Volume > Issue > The Drama of the Oxford Movement

The Drama of the Oxford Movement

The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Man­ning

By David Newsome

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 486

Price: $29.99

Review Author: David Denton

David Denton is a federal locomo­tive inspector in Granville, Ohio. He attributes his recent conver­sion to Roman Catholicism to the writings of C.S. Lewis, to the abor­tion issue, and most fundamen­tally to his sobering experiences as a Marine in Vietnam.

“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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