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A Personal Testing of the Branch Theory

William Palmer: The Oxford Movement and a Quest for Orthodoxy
By Robin Wheeler
Holy Trinity Seminary Press, pp. 324, $47.95

Among the most eccentric figures to come out of the Oxford Movement was the Anglican deacon William Palmer (1811-79), who devoted his career to a personal testing of the Branch Theory: the idea that the one Catholic Church exists on earth in three parts with apostolic derivation: Roman, Anglican, and Eastern.

Robin Wheeler’s new biography — a revision of his 2003 doctoral dissertation at Durham — is a detailed account of Palmer’s extraordinary life as a kind of pilgrim between West and East, remembered but infrequently today as “an ecclesiastical Don Quixote.” (The dissertation is available for free at bit.ly/wheelerphd.)

The son and grandson of Church of England parish priests, Palmer arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1826 as a pious 15-year-old autodidact and graduate of Rugby School. He did not associate closely with the leaders of the Oxford Movement, and he had left the university temporarily by the publication of the first Tracts for the Times.

Palmer was ordained deacon in 1836 with no intention of proceeding to the priesthood, and he emphatically declined a license to preach. Extended travels in France made for a close experience of Roman Catholicism, then an unusual field of knowledge for an Anglican clergyman.

It was in France that his first concerns about the Branch Theory arose: how could Church of England clergy minister in France, a traditionally Roman Catholic country, without transgressing problems of jurisdiction? (This was well before the re-erection of a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850.) In 1837, he caused a minor controversy by wearing a stole over his surplice — an action that drew the condemnation of E.B. Pusey and the stern rebuke of his father-mentor and presaged much later Ritualist developments.

By the early 1840s, Palmer became a public pamphlet controversialist, writing with some intensity about the establishment of the joint Anglican-Lutheran bishopric at Jerusalem that functioned from 1841 to 1886. He also began a profound engagement with Orthodoxy, sparked in part by a Russian princess’s regular reception of Holy Communion at the Anglican chaplaincy in Paris.

If the princess could receive Communion there, surely Palmer would be welcome to receive it in Moscow. He traveled to Russia and spent 1840 and 1841 making unsuccessful formal requests to receive Communion on the basis of his status as a communicant in good standing of the Church of England. He also made extensive contacts in the Russian theological world, and circulated his privately printed treatise in Latin on the Thirty Nine Articles (which anticipated Newman’s Tract 90 by five years).

Subsequent travels to Greece — including Mount Athos — and Ottoman Egypt, Constantinople, and Jerusalem offered further familiarity with the Orthodox world and eventual disillusionment over diversity of opinion within Orthodoxy about the validity of Anglican baptisms. Palmer became a Roman Catholic somewhat abruptly at Rome in 1855, provoking widespread displeasure among his Anglican friends and confusion among his Orthodox friends.

His beloved Branch Theory was never accepted by two-thirds of its supposed constituents, either during his life or after it. He never became a pro-Roman controversialist, and spent the remainder of his life writing a six-volume account of Russian church history under Patriarch Nikon (1605-81). When Palmer died of pneumonia in a Roman palazzo 24 years after his conversion, thousands of his books were sold as scrap for butter-wrappings by his literary executor, John Henry Newman.

Although this is the only book-length account of Palmer’s interesting life, it did not undergo careful editing in the transition from dissertation to paperback. Long sections in French and Latin are untranslated, and there is a lack of post-1985 scholarly material on Palmer or the wider field of Anglican-Orthodox relations.

There is little discussion of the sources of funding for his vast travels, publication efforts, and self-directed ecumenical undertakings (he had received substantial family bequests, and his brother the Earl of Selborne was Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, facts mostly elided in the biography). All of Palmer’s works were digitized in the late 1990s, and his voluminous unpublished manuscript diaries from decades of ecclesiastical travel await further exploration at his beloved Magdalen College and at Lambeth Palace Library.

Richard J. Mammana Jr. is the Episcopal Church’s associate for ecumenical and interreligious relations.


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