England and Always: Romance and Religion

England and Always”
The British, the Empire, and the Faith
Part V: Romance and Religion

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
–Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Inspired by Sir Walter Scott and his own researches, in 1822 a wealthy young Anglo-Irishman named Kenelm Digby published a book entitled The BroadStone of Honour. A paean of praise to the Chivalry and Knighthood of the Middle Ages, it had a huge effect on the reading public in the British Isles — especially on young wealthy males. From Digby’s delineation of how the code of Chivalry affected personal behaviour emerged the notion of the “Gentleman” — which has persisted, despite battering by two world wars, the 60s, and feminism until to-day. The book had a political impact as well, since from its vision of a strong Church guiding a strong Monarchy, and of a socially benevolent upper class working for the benefit of — and earning respect from — the lower classes, emerged “Young England;” from that movement’s ranks came a number of important figures, most notably Disraeli.

Little of this affected the Catholics of England, Scotland, and Wales, however. Marginalised to a great degree, grateful for the relaxation of the penal laws given by the two emancipation acts (and mindful of the Gordon Riots caused by the first one), they were keen on simply proving their loyalty to the established order — that they were British to the bone. Few of them thought in terms of altering the society and state in which they found themselves in any way, whether that alteration be political or religious. But in Ireland, things were different. There, Daniel OConnell had mobilised the still non-voting Catholic Irish, and through various manoeuvres was able to bring about the Emancipation Act of 1829 , by virtue of which most of the remaining disabilities Catholics laboured under were lifted. This move, however, coupled with others which seemed to indicate that the State was cutting free of the Church of England, sparked a sermon by John Keble at Oxford in 1833: “On the National Apostasy.” This was the beginning of the Oxford Movement,, which would have a gigantic effect upon both the Catholic and Anglican Churches in the British Isles and around the nascent Anglosphere.

We should look, however, at this point, at where the Church of England was when the shock erupted. It was a very dry and intellectual religion, to be sure. The most common regular service on Sunday was Morning Prayer; the Holy Communion might be offered once a month or quarter; as the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Book of Common Prayer said: “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.” When the minister did offer it, he stood at the north side of the holy table — no candles, no vestments. There was no praying to the Virgin and the Saints, nor for the dead. Bishops did not wear mitres (though these did appear on the coats of arms). About the only things left from the Middle Ages were many of the church buildings themselves; Anglican chant as found in many cathedrals and university college chapels; and, of course, the titles of such ecclesiastical officials as bishops (with their membership in the House of Lords), archdeacons, canons and the like. Piety consisted to a great degree of loyalty to the Crown and deference to one’s betters. As Charles Dickens put it:

O let us love our occupations,
Bless the Squire and his relations;
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations.

There was reaction to this dry sort of religion so early as the 18th century, with John Wesley and his Methodist movement. His fervent preaching and that of his colleague, George Whitefield to out of door audiences were the first “revivals” that became such a strong part of American religious life. Reluctant to leave the Church of England, Wesley nevertheless ordained (without having Episcopal Orders, though he was a priest in the Church of England) two bishops for America, who arrived just before the Revolution. At any rate, in England, Wesley’s efforts led many of the lower classes out of the Established Church. To this day, Wesleys Chapel in London ranks with New York’s John Street Church and Philadelphia’s St. Georges Church as one of the three cradles of world-wide Methodism. Obviously, for Anglicans who wanted something more spiritual than what Anglicanism had at that time, and yet more intellectual than Wesley’s heavily feelings-based Methodism, there did not seem to be any alternative.

This was why the effect of Keble’s sermon and the Oxford Movement was like a match to tinder. The Movement and the AngloCatholic variety of Anglicanism that it gave birth to was a heady mix of intellectualism and Sacramental devotion. Its member started from the ideas — the so-called “Branch Theory” — that the Church of England was an equal part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” alongside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches — that it was the Catholic Church in and for England, just as the other two served that purpose for their respective nationalities. In their reading of Church history, Henry VIII had not founded a new church — he had merely asserted an already existing independence (inspired, according to some, by the Celtic Church); but under his successors it had been Protestantised (although, in this reading, the Caroline Divines and the Nonjurors had kept the Faith alive). So for the leaders of the Movement, men like John Henry (later Blessed and Cardinal) Newman and Edward Pusey, their mission was to return the Church of England to Catholic Faith and Order (a mission Newman would eventually give up on). They issued a series of Tracts for the Times (from which came another name for the movement — “Tractarianism”) and began to produce translations of the Church Fathers.

As the 19th century progressed, so too did Anglo-Catholicism. Devotional societies dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament, the Blessed Virgin, the Poor Souls in Purgatory, and King Charles I (the only individual the Church of England had essayed to canonize) were founded, and Medieval English Missals (such as of the Sarum and York uses) researched, translated, and published — an easy feat for a group of clergymen with superb classical educations. The Anglican liturgy was improved, with the stark rite of the Book of Common Prayer fleshed out with additions from modern Roman and Medieval sources. The use of lights, banners, candles, vestments, and processions were revived (and in time became universal in Anglicanism, even if Anglo-Catholic belief did not). Religious orders of men and women were founded, both contemplative and active. Once again, old shrines like Walsingham and Willesden began to be visited. Because most of the bishops in the Church of England were wary of these beliefs and practises, the newly ordained who held them were generally sent to slums and other unpleasant places. This, however, simply stimulated the clerics so assigned to build or refurbish beautiful churches in the midst of squalor, and to become heavily involved in social improvement — this in turn spurred the birth of the Christian Social Union; the tradition of the “slum priests” became and remains an important part of the Anglo-Catholic heritage.

Anglo-Catholicism’s artistic and social views travelled far outside purely religious circles, inspiring John Ruskin and his “Guild of St. George,” the PreRaphaelite Movement in art, and William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement — the latter of course has literally spread world-wide. Such as these saw the evil effects of Industrialism around them as the spawn of Capitalism — and it, in turn, as the child of the Reformation — which they rejected for cultural and economic, if not religious, reasons. The same impulse led to the founding of the Folklore Society, with its interest in the legends and folk dances that had been so hated by the Puritans — elements of which, however, had survived here and there. From this mix arose also Guild Socialism, and the whole array of views generically called “Merrie England” — which, ironically enough, spurred the “Celtic Revival” we looked at during our exploration of the Celtic Church.

But while all that was going on, the Catholic Church in England did not stand still. In 1851, Newman entered the Church, followed by a stream of converts from the Oxford Movement. Highly intellectual and energetic (and often well-placed socially), these men were keen on something the “Old Catholics” had not dared to dream about since Culloden: the return of England to the Catholic Church. Bl. Pius IX — in part inspired by what he heard of the Oxford Movement, in part by the many Irish refugees from the Potato Famine who crowded into England and Scotland (as they did to the United States) — revived a regular Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales, abolishing the Apostolic Vicariates. But unlike the Netherlands and Scotland where that Pontiff did the same thing later on, instead of reviving the historic dioceses, he created new ones — the ranking prelate under the new system, for example, was not Archbishop of Canterbury, but of Westminster. Part of his reason for doing so was an attached offer that of the Church of England would enter the Church as a whole, all of the new hierarchy would resign in favour of their new confreres (an interesting byproduct of this strategy was the consecration of Frederick George Lee and his confreres in the Order of Corporate Reunion). Nothing came of this tack, however.

Nevertheless, bolstered by the Irish and inspired by the remaining descendants of the Recusants, the new converts — many of whom were literary men — began to radically change the face of British Catholicism. Henry Manning rose to become Archbishop of Westminster; Frederick Faber wrote numerous devotional works and founded the Brompton Oratory (Cardinal Newman founded the one in Birmingham where J.R.R. Tolkien was raised). Augustus Pugin built extraordinary Gothic churches across the country. Unlike the Irish emigrants, the new converts were generally well-educated and well heeled; unlike the Recusants, they were filled with missionary zeal.

When Bl. Pius IX called for volunteers to defend the Papal States, Irish, Scots, and English Catholics answered the call, fighting beside French, Belgians, Dutch, Swiss, Germans, Italians, French-Canadians, Spaniards, and others. Of all the gallant band of English-speakers that joined the Papal army, the one who received the most veneration was young Julian Watts-Russell. Renowned for his piety, zeal, and good humour, his body rests to-day at the English College in Rome. But apart from those who volunteered to actually fight for the Pope, the Catholic community in the British Isles felt sufficiently secure to condemn the government’s pro-Risorgimento stance.

Another area of conflict was the American Civil War. Britain was split over what Phillips considers the last of our Anglo-American Civil Wars. But geographically, areas that had supported the rebels in the American Revolution tended to back the Union, while the Cavalier/Jacobite/Loyalist zones preferred the Confederacy. Although the British government tacitly supported the South, they did not enter the war for the reasons outlined in Sheldon Vanauken’s Glittering Illusion: basically, it would have been difficult politically, and the Palmerston government thought until it was too late that South could win without outright British intervention. In the vent, the defeat of the South produced two genres of Romanticism: “Southern Gothic” and the “Lost Cause.” It is a clear trail from Sir Walter Scott to William Faulkner, from Young England to the Southern Agrarians.

The Era that Queen Victoria gave her name to was an extremely exciting time, to be sure. Paralleling the growth of Roman and Anglo-Catholicism, of “Merrie England” and Celtic Nationalism, there was also a tremendous burst of technology — railroads, steamships, telegraph, and so on. There was also the birth of scientificism, and corresponding unbelief in Christianity. Yet, as if in response, there was also a blossoming of spiritualism; the Ghost Club and Society for Psychical Research were born, as well as the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn. Various Anglo- and Roman Catholic folk — partly inspired by renewed interest in Charles I, started Neo-Jacobite Societies in tandem — as we saw in the Celtic Church article — with Celtic Nationalists; the cause reached as far as the United States and New Zealand. But in, with, and under all of this dreaminess was the very this-worldly growth of the British Empire. We shall see what effect that reality had on the Catholic Church.