On July 14, 1833, an Anglican priest preached a sermon in the university pulpit at Oxford. One consequence, although hardly the most important one, is that today some Episcopalians refer to the Middle West, sometimes derisively, as "the biretta belt," a biretta being a small four-sided cap.
When John Keble finished his sermon 150 years ago, the Oxford Movement had begun, at least according to its most vivid figure, John Henry Newman. For the remainder of 1983, here and abroad, there will be observances celebrating the birth of that movement, which left a small mark on the life of the spirit in many American communities. The story nicely illustrates how ideas have unanticipated consequences long after they have been loosed on the world.
No one would have guessed that the passage of the Reform Bill in England in 1832 would be a catalyst of events that would influence Christian missionary activities in America's West, which then included Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The mind of the Oxford Movement was too complex to encompass in this column. It was, in part, a reaction against the facile optimism of the Enlightenment, and against the 19th century's serene belief in the inevitability of progress. Its emphasis on liturgical richness was an aspect of the revolt against sterile rationalism in society generally, and against a neglect of some facets of the spirit of churches.
The reform of Parliament and the rise of democracy made some Church of England clergy anxious to clarify that the authority of the church derived not from its establishment by the state but from its origin and function. That is, its authority derives from being a vessel of truth in an unconverted world. This assertion of spiritual independence from the state served an American need that was a lingering consequence of the Declaration of Independence.
General Theological Seminary opened for classes in 1820 in what a graduate called "a little suburban appendix to New York City, known as Chelsea."
It still is in that "suburb," on 9th Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets in Manhattan. The land was given by Clement Clarke Moore, author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," now known as "The Night Before Christmas."
In 1820 the Episcopal Church in America was still somewhat suspect. Forty-four years earlier most of its clergy had been Tories; many had left England or at least resigned from their positions. The spirit of the Oxford Movement seemed to offer a way of being Anglican without being English, and the seminary became receptive to the movement's influence.
The seminary also saw a special role for itself in preparing young men to follow migrating Americans into the opening West. Off the young men went, sometimes with birettas, an item worn by some Catholic clergy. It became a badge announcing certain convictions about correct churchmanship.
The Baptists and Methodists, with their more flexible organizations, were able to use circuit riders and lay preachers to attract frontier followings. But Episcopalians, and especially those influenced by the Oxford Movement, had the advantage of emphasizing tradition, pastoral care and even aesthetic concerns (in liturgy and architecture). These emphases were welcome in the restless, unrooted and often stark new communities of the moving frontier.
Persons influenced by the Oxford Movement helped the Episcopal Church find a place in the nation's ecclesiastical spectrum, but their "high church" tendencies made them the centers of controversies within the church. The bishop of Massachusetts virtually cut off relations with the Church of the Advent in Boston because the rector placed on the altar a wooden cross painted gold, which the horrified bishop thought was the thin end of the papist wedge-- idolatry and all that.
But beneath disputes about candles on altars and the colors of vestments, there were serious issues. Critics of the Oxford Movement felt it blurred the distinction between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Supporters thought it counteracted a puritan distrust of the human thirst for poetry and wonder in worship.
St. James Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill just celebrated the completion of a century of daily masses. In 1883 the practice probably scandalized many Washingtonians. Today St. James, having just ordained a woman deacon, is probably considered lapsed by the high church faction. But then, one of the joys and fascinations of American life is that it still is in many ways, seen and unseen, the product of many intellectual ferments, remembered and forgotten.