Fr Scott Anderson – The Oxford Movement and the hope for Unity

Father Scott Anderson has let us have the talk he gave at Most Precious Blood, Borough, London, on Called to be One Day. Here it is:

The Oxford Movement – often known as the Catholic Revival in the Church of England –began in 1833 with a sermon from an Oxford don – a clergyman called John Keble. And strange as it may seem it was over plans to rationalise the large number of redundant dioceses in Ireland. Keble entitled his sermon “National Apostasy”, and in effect challenged the whole basis of the Church/State relationship in the United Kingdom. The Church of England in the 18th century was closely aligned with the British State: the Establishment as it is often called, from the settlement made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I nearly 300 years before. This settlement assumed that the people of England were the Church of England. It gave lay governance of the Church of England to the English Parliament, with the monarch as the Supreme Governor. Its clergy were part of the local gentry, educated but not very missionary minded. It largely ignored the facts that during the 18th century there had been a huge growth in “Non-conformity”, meaning those English people who chose to be Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists – and not members of the National Church. And in 1829 Roman Catholics had at last achieved emancipation from the various civil disabilities under which they had lived. Keble and his followers were asking the question: if the British State was no longer Anglican, what then was the Church of England?

When Keble preached his sermon in 1833 about amalgamating some of the Irish dioceses, he was not arguing for ‘no change’. But he was saying that the decision lay with the Church independent of the State. Anglicans declared in the Creed that the Church was One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic: Keble wanted them to mean it. When Henry VIII, King of England in the 16th century, had forced the Church in England to break its links with the rest of the Catholic Church in Europe, he had simply taken to himself all the powers that previously had resided with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Now Keble and his followers (called the Tractarians because they were putting these ideas of theirs into writing in the Tracts for the Times) were calling for the Church to be independent under the governance of its Bishops, not Parliament.

But the Bishops of the C of E were hardly ready for this. They were appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, and they were horrified by the ideas of these young clergy. For undoubtedly their ideas were developing. Keble had called on the C of E to believe as part of the Catholic Church. Now some were calling on the C of E to look like part of the Catholic Church. Some clergy were ready to go to prison – and the press had a field day. Parliament called on the Bishops to act, to get the clergy to behave. Some thought that the Oxford Movement was really a fifth column – trying to put England back under the Pope’s domination. There were all sorts of vested interests at work – especially as the Anglo-Catholics (as they now came to be called) began to evangelise the poor and build churches and convents in the poorest parts of the nation’s cities.

Inevitably, although very cautiously, the Anglo-Catholics began to think about restoring the unity of the English Church as it had been before the 16th century break with Rome. But any hopes of unity between Anglicans and Roman Catholics might seem to have been dashed in 1896 when Pope Leo XIII declared Anglican ordinations null and void. Anglicans were Protestants playing games with the sacraments – unity could only mean individuals becoming Roman Catholics.

In spite of this setback twenty-five years later in 1921 informal conversations were held between Anglicans and Catholics. The Anglican group was led by Lord Halifax, a leading Anglo-Catholic layman, and the Roman Catholics by Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines (Mechelen) in Belgium. Although the Conversations ended in 1927 without any result, the hope of unity remained for many: ‘The Anglican Church, united but not absorbed’ was how it was expressed.

In the aftermath of the Second World War the World Council of Churches was founded. Its vision of unity is rather that of Christian groups working and praying together. The Anglican Communion joined, but the Catholic Church did not, although it sends observers. The Second Vatican Council saw a new commitment to unity by the Catholic Church, and in 1966 Pope Paul VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey met in Rome. Out of their hopes for unity was born ARCIC – the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, which began work the following year. In its opening statement the Commission declared: ‘After 400 years of separation between the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, official representatives from both have taken the first step towards restoring full unity.’ Pope John Paul II visited the UK in 1982, and many of us still treasure the photograph of him walking with Archbishop Robert Runcie at Canterbury. We believed that there would be unity between the Communions by the Millennium.

But looking back it should have been clear to us that the Evangelicals in the C of E were deeply unhappy with the Agreed Statements made by ARCIC on the Eucharist, the ordained ministry of bishops and priests, and the authority of the Pope in a united Church. As they grew in numbers and influence they began to dream a different dream: that of completing the Reformation and purging the C of E of its “corrupt” Catholic elements. For quite different reasons, the liberals in the C of E were worried too. They and the evangelicals united around a new cause – ‘women’s ordination’ – knowing that if they could get this through Synod, they would back the Anglo-Catholics into a corner, and end any hope of re-union with the Catholics. In fact the Americans were way ahead of them, and it was the ordination of Gene Robinson – a divorced man in a gay relationship – as a Bishop in the USA which led Pope John Paul to suspend the work of ARCIC.

And there it might have stayed: with over 150 years of work towards re-union ended: but for the vision of Pope Benedict XVI, who broke the unity log-jam and appealed to Anglicans. His longing for unity expressed itself in the creation of the Personal Ordinariate, not only as a way in which groups of Anglicans might journey back into unity with the Bishop of Rome and the worldwide Catholic Church, but might also find a permanent place of their own within the greater Church, thus fulfilling the hope of Dom Lambert Beauduin at the Malines Conversations, that Anglicans might be ‘united but not absorbed’.

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