The Drama of the Oxford Movement
The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning
By David Newsome
Review Author: David Denton
“Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.” Viscount Melbourne was not providing the model for Dickens’s Sir Leicester Dedlock when he made this observation. He was as much in earnest as a British Prime Minister and trusted advisor to young Queen Victoria could be. The Church of England in the early 19th century, of which Victoria was the Head, was viewed by such as M’Lord Melbourne as a patchwork product of revolution, politics, theological artistry, and princely pandering. It was a necessary national institution, one which infused public morality; it was an intellectual, aesthetic, and even spiritual custodian for British society. Invoking pretensions to anything more was to court disaster, as had been repeatedly demonstrated throughout the previous two centuries. And at this particular period of English history, with the French Revolution still a horrible memory for many living Englishmen, Napoleon barely defeated at Waterloo, and the unrest and societal dislocations of the Industrial Revolution proceeding apace, the prospect of a new religious fervor was not at all welcome even to Anglican evangelicals, let alone to such as Melbourne.
But at that bastion of the English Establishment, Oxford University, where the proper attitudes and attachments of Melbourne’s class were inculcated in the rising generations of nobility and gentry, there had appeared a group of men who saw the Church of England (C. of E.) somewhat differently. Of these Oxford men, Lytton Strachey wrote that when they viewed the C. of E., “they saw a transcendent manifestation of Divine Power, flowing down elaborate and immense through the ages; a consecrated priesthood, stretching back, through the mystic symbol of the laying on of hands, to the very Godhead; a whole universe of spiritual beings brought into communion with the Eternal by means of wafers….” Strachey was an admirer of Viscount Melbourne, and his sardonic sketch conveys the animus produced, even to this day, by these earnest men nicknamed Tractarians, who brought about what is called the Oxford Movement, an effort which, though separated from us by a chasm opened by 150 years of spiritual corrosion, still seems to sound a trumpet. David Newsome’s The Parting of Friends, republished in 1993, nearly 30 years after its first issuance in England, draws us back into what Strachey, with arch sneer, called “the last enchantment of the Middle Age.” Medieval? Perhaps. But the Oxford Movement still has the power not only to enchant us, but strengthen and renew us.
Newsome is writing for an English audience familiar with English history, the Anglican Church, and British institutions of higher education, subjects with which many Americans are only vaguely conversant. For such Americans, Newsome’s book can be augmented by a work like M.R. O’Connell’s The Oxford Conspirators, which masterfully acquaints the reader with the requisite cultural, historical, and institutional landmarks of the Oxford Movement. Newsome, though, has taken a revealing approach to the subject of the Oxford Movement by collecting and editing a wonderfully extensive and intimate correspondence between four uniquely situated individuals: three of the sons of William Wilberforce and their brother-in-law Henry Manning.
In England in the early 1800s, William Wilberforce was the Great Emancipator. He had been the most visible personality in the abolition of the British slave trade (1807), and of slavery itself in the Empire, though that would only occur shortly after his death. The joyful, self-sacrificing Christian influence that the senior Wilberforce and others of that wealthy evangelical group, the “Clapham Sect,” brought to bear on English society was considerable. They have aptly been characterized as the Fathers of the Victorian Age.
Wilberforce sent three sons, Robert, Samuel, and Henry, to be educated at Oxford’s Oriel College. This was a departure for an evangelical or Low Churchman, since most sons of these families were sent to Cambridge University, which was considered much more sympathetic to Low Church theology. At Oxford these bright, high-minded sons of the Great Emancipator became part of the golden academic renaissance that had been taking place there since the turn of the 17th century. There they came into contact not only with the High Church influence of John Keble and Edward Posey, but with Hurrell Froude and John Henry Newman, both former evangelicals whose Anglo-Catholicism had not only begun to nettle the somnambulant C. of E., but was, for evangelicals, threatening the Reformation itself. Troubling as they were for evangelicals, these Anglo-Catholics were inexorable adversaries of the latitudinarianism growing in power at Oxford and in the C. of E., which, then as now, submits the creeds, doctrines, and Scriptures to the delusions of skeptical reason and the acids of materialism.
Robert and Henry Wilberforce became closely associated with Newman at Oxford. After taking Oxford degrees, two of the three Wilberforce brothers, Samuel and Henry, married two sisters in the Sargent family. A third Sargent sister married yet another evangelical from Oxford, Henry Edward Manning. All these young men would become Anglican priests. But Newman and Manning would eventually convert to Roman Catholicism, with Newman becoming a cardinal, Manning an archbishop. Samuel would go on to become an Anglican bishop. Robert and Henry, after luminous careers as Anglo-Catholics within the C. of E., would, with many other Anglican clergymen, also convert to Roman Catholicism.
The record of the brothers’ reluctant pilgrimages to Rome gives a most affecting account of people whose sense of truth and beauty, and whose wonderful single-mindedness, could not allow them rest until they had gained the consummation of their quests. The correspondence Newsome presents is often achingly poignant. Tragically, their sanctity would cost them friends, position, family, and preferments. There was a definite martyrdom here. The unexpected drawing back of a theological or historical curtain, a glimpse of grandeur, or an offhand remark can, for many previously secure individuals, begin a nagging or calling that, before it ends in blessed capitulation, gives years of unrest, searching, wavering, and pain.
It is only to be expected that, with contending allegiances, many characterize this process as human weakness, an unfortunate working out of flawed or feckless personality, even psychological inadequacy. Newsome himself sometimes seems to succumb to this temptation in his depictions of the Wilberforce conversions. Robert, who, after winning a remarkable Double First at Oxford in Classics and Mathematics, became an Oriel Fellow and over the years prior to his conversion was regarded as a brilliant theologian, is portrayed as drawn to Rome too much through the power of Newman’s personality. Henry, with an academic record only slightly less remarkable than Robert’s and with years of service often at great personal risk and sacrifice as a parish priest before his conversion, often appears as little more than a malleable cipher in Newman’s mesmerizing power. Newman’s own conversion in Newsome’s account is not treated in depth, only as it bears on the others. Samuel, who did not convert and became the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, is treated rather sympathetically by Newsome, though his apparent lapses of judgment, if not integrity, are closely examined. Manning’s conversion and character are portrayed as admirable, even played rather favorably off Newman’s.
But to study the Oxford Movement through Newsome’s The Parting of Friends (the title of Newman’s last sermon as an Anglican) and O’Connell’s The Oxford Conspirators, and the autobiographies of Newman and other Tractarians, brings an awareness that the struggles and adversaries they faced are not, in a larger sense, unique. They are just more brilliantly limned by those wonderful personalities set in such a hauntingly attractive time and place. The conflict into which they were drawn and so magnificently served was taking place in the fourth century and, lo, is with us yet today. We, as did Newman, must come to grips with St. Augustine’s dictum that, “the whole world [of the Church] sits in serene judgement on those parts that separate themselves from her and finds them not good.” John Henry Newman, Robert and Henry Wilberforce, and Henry Manning came to realize that their struggle was nothing less than the eternal question of “whom shall ye serve?” Once that had become clear to them through their exertions and tears, and, ultimately, their trust in being able to see, they had no other choice but to suffer the parting of friends.
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