Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Tractarians and the Liturgy

The Oxford Movement or Tractarianism often gets the blame for certain things which were not part of their original programme. One of these is the profusion of Missals and other unofficial devotional manuals that grew up in the late nineteenth cnetury. These are really products of the second phase of Ritualism than of the Oxford Movement proper. Tractarianism was first and foremost a theological, not a liturgical, movement. Keble, for example, never introduced Eucharistic vestments, or even the use of the stole, at Hursley in his thirty-odd years of ministry there. Like any other Church of England clergyman of the time of his ordination (1816) he stood at the north end in surplice, tippet, and hood. On the whole, liturgical innovation beyond what had already been done by the Caroline Divines and the Non-Jurors belongs not to Tractarianism, but to Ritualism.

The whole of the liturgical programme of the Oxford Movement could be encompassed by a single phrase - "taking the Prayer Book at its word." Thus the goals of the Oxford Fathers in terms of liturgy were to follow the Book of Common Prayer faithfully in their parishes. The acid test of Tractarianism in te early days was public recital of the Daily Offices. This never completely died out in the Church of England, but by the 1830s very few parishes took the title of the offices in the literally. As you will doubtless recall, it says "The Office of Morning/Evening Prayer daily throughout the year." The first Tractarian to reintroduce the daily Office was the Rev. Thomas Keble, John's younger brother, at Bisley c.1836. This was a completely inoffensive innovation - except perhaps to the parish clerk, who suddenly found himself much busier - and a sign that the Tractarians were serious about the liturgy.

The Tractarians also wanted to reintroduce weekly Communion, and fasting Communion. To do this, they picked up an idea that had already been introduced by Daniel Wilson, the Evangelical Vicar of Islington, who had introduced a regular 8.00am celebration of the Lord's Supper for the 'serious' members of his congregation. The Tractarians embraced this with some enthusiasm, and it soon became a characteristic of 'High Church' worship as understood by them. So much so that it became identified with them to the extent that folks thought they invented 'the early celebration.' It should be noted that the Tractarians did not encourage non-communicating attendance at Holy Communion, and as a result Tractarian parishes tended to retain Morning Prayer, Litany and Ante-Communion as the main Sunday service. The non-communicating High Celebration (few Anglicans used the word Mass in the 19th C.) was another Ritualist innovation.

Another aspect of Tractarians and the liturgy was its architectural setting. Although they were essential conservative in their attitude towards the dress of the clergy and the forms of service, they did want to see the architectural setting of Anglican worship improved. From about 1840 onwards, they put into practice the less controversial recommendations of the Cambridge Camden Society or Ecclesiological Society as it was later called. The tall box pews of the 17th and 18th centuries were abolished. The three-decker pulpit was split up into pulpit, reading desk, and lectern, all copied from the 'proper' mediaeval forms. Chancels were fitted up with choir shalls, and low walls or full blown rood screens to separate them from the nave of the church. By the 1890s there was hardly a church in England that had not had its proper Ecclesiological Society inspired restoration. Some were extremely sympathetic, others were rebuildings in disguise, but no matter how extensive they were they tended to result in what we think of as the proper Anglican/Episcopal church interior. The pews consist of several low islands divided by a centre alley and possibly alleys along the walls or side aisles. The pulpit and lectern stand left and right at the front of the nave. Beyond them is the chancel containing choir stalls, and a very prominent altar at the east end of the building raised on several steps and railed off. This plan was very successfully adopted in the USA where architects tended to feel less bound by mediaeval proportions even when using the Gothic style. They tended to widen the central nave and the chancel, thus making the building more of a hall, which fitted in with the requirement of Prayer Book services to be heard as well as seen.

The final aspect of Tractarian liturgics I want to look at is the hymn. The old High Churchmen had been a bit suspicious of hymns, which were then mainly an Evanglical thing, and tended to be rather subjective in their content. As a result, the High Churchmen stuck with metrical psalms, only slowly adopting hymns. The first locally printed hymnal used in the parish church in my home town had the whole of the New Version of the Psalms (Tate and Brady) but only a few dozen hymns. However, the Tractarians had a more positive attitude to hymns, mainly because they produced a lot of poets. The best selling book of religious verse in the nineteenth century, with around one million copies sold, was John Keble's 'The Christian Year' which provided a poem for every Sunday and Holyday in the BCP, and as meditations on other topics, such as Baptism and Holy Communion. Isaac Williams and John Henry Newman also wrote poetry, as did William and Fanny Alexander. Fanny Alexander was also a skilled translator of old Irish texts, whilst J. M. Neile did the same service for many Latin texts. The natural result was that the Tractarians began to compile hymnals, the best known of which was the original version of Hymns Ancient and Modern, first published in 1861.

The Tractarians were also enthusiastic about the choral service. Books containing the Psalms and Canticles pointed for Anglican Chant, and collections of Chants appeared. The old plainsong setting for the responses was also revived, and slowly but surely, the sung service was introduced into parish churches, even, eventually, making its way into Evangelical circles. In my home church our copies of the Parish Psalter were very dog-earred, especially in the section containing the canticles. Merbeck's setting of the Communion Service was rediscovered and adapted to the 1662 BCP, and was sung at the monthly late Communion service in many a parish, even sometimes at 8.00am on special occasions.

Lastly, I would note that singularly little liturgical, as opposed to theological, controversy attached itself to the Tractarians. They were conservative about the Prayer Book fearing that further revision would be in the wrong - i.e. a rationalist direction, though they did occasional suggest that improvements in the correct direction could be made. On the other hand, it seemed to be generally understood that their programme was simply one of obedience to the Book of Common Prayer even if it was not exactly popular with everyone. My home parish developed much along the same lines as many another parish with a Tractarian incumbant. When the Rev. George Hogarth arrived in 1858 he found Morning and Evening Prayer estaloshed at 10.30am and 3.30pm respectively; Holy Communion celebrated once a month, and a morning service every Thursday. He increased this immediately by establishing daily Morning and Evening Prayer; moved Sunday Evensong to 6.30pm; introduced Sunday School and Catechism at 2.30pm on a Sunday afternoon; gradually introducing a weekly Communion service, and improving the standard of music in the parish. By the time of his retirement some twenty-four years later, the parish had daily Matins and Evensong, and Communion on Sundays and Holydays, weekly Sunday School and Catechism, and a new organ. His successor introduced regular midweek Communions and a surpliced choir, continuing the Tractarian trajectory started by Hogarth. What my home parish never had was the late morning non-communicating High Mass. The 10.30am slot was occupied by Mattins, and briefly alternated with a Sung Eucharist before both Matins and the Sung Eucharist became weekly events in the early 60s.

One thing that is slightly disconcerting today is the number of parishes with elaborate services with ceremonials and rites not authorized in he BCP, but do not even observe the appointed Holydays, never mind have daily Morning and Evening Prayer. The structure of daily Offices and Sunday and Holyday Eucharists is one that we inherited from the Early Church, and we should do our utmost to sustain and restore it. I know this is often difficult to do today as many Continuing Anglican priests are bi-vocational, but difficulty should not exempt us from at least trying. At the very least, we should have Morning Prayer before our Sunday morning Eucharists, then move slowly forward restoring the full pattern as our parishes and missions develop. Remember that this pattern of sustained and regular worship, praise, prayer, and sacrament is the great powerhouse of the Church, and we should teach our eople to love the Daily Offices as well as the Eucharist.