FAITH Magazine July – August 2011
Ethos and the Oxford Movement: At the Heart of Tractarianism
James Pereiro, Oxford University Press, 2008; viii, 271pp, hardback £80.00
A detailed look at Tractarian use of the term ethos has been long overdue, and in this very learned book Fr Pereiro contributes a great deal to its elucidation. In the eyes of some commentators the Tractarians' fondness for the word was little more than a display of familiarity with Aristotelian moral philosophy, in which the term could be used simply as shorthand for moral temper or moral disposition. This no doubt accounts for some usage, but Fr Pereiro has brought out specific meanings for the term which, he argues, place the concept of ethos at the 'heart' of what Tractarianism was about. How distinctive to the Movement these meanings turn out to be, and how central the concept was to Tractarianism as a religious rather than an intellectual movement, remain open questions, but FrPereiro has undoubtedly written a book that every serious student of the Oxford Movement will have to read.
His starting point is his discovery of the manuscript of a brief early history of the Movement, entitled Revival of Primitive Doctrine and written in 1840 by a devout and intelligent lay disciple of Newman's called S.F.Wood (the text is published here in an appendix for the first time). This history has a certain authority because both Newman and Pusey not only suggested that Wood should write it, but generally approved its content. Wood's line of interpretation differs sharply from Newman's own retrospective musings in his 'The State of Religious Parties' published in The British Critic in 1839. There Newman saw Tractarianism as the religious counterpart of the literary romanticism expressed in the works of prominent literary figures, naming in particular Scott,Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, in the early decades of the 19th century. Wood by contrast singled out the influence of the ethical thought of Aristotle and Joseph Butler in the immediate pre-Tractarian period (1820-30) in Oxford itself. Pereiro suggests Wood was right on the basis that a specifically Tractarian concept of ethos was drawn from the philosophies of these two thinkers.
To summarise briefly, Aristotle believed that progress in virtue depended on the interaction of good affective temper and sound practical judgment. A man who habitually made right moral decisions would develop good moral dispositions, and these dispositions would clarify his vision such that further correct decisions about conduct would be made. The Anglican philosopher-bishop Joseph Butler extended this theory to explain why some men accepted evidence which pointed to the truth of Christianity and others did not. He posited that virtuous habits enabled good men to have not only good moral judgement, but also a clearer perception of the truth of Revelation. This meant that a bad man (one whose passions were least under control) was more likely to reject Christianity, whereas a good man(whose moral virtues showed that reason had trained his affections) would be more receptive to the evidence and open to conversion.
Fr Pereiro shows that the Tractarian leader John Keble took the argument a step further, arguing that the better the character of a Christian, the more able he was to discriminate truth from falsehood within Christianity, in dealing with the conflicting claims of the various denominations and church parties. This was the basic ethos theory; but as with Aristotle a reflexive process was also possible. Once true doctrines had been accepted, further progress in holiness became possible, and then in turn a further acceptance of apostolic doctrine. Pereiro calls this process "an ascending spiral movement", the vision of which lay behind the Tractarian belief that "following the path of holiness would lead to the recovery of Catholic truths lost in previous centuries within the Churchof England." The converse of the theory conveniently provided the Tractarians with a summary explanation for the damage done to the English church at the Reformation, just as Butler had found himself a moralistic explanation for the popularity of early 18th century Deism. Newman declared heresy to be "the fruit of an ethos marked by worldliness, intellectual pride, or some other deficiency", and even tried to associate different vices with different types of error.
Fr Pereiro's book explores the importance of this Tractarian concept of ethos through a collection of disparate essays more or less closely related to the central theme. The first chapter is a pioneering study of the local impact of the Oxford Movement in London, focusing on a reconstruction of Wood's Tractarian activities. The second surveys recent historiographical debate over the vitality of the Church of England in the pre-Tractarian period. He shows how the Tractarians (and others) in the 1820s and 30s believed the Church to be in a condition of spiritual torpor, whereas after the split within the movement between the so-called Xs and Zs in the wake of Tract 90 and the radical takeover of The British Critic, the Zs (Newman's opponents) tried to create a picture of acontinuous stream of living High Church belief and devotion linking the 18th century Non-Jurors and Hutchinsonians to their own 'Old High Church' segment of Tractarianism.
The key figure in this rewriting of church history was William Palmer of Worcester College, and his influence on the historiography of the Oxford Movement remains to be worked out in detail. Fr Pereiro is at his most original and revisionist in identifying this Palmerian historiography as a form of propaganda, and in seeking to rehabilitate Newman's view that both pre-Tractarian High Churchmen (and the Tractarian Zs) on the one side, and the Evangelicals on the other, were spiritually wanting. He is the only historian to date (so far as I am aware) prepared to use Newman's terms for these two groups ('High and Dry' and 'Peculiar') as simply descriptive rather than evaluative terms.
In the third chapter Fr Pereiro shows in a masterly way the intellectual centrality of ethos by demonstrating its connections with other major themes of Tractarian thought, notably their theories of 'realisation' and 'reserve'. This analysis is very interesting, though questions remain about how much in these areas was really common to all the leaders, let alone to followers with less theological expertise. Sometimes Fr Pereiro appears to be forcing the evidence into a neat pattern. For instance some of the Tractarian discussion about making progress in religion involved the theological and not the moral virtues, but ethos theory is simply assumed to incorporate both. As this suggests, the 'spiral' dimension (which embraced a theory of action as well as of knowledge) in particular needsfurther elucidation. Chapter five usefully chronicles and analyses reaction to the Oxford Movement from the other parties within the Church of England.
To this reviewer it seems that chapter four is more problematic than the others. If I have understood him correctly, Fr Pereiro seems to have two goals. The first is to suggest that Newman's minor disciple S.F Wood anticipated his mentor in the early 1830s in proposing the theory that doctrinal orthodoxy, and not just heresy, could exhibit a trajectory of development. The second is to demonstrate that Newman himself only came to formulate and accept this theory as late as 1839-40, contradicting Newman's own recollection that he had key elements in his mind by the time he published his first major book, The Arians of the 4th century, in 1833.
The arguments for both propositions are not particularly convincing. The case for the first is based on documentary evidence which doesn't exclude the possibility that Newman had discussed the idea of development with Wood before Wood committed his thoughts to paper. If this had happened it would explain Wood's surprise (noted by Fr Pereiro) at Newman's rejection of much of his sketch of a development theory. Moreover if Wood had in fact anticipated Newman, it would mean that by the time he wrote the Apologia in 1864 Newman had forgotten that Wood had influenced him. (It was one of the most important of Newman's aims in the Apologia to list the influences on his thought while an Anglican). Such amnesia is highly unlikely given Newman's intense devotion to his friends andtheir memory.
The main problem with Fr Pereiro's attempts to achieve his second goal, of establishing a late genesis for Newman's theory of development, is that his efforts to explain away Newman's contrary recollections are unduly strained. Fr Pereiro relies heavily on the rather dubious argument that if Newman opposed, in writing and conversation, Wood's and Abbe Jager's theories of development in the early 1830s then he cannot at the same time or earlier have entertained similar ideas himself.
Fr Pereiro's book might have been improved if he had replaced this conjectural chapter with one exploring the nature and importance of the concept of ethos in the ecclesiastical culture preceding and surrounding the Oxford Movement. This would enable him to demonstrate much more securely that the Tractarian theory of ethos was in fact distinctively Tractarian. As it is, some doubts must remain. In passing Fr Pereiro himself admits that the major Evangelical writer Daniel Wilson seemed to hold the basic theory that moral character affects belief; and in chapter five, where Fr Pereiro reviews reactions from non-Tractarians to the spate of conversions to Rome, we find that various hostile Protestant observers ascribed these conversions to bad moral character. He also concedes that the basictheory was found in William Law and the Cambridge Platonists, which is highly significant since both these sources of Protestant spirituality exerted widespread influence through the 18th century.
The claim (implied by the book's subtitle 'At the Heart of Tractarianism') that ethos can be regarded as central to the phenomenon of the Oxford Movement may also be doubted. Christian religious movements do not usually have as their central dynamic a theory of knowledge, an academic abstraction, but something more personal and affective, typically the example and spiritual guidance of a saint or charismatic leader. Just as, for example, John Wesley attracted disciples and left behind a system of Christian discipline, so the origin and heart of the Oxford Movement can be traced to the holy characters of Keble, Newman and Pusey, and the spiritual practices associated with them. Most notable among these was a renewed attention to the sacraments and corporate worship (as Wood noted in hishistory), leading ultimately to the introduction, for the first time, of Roman-style Eucharistic devotion into the Church of England.
Fr Pereiro's interest is chiefly, it appears, in the Oxford Movement as an episode in the history of ideas rather than in the history of religion, and as such he seems to see it as culminating, through the growth of Newman's ideas about ethos, in the philosophy of The Grammar of Assent, rather than in the conversion of numerous Anglicans to Rome. Indeed in his final paragraph he refuses to endorse the view that the Oxford Movement had a Providential outcome in directing Newman and others to the Catholic Church. If, as Catholics, we think we can detect the workings of God's Providence anywhere in history, surely we have little to do to convince ourselves here. Either God intended the Oxford Movement to benefit the Catholic Church or he did not, and the indications in favour of theformer proposition seem to accumulate with every passing year.
A bishop (long dead) who fancied himself as something of a historian used to say that it was the religious orders which were the first to capitulate at the time of the Henrician Reformation in England, the Carthusian martyrs being the outstanding exception which proved the rule. Whether that judgment is too harsh, it is certainly true that in the past half century the "Zeitgeist" has been embraced enthusiastically, and uncritically, by many of those orders from which one might have expected a greater stability and fidelity. Again there are exceptions which prove the rule and one of these has to be the Subiaco Benedictine community at Pluscarden, under the current leadership of Abbot Hugh Gilbert. Perhaps it has something to do with the particular terrain, tucked away as they areoutside Elgin, with the winds blasting in from Iceland, but there is a grittiness about Pluscarden in which the age-old verities are lived out, providing a beacon of light for those of us weaker souls who need encouragement.
The material contained in the latest collection of Dom Hugh's writings is, as its title "Monastic Markers on the Christian Way" suggests, primarily aimed at building up the lives of the monks in his care, but the practical insights into living the Christian life contained here have a wider relevance for all who search for deeper communion with the mystery of God. One chapter in particular, "The Little Foxes", demonstrates how Dom Hugh can identify and articulate the very real temptation faced by all Christians to allow the erosion of prayer by what are seemingly "good" distractions ... "lose prayer and you've lost. Stick to it and you've won".
The initial essay, "The Christ We Know", builds on an insight from Blessed John Henry Newman that there is within us already a true "image" or "idea" of who Christ is. It underlines the essential truth that Christianity is Christ and that this involves nothing less than "a real, concrete, direct, vivid, inner apprehension of the person of Christ, engaging thought, will, action and emotions - that is, the whole of ourselves". Pluscarden's Abbot makes the same point as St. Francis de Sales that, though the vocational paths may be different (and unique to each individual), the goal is ever the same: nothing short of knowing "the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge" and being filled "with the utter fullness of God"(Ephesians 3:19). There are no short cuts here.
The rich range of sources drawn on is a strong attraction though a call to read Origen might seem pretty daunting to the more general reader! "Taking the Curve" ties in the mid-life crisis experienced by many with St. Peter's part in the Paschal Mystery ... "the one thing necessary is to follow. The one thing necessary is obedience. It is as simple as that", while perhaps the most substantial of the offerings is "The Spiritual Senses", a series of reflections on the nature of interior apprehension which contains a comment on Saint Bonaventure neatly summing up Dom Hugh's whole approach: "For him the recovery of the spiritual sense is part of the re-ordering of the human person that comes through the encounter with Christ."
This reviewer chose to use "Living the Mystery" as a Lenten exercise for a study group within the parish: it was much appreciated and stimulated wide ranging discussion, combining, as it does, an accessible orthodoxy with fresh insight.
Fr Christopher Colven
For the first time we review some apologetic and catechetical DVDs. They are published by St Anthony's Communications: www.saintant.com. Speakers include Fathers Marcus Holden, Andrew Pinsent, Nicholas Schofield, Tim Finigan and James and Joanna Bogle.
Confession, The Forgotten Sacrament, Christian Holden, 20 mins., £9.95
The expression "crisis of Confession" is still heard quite frequently - perhaps it has been heard so much that it has lost some of its force. Yet it remains true - this sacrament is very badly neglected, and is the victim of an appalling ignorance, to the great weakening of the Church. This 20-minute DVD is a part of the fight back - to dispel ignorance and therefore help people see the beauty and need for this sacrament. With respect to dispelling ignorance, there is a clear exposition of the origins of Confession, which also serves to deal with the standard objection "Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest; can't I go direct to God?" Likewise, the definition of sin and its effects in the soul show that it is not simply a question of "breaking a rule" which doesn't otherwise damageus: a crucial point that many simply do not grasp. There are good analogies to explain the effects of sin, the attitude of God towards the sinner, and the priest, which would do much to reassure the nervous. I would not assume that all viewers are familiar with terms such as "contrition" and "repentance" (such is the level to which we have sunk!). This will be a most useful resource for schools and RCIA classes.
Arise Once More, Reviving Catholic Britain, Christian Holden, 33 mins., £9.99
Not only is a knowledge of Church history fascinating and inspiring, it also helps us to see where we are going by revealing where we have come from. This DVD is not just about the history of the Catholic Church in Britain, but addresses the question "How do we recover what has been lost?" The influence of Catholicism on the development of this country was fundamental, a fact well brought out in the DVDs condensing of 1,500 years of religious history into its first 20 minutes - no mean feat! Catholicism in Britain is looked at under six headings: the arrival of Christianity, the Medieval Church, the Reformation, the Second Spring, the Modern Crisis and the Revival. There is some good analysis covering these phases. In the Revival, there was a clear call to fidelity to the Church, toholiness for everyone and to renewed catechesis. I would have preferred some more upbeat music to accompany this last phase, a minor point. This production should arouse a just pride in our Catholic identity, confidence in living the Faith and a sense of urgency in our mission to bring our country "home."
Keys of the Kingdom, Understanding the Papacy, Steve Ray and others, 40 mins., £9.95
Starting with some beautiful shots of St. Peter's in Rome and stirring music, this DVD plunges into a coherent presentation of the origins of the institution of the papacy. The use of a narrator in this DVD is an improvement as it makes it 'flow' more easily. Perhaps surprisingly for some, the papacy is shown to have Old Testament roots. The apologetic is robust, drawing from the witness of the Scriptures, the Tradition of the early Church and non Christian sources. The speakers are clear and easy to follow. The history of the first Christians in Rome is very inspiring to listen to. The presentation moves through the legalisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire, looking at the positive and negative effects of this, and shows how the Church's understanding of the role ofthe papacy has unfolded through time in order to meet the unique challenges of every age. The notion of the "Magisterium" is introduced and revealed as something that stimulates, rather than stifles, genuine thought. The problem of immoral/weak popes is addressed, as too the question of inerrancy in their teaching. This DVD, at 40 minutes the longest of the three reviewed, helps one to see the Church as she is and as she sees herself, rather than through the eyes of the world, which tries to force her into its own secular models.
Fr Stephen Brown