By John Orens
The first part of this essay explored the embodied character of grace in Tractarian spirituality. Yet we must recognize that it is precisely in this embodiedness that we are called beyond individualism and into community. The very depth that binds us to Christ binds us us to one another. We may enter the waters of baptism as individuals, but we emerge as members of Christ’s body, the Church, and thus members of one another. Here is our third grace; or rather, here our third grace begins. Prayer, the Tractarians taught, is sharing the life of God. And since Christ is forever interceding for us, in our prayers we must intercede for one another. In this mutual embrace, rather than in some obscure doctrine, we enter most deeply into the mystery of the holy Catholic Church. What might this intercession look like?
Fr. Kenneth Leech, one of the most profound and prophetic Anglo-Catholic theologians of the past half century, is a perfect example. When my wife and I visited him in Manchester not long before he died in 2015, we took him to lunch. He brought along his diary, which was like nothing I had seen before. It resembled an overstuffed scrapbook, its myriad pages barely held together by the fragile binding. On every page there were names: the names of friends, the names of former parishioners, the names of churches, the names of causes. There were hundreds of them. It was as if almost every human being Kenneth Leech had ever met — every immortal soul who had passed his way — was enshrined in those pages, and every day he prayed for them. In his diary’s fragile binding, as in the water of baptism, we can also see a reminder that our bond to one another is tangible.
And just as we cannot be content with praying for one another, we cannot be content if we are not praying with one another. This is one of the reasons why the Tractarians were insistent that churches be open every day for public worship. Here their efforts were remarkably successful. In 1840 there were only three parishes in the whole of England that were open for daily services. By 1864 there were more than a thousand, 36 in London alone. What they would have made of the daily Zoomed services offered by many churches in the midst of our pandemic we cannot know for sure, but I think that they would be pleased by our fidelity to common prayer, were it not for the absence of so many common people.
Where, they would ask, are the dispossessed and the destitute, the men and women who live in the shadows of your frantically meritocratic society? We are not praying with one another as Christ would have us pray, if we are not praying with them. Their tangible presence — the presence of the ordinary humanity they share with us — is the fourth grace that we seek. No practice of the Church of their day more enraged the Tractarians than did the pew rents that drove the poor to the back of the church and sometimes out of the church altogether. Pew rents are no more, thanks in part to the Tractarians’ crusade against them. But as we pray, we might ask ourselves what barriers we have unwittingly erected, individually and corporately, between ourselves and those suffering in “body, mind, or estate.” As Pusey pointed out, it was in in the life of the poor that God joined our human nature to his. We cannot know him fully, which is the point of prayer, unless we know them.
Of course, this grace, like every grace that we are offered, is a gift from which we often flee. Rather than open our hearts to the claims of love, we close them up; shutting out others, shutting out God, and shutting out our true selves. And if we are hiding from God, how can we pray as we ought? It was to deliver the faithful from this spiritual quandary that the Tractarians revived the ancient Catholic practice of sacramental confession and absolution. Unfortunately, Tractarian literature on confession is severe; at times, it is downright morbid. But the heart of their message is more inviting than they themselves sometimes realized. In confession, they said, we open ourselves to ourselves and to God, and so begin the journey out of darkness into light. In the confessional the ordinariness of life, with all its ordinary pettiness and idolatries, is exposed so that its very ordinariness may be redeemed. And this redemption is our fifth grace, one that the Tractarians believed encapsulates the whole life of prayer.
Frederick Oakeley, the first priest to serve at what would become the Church of All Saints, Margaret Street in London, explained the gift this way. “Confession,” he said, “offers not merely a shelter, but an asylum for the wounded spirit; not merely a home, but a sanctuary for those inmost feelings of the soul which the repulses of the world have driven to their narrow cheerless hiding place.”
What this betokens is more than a momentary consummation. We are, Newman observed, continually being called; summoned, as Pusey noted, to a life of deepening grace and deepening love whose earthly seal, and the seal of all our prayers, is the holy Eucharist. At the altar, the bonds of love that unite us to Christ and to one another — the bonds first forged in baptism and yet for which we still yearn — take on flesh and blood. Here the mysterious grace of tangibility with which our journey began with a splash of water, is infused with life, “penetrating us,” said Pusey, “soul, and body, and spirit, and irradiating and transforming us into [Christ’s] own light and life.” This is the perfection, he tells us, for which we, the Church, and the whole creation have every groaned. And having gathered here at this, the sixth station on our pilgrimage, it would seem that we have reached our journey’s end. We have received grace upon grace, life upon life? For what more could we possibly ask?
But listen yet again, pray with the Tractarians a bit longer, and we discover that within the grace of the Blessed Sacrament there is another. In 1848, when his rebuilt parish church in the village of Hursley was dedicated, John Keble preached a remarkable sermon on “The Holy Eucharist: the Crown and Centre of Christian Worship.” He told his parishioners that he would be celebrating the Eucharist every week and he urged them to receive Communion regularly. To receive is to “partake of Christ,” he explained. “How can you live without it?” But he said something else. The sacrament, he explained, is nothing less than “the tree of life in the midst of the garden,” and to come to the altar is to enter the gates of the heavenly city.
Now an altar is a place of sacrifice, as it were, another Calvary. Keble reminds us here that it is also another Eden; it is Paradise restored. To it we bring our hopes and labors for God’s new world, around it we share the life of God’s new world, and from it we are sent to bear witness to God’s new world. The seventh grace the Tractarians would give us is heaven, a Kingdom that although it is yet to come is already blossoming in our midst. Our pilgrimage is thus not only to a distant paradise when we may at last enjoy God’s presence. The life of prayer invites us to find God’s presence here and now in the tangible ordinariness of our daily lives and in the tangible ordinariness of the sacraments; to find God’s presence in the depths of our souls, in our intercessions, and in our common prayer; to find God’s presence in our communion with the suffering and the forgotten; to find God’s presence in our willingness to forgive and to be forgiven; to find God’s presence in the sacrament of the altar and in the mystery of heaven on earth. All this is prayer; all this is grace.
Our Tractarian journey now draws to an end, but our own journey has just begun. And as we set off, there is a Tractarian prayer that may help point us on our way. It comes from Pusey. “Good Jesus, Fountain of Love, fill us with thy love; compass us with thy love, that we may see all things in the light of thy love, receive all things as tokens of thy love, speak all things inwards breathing of thy love, win through thy love others for thy love, until we be fitted to enter into thine everlasting love, to adore thy love and adore thee, our God and all. Even so come, O Lord Jesus.”
John Orens is professor of history at George Mason University, a parishioner of Sr. Paul’s, K Street in Washington, DC, and the author of Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall.