By Ed Watson
I recently had reason to revisit Fr. Robert Hendrickson’s post outlining the need for a new Oxford Movement. In it, he describes the danger of being complacent about having many of the “Catholic” externals in order in the Episcopal Church, and failing to drive forward a rediscovery of “what it means to be an Anglican Christian.” He describes the “desperate need for a movement that takes seriously the issues of the day while committing to delving into the Tradition and carefully reading Scripture,” and for “a movement that sees the Sacraments as the means by which we know the Incarnate Lord.” He says that such a movement could aspire to bring about a renewed “focus on the adoration of God,” “a commitment to justice work grounded in the Incarnation,” and a greater “understanding of the Real Presence in our life together.”
Much like the first time I read this post, I found myself nodding along at almost every line. Much like the first time, I found myself drawn to these aspirations that a New Oxford movement could bring to fruition.
With all that said, however, I also reflected on the fact that I first read his post four years ago, and so I found myself asking How much has changed since then? Has the Episcopal Church in general (or Anglo-Catholic parishes in particular!) developed a more profound focus on the adoration of God? Have we developed a renewed commitment to justice work grounded in the Incarnation? Have we fostered a renewed sense of Anglican identity across the real and painful conflicts that have come to define us?
Answers to these questions will differ across the Episcopal Church. And, unlike in politics, four years is not a long time for us — if we need to refocus on the adoration of God, then it may take a long time. But with these qualifications in mind, it seems that few (if any) of the things a new Oxford Movement could address have changed.
My question, then, is why. What is preventing these commitments from taking root in different and diverse communities?
Two potential answers spring to my mind immediately, both variations on the same theme. I want to disqualify these at the outset.
The first would probably come from self-identified Anglo-Catholics: The main obstacle to a new Oxford Movement is the shallowness of our culture, the rampant skepticism and unchecked individualism described by Fr. Hendrickson.
We cannot give this answer, however. It risks dismissing those who do not buy into the idea of an Oxford Movement, old or new, drawing an implicit line between us and them, with “them” cast in the least flattering terms. More important, such a response renders the idea of a new Oxford Movement incoherent. If skepticism and individualism are precisely the things such a movement must seek to counter, we cannot say they prevent it from starting without implicitly denying the possibility of its starting.
The second would arise in circles that view Anglo-Catholicism with antipathy: a new Oxford Movement hasn’t developed because its stated goals don’t speak to the actual spiritual needs of our communities. “High” Anglicanism’s preoccupation with pageantry and archaic ritual (as well a narrow orthodoxy/traditionalism) serves only to distract or blind us from the life of the Spirit.
To give this answer, however, is to assume that the particulars and principles of High Church worship can only exist in stereotypical Anglo-Catholic ways. Emphasis on Marian devotion or careful preparation for the sacraments don’t need to go hand in hand with cultural Anglo-Catholicism, for example — they can take many different forms, all spiritually enriching. The work of a new Oxford Movement is not, then, to try to impose current or past Anglo-Catholic styles of worship in places where they would make no sense. It is to explore what a focus on the adoration of Jesus Christ framed within an emphasis on the presence of God in the sacraments looks like in these diverse situations. In other words, it isn’t concerned with enforcing uniformity of practice; it is concerned with uniting diverse practices through a shared commitment to the principles of reverence, adoration, and devotion.
If neither shallowness of culture nor Anglo-Catholic exceptionalism are preventing a new Oxford Movement from developing, however, what is? I believe one possibility is the way the wider church views High Church Anglicans (clergy and laity), and, more accurately, how High Church Anglicans present themselves.
In my experience, others perceive us in one of two ways. Either they think we are a little strange, inward looking, and strangely fixated on the minutiae of worship, but ultimately well-meaning and harmless, with good Evensongs, perhaps. Or they see us as arrogant and contemptuous, with little interest in building relationships with other, “inferior” churches.
Both perceptions may be unfair caricatures, rather than proper characterizations. But it is irrelevant whether they are fair or true. What matters is that other Christians don’t typically associate High Church Anglicans with reverence or humility, either as individuals or as a tradition, but with peculiarity and arrogance. And how the wider church sees us is ultimately our responsibility. It is our responsibility to communicate reverence, devotion, and humility. It is our responsibility to communicate the grace we encounter in the sacraments.
Various factors keep these perceptions alive, not all of them present in all “High” congregations. Many Anglo-Catholic parishes really are quite inward looking. Many of us focus less on building relationships with the wider community — both inside and outside of the Episcopal Church, as well as inside and outside the Christian faith — than on perfecting our particular forms of worship. Of course, so do many other kinds of churches. But, if the High Church tradition is rooted in a profound sense of what it is to be the Church “extending through time and across boundaries” (as Fr. Hendrickson says), both clergy and laity have a strong theological motivation to try and build relationships within which we can know and be known by others.
We also take pride in our own worship. High Church Anglicans frequently boast (or never cease talking) about our music, our vestments, our sacraments, our festivals and congregational customs, our guilds or societies or confraternities. We sound like people who think we have found the proper way of doing things. And we sound like we think our mission is to communicate or safeguard how things should be done, rather than exploring the mystery of faith in the company of others.
This is a problem. Taking pride in our performance of worship, in the service of God that should inspire reverence and humility, is incoherent at best, hypocritical at worst. This pride prevents us from manifesting devotion, adoration, and reverence in our relationships with others. And if we cannot do this, how could we ever motivate a new emphasis on these things across the wider church?
We shouldn’t compromise the traditions of High Church worship. But if we think the reverence that inspires them is important to the spiritual flourishing of the wider church, then we ourselves must practice them with reverence. If we worship with pride, then we will communicate pride. And if we communicate pride, then we cut off the possibility of something like a new Oxford Movement at its root by substantiating the perception of Anglo-Catholics as arrogant, haughty, and contemptuous.
If we worship Jesus Christ with reverence, however, we might begin to build reverent relationships; if we worship with humility, we might begin to live with and communicate humility; if we worship with wholehearted devotion, we might begin to manifest it, communicating to others the transformative grace of God. My life has been transformed by people who have manifested this grace (people such as Fr. Hendrickson), and I have faith that the church can be transformed as well.
Fr. Hendrickson is still right. The world still needs a movement toward reverence and adoration. And the church needs to realize its existence as a community of reverence and adoration. But if High Church Anglicans are committed to this, then it is incumbent on us to build relationships with the wider church (and beyond!), relationships premised on the reverence and humility to which our worship calls us, even and especially when we are confronted by those who dismiss us. It is incumbent on us to dismantle the edifice of our pride.
If we can start to do these things en masse, we might really see a renewed focus on the adoration of Jesus Christ throughout the church. We might finally be able to stop talking about what the church needs to do and start to rejoice in what the church is doing. And we might find that such a movement is no longer thought of as a new Oxford Movement, but instead as a thing of its own kind: a movement of grace named not for those aspects of the past that still (rightly) inspire us, but for the way it transforms the church of our time.
Ed Watson is studying for a master of arts in religion at Yale Divinity School, with a concentration in systematic theology. He was a member of St. Hilda’s House for three years, spent a year as missioner-in-residence at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, and hopes to one day return home to Britain. He also writes on theology, philosophy, and politics at Ed’s Eye View.
 To steal a phrase from Wittgenstein, Culture and Value.
[…] Hendrickson's "It's Time for a New Oxford Movement" post and also the follow-up from Ed Watson "What's Preventing a New Oxford Movement?" before listening to my […]