The Oxford Movement Begins


Most Anglo-Catholics know that 185 years ago today, John Keble ascended the pulpit at the University Church of St Mary's in Oxford to deliver the sermon at the opening of the Assize Court.[i] If the date is not remembered, the result certainly is. John Henry Newman wrote that this sermon, easily forgotten during any other time, was the beginning of the Oxford Movement.[ii]   

19th century sermons, to be sure, are not always pleasure reading. Compared to our modern tolerance of sermon length and substance, our forebears preached long sermons with often dense and complicated arguments. The opening of the Assize Court was also not a Royal Wedding. It’s content would naturally address the connection of law and religion and the congregation would not be made up of wool spinners from Norfolk. Yet this sermon, entitled National Apostasy, is unexpectedly good. Once you get through the dense beginning and understand the building argument, it not only speaks clearly to the times in 1833 but it has a remarkable resonance in 2018.

A month after Keble preached this sermon, Parliament passed the Church Temporalities Act. This act, for financial reasons, reduced the number of archbishops and dioceses for the established (Anglican) Church of Ireland. The law said in part:

“And whereas the Number of Bishops in Ireland may be conveniently diminished, and the Revenues of certain of the Bishopricks, as well as the said annual Tax, applied to the building, rebuilding, and repairing of Churches and other such like Ecclesiastical Purposes, and to the Augmentation of small Livings, and to such other Purposes as may conduce to the Advancement of Religion, and the Efficiency, Permanence, and Stability of the United Church of England and Ireland: And whereas the Tenure by which Church Lands are held in Ireland is inconvenient, and it is expedient to alter the same in such Manner as may tend to the Ease and Security of the Church, and the Advantage of the Persons holding thereunder:’ (emphasis mine)

Keble found this act by the Whig government an affront on the rights of the Church. Even if the Church of England is the Established Church, members of Parliament, who may or may not share the Christian faith, have no business deciding how many bishops the Church needs. Rather than being the act of a rogue government ignoring the will of the people, Keble recognized it was the indifference and apathy of the people to allow such legislation to be debated.

Using the prophet and judge Samuel as a model, Keble used his Assize Sermon to diagnose the apostasy in England and prescribed the medicine for healing. In a nutshell, this is Keble’s argument:

Like Samuel’s Israel, we prefer the lure to live in prosperity and so-called freedom like other non-Christian nations. 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; see the words I highlighted in the Church Temporalities Act above.

Keble calls the Church to follow the example of Samuel through constant intercession, which then gives grounding and strength to protest. Christians should continue to glorify God in their daily lives and routines and should not be so consumed with the concerns of the day that they neglect ordinary duties, especially prayer and devotion. This is an important point he makes. While we may not live to see wrongs righted, we are on the right and, ultimately, victorious side.  

Every one of his points deserves further reflection and exposition, but is this not the climate of 2018?

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.

Anglo-Catholics need to remember this sermon and why John Keble delivered it. Anglo-Catholics need to preach and live it.

Outline of National Apostasy
Full Text of the Sermon

I.              The Old Testament is a guide, mirror, and warning during national instability

a.     It is a natural and just reflection of the present time

                                               i.     To disregard the Old Testament as a guide for present concerns is “mistaken theology”

b.     The judgment of nations in the Old Testament is analogous with the judgment of individual Christian souls, which God will ultimately reward or punish.

c.     In the past it was quoted constantly, even ‘at random’ for any personal or societal ill, now it seems to have no authority in the hearts of men, however clear the Old Testament might be.

II.            The Example of Samuel

a.     Samuel was “the truest of patriots” whose example perplexes those who would suggest or act as if a nation (especially a Christian one) could prosper without God and His Church.

b.     The people of Israel, despite God’s unique relationship with them, desired to live without His governance and the “the moral restraint implied in His peculiar presence and covenant.”

c.     Israel’s rejection of God is a model temptation for any Christian nation who wonder if God has “forgotten to be angry with impiety and practical atheism” and believe that without God “they should be happier if they were freer, and more like the rest of the world.”

III.         The Symptoms of a Nation Alienated from God and Christ

a.     Israel demanded a king to be like other nations. Christian nations “avow the principle” that she is a part of Christ’s Church “on the plea, that other states, as flourishing or more so in regard of wealth and dominion, do well enough without it.”

b.     The move away from God will come from two impulses

                                               i.     Declaration of outside danger

1.     The Israelites were concerned about the Ammonites (I Samuel 11)

                                             ii.     Declaration of corruption within the nation

1.     The wickedness of Samuel’s sons

c.     Like the Israelites, justification for actions will be found

                                               i.     “Pretences will never be hard to find; but, in reality, the movement will always be traceable to the same decay or want of faith, the same deficiency in Christian resignation and thankfulness…”

                                             ii.     “And so, in modern times, when liberties are to be taken, and the intrusive passions of men to be indulged, precedent and permission, or what sounds like them, may be easily found and quoted for everything.”

                                            iii.     Samuel silenced this behavior with the reminder that the issue is motivation and purpose and not argument.

1.     We are responsible for our motives and purposes in dealing with Christ’s Holy Church.

                                            iv.     Additional symptoms of an Apostate Mind in a nation

1.     Growing indifference on the foundational matters of serious subjects

2.     Viewing matters of religion and the Church as agents of exclusion

3.     Shameful public conduct among officials (those bound by voluntary oaths).

a.     Disrespect of Christ will begin with disrespect to the Successors of the Apostles (bishops).

b.     “Suppose such disrespect general and national, suppose it also avowedly grounded not only any fancied tenet of religion, but on mere human reasons of popularity and expediency, either there is no meaning at all in these emphatic declarations of Our Lord, or that nation, how highly soever she may think of her religion and morality, stands convicted in His sight of a direct disavowal of His Sovereignty.” (This is as close as Keble gets to directly addressing the suppression of Irish bishoprics.)

c.     The attack will address cult (Saul took it upon himself to sacrifice) and order (Saul persecuted David, God’s chosen).

IV.           How an individual is to respond to national apostasy

a.     The example of Samuel – “that combination of sweetness with firmness, of consideration with energy, which constitutes the temper of a perfect public man, was never perhaps so beautifully exemplified.”

                                               i.     Constant fidelity and intercession for the nation and her people.

1.     “Having so protested, and found them obstinate, he does not therefore at once forsake their service, he continues discharging all the functions they had left him, with a true and loyal, though most heave, heart. ‘God forbid, that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way.’” (This is Keble’s text for the sermon.)

2.     The Church should be constant in intercession and it is only by constantly praying for the leaders and people that they will be spared from hate and despair.

3.     Only through prayer can the church protest (remonstrance), which is the duty of every Christian with the Church is under attack.

a.     Samuel rebuked Saul, yet when he had to remove himself from Saul’s presence until his death, he mourned (I Samuel 15.35).

                                             ii.     Submission and Order

1.     Christians should uphold the Church by faithfully executing their duties with trust and fidelity, lest they discredit the cause, even in the most menial task.

2.     “Public concerns, ecclesiastical or civil, will prove indeed ruinous to those, who permit them to occupy all their care and thoughts, neglecting or undervaluing ordinary duties, more especially those of a devotional kind.”

V.             The Ultimate Goal

a.     It will be unlikely to see the victory in this life and there may be very few to sympathize with Christ’s call.

b.     In the end, the Christian will be on the victorious side and that victory will be eternal.


[i] Assize Courts were periodic sessions of the High Court of Justice and find their origins in the Magna Carta. They were abolished in 1971.
[ii] Apologia Pro Vita Sua, page 50, Penguin Classics