Roads to Rome: The Oxford Movement (1833-1845)

Roads to Rome: The Oxford Movement (1833-1845) November 17, 2010

During the early 1830’s a movement began in the Church of England known as the Oxford Movement. It was an attempt to reassert the Church’s claim to valid dogmatic authority and to reassess its relationship to the government. Ultimately the movement’s goal was to reclaim the Church’s prophetic role and its Catholicity (in the sense of universality). The Church of England, its members felt, was being turned into just another government agency. Bishops were being appointed who had no regard for the larger theological issues of the day, and who were allowing secularism to creep into church life.

The Oxford Movement at first consisted of a group of young clergymen at Oxford, and was led by John Henry Newman, one of the leading intellectuals of his day. Eventually it spread throughout England. In 1841, Newman wrote a friend: “the Church was not worth much if she is to be nice and mealy-mouthed when a piece of work is to be done for her good lord the State.” The members of the movement wrote tracts defending their position. Hence they were known as Tractarians.

Anglicanism, they argued, was a Via Media, a “middle way” between the two extremes of low-church Protestantism and corrupt Romanism. Newman went back to the early Church Fathers for intellectual foundations for this claim. However, as he studied the Arian heresy of the fourth century (which denies Christ’s divinity), he came to the following conclusion:

I saw clearly, that in the history of Arianism, the pure Arians were the Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and that Rome now was what it was then. The truth lay, not with the Via Media, but with what was called the ‘extreme party.’

Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845 was a shocker on both sides of the Atlantic. His reason, he wrote, was that “I consider the Roman Catholic Communion the Church of the Apostles.” This step made many question whether they shouldn’t reconsider the validity of Catholic claims. In England, a good number of people followed him, but others stayed Anglican while adopting some Roman traditions and practices. (They were known as Puseyites, after Edward B. Pusey, a colleague of Newman who stayed in the Anglican Church.)

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