Newman, The Oxford Movement, and the Hunger for Dogma

There are some fine essays in "The Oxford Movement: Europe and the Wider World 1830-1930" but the collection ultimately fails to address the real heart of the movement that Newman left behind

In the preface that John Henry Newman wrote as an old man to a reissue of Tract 90, the pamphlet that preceded his conversion to the Church of Rome, he made some characteristically incisive points. First, he identified what he called the “all-important question” of the Tract as “whether the 39 Articles… one by one… were (as was said at the time) ‘patient, though not ambitious, of a Catholic interpretation.’” Secondly, he reminded his readers that “The Tract which follows made that experiment”—which was an amusing way of alluding to the fury that the Tract inspired among English Protestants when it was first published in 1841. And finally he added a self-deprecatory aside showing how far the Catholic convert had traveled from the controversies that unsettled his Anglican priesthood. “I ought to add that, in this edition, I have not thought it necessary to insert at full length the passages of the Homilies, as they were inserted originally in the Tract. This omission weakens indeed the Author’s argument, but it is better than the alternative of their lavish exhibition. It is penance enough to reprint one’s own bad language, without burdening it with the blatant abuse of the Homilies.”

Here were the lessons Newman drew from the Tract: it proved that the National Church could never accept any Catholic reading of its formularies and it reminded a fairly fastidious author of a stylistic misjudgment that he was pleased to set right. The lessons Anglo-Catholics have drawn from the Tract have been quite different. Despite their distaste for the tergiversating Newman, they have always been ready to cite his Tract as evidence of the theological legitimacy of their party.

Then, too, after Newman seceded, Edward Pusey was careful to resurrect the Tract as a means of reasserting the Anglican Church’s claim to being a branch of the Universal Church. The editors of this collection, nicely encapsulate this claim in their introduction when they speak of the Church of England as “an integral part of the Church Catholic that had been instituted by Christ, guided through time by the Holy Spirit, directed by the apostles and then by their episcopal successors, preserved in doctrinal truth, enriched by long centuries of tradition, venerated by generations of the faithful, infused with divine grace through the sacraments and destined to abide until the return of God in glory.” However vexed such claims have proven, it is good to have them presented at the very outset of this collection, even if the editors understandably ignore the fact that not only Newman but the English people as a whole roundly rejected them.

If Anglo-Catholics are as keen in the 21st century of laying claim to Tract 90 as they were in the 19th century, they are equally adverse to making any mention of Newman’s Lectures on Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in submitting to the Catholic Church (1850), in which Newman directly addressed his erstwhile Anglo-Catholic friends and exhorted them to repudiate a party that could make no legitimate claim to membership within the actual as opposed to the Tractarians’ theoretical Catholic Church nor find any acceptable home within the Established Church.

The central claim of the collection is that English Anglo-Catholicism is not an off-shoot of the fundamental provincialism of English Protestantism but a much larger, even cosmopolitan faith, which enjoyed an appeal far beyond the shores of Albion. “Our international team of authors,” the editors declare, “have viewed the Oxford Movement as an international movement within a global context.”

To see how the editors deliver on this claim, I turned first to the essays on the reception Tractarianism received in Australia, expecting to read of a transformation there similar to that of Wilkins Micawber, who may not have met with much success in England but found fame and fortune when he emigrated to Australia and became District Magistrate of Port Middlebay. But alas the reception the Oxford Movement met with in Australia was of a piece with the reception it met with in all of the places to which it was introduced: it was distrusted by Protestants for being too ‘catholic’ and by Catholics for being too ‘protestant.’ In the case of Australia, many of its bishops might have had Tractarian sympathies—Augustus Short, Bishop of Adelaide most notably—but Gladstone was right to characterize them as a “true Anglican episcopate,” which is not the same thing as a Tractarian episcopate.

Since so much of the Oxford Movement turned on defining certain fiercely contested concepts—‘catholicity’ being, perhaps, the most disputed—it is well for the conscientious commentator to be precise about terms, especially those used by the Tractarians themselves. Peter Nockles, one of the editors here, falls down terribly on this score when he refers to the label ‘Noetic’ given to members of the Oriel Senior Common Room as “implying freethinkers.” Since Edward Copleston, Richard Whately, and Edward Hawkins all prided themselves on the logical rigor of their thinking, freethinking was anathema to them. Nockles, however, is right to observe that “Oriel was truly the cradle, crucible, and making of Tractarianism,” though he omits to acknowledge its considerable intellectual, theological and pedagogical deficiencies. Those interested in seeing just how glaring those were can read Newman’s correspondence with Whately and Hawkins.

Another dubious essay here is by Rowan Strong entitled “The Oxford Movement and the British Empire,” which discusses how Henry Edward Manning, the future Cardinal, whilst still an Anglican, initially welcomed the Jerusalem Bishopric before rejecting it—an odd way to claim Tractarianism for the empire. For readers unfamiliar with these recondite matters, the Jerusalem Bishopric was a scheme concocted by Baron Bunsen in 1841 to set up a joint Anglican and Lutheran bishopric in Jerusalem, which predictably fizzled out in 1886. That Manning before converting to Catholicism regarded the scheme favorably hardly alters the standard view of the Anglo-Catholic party as quintessentially insular. As this collection shows, the appeal of the party’s mandarin faith in or beyond the British Isles was negligible. That Nockles and his co-editor should have commissioned a band of scholars to find otherwise says something about the keenness in certain quarters to have this faith taken seriously beyond Pusey House.

Still, if the editors’ main argument is unpersuasive, there is much of interest in this collection. There is a particularly lively essay by Albrecht Geck, professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Osnabruck, entitled “The Oxford Movement in Germany,” which demonstrates why the Anglo-Catholics and their exotic ‘catholicity’ should have found so little sympathy among Germans, Protestant or Catholic. Dr. Geck cites the historian Heinrich Friedrich Fock (1819-72), who, as he says, “did not have high hopes for the future progress of Protestantism in England…” Indeed, “his doubts about the national character of the English made him still more sceptical.

Were they capable, in the end, of finding their way in the ‘world of ideas’? He believed that Roman Catholicism, which was authoritarian, suited the English more than the Protestant striving for freedom in the realm of ideas. The Roman Catholic sought submission to some higher authority outside himself. The Protestant, however, sought the identity of subjectivity, of the will and the moral law, of Wollen and Sollen, within the individual human mind. To establish this identity was the ultimate meaning of history, and Protestantism was a decisive step in this process. It was, so to speak, the ideology of the day: ‘Freedom! is the great watchword of our times: freedom! also in religion.’

This “pure Hegelianism,” as Dr. Geck refers to it, doubtless disinclined German Protestants from appreciating an Anglo-Catholic faith deeply critical of the theological freedoms of English Protestants. Newman and Hurrell Froude, after all, were fond of referring to the Evangelicals in their midst as Peculiars. Moreover, this Hegelian strain explains why Pusey, who began his scholarly career immersed in the anfractuosities of German theology, should have repudiated what he came to regard as a misguided respect for German piety. “I watched with deep interest and great hopefulness the early stages of revival of religious earnestness among you,” Dr. Geck quotes Pusey writing the German theologian August Tholuck (1799-1877), “then… I turned heart-sick.”

Geoffrey Rowell, Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe rightly stresses how important Newman’s correspondence with the French Abbé Jager was to his pivotal Prophetical Office of the Church (1837) and his Essay on Development (1845), a correspondence which shows that if the Anglo-Catholics did not influence Europe, the Europeans did influence the Anglo-Catholics, at least when they were under the leadership of Newman. Still, this influence was not of a sort to reassure Anglo-Catholics of the tenability of their ground, especially since Newman eventually came away from his epistolary exchanges with Jager convinced that no idiosyncratic party within the Established Church could provide any basis for a rediscovery of the apostolic religion on which he had set his heart. As his letters make abundantly plain, by 1837, Newman had already begun to feel uncomfortable with the via media.

Another good essay here is entitled “French Catholics and the Oxford Movement” by Jeremy Morris, the author of the illuminating F.D. Maurice and the Crisis of Authority (2005). Here, Morris shows how the readers of the major French Catholic papers, L’Ami and L’Univers “were generally tutored to read the Oxford Movement not so much for what it told them about the Church of England and the religious condition of England, as about the post-Napoleonic resurgence of the Catholic Church, and above all the imminent conversion of England.” Indeed, Newman’s sister, Harriett, who traveled to Normandy with her husband Thomas Mozley at the same time that Newman was moving closer and closer to Rome was horrified by the extent to which their French hosts regarded this “imminent conversion” as a fait accompli. In this regard, she was one with Charlotte Bronte, who wrote from Brussels in 1842, “My advice to all Protestants who are tempted to do anything so besotted as turn Catholics, is, to walk over the sea on to the Continent; to attend mass sedulously for a time; to note well the mummeries thereof; also the idiotic, mercenary aspect of all the priests; and then, if they are still disposed to consider Papistry in any other light than a most feeble, childish piece of humbug, let them turn Papists at once…”

The good essays included here notwithstanding, the editors might have put together a better collection by addressing the real character of Anglo-Catholicism, whether abroad or at home. After all, at its heart, the Oxford Movement was a yearning for true faith on the part of a people that had only known a nationalist travesty of faith. G.K. Chesterton made some useful observations on this score when he noted how the “significance” of the Oxford Movement was “not quite easy immediately to define.”

It was certainly not aesthetic ritualism; scarcely one of the Oxford High Churchmen was what we should call a Ritualist. It was certainly not a conscious reaching out towards Rome: except on a Roman Catholic theory which might explain all our unrests by that dim desire. It knew little of Europe, it knew nothing of Ireland…”

For the perceptive convert in Chesterton, who had known something of the dissatisfactions of false religion among the crapulous bon viveurs of Fleet Street, the more the Oxford Movement was studied, “the more it would appear that it was a movement of mere religion as such. It was not so much a taste for Catholic dogma, but simply a hunger for dogma. For dogma means the serious satisfaction of the mind. Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought.”

This, of course, was Newman’s contention as well, to which he gave such trenchant expression in his Anglican Difficulties. If much about the Oxford Movement is of interest only to historians of religion, its yearning for dogma has perennial appeal, especially in an age like ours, where the abandonment of dogma in so many quarters has caused much unnecessary muddle and dismay, especially among Catholics. Readers interested in why Tractarianism arose in England in the wake of the French Revolution and why it continues to be a reminder of the primacy of dogma should read Newman’s brilliant appeal to his erstwhile Anglican companions, about which Richard Holt Hutton, his finest contemporary critic wrote: “… the Lectures on Anglican Difficulties was the first book of Newman’s generally read among Protestants, in which the measure of his literary power could be adequately taken. In the Oxford sermons there had been of course more room for the expression of religious feeling of a higher type, and frequently there had been more evidence of depth and grasp of mind; but here was a great subject with which Newman was perfectly intimate, giving the fullest scope to his powers of orderly and beautiful exposition, and opening a far greater range to his singular genius for gentle and delicate irony…”

The Oxford Movement: Europe and the Wider World 1830-1930
Edited by Stewart J. Brown and Peter B. Nockles
Cambridge University Press.
273 pages. $95.


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About Edward Short 19 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing. His most recent book Newman and History has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.