The Oxford Movement Today – 14 July, Anniversary of Keble’s Assize Sermon

The Oxford Movement Today – 14 July, Anniversary of Keble’s 1833 Assize Sermon

[ Image: Samuel Cousins’s drawing of John Keble, published 1 September 1845 ]

For anyone in the anglosphere who took high-school French, the first association with 14 July will surely be le quatorze juillet (autrement dit “Bastille Day”), which recalls what is popularly regarded as the beginning of France’s Revolution of 1789. But it also marks the anniversary of another revolution, though one that sought a return to first principles rather than their overthrow, and one that was launched from an Oxford pulpit rather than by a mob storming the Bastille in Paris.

John Keble, on 14 July 1833, preached a sermon at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, entitled “National Apostasy.” It is an assize sermon, which Hugh Adlington describes as a preaching sub-genre that reflects on the interrelation of justice administration and religious tenets.  (Hugh Adlington, “Restoration, Religion, and Law” in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon [Oxford University Press, 2011]).  Newman identified this particular assize sermon as the moment at which the Oxford Movement was launched.  (You can find the sermon here.)

On this anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement, I commend to your reading and reflection this excellent reminder—from our own Fr. Steve Lambert Rice, Obl.S.B.—of this important moment in Anglican-Patrimonial history.

At least two points worth considering:

  1. The spiritual health of the Church isn’t a matter of waiting for the institution to set things right but for each individual Christian—recognizing our common identity as the Body of Christ, of course—to respond to the call to discipleship.
  2. Individual responsibility also rests with every individual who claims the Anglican Patrimony. This responsibility includes understanding what that patrimony is and what it is not.

As for basic Christian discipleship, here is a passage from Fr. Steve’s piece that reminds us how relevant Keble’s Assize Sermon still is.

“Nations, and by-extension individuals, find justification for throwing off the yoke of Christ and the demands of discipleship. We look to threats outside and threats within to abandon godly principles (sound familiar?). We then blame government or religion for our ills and never ourselves.  We rationalize and excuse every decision and act. We become so tolerant that we believe nothing and we persecute those who believe in the name of inclusion (oh my goodness!). This rebellion moves from individuals to public officials. The officials begin to attack Christ by attacking His Church, beginning with apostolic authority – bishops. This attack will come in the name of popularity and expediency.”

On the point of what the patrimony is and isn’t, consider the following:

“The Catholic Revival in the Church of England had nothing to do with gin, lace, and backbiting, as is often caricatured. Yes, elaborate ritual and church building followed in the next generation, but this was a logical development of the belief that the Church is not the same as the Post Office. The Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives and not the same as chicken tetrazzini at the weekly Rotary Club. The development of ritual and devotion was the servant, the handmaid, to the truths Keble turned our minds to 185 years ago.”

Some critics of the Anglican Patrimony’s place in the Catholic Church charge members of the Ordinariates with being affected and too focused on “fuss and feathers.”  Such statements are sweeping generalizations, of course.  But those of us who come from the Anglo-Catholic tradition (to use the term in its broadest sense) know that such charges are not without some merit.  The antidote to this fuss-and-feathers enervation is simple, I suggest: be knowledgeable—prayerfully knowledgeable—about our roots.  For example, by being informed about what the Oxford Movement really was (and what it wasn’t), we can be inspired by the same ideals that fostered, in the 19th-century Church of England, a re-discovery of the transformative power of the liturgy—a power so vibrant and pure that those foundational years of the Oxford Movement had nothing in them of aestheticism or ritual as a mere art form.

Moreover, by rediscovering the Oxford Movement, we can rediscover—along with Keble, Newman, Pusey, and others—the vibrant witness of the Church of the Patristic era.  The Oxford Movement’s project of making the writings of the Church Fathers available in English translations was not for the sake of abstruse scholarship.  It’s too easy to think of the Oxford Movement as a mere exchange of high ideals in the Common Room of Oriel College.  But as of July 1833, Keble, Newman, Pusey, and the others embarked upon lives of sacrifice.  All of them destined for comfortable livings in the CofE, they knew that Keble’s Assize Sermon would put those comfortable, predictable futures in jeopardy.  What inspired them in this course of action was the power of the writings of Sts. Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Athanasius, and many other towering intellects fired by holy wisdom.  This same fire can burn away affectations and rubricist legalism that can sadly make the fuss-and-feathers charge stick.

Because the sacrifice of the Mass is always now, the words of St. Jerome and of John Keble that strive to give us glimpses of that reality are always now as well.  The prayers of Newman and Pusey and of Augustine and Athanasius are always now.  In this sense, 14 July 1833 is always now.  The entire patrimony is always now, always ready for the harvest.


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