Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Those self indulgent hedonists!

From the beginning, the movement had a special appeal to the young... Some observers took a tolerant view, seeing it as a harmless outlet for youthful high spirits; others argued that all could learn from its adherents' high-mindedness and seriousness, that they were recalling the nation to its own ideals; some said that the movement offered spiritual meaning and purpose in a crass and materialistic society. But these voices were drowned out by the chorus of condemnation. Many more saw the movement as an expression of hedonism and self-indulgence, an unfortunate sign of the times, a symptom of the nation's moral decay. On the fringe, a few even argued that the movement's leaders were agents of an alien ideology, covertly serving a foreign power and seeking to subvert the nation's constitution.

No, my friends, this quotation does not refer to pirate radio, Woodstock, a social democrat organisation, or even (bear with me, since I spent so much time with the medieval) the excesses amongst some of the teenage vagabonds who were first to band with Francis of Assisi. It is an apt, if hilarious with our hindsight, observation from John Shelton Reed's Glorious Battle, and refers to the Oxford Movement.

It surely is no secret, to anyone who follows this blog (..if, indeed, any reader does so...), that I have great respect for the Oxford Movement fathers, and cherish their legacy. Just this past week, I was preparing a scholarly treatment of the movement - one of the many items in my file of "classes I'll give should the opportunity arrive," though I know it is doubtful that shall ever be the case. I'm not being scholarly here - just playful.

Country parson Keble indeed had a concern for the poor and was at least trying to develop a social conscience, even if a genuine working class kid like myself wonders whether he (or others of the era) had any notion of 'the nitty gritty' - I recoil at the taste of calves' foot jelly. Pusey would have made me look like a hedonist. I think he wore a figurative hair-shirt at least - and, were I his wife or daughter, I believe I'd have wondered if I were the hair shirt and run off to a commune in India. I don't doubt I'd have enjoyed a pint with John Henry Newman, the only theologian of the bunch (and, at least among the English-speaking, probably the only writer of the era who deserves to be called a theologian at all.) The mental picture of this crop and their followers as encouraging "hedonism and self-indulgence" strains even the imagination of an artistic sort.

Different though they were, the Fathers of the Oxford Movement had essential ideas (and this beyond their stress on sacrament and liturgy, and on apostolic succession when it didn't involve dealing with, much less obeying, individual bishops) with which I heartily agree. The Victorian optimism, which seemed to assume that all change was progressive and positive, seems ludicrous to those of us born after two World Wars, but their stress on sanctification, not only 'salvation,' is one I greatly value. I love the emphasis on the patristic era, though (being a life-long Catholic in my theology and Mediterranean into the bargain) I regret that they had to combine this with ideas of 'the fall' and atonement which took what is worst in (the often magnificent) Augustine (who, after all, was defending omnipotence against Gnosticism, and had ghosts of the Manichean era at his side) and added in influences of Calvin (and even Luther's angst ). I cannot agree more strongly with Newman that to cut the faithful from the study of doctrine and require implicit faith (to which I add, whether in the fashion of an obedient, dutiful English Victorian or according to the 'faith excludes curiosity' version in the documents of Trent) would "in the educated, terminate in indifference, in the poorer, in superstition."

I may consider Pusey to be a bit over the top in his attitudes towards asceticism - a marvellous concept unless it's infected by the idea of atoning for sin, curse of the west and never eliminated even for those who love the patristic (especially if they've never heard of the Orthodox.) (I'll confess here that I find Pusey to be utterly unreadable, and am not even sure he knew what he wanted to express.) Yet how can I, a Romantic at heart, not love one who saw the Eucharist as how to celebrate and underline "Christian communitarian oneness in the midst of a divisive society"? On one level, this is and always was true - but I am inclined to agree with (IIRC) Owen Chadwick, who saw the Oxford Fathers' religion as 'of the heart and not the head,' where what mattered was what should make us holy (not necessarily what practically anyone else would consider to be true.)

I love Newman, and not only because of his brilliance in theology, because (though I certainly do not have his knowledge or intelligence!) we have a few of the same weaknesses. He was too trusting, assumed integrity on the part of others, and never realised when he was a pawn. He had impeccable intellectual abilities and dreadful judgement - I'll save it for another day (maybe tomorrow...), but his Second Spring sermon, which managed to blatantly insult those who'd remained Catholic since the Tudor era, the High Church Anglicans, and indeed his partners in the Oxford Movement in one fell swoop (not to mention frightening away reserved RCs and Anglo-Catholics with the optimism that everyone was travelling Rome-ward on an Ultramontane magic carpet), is probably the best illustration. (Memories of the days of Pius V could not have been pleasant in the time of his namesake who would soon be infallible. Of course, Napoleon's annexing the papal states and sending Pius IX into exile gives me a certain sympathy for the latter's losing any liberal convictions, and Rome was nothing like the temporal power it was in the time of the Tudors, but I dare-say that some of the Oxford Movement's Catholic assertions would have been better received had the papacy not been somewhat flamboyant in display at the time.)

It is a paradox that the Tractarians often pursued the best of Roman Catholic/Orthodox tradition in their patristic emphasis (and the excellent underlying idea of creation and personhood rooted in the Trinity), yet adopted some of the very worst of Counter-Reformation or medieval practise. Appeals to the patristic era became strained, because, during that era, orthodoxy had been based on beliefs related to Christology and the Trinity. The real presence is a common references even during the time of the martyr Justin - yet the overly literal stress on transubstantiation, the tendency for 'take and eat' not to be heeded where 'take and adore without eating' turned RC churches into reliquaries, or the legalism of the post-Tridentine times would have been unknown in the early centuries. The medieval illustrations of Purgatory did not exist in the patristic times (I much prefer the idea of growth in holiness between our death and the last judgement to Dante), but some of Pusey's love for RC devotional books could seem highly superstitious.

I still haven't a clue as to how these gentlemen and their associates could be viewed as self-indulgent or hedonists.

Perhaps some of you can see that, though I'm only playing here and hardly scratching the surface, my failure to prepare the class that will never be given is not a lack of information - but wondering how to condense enough material to fill a library. Yet I must leave you with a delicious quotation which Anthony Archer provides in "The Two Catholic Churches," and it will come as no surprise that my agreement is entirely with my old friend Newman. (I dislike Father Faber just as much as I do most Victorian hymns.)

"In his rather luxuriant work on the Blessed Sacrament, Faber had described a helpless and captive God, experiencing a mournful solitude in the little dungeon of the tabernacle. This was the Jesus whose fondness for silence was known, because nothing more silent than the sacrament could be thought of; it was the God who was carried about and broken into three pieces by priests who washed the sacred vessels and napkins as Joseph must have washed the clothes of Christ.

All this was set against a background of speculation that Christ had given Mary the Sacrament at the Last Supper, and that it had remained in her, uncorrupted, so that He could be in her during his Passion... And it evoked the desire to 'put our little crown of puny love on the long hair which covers His beautiful head.'

Newman remarked that he knew of no book that would so readily turn him into an infidel."