Ed Watson’s recent post here at Covenant asked, What is preventing a new Oxford Movement in the Episcopal Church today? Watson was responding to a 2012 post by Fr. Robert Hendrickson. Zachary Guiliano then followed up, mentioning a potential missing element: an emphasis on Scripture and personal holiness. However, in the wake of the November election, it seems a question worth revisiting for a fourth time. I am very conscious that I speak as a committed layperson within the Episcopal Church, and therefore not in a position to practice directly what I preach. I believe, however, that what I discuss below should be a necessary part of the conversation.
As a historian, reading both Watson’s and Hendrickson’s posts, I was struck by the extent that their framing, and therefore their definition, of the Oxford Movement was purely theological and liturgical. A revival of the Oxford Movement, by this definition, would consist in asserting the claims of the Church against individualistic trends within society and culture, a renewed adoration of the Eucharist and devotion to the Virgin Mary, and a more sacramental piety.
We have attended to the externals, the “décor” of the Oxford Movement, argues Fr. Hendrickson, without cultivating the inner life of a John Keble or an E.B. Pusey. Watson argues that the High Church insularity, cultivated from within and assumed from without, has further driven away potential support; focusing on the “right” way to do worship has become a bar to evangelism and renewal.
Both views are admirable exercises in repentant self-criticism. As Americans, however, an ocean removed from the immediate historical, political, and cultural context in which the Oxford Movement seemingly spontaneously generated itself, we may be missing the elephant in the room. That is fine if all we want is to furnish our spiritual interior with a bit of Oxford “décor.” If, however, we want actually to resurrect a form of the Oxford Movement in the Episcopal Church today — which I for one am all for, not least because it challenges “liberal” and “conservative” sacred cows alike — then an understanding of its original context matters.
In America, debate over the Oxford Movement now and in the past has hinged around sometimes ferocious debates over correct liturgical observance. But we can trace the movement’s perhaps unintended beginning to Keble’s declaration of national apostasy. This was, inescapably, a political statement of a particular kind. The Church of England had become entwined with a state that was now despoiling it, argued Keble. He, John Henry Newman, Pusey, and the rest would reassert the independent spiritual authority and reality of the church, its sacraments, and its tradition as something deeper, broader, and more catholic than its role as a national landmark.
The immediate practical workings-out of the theology and liturgy of the movement beyond the dreaming spires of Oxford happened in the slums. High-church liturgy and a commitment to serve the (often Roman Catholic) poor went inextricably together: this at a time when anti-Catholic prejudice in the establishment was dying but by no means dead in England. This was not a vague aspiration toward “justice” broadly defined or vaguely synonymous with a progressive political agenda, but the combating of the very present ills of industrialization: the lack of workers’ rights, outbreaks of cholera, lack of education, alongside the pastoral work of marrying, baptizing, burying the poor, and being present. It is the labor and sacrifice of the slum priests that gave real moral heft to the Oxford Movement and saved it from the insularity of which it has stood accused ever since.
Sometimes the power behind the spontaneous growth of religious movements is when they enable the crossing of social or economic barriers between people in order to affirm a common, shared humanity in relation to God: the early church’s love feasts, bringing together people across the immense stratifications of the Roman Empire; the global vision of the Azusa Street revival in the melting pot that was early 20th-century Los Angeles. The Oxford Movement arguably belongs in this company. As Owen Chadwick argues, like Newman, it needed and arose out of evangelicalism as much as it ended up looking and sounding like a very different beast. It also began, high liturgy or no, with a concrete understanding of the realities of parish life.
In the wake of the recent election, it seems clear to me that America is divided, not only between its coasts and its interior, but also, as this dynamic plays itself out within individual states, between urban and rural experiences. The Episcopal Church, which hitched its wagon to the rising star that was 1990s white suburbia, now finds itself again in decline and under pressure to reinvent itself.
We have, already encoded within the DNA of our own denomination, one path that that reinvention might take, at least for a committed minority: a reappropriation of evangelism and outreach within an urban context, an assertion of a sacramental piety independent of national factionalism and committed to reconciliation, the championing of the social welfare of the poor, including workers’ rights, the embrace of the traditions of the Church that transcend American Protestantism to include a greater awareness of developments within the Anglican Communion and world Christianity generally speaking, a value for beauty and for art as a spiritual refuge from this present darkness. I for one am persuaded that Marian devotion fits quite naturally in the midst of all of this. It will be in the strength of the Episcopal Church’s relationships with local communities (including local neighborhoods within cities) and the concrete particularity of ministry to the poor that prevents a purely liturgical movement from sliding into “Catholic Lite.”
Arecent op-ed by Rowan Williams in the New Statesman suggested that the only way for America, Great Britain, and elsewhere to move forward in an age of rising income inequality and the utter disempowerment of ordinary people is to build local, cooperative political and social relationships, and necessarily the Church should be a presence and a significant part of this process. At the very least, it is an opportunity for evangelism, and for witness. That doesn’t mean that the Church need, or even should, be collapsed into political activism, and certainly not into any one political program.
The assertion of the beauty and consolation of worship and the sacraments of the Church will remain a countercultural statement against both liberal and conservative visions of America for some time to come. However, doing nothing for the poor — and those who will find themselves ever more impoverished in the next four years — in the name of the separation of Church and State is, whether we like it or not, also a political statement of a certain kind. Liturgy and social justice have gone together before in our history; God willing and the people consenting, they may do so again.