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A LESSON FROM THE PAST  

I am occasionally criticised for basing my talk on someone whose commemoration falls close to that particular Sunday. I ignore such criticism because I think we can often learn much that is of value for our own Christian lives. Today is no exception; yesterday was the commemoration of John Henry Newman who was a towering figure, not only in the Church but in the public imagination in the 19th century.

 

Newman figured considerably when I was looking up John Keble for another sermon. Looking up Keble led me to look at John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement. This, in turn led me to the Christian Social Union, then to Conrad Noel and finally to Percy Dearmer. Don’t worry, there is unifying factor in these rambles.

 

Keble was a contemporary of Newman and Pusey and they were part of the Tractarian movement, a term that referred to their publications called Tracts for the Times. The prime object of these publications, of which there were 90, was to give the Church of England a definitive basis for doctrine and discipline. In so doing it harked back to the pre-Reformation church and, while criticising many of the Roman Catholic doctrines, leaned very much towards the practical and liturgical practices associated with them.

 

Increasingly Newman had found that the evangelical views he had held were no longer consonant with scripture and the church traditions, moving him ever more towards the roman Catholic position. The breach came with tract 90 in which he claimed that the 39 Articles were not a refutation of Catholic doctrine but a correction of the popular errors and misconceptions surrounding that denomination.. The storm of criticism it aroused led him to state: “I would not hold office in a Church which would not allow my sense of the Articles." And: "There were no converts to Rome, till after the condemnation of Tract 90."  

Two years later, in 1845, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church and a year later was ordained a priest in Rome. He was made a Cardinal in 1879, having lived largely in seclusion at the oratory he founded in  Edgbaston.

 

Despite Newman’s ‘defection’ and many lower-profile people, the oxford movement prospered and grew in importance and influence. It was a movement of High Church members of the Church of England which eventually developed into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement, whose original devotees were mostly associated with the University of Oxford, argued for the reinstatement of some older Christian traditions of faith and their inclusion into Anglican liturgy and theology. They thought of Anglicanism as one of three branches of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Many churches –including Holy Trinity in Yeovil – were founded by the movement, especially in working-class and other deprived areas, where the colour and light of the buildings, the music and quality of the services, were very attractive. Also important was the sense of community that was developed, with social events, youth organisations, choirs and so on. The suggestion that Holy Trinity was established so that the upper crust would not have to mix with their servants and other lower class people is very believable, such was the class-consciousness of the period. 

 

Because of the closeness to Roman Catholic practice, clergy who followed this movement found it difficult to get parishes and so gravitated towards the difficult areas, mostly slums. This, in turn led to their identification with the poor and to be very critical of the social policies –such as they were- of the country. Out of this came the Christian Social Union which was established in 1889 and dedicated itself to the study of contemporary social conditions and the remedying of poverty and other forms of social injustice through public mobilisation to alleviate the same. The organisation was terminated by merger in 1919, becoming part of the Industrial Christian Fellowship (ICF).

 

A leading member of this was Conrad Noel, whose mother Maria Caroline Noel wrote ‘At the name of Jesus’. Trained at the Anglo-Catholic Chichester Theological College he found it hard to get a living because of his theological views and also his deep commitment to socialism. Eventually, in 1894, he was ordained and served a curacy before being ejected for his socialist views. 10 years later he was assistant priest to Percy Dearmer at Primrose Hill. In 1910 he became vicar of Thaxted in Essex, where, once again, his socialism caused deep controversy but he was much admired and his legacy lived on. When I first went there in 1961 his successor, Fr Jack Puterill was actually a member of the Communist Party.

 

Percy Dearmer is probably best known for his cooperation with Vaughn Williams in the production of the English Hymnal, though his ‘Parson’s Handbook’, a manual for clergy was , perhaps, his most influential work.  In this book his intention was to establish sound Anglo-Catholic liturgical practices in the native English tradition which were also in full accord with the rites and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the canons that govern its use and, therefore, safe from attack by Evangelicals who opposed such practices.

 

 

Right, now what is the link, besides the obvious one of High Church/Anglo-Catholic/ Oxford Movement? They all lived in times of turmoil and great change in society, when the Church of England felt itself under threat, when poverty was rife among a large part of the population and the working classes in particular, especially in the urban areas, were largely ignored by the churches.

The return to solemn, dignified and colourful liturgies and practices were well designed to attract the poor people, putting colour and interest into their lives. The bright decoration of church interiors, good, well-performed music, colourful processions, combined with a sense that the church was on their side in their struggle for social justice appealed greatly to the voiceless, voteless working classes and led to a considerable revival of support for the C of E among them. New churches were built, old ones revived  and so on. I think it probably ran out of steam around and after the First World War, as did so many things. Percy Dearmer, for example, served, along with his wife with the Red Cross in Serbia where she died of typhus and his younger son was killed in France.

 

So much for the history, what does it have to say to us now?

The Church of England is if not dying, is certainly not flourishing and Diocesan initiatives will not make much difference. Dull, dreary, irrelevant, out of date, white elderly, middle-class is how most outsiders- and many of us insiders- see it. This my not be true, but is very much the perception of people who rarely. If ever, set foot inside Our theology is often woolly and deeply divided, our milk-and water leadership is seen as derisory, services often lack content and frequently are boring, verging on the meaningless. We are overburdened with oversight, with rules and regulations and we have been taught to lean heavily on the clergy with a consequent stifling of lay initiative.

The Oxford Movement was partly a return to roots but also a new way of doing things, a new set of loyalties, a way of worship, a way of living that resonated with the un-churched masses. If we are to survive as a meaningful entity in this country we must do something similar.

 

Such as?

Bring in a greater variety of worship styles but make sure each one is done well.

Greater variety of music styles.

Add a lot more colour to the buildings and the services.

Give the laity their heads and close the gulf between lay and ordained.

Be a lot more socially aware; put on social and other events that will appeal beyond the congregation.

Get more involved in people’s problems – Credit Unions, debt and marriage counselling, something for young people to do.

Get out into the community, hold services in pubs, clubs, village halls etc., especially things like carol services.

Just show people that we are alive, if not actually kicking.

 

So many things we can, indeed must do, remembering all the time that we are working for God, to bring people to an enticing, exciting view of his Kingdom, that the Holy Spirit will bring them into it.

Howard Gorringe

 


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