Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Influence of Tractarianism

It is extremely difficult to gauge just how much influence Tractarianism has had in the Anglican world. At the very least, the modern revival of weekly Communion as the main service, a greater interest in liturgical science and a greater and more widespread understanding of Catholic side of Anglicanism should attributed to Tractarianism. However, how much else? We cannot really tell.

The main reason for this is that the Oxford Movement once it escaped from its university setting was not a sharp edged organisation. On the one hand its more moderate followers were ultimately little different to the "Central Churchmen" and on the other it was pretty difficult to decide whether someone was a Prayer Book Catholic, or a mainstream Anglo-Catholic. The boundaries are very vague. Then, of course, the Anglo-Papalists took the ball and ran with it - to all sorts of interesting and unusual places.

All this means that Tractarianism's influence is far more widespread and defuse than one might suspect. However, it was to the Tractarians themselves, and to their assertion of the Catholic character of Anglicanism that I was drawn, formed my theology, and ultimate led me to all sorts of interesting and unusual places.

The first priest I encountered who was a fully paid up member of the Catholic movement was the Rev. E. F. L. Brown (1915-94) who was retired from a ministry spent largely in the diocese of Chelmsford and acted as the assistant priest at my local parish church. Fr. Brown was a member of various Catholic societies, loved Walsingham, and had a way with a 1662 BCP Communion service that had to be seen to be believed. He had grown up at the London end of Essex, and had been accepted for training before World War II, and had arranged to go to Chichester Theological College. However, Hitler intervened and he spent the war in the Army. After demob in 1946 he went to Edinburgh Theological College (intending Chichester men went there for a couple of years after 1945 as the Royal Navy was still using the College buildings) and was ordained in 1948 as Assistant Curate at Inverness Cathedral. He married while still a curate and moved South again after his time at Inverness ending up as Vicar of Foxearth near Sudbury. A quite and unremakable ministry of some 37 years. What he communicated to me was first of all, that the Catholic Movement was a deeply serious one seeking holiness through prayer, worship and sacrament.

The seriousness of Tractarianism is something that was fully absorbed by all branches of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England - Prayer Book Catholic, Anglo-Catholics, and Anglo-Papalists. This seriousness stems from the awareness that human beings were made by God to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in the next. OK - I know that's the Baltimore Catechism, but it make the point! Thus the spiritual life is the highest calling of humanity, and this cause the Tractarians to stress the old Benedictine (and New Testament) ideal of Conversion of Life. I'll be writing more about this in a later Blog entry.

The other thing that Fr Brown communicated was the idea that the Catholic Movement was fun. The British glory in eccentricity - provided it does not go too far! The Catholic Movement has produced more than its share. Anyone who has been around the Catholic Movement for a while has a story or two about the priests of yesteryear who were characters. One of my favourite stories is about Fr. Colin Stephenson, who was an extreme Anglo-Papalist. He once asked Fr. Cyril Tomkinson if he could celebrate a private Mass at All Saints, Margaret Street, and he replied,

"No, you'll only use that horrid Roman book! The rule here is music by Mozart, decor by Comper, choreogaphy by Fortescue but (wagging his finger) - libretto by Cranmer!"

Another aspect of the "fun" is the liturgy itself. Even in Prayer Book Catholic worship the senses are involved in worship by music, colour, and ceremonial all of which fire the imagination, feed our faith, and foster a sense of mystery, the otherness of God. Even today, there is something about catholic Anglican worship that can lift the worshipper to heaven, and allow us a glimpse of His glory.

It is that mix of orthodox theology, transcendant worship, deep seriousness and a sense of fun that has kept me loyal to the catholic side of Anglicanism for the last 25 years. I hope it is something that I can pass along to the next generation just as Fr. Brown passed it on to me.


  1. Great article! I have my issues with Anglo-Catholics and Anglo-Papalists of course. But I was thinking of Calvin's take that regeneration has a progressive side, akin to, if not equal to, sanctification. Charles

  2. Peter Knockles's, "The Oxford Movement in Context" is an excellent and very readable book putting the lie to the Victorian Anglo-Catholic's claim to be the successor's of Tractarianism.

  3. To a very large extent I have to side with Knockles and Bredon, but you do have to be very particular about which Anglo-Catholics. Those who quickly found what they wanted to do next in their visits to Roman churches upon the continent were very different from those who sat down with the ancient books and ancient illuminations to figure out just what was not only allowed by the rubrics which the bishops in church, in the face of objections by the Cromwellian clergy, reauthorized in 1662 and that in language which actually "required" them. The first group desparately wanted to imitate Rome as it was then (and had only become so in the period between 1502 and the Council of Trent), an argument still heard from Anglo-papalists, and those equally determined to live up to the fullness of the oaths which the CofE yet required of them at their ordination. The first essentially took their oaths with their fingers or some other parts of their anatomy crossed because they never intended obedience or believed that the Church, or at least the CofE, had any authority to require it.

    If you look around the websites for the various parishes of the Continuum you find very, very few that imply a full obedience to the Book of Common Prayer. Even if they have a building of their own there is no daily service and the Communion service is rarely given the priority which it was intended to have. But then the situation in both the CofE and TEO is much worse. It is pretty much Congregational denominationalism with almost Catholic ornaments.