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The Vision Glorious

This week we begin to publish lightly edited versions of papers delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” held at Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16. Many thanks to all our presenters, and to our gracious friends at the Advent, especially Father Allan Warren, Father Jeffrey Hanson, and Deacon Daphne Noyes.

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In memory of Geoffrey Rowell

This lecture examines some of the principles that animated the leaders of the Oxford Movement and consider their relevance for contemporary opportunities and concerns. The title is inspired by one of the best presentations of the animating spirit of the Oxford Movement, The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, by Geoffrey Rowell.

Bishop Geoffrey, sometime Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, chaplain and fellow of Keble College Oxford, and a longtime governor of Pusey House, Oxford, not only communicated but embodied something of the best ideals of the Tractarians. He died this past summer on Trinity Sunday. Following his inspiration, this lecture will consider how the principles of the Oxford Movement are embodied and communicated in the architecture, mosaics, and adornment of Keble College.

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Among many offerings of detective fiction popular in the United Kingdom these days, the Merrily Watkins mysteries by Phil Rickman (14 novels) offer a particular Church focus. Merrily Watkins is an Anglican priest and the Deliverance Consultant, or Advisor on the Paranormal, for the Diocese of Hereford (an exorcist).[1] In one sense, religion is at the centre of the novels; in another sense, it is a bolt-on, a façade, a kind of fashion accessory. The clerical shirt, stereotypical phrases, familiar buildings are there, but there is little depth to the way of life that is presented. Merrily’s life does not seem to express or lead in an organic way to prayer and worship, even if there are times where she goes to church to pray or baptize, or to lead a service. This is not surprising, perhaps, because the character’s creator, Phil Rickman, says of himself, “no, I’m not a churchy person.”[2] This is part of the attraction of Merrily — she is an ordinary person, with struggles we recognize. Merrily is a single mom, left a widow after her husband is killed in a car crash.[3] She has a difficult but warm relationship with her feisty teenage daughter, Jane; they lose their tempers with each other, have trouble communicating, hurt and misunderstand each other, and love each other deeply. Jane flirts with paganism, but significantly, in one way, it is Jane who is the one with real clarity of sight. It is Jane, for example, who apprehends truths about the created order, the natural world. In one of the novels, Merrily contemplates the hills around Great Malvern, Elgar country, channelling Jane:

It was as though each feature of the landscape had a special significance, a role to play in some eternally unfolding drama. … Places of — oh God, wake me up before I turn into Jane — palpably sentient scenery.[4]

But it was not one of Jane’s neopagan or new age mentors who wrote that all things in the natural world are “partakers of God, they are his offspring, his influence is in them.” That was the English Divine and Reformer Richard Hooker, a key source for the sacramentalism of the Oxford Movement.[5] For John Keble and Edward Pusey, all things are “syllables of that Eternal Voice which spake them,” living things that continue to speak in a living drama. It is Jane who sees, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s phrase, a world “charged with the grandeur of God.” She represents those who are let down by a Christian tradition they were never taught.

†          †          †

What is the purpose of these reflections on the Merrily Watkins series? This conference asks us to consider “What is Anglo-Catholicism?” and to look at the roots that shaped and guided the Catholic revival in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion. The religion of the Merrily Watkins novels, the way in which it appears as a façade or bolt-on, does not just reflect Phil Rickman’s understanding of Church. Rather, it reveals some of the problems that the writers of the Oxford movement wished to address. We can get a better sense of this search for roots and renewal by considering Pusey’s address to the English Church Union on 14 June 1866. In the speech, Pusey explains why he had at first opposed any development in the ritual and ceremonies of the Church.[6] Looking back to the origins of the Oxford Movement from 30 years later, Pusey said:

We had a distinct fear with regard to ritual; and we privately discouraged it, lest the whole movement should become superficial. … We felt that it was very much easier to change a dress than to change the heart, and that externals might be gained at the cost of the doctrines themselves.

Pusey points to a temptation that we all recognize.[7] He continued:

To have introduced ritual before the doctrines had widely taken possession of the hearts of the people, would only have been to place an obstruction in their way. It would have been like children sticking flowers in the ground to perish immediately. Our office was rather, so to speak, to plant the bulb where by God’s blessing it might take root, and grow and flower beautifully, naturally, healthfully, fragrantly, lastingly.

What is the bulb that Pusey and his colleagues wanted to plant and to take deep root to flower beautifully, lastingly? Although it is difficult to emphasize any one thing, I will focus on the radical and all-encompassing character of the doctrine of the Incarnation that was put forward by the leaders of the Oxford Movement. After sketching what was distinct about their approach to the Incarnation, I will consider how they thought this reality came to take deep root in the mind, heart, and soul of the individual believer and in the Church.

After sketching the Tractarians’ teaching on the Incarnation, one of the themes of Bishop Geoffrey’s Vision Glorious, we will follow in his footsteps to make a visit to Keble College, Oxford. We find there not only a space for worship, but a theology of creation and the sacramental life, a social programme, and a call to sanctification. In particular, the mosaics of the chapel embody a way of reading the Bible which is integral to how the Tractarians understood the transformation of sensibility by which the vine of Christ takes deep root in the Church and in the soul. Although the Oxford Movement is usually associated with an emphasis on apostolic succession, the sacraments, and ecclesiology, I will attempt to show that behind and with all of this, the leaders of the Oxford Movement cultivated a belief in the Incarnation and in the sacraments through a particular way of reading the Bible. John Henry Newman argued that “it may almost be laid down as a historical fact, that the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together.”[8] This was the common view of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. For them, the Catholic life embodies a sacramental reading of the Bible.

After looking at this principle with the help of the mosaics of Keble chapel, we will have the opportunity to consider disagreements within the Anglo-Catholic tradition concerning this principle. In particular, comparing the approach to interpreting the Old Testament put forward by Pusey, Keble, and Newman, a view largely embodied in the mosaics of Keble Chapel, with those of Charles Gore is a good way of seeing what was at stake. Gore was Bishop of Worcester, Birmingham, and Oxford, founder of the Catholic Revival, and first principal of Pusey House. With regard to this discussion, he won the argument. In the ground-breaking collection Lux Mundi (1889), Gore argued that he and his colleagues wished to “put the Catholic faith in its right relation to modern intellectual and moral problems.” In one version of this history, he largely attained this goal and saved the Anglo-Catholic tradition from the reactionary woodenness of Pusey. I will argue that this view is in significant ways wrong, and that Gore’s ideas were as much, if not more, expressive of a cultural captivity that is today more and more appreciated by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. These reflections will enable us to consider the contemporary relevance of the view of the Incarnation, sacraments, and the Bible that constitutes a guiding principle of the Oxford Movement: the roots we are asked to uncover and consider at this conference today and tomorrow.

Part One: Radical Incarnationalism

John Keble attempts to describe the vision glorious in one of his last Pentecost sermons:

Christ is come, not indeed in Body, but by a nearer, far nearer Presence, by His Spirit: …. In Him they now live by a new life, … a life which is both His and theirs; whereby they are … “partakers of a Divine nature.” … The holy Fathers did not hesitate to call it even Deification, and Christianity, which teaches and confers it, they called “a deifying discipline.”[9]

The leaders of the Oxford Movement understood themselves to be fighting against an external or diminished view not only of the sacraments, but of the Christian life.[10] What it means to be “in Christ” is more than a “mere conformity of mind” or “unity of will,” however important these are. To be a Christian is not just to follow a charismatic leader. In this they were attacking any kind of “façade” or superficial Christianity.

What was radical and unsettling about the Tractarians’ approach was its all-encompassing character. We have seen this already in the way in which this radical approach to the Incarnation also shaped their doctrine of creation, giving a theological anchor to at least some of the ideas of Merrily Watkins’s daughter, Jane. God takes on flesh not only in the Incarnation, but in analogous and different ways in both “the book of God’s works” and “the book of His word.” While the Incarnation is, first of all, a doctrine about the union of divine and human in Christ, the Word made flesh, Keble, Newman, and Pusey saw it also as the key to understanding the sacraments, reading the Bible, and the union of Christ and the believer. Pusey characterizes the Christian religion according to a fundamental analogy between the way that God “comes down” in the Incarnation, the sacraments, and the Bible:

Its cornerstone and characteristic is “God manifest in the flesh” …: earthly Sacraments, yet full of Heaven, earthly words, yet full of the Word, λογοι proceeding from and setting forth the Λογος.[11]

The gift of the Christian life is nothing less than “union with that mystery, whereby we are made partakers of the Incarnation.”[12] “It is this realisation that God gives us not just His gifts, but Himself, that is the deepest conviction of the Fathers of the Oxford Movement.”[13]

For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Incarnation was too-often believed without being appreciated; it was held in a superficial kind of way. The façade was there and acknowledged by all, but the reality that the doctrine declared seemed to them to be hidden from some of the very people who believed and taught it.[14]

How then could this incarnational deficit be addressed? One of the basic problems that the Tractarians thought they were addressing was a problem of vision. Or, to put it another way, this is the problem of conversion and the need for a transformation of sensibility, not just more information. The members of the Body of Christ had lost the capacity to see. Evoking George Bull, the early 18th-century Bishop of St. David’s,[15] Pusey writes:

Let any one compare our theology at the present day with that of Bp Bull and the ancient Church, and he will find that we have altogether lost sight of and forgotten out of mind, much which they dwelt on habitually as part of the Catholic Faith: we have the outline of the truth, but have lost much which gives to it substance and reality, and opens to us a safe and deepening range for our contemplation.[16]

How can we learn to see what is once forgotten? For Pusey, Keble, and Newman, the answer was not simply more information, more data. Indeed, they thought that the way some 18th- and 19th-century theologians went about trying to prove the reasonableness of Christian faith either by arguing that the fulfilment of prophecy proved the divine character of Christian faith or by finding evidence for design in the natural world (Paley’s watch) made the problem worse rather than better. This kind of approach suggested that everything that we needed to know was there on the surface for those clever enough to see it.[17] The leaders of the Oxford Movement believed that many of their contemporaries were in the grip of theological empiricism that would not accept what could not be tested, and that they had become short-sighted due to a utilitarianism that measured the truth of a doctrine by how useful or practical it was.[18]

Well, if we cannot be made to see, how can the blindness be cured? How might the vine “grow and flower beautifully, naturally, healthfully, fragrantly, lastingly”? Or, to put it another way, how does one feel the power and beauty of the promise to “dwell in Christ”? How do we move from abstraction to the kind of apprehension that draws us closer in love?

This essay continues on December 5 and 6.


[1] She is based in the parish of Ledwardine, near the Welsh border.

[2] “I have a certain sympathy for the Church. But no, I’m not a churchy person, I just keep my ears open.” See “Interview: Phil Rickman” by David Prestridge, CrimeFictionLover.com (http://bit.ly/2Bfudly).

[3] Merrily sometimes spends the night with her on-and-off lover, Lol, a musician who lives across the street. She is troubled by the irregularity of this extramarital relationship, but this seems more like the echo of an almost-forgotten custom rather than the voice of conscience.

[4] The Remains of an Altar (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 8).

[5] Hooker, Laws, V.56.5.

[6] Even as followers of the new movement emerging from Oxford were being called Puseyites for ritualist proclivities, Pusey was criticized as un-Catholic, and the zealous young priests who imposed such changes on sceptical congregations were called “mini-popes.” “I should be sorry to find myself in a richer dress until the Church were in a happier state. At present we have the surplice for a token of purity, and the scarf as the emblem of Christ’s yoke. But beyond this I should deprecate anything which could serve as the badge of party.” Letter to the Rev. J.F. Russell, 21 Oct, 1838, in Liddon, Life of E B Pusey, vol ii, 145.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI has warned in a compelling manner against the ever-present danger represented by the golden calf. In the temptation to have God serve our needs and concerns, worship may become “a festival of self-affirmation … no longer concern[ed] with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world. … [Then liturgy] becomes an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness.” The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 23.

[8] Newman, in Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

[9] From Pentecostal Fear, Acts ii, 23: “And Fear Came upon every soul.”

[10] They criticized what they called a “meagre conception” of the sacraments that reduced sacraments to empty metaphors or signs without content, a view that substitutes the reception of Christ’s “teaching for His Person.”

[11] Pusey, “Lectures on Types and Prophecy.”

[12] Pusey,  Parochial Sermons, i: For the Seasons from Advent to Whitsuntide, 3rd edn, Oxford: John Henry Parker, “God with Us,” Christmas.

[13] For the Tractarians, the doctrine of the Incarnation is inextricably linked to the doctrine of theosis. See Allchin, A. M. (1967). ‘The Theological Vision of the Oxford Movement’, in John Coulson and A. M. Allchin (eds.), The Rediscovery of Newman: An Oxford Symposium (Sheed and Ward), p.49, and Louth, Andrew (1983), “Manhood into God: The Oxford Movement, the Fathers and the Deification of Man,” in Essays Catholic and Radical: A Jubilee Group Symposium for the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement 1833-1983, in Kenneth Leech and Rowan Williams (eds.) (The Bowerdean Press, 70-80).

[14] All of this helps to explain the significance of the prayer which is said each day at Evensong at Pusey House. The prayer describes E.B. Pusey as one who contended “by his life and learning earnestly for the truth of the Incarnation.” In some ways this is a surprising description, because it focuses attention on a doctrine which Pusey shared with his theological adversaries, a source of common faith rather than a disputed doctrine.

[15] In Defensio Fidei Nicaenae (1685), Bull argued that the trinitarian teaching of the ante-Nicene Fathers was the same in essential matters as that of the orthodox post-Nicene Fathers.

[16] One of those whom Pusey had in mind when he wrote this was the new professor of divinity R D Hampden who had argued that sacramental theology was a hangover in Christian form of pagan belief in magic.

[17] There is an interesting connection between the argument of the Tractarians and the 20th-century Roman Catholic scholars of ressourcement.

[18] Pusey describes the problem: “it may be that all of us are, or have been, too much influenced by the atmosphere, with which we have been surrounded, ever to see clearly where the ancient Fathers enjoyed such undisturbed vision. Nor would too hasty a return be safe; and a mere constrained adoption of their views, and a determination to see with their eyes, would restore no healthful, or clear sight; we cannot make ourselves see” (Pusey, ‘Lectures on Types and Prophecy’ Manuscript, p 38).


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