The Oxford Movement: Then & There, Here & Now
Fr. Daniel L. Clarke, ssc
On a warm summer Sunday, the 14th of July, 1833, a youngster of a priest (41 years old, a mere lad to my way of thinking) climbed the venerable pulpit of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford, and raked the Church of England over the coals. The Reverend John Keble entitled his sermon that day "National Apostasy," and asked the question "WHY is the very Body of Christ, his Bride the Church, behaving like a department of the government, like a branch of Parliament, like the Tory party at prayer?" Parliament had just suppressed (closed down) twelve bishoprics in Ireland the same way we might close down a country post office not selling enough stamps. Probably the bishoprics needed to be closed, perhaps Parliament had every right and even the duty to spend the money more wisely. John Keble's question was not about Parliament's behavior but about the Church's behavior: is the Church of England a part of the civil structure, a creation of the Crown, the "department of religion" just like London department of waterworks; or is the Church something greater, something super-national, and even supernatural? Is the Church of England a divine being as well as a human one?
The Oxford dons (teachers) who heard him that day were set on fire by his question and the flames ignited that Sunday raced not only through the University of Oxford but on and on throughout the Church of England's world, both at home in England and throughout the world. Is this sleepy old Church of England in fact the Catholic Church of this land? And if it is, how should we be acting in this world? To give an answer to the question, all those interested began to examine the evidence. They went first to the Book of Common Prayer and studied the liturgy (worship) of the Church, to the Articles of Religion to understand her beliefs, and to the episcopate to study her structure; and the answers they found in those places said to them, "Ye have forgotten this and this and this. Now that ye have remembered them, what think ye of Christ, what think ye of his Church?" This renewed understanding of Jesus Christ and the Church he founded brought a new life and vitality to all aspects of the Church's ministry and social involvement; and the Church of England and all her daughter churches in foreign lands slowly began to wake up and ask, "If indeed we are more than the department of religion, if indeed we are the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of the Creeds, what then ought we to be doing in this world? How shall we now live?" This "answer" to the questions was called the Oxford Movement.
The most famous Oxford Movement way the Church of England began to change was in style of worship. If this service of Holy Communion is in fact a real participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, ought we to behave toward it in so negligent a fashion? Should it be celebrated more than three times a year? Shouldn't I wear my surplice rather than an academic gown? Or perhaps, if this is indeed the historic Eucharist, even the historic eucharistic vestments? Should there be music and lights and even ceremonial and incense?
But worship changes, however notable, were only one part of the answer. The Articles of Religion were studied, and new modes of understanding them became part of the general thought. The Church's appreciation of her Bishops was heightened: no longer just Lords of the Realm with a seat in Parliament, the Bishops were newly seen as the heirs and successors of the Apostles with apostolic authority. The Creeds were dusted off: no longer just a anti-Arian, vaguely boring recital of antique thinking, the Nicene Creed especially was rediscovered as a living expression of the Catholic Faith that comes to us from the apostles. And so on: priesthood, sacrifice, prayer, doctrine, devotion, preaching, and social outreach—it all came under scrutiny, ceased to be the sleepy endeavor of the 18th century mindset, and burst out with new vigor and expression. In fact it was the explosion of social concern, of mission to the poor and forgotten, which provided for the flight of this firebird of "high-church" teaching to enter the consciousness of the ordinary man and woman of the Church of England. Can the priest who feeds the poor be so utterly mistaken in his following of Jesus?
And so the Oxford Movement soared beyond the walled cloisters of Oxford. It permeated the fabric of English society, and it soared into the ether breathed in the American Episcopal Church, found its way into the congenial atmosphere of the so-called "evangelical" Diocese of South Carolina (where the thought of the "Carolina Catholics" had long since sweetened the air), and took root in the soul of a young man of Saint Michael's Church, Anthony Toomer Porter, who wished to be a priest, and who found the "high-church" teachings authentically "Church" and the social concern authentically Christian. Mr. Porter, as he would have been called early on (later "Doctor"), established the fledgling mission Church of the Holy Communion as a local expression of the spirit of the Oxford Movement, slowly at first and then with ever-increasing life and vitality. His social concern led him to the founding of numerous institutes for the betterment of the community (among them the school which would come to be called Porter-Gaud).and subsequently to the establishment of this parish as an Oxford Movement church, complete with all the liturgical expressions of lights, music, and vestments the Movement had come to value in worship. The Porters' association with Saint Mark's Church, Thomas Street, would reveal their Catholic worship sympathies and social concern even more greatly, but that must be another story another day.
The Church of the Holy Communion is one of the flagship Anglo-Catholic parishes in this country, both in her worship and in her outreach. True to the Oxford Movement even today, this parish has never seen herself as the Republican Party at prayer, or a country club where nice people get nicer. This congregation of the Body of Christ, his Bride the Church, has from the beginning been a living expression of the Catholic identity of the English (and American) Church, both as a worshiping community and as ministers of the justice of God. May she ever be true to her Master in this calling.