For English churchmen, this summer marks the beginning of a signal anniversary. It was exactly a century and a half ago that the Oxford Movement shook Anglicanism and, to some degree, the whole of Christendom. Indeed, said its greatest figure, Cardinal Newman, its repercussions reached even "the backwoodsmen of America."
After 150 years the movement (often known as "Puseyism" in America) is of more than antiquarian interest. Wherever church-state relations are a live issue, now as in 1833, its causes and history remain instructive.
In 1833 reform fever raged in England. Parliament had been purged of its "rotten boroughs," the towns enfranchised. The Church of England looked like the next target. The Whigs, with their relaxed view of religion, wanted a national church of broad views that would embrace everyone. There was sentiment for abolition of troublesome creeds. Parliament had just reduced the number of Anglican bishops in Ireland by 10. They were parochial shepherds, not ministering to the Catholic views of the Irish masses.
The vision of a broad church, reshaped on rationalist lines, aroused the keener high churchmen of Oxford University. From an Oxford pulpit on Bastille Day, which fell conveniently on a Sunday, young John Keble denounced the laying of rough political hands on the church as "national apostasy." His phrase caught fire; a great battle was joined.
What strikes an American most about the clash is how readily, in that day, England accepted the domination of the church by the state.
This domination was, of course, the result of a complex, sometimes bloody, history; and it had, after all, produced more than a century of sectarian peace. England had escaped the twin vices of clericalism and anti-clericalism. The parsons of its established church were gentlemen first, priests second--indeed the latter word was not heard in polite society. Many vicars, even bishops, knew more of fox- hunting and estate management than of church history--and cared more, too.
Now arose these young Oxford dons, all in their early thirties, asserting the church's ancient titles as a sacred body. Either it was "catholic and apostolic," they insisted, or it was a mere civic cult which government could shape to its wishes. It couldn't be both.
The Oxford clerics--Newman, Keble, Pusey and their followers--lost the battle but won a war. The church did not win independence of Parliament; but it regained, and has to this day kept, a new spiritual integrity.
From an American perspective, the great conflict begun by the Oxford Movement seems a testimony to the wisdom of James Madison. Madison was the first English-speaking statesman of stature to imagine a radically new relationship between church and state. Under his First Amendment, they would occupy separate spheres, neither paramount.
Not all Americans were ready for the idea in Madison's time, when fierce battle raged over church-state relations all over Europe, and not in England alone. Madison's assertion of the privacy of religion was a far cry from Keble's high-church vision of the Christian society where the church is spiritual guardian of government. Or, at the other extreme then prevailing among the English Whigs, where it was thought of as government's ward.
There is a lesson in the story of the Oxford Movement for all those who yearn to enlist government as the friend and promoter of religion--who wish, say, to reintroduce religious observances in the public schools.
For historical reasons, the English take a very different view of the church-state relationship from ours. But the Oxford Movement began with a protest against a double- edged intimacy between church and state.
History's might-have-beens are always interesting. Had the Oxford churchmen not raised their voices and pens 150 years ago, the Whigs might have "reformed" the national church of England into a mere department of the state.
The Oxford Movement was right about lots of things, but above all this: dependency on the aid and solicitude of politicians can be a treacherous dependency for an institution "not of this world."