Epidemics and the Rise of Anglo-Catholicism

By Ian McCormack

On March 27, 2020, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to the clergy of the Church of England. The letter included these words: “We are in a time of great fearfulness. The numbers of those becoming seriously ill and dying is increasing. It therefore remains very important that our churches remain closed for public worship and private prayer.”

This instruction seeks to prohibit the clergy from entering their own churches for private prayer, at a time when the law of the land specifically exempts ministers of religion travelling to their place of worship from the restrictions on free movement brought about to fight the coronavirus. The instruction is something for which the archbishops will have to answer on the day of judgment, and it would be imprudent to comment further here.

But it was not ever thus in the Church of England.

In Henry Liddon’s Life of Pusey, the author quotes at length reminiscences of the cholera epidemic of 1866 by the rector of Bethnal Green, in London’s East End: “My curates were ill, unable to do any duty – I had been up for several nights running to two or three in the morning, attending to the sick, and more especially to the timid and fearful, who would not go to bed for fear of ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness.’ Wearied and at my wits’ end as to how I could possibly help my vestry through their arduous duty, I had come down to a late breakfast at nine o’clock, when my servant announced Dr. Pusey … he offered to act as my assistant curate to visit the sick and dying … and to minister to their spiritual wants.”

Pusey was joined in Bethnal Green by (among others) the Hon. Charles Wood (later Viscount Halifax) and the Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity from Devonport, Plymouth, and subsequently of Ascot Priory. Members of this Sisterhood – the lineal descendant of the very first in the Church of England – had already served as nurses in their hometown of Plymouth during a cholera epidemic there, and in Scutari alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. They now arrived to work alongside Dr. Pusey, who had been influential in their foundation. The valuable work of Pusey and the sisters is recorded at length in Liddon’s biography.

Recent historians have tended to overplay the extent to which early sisterhoods were founded specifically to meet social needs. In this model they were primarily professional philanthropists; what one contemporary commentator called “lady guerillas of charity.” In fact, all the communities with which Pusey was directly involved understood themselves to be not philanthropic organizations with a religious ethos, but religious communities whose incarnational theology manifested itself in social and nursing work among the poorest and neediest communities.

In this, they mirrored the understanding of the Tractarians, who themselves stood in a long line of Catholic social teaching. St. John Chrysostom preached, “Would you do honour to Christ’s body? Neglect Him not when naked; do not while here you honor Him with silken garments, neglect Him perishing without of cold and nakedness.” This teaching was echoed again and again in Pusey’s sermons. For example, from a sermon of 1844, “There is no deeper source of blessing, nor more frequent means of enlarged grace to the soul, than love for Christ’s sake, to His little ones and His poor.”

A high view of their calling notwithstanding, the sisterhoods (and their advocates) were not above using their social usefulness as public justification for their existence, in the face of widespread anti-Catholicism and suspicion of female leadership. In 1848, Pusey wrote to the chaplain of Eton College regarding the most deprived urban areas: “Either these poor people and their children … are not to be helped at all, or they must be helped in part by Christian females: and then the only question remains, ‘Are these to work without the support of mutual sympathy and advice and the comfort of a common home and prayer together, crippled in their exertions for want of plan and mutual help and distribution of labour?’”

Pusey valued the religious life for its own sake. But he was not above using utilitarian considerations to gain acceptance for what was (to Protestant Victorian sensibilities) a shocking new way of life. Nor were the sisterhoods and their supporters slow to grasp the opportunities for advancing the Catholic life which their unique circumstances provided. Daily celebration of the Eucharist was introduced at the convent in Devonport in 1849 to give spiritual sustenance to the sisters during their work among the cholera victims there.

The philanthropic work of the sisterhoods won over to their cause many people who would otherwise have been implacably opposed to their existence. The same was true for slum clergy, particularly the ritualists who were at the forefront of Anglo-Catholicism in the generation after Pusey. Even the most ardent and organized Protestant agitators found it difficult to whip up popular resentment against the very man who was leading social work in a particular district. The historian John Shelton Reed has argued persuasively that it was precisely the manifest holiness and dedication of many of the ritualists that won them the love and support of their parishioners. Tolerance by others of their ritualism was a by-product of this hard-earned respect, affection, or even love.

None of this meant that the controversies over Anglo-Catholicism in general, and ritualism in particular, disappeared. The prosecutions under the Public Worship Regulation Act were only a decade after Pusey’s work in Bethnal Green. But throughout the second half of the 19th century, bit by bit the prevailing wind shifted in favor of Anglo-Catholic theology, ritual, and social practice, as the sense grew among friend and foe alike that by its response to poverty, squalor and disease, Anglo-Catholicism reached parts of the country that were otherwise “largely untouched by the national Church, or indeed by religion in any form” (Shelton Reed). There can be little doubt that the heroic response of Pusey, the members of the Society of the Most Holy Trinity, and then subsequently the younger generation of ritualists played a significant part in that change, bringing a new-found respectability to the Anglo-Catholic movement, and, by extension, new life and vigor to the ministry of the Church in those places where Anglo-Catholicism took hold.

The consequences of the Church of England’s somewhat different response to the epidemic of 2020 remain to be seen.

The Rev. Ian McCormack, SSC is priest-in-charge of St. George’s in the Meadows, Nottingham, UK and former lecturer in Anglican Studies at Mirfield Theological College.