to negatively attack the establishment with any polemical effect. But now, in the philosophies of Malthus and Darwin, radicals found the substance that their vacuous theology of reason and progress had been looking for. While the High Churchmen were becoming more Tractarian and the Evangelical Churchmen were becoming more revivalist, the radicals saw an opportunity to sow division. In the Tractarians they found an opportunity to use the anti-Catholicism of the average layman against the High Church party. This radical effort reaped terrible success in the early 20th century.

A good example of this is in Margaret Sanger and her friends among the Protestant clergy. Sanger intentionally ignored Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical condemnations of birth control, focusing all of her ire on the Catholic Church. She hoped that this would create the impression that only the Vatican—that bastion of priestcraft and tyranny—opposed progress in this area. She cultivated relationships among friendly clergy, like Ernest William Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham in the 1920s. Barnes passed himself off as a moderate Evangelical, but at heart he was a thoroughgoing radical. At Barnes’s appointment, his diocese had a strong Anglo-Catholic contingency. He did everything in his power to stamp out their ritualism and withheld funds and assignments from parishes that didn’t fall in line. This would have been expected from any Evangelical bishop, but Barnes was also motivated by the anti-Catholicism that his commitment to progress demanded. He was an avowed eugenicist and believed the Tractarian interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles was a firm bar against progress, while a more minimalist approach might allow him leeway.[10]

Across the Atlantic, Sanger targeted clergy who served on the recently formed Federal Council of Churches of Christ, and indeed, the member denominations soon proved to be willing to accept the radical’s philosophy of eugenics and birth control. Contrary to assertions like Bray’s that closer union with Protestants would have prevented Anglicanism’s undoing, it was actually precisely those closer ecumenical relations with Nonconformists (who did not share Anglicanism’s tradition of resisting radicalism) that played a great role in our unraveling.[11]

The game was over by the time of the Seventh Lambeth Conference in 1930. The two previous conferences had roundly condemned eugenics and birth control, but this time there was an abrupt about-face. A few Evangelicals and High Churchmen voted against the revolutionary resolutions, but their parties were fractured. Evangelicals, with their social consciousness, found themselves particularly susceptible to embracing “responsible parenthood.” Anglo-Catholics alone offered anything like a uniform party resistance. With them, the 18th-century tradition of resisting radicalism made its last stand. The Anglo-Catholic Bishop Charles Gore resigned all of us to the reality that “The worldly world must go its own way and may seem to prevail.”[12]

Sanger’s revolution in morals was to be the last of the great revolutions that followed the pattern laid down in the 18th century—radicals provided an intellectual elite to lead a combined orthodox and radical laity in a prejudiced campaign against “priestcraft and tyranny.” This time they were successful, not because there was too great a diversity of orthodox Churchmanships, but because the orthodox parties were locked in a Mexican standoff between themselves and the liberals—which is exactly how the liberals wanted it.


While Sanger and the radicals waged an overt attack on orthodoxy, there is also evidence that democratic impulses have been slowly eating away at our distinctives. This is not to embrace Anglican integralism or the replacement of July 4th with Loyalist’s Day. Instead, this is to recognize the peculiar manner in which citizens of democracies tend to think about all aspects of their life—including family and religion—through a democratic lens. Alexis de Tocqueville was the most famous observer of this phenomenon in America, observing that Americans were prone to bring the language of the courtroom, of rights talk, into their everyday lives. He predicted that religious bodies in democratic societies would conform themselves to the democratic principles of deference to the majority. Churches would shy away from being different or distinctive and instead try to blend in as best they can. In doing so, they would ironically abdicate the very duties that make them useful to democracies: they would no longer provide a check on individualistic or democratic impulses.

What Tocqueville observed in America, the Anglican literati resisted in the 18th century. Their condemnations of “Mr. Locke and his theoretical friends” were timely not only because of what was happening in America, but also because theological radicals relied heavily on Locke’s individualizing philosophy.

I think of Tocqueville’s diagnosis every time I hear a pastor say “we just love Jesus here,” or when I hear someone misread C.S. Lewis and claim they are trying to be a mere Christian, or when I remember that the worship services of nearly every Protestant church within a ten mile radius of my house look exactly the same. Much has been made of the endless variations of Anglican liturgy that is available for use today (with ritualism blamed for opening the floodgates). But despite the endless variation, the one thing most of the modern liturgies have in common is their uniform banality. They are all incredibly uninspiring. And while we may not have common prayer in words and deeds, we are at least united in a common commitment to blandness. This tastelessness is not the effect of floodgates being opened sometime in the 19th century. It is instead the result of the slow assimilating pull of democratic thinking.

A Plea for Common Cause, and a Word or Two of Caution

I’ve not attempted to offer a sweeping justification for Anglo-Catholicism. Nor have I engaged with common points of disagreement, like aesthetics, interpretations of the Articles, or the fact that Anglo-Catholicism can mean anything to anyone. I’ve primarily avoided those discussions because, frankly, they are uninteresting. Whenever I have heard the words of Cranmer performed with reverence, I have not cared to count the candles or take note of what the priest is wearing. And in an age where you can find liberals espousing every creed under the sun, it’s somewhat pedestrian and banal to single out Anglo-Catholics for their inability to close ranks.

What I do hope is accomplished by this history is that more Anglicans will realize we are not living in a world sent off the rails by the Oxford Movement. To suggest that we are is dishonest, lazy, and bears more than a passing resemblance to victim-blaming.[13] But more than that, it misses the real culprits who are still at work around us. We are living in Francis Blackburne’s and Margaret Sanger’s world. It is a world where the Reformed and Catholic parties within Anglicanism have much to work towards together, much as the Calvinist converts, the Evangelical reformers, and the Laudian literati worked together to create a dynamic alternative to radicalism in the 18th century—but only if we can agree on a common enemy and finally end the standoff that we have been engaged in for over a century now.

It is time to renew a common agenda against radicalism and a common commitment to Anglican distinctives. Such a project would offer much common ground. It could agree on resisting democratic minimalism in worship and substance and celebrate the presence of an orthodox alternative to the all-assimilating blandness of most modern worship, regardless of whether or not that alternative fits our party’s idea of “true Anglicanism.” I won’t attempt to describe what that might look like in an Evangelical, High, or Catholic form, but I think anyone opposed to radicalism will know it when he sees it (and be able to appreciate it regardless of his own preferences).

This project could also work to establish an authentically Anglican political and cultural sensibility, one that mines our tradition’s vast resources instead of following right Evangelicals into a minimalist culture war orthodoxy or woke Evangelicals into an adaptation of critical studies. This especially is desperately needed today. For instance, one would think, with the role sexual ethics played in the founding of the ACNA, that there would have been a renaissance of classical Anglican studies on sexual ethics. Perhaps an exploration of the Prayer Book’s marriage rite, or a study of what Jeremy Taylor means when he talks about “matrimonial chastity” in Holy Living and Holy Dying, or what the dissenters of Lambeth 1930 like Gore, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis might have to teach us today. Yet nine times out of ten, everything that is said about sexual ethics fails to rise above the level of platitude—generic calls to “return to scripture” may sound courageous, but they simply are not going to be enough.

Building a new agenda against radicalism, however, may require some uncomfortable concessions from those in the Reformed party. First among these is that such an agenda must be willing to critique modern Evangelicalism and offer an alternative to it. I know we are all tired of the “everything I don’t like is Protestant” meme, but there is no use in pretending that the majority of our Protestant coreligionists are hearing anything like the orthodoxy of the Magisterial Reformation every week. Where orthodox Nonconformism has survived in the modern world, it usually owes its survival to some extenuating circumstance, such as the Stoicism that fills the gaps of Evangelical social morality in the American South or the “God and Country” sensibility that animates some of our largest megachurches. Detached from these circumstances, it withers on the vine.[14] Regardless, it is ridiculous to suggest that an unhealthy preoccupation with tradition, aesthetics, and rituals is a major problem for any church in the Western world today. Proselytizing may be controversial, but a primary task of orthodox Anglicanism in the 21st century must be calling all the descendants of the English Reformation home. Like our forefathers in the 18th century, we must begin the task of consolidating orthodoxy in the protective raiment Anglican distinctives. If we cannot do this, we will have very little offer and will likely go the way of the 17th century Nonconformists who could not stop obsessing over ritual when the radicals were already within their walls.[15]

Second, a new agenda against radicalism cannot succeed if it is constantly beset by the fear of sparking conversions to Rome. We now know what our forefathers in the late 18th century were starting to suspect: Rome is an important ally against radicalism. And if a few dozen former Evangelicals from the internet decide Anglicanism is not their final home, well, that hardly amounts to a crisis. There are worse things that can happen to someone. The fear of Rome has cast an unreasonable spell over Reformed thinking. Some Reformed Anglicans leave us thinking that we should be scared of building an Anglican alternative to mainstream Protestantism because it will only remind people that there is a Roman alternative. The early 18th century polemicists didn’t have such fears, and they ushered in one of the most dynamic centuries for Anglicanism.

Which brings me to my words of caution. The gleefully dispensed cheap shots against Anglo-Catholics and the obsession with preventing conversion to Rome is more than a little off-putting in light of some of the history laid out above. If you are completely free of Sangerism, then feel free to continue casting stones. Continuing to tilt at the windmills of ritualism while avoiding a conversation about the actual enemy that handed us all a real defeat might score rhetorical points in the debate but only ever amounts to futility. But even if you don’t buy that argument, you should consider pausing for another reason. Anglo-Catholic philosophy lies behind many of the works that are drawing people into Anglicanism. Those encountering Sayers, Chesterton, Eliot, and Auden will come knocking on the nearest Anglican door, looking for the thing that inspired the beauty they found. Or, like the convert Bishop Butler in his garden, they may have stopped and asked themselves ‘What security is there against the insanity of individuals?” At least that’s how it was for me. I was lucky enough to find priests with some moderate Anglo-Catholic sympathies who encouraged me. Some of my friends, however, found a worship service that was hardly indistinguishable from modern Evangelicalism, an odd latitudinarian insistence that there is nothing special about Anglicanism at all, or clergy who felt compelled to persuade them that they should be content with Reformation platitudes instead of longing for tradition, beauty, and security Those friends took the latitudinarians at their word and dismissed Anglicanism as just another Protestant sect. They are now Roman Catholic, and I would be too if I had been in their shoes. Newman and Pusey may not be your cup of tea, but if you are going to spend a good deal of time bashing them and their philosophy, you can’t continue clutching your pearls and acting surprised every time someone swims the Tiber. They may not be swimming to greener pastures, but perhaps they are swimming to friendlier ones.

I implore Reformed Anglicans to be wary, that in their scrupulous avoidance of the Oxford Movement they do not end up embracing a Protestant latitudinarianism in its place. Hooker, Andrewes, Taylor, and every other Anglican before 1830 were thoroughly Reformed, so you should have no problem speaking like them. Insist with Hooker that “if we have the custom of the people of God or a decree from our forefathers, this is a law that must be kept.” Insist with Andrewes that “the Church, or rather God by the Church, her ancient order” calls us to observe the feasts and fasts of the Christian year. Insist with Taylor that Confirmation and the other rites of the church are not to be avoided or downplayed because they require explanation—but rather celebrated as the marvelous pastoral opportunities they are. At the very least, don’t roll your eyes when Anglo-Catholics talk this way. The world stands in need of the contributions of classical Anglicanism. Do not leave our tradition to collect dust on the shelf because you are worried that anything more than Reformation platitudes will inspire a longing for Rome.

C.S. Lewis once spoke of the “heavenly unity existing between really devout persons of differing creeds.” He believed any Christian reunion would be built from the individual level, where devout persons would encounter each other. Though he was speaking of members of different denominations, it has relevance to us, who are divided in a common church. Lewis’s “heavenly unity” reminds me of the 18th century. I know some look back on a supposed “high and dry” alternative to Anglo-Catholicism with nostalgia, but I have always looked back with nostalgia to something else—something more dynamic, and something that I think could provide a model of Anglo-Catholic and Reformed cooperation in our own age. I look back to a time when the zealously Evangelical Wesleys and the curmudgeonly formalist Samuel Johnson could have sympathy for each other’s projects, and sleep well at night knowing they were united against common enemies, and that the other would wake in the morning ready to perform his duty on a different front of the same battle.

More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.


  1. It’s worth noting that Neuhaus’s telling presumes the Anglo-Catholic party is the orthodox party.
  2. This has always been puzzling to me, coming as it does from a man who went to private confession every week and who essentially endorsed Tract 90’s reasoning on purgatory.
  3. I can see the tweets now: “Lewis wasn’t an Anglo-Catholic! He said Newman made his blood run cold!” See FN 2 above.
  4. The Reformed essay is here. The Anglo-Catholic essay here. My friend Paul Shakeshaft valiantly attempted to transcend this divide with a marvelous third contribution.
  5. If I do not link to sources, you can assume that the information can be found in English Society, 1660-1832.
  6. It seems as though Cutler said as much at his resignation.
  7. Though “Nonconformism” will no longer be a strictly accurate designation in the 19th and 20th centuries, for simplicity’s sake I am going to continue to use the term to refer to all non-Anglican descendants of the English Reformation. Much of what I have to say from this point on does not apply to other Protestants, such as Lutherans.
  8. It is often curious to see Reformed Anglicans fall back on the latitudinarian reading of Hooker in their anxiety to not appear too Anglo-Catholic. Some interpretations of Hooker leave us with the impression that Hooker didn’t argue for much of anything at all—The Laws, we are told, offers no conclusive advice to the layman wondering if he should choose between episcopacy and Presbyterianism. Keble’s reading is surely less absurd than this non-reading.
  9. There is a reason Ryle is widely read at Evangelical seminaries in a way that, Hooker, say, is not. Much of his work can be trusted to not produce any converts to priestcraft.
  10. G.K. Chesterton frequently attacked Barnes and his “nebulous type of Protestantism.” Barnes also drew the ire of a parishioner in his diocese named Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden. Her son, Wystan, would remember his mother’s defense of her faith fondly and would one day return to Anglo-Catholicism as one of the 20th century’s most important Christian poets.
  11. It’s interesting to note that, during this period, the only Protestants who spoke highly of Roman Catholics were the Fundamentalists and the Anglo-Catholics.
  12. That Lambeth 1930 is not discussed more often in the “where it all went wrong” genre of blogs and tweets is likely because it is 1) flattering to Anglo-Catholics and 2) unsettling in its revelation that most of us today are Sangerites—or at least not willing to be as bold and courageous about that as we might be about Reformation and culture war platitudes.
  13. “If only you hadn’t sounded so much like Catholics then those anti-Catholic bigots would have left you alone!” is a doubling galling thing to say to the party that was the last to resist radicalism.
  14. It is worth remembering that Evangelicals as a force for public orthodoxy (on abortion, for instance), is a somewhat recent development. There is no guarantee the current situation will continue, and rather than hitch ourselves to Evangelical wagons, we must operate with more foresight.
  15. I do not mean to suggest that we should adopt an acerbic and triumphalist tone like that of some traditionalist Roman Catholics.

Brian Miller

Brian Miller is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C. He's a pretty big fan of Cicero and the Book of Common Prayer. You can follow him on the web at www.briankenmiller.com and on Twitter.

'Did the Oxford Movement Ruin Everything?' have 5 comments

  1. June 5, 2020 @ 9:42 am Ben Jefferie

    An outstanding article. I wanted to burst into applause after reading it.
    Thank you for this robust (and witty) clearing of the air of all the nonsense that has been attaching to Oxford Movement of late. G.Bray drives me batty as well…
    I did not have a good grip on where Radicalism moved around inside the Church’s walls, until this, nor had I heard of the Yale Apostates. Very useful history all around. Thank you.
    “Sangerism” is indeed a grievous common enemy that Anglo-Calvinists and Anglo-Catholics can unite against (and the question of Women’s Orders ultimately is down-stream of the same problem: when sex became “baby-neutral” for women as well as men, gender-distinction itself began to be homogenized).
    I, too, hope that both parties can unite on this and other things besides.
    Also, as to your foot-note about Lewis — he was writing at a time when unauthorized “Anglican Missal” usage was at its zenith, and that is (I believe) the locus of what he condemns as neither being obedient to Rome or Canterbury.


  2. June 6, 2020 @ 1:56 am Greg

    Brian, this is an excellent essay! Many thanks!
    If a Christian is seeking an Anglican jurisdiction where they can avoid ” liturgical dance, praise and worship, t-shirted pastors perched atop stools, priestesses, chasubles, moral therapeutic deism, progressive therapeutic theism, conservative therapeutic theism, and a host of other isms,” what ecclesiastical home would you recommend for them? The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the Reformed Epsicopla Church (REC), the United Episcopal Church in North America (UECNA)?


  3. June 9, 2020 @ 8:53 am Rev. Dinnis Washburn

    Impressive research and well argued. No doubt there were excesses among the Tractarians and some of their followers, but that is true of almost any movement in Christian history, including “Reformed” Anglicanism.


  4. February 11, 2022 @ 6:17 pm Alice Linsley

    Fr. Samuel L. Edwards observed: “It was the misfortune of the Oxford Movement that it arose when secularising liberalism had attained a well-nigh irresistible momentum.”



  5. December 16, 2023 @ 7:48 pm S. Wesley Mcgranor

    Yes it is a misrepresentation of all of Anglicanism and Arminianism and a replacement of Arminianism and Protestant high-churchmanship.


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