This is a book that has been long in the making; so long, in fact, since Peter Nockles's first critical reassessment of the relationship between the Tractarians and the older High Church tradition, in 1982, that many of his most significant conclusions have become accepted almost as orthodoxies by scholars working within this field of ecclesiastical history. What elevates the book to the level of a scholarly classic, however, is Nockles's thorough absorption of so much recent research, which he has added to his earlier command of little-worked archival material and his extensive study of long-neglected contemporary works and commentaries on ecclesiastical issues, from the accession of George III in 1760 to the effective end of the doctrinal conflicts consequent upon the secession of Newman and others to Rome nearly 100 years later.
The book is refreshingly faithful to its title, the key word being "context". Nockles is not the first to perceive the inadequacy of restricting a study of Tractarianism to the 12 years 1833-1845, or to have resisted the glamour of its great names. But by taking 1760 as the starting point of his analysis of church parties, and by following the story through to the immediate aftermath of the Gorham Judgement, he provides a new perspective on the events that took Oxford by storm, and one that the Tractarians themselves either failed to perceive or deliberately ignored. He convincingly exposes a whole host of misconceptions, many arising from Newman's own account in the Apologia, since perpetuated by many historians who have followed too reverently the interpretation of events and personalities in Dean Church's celebrated account of the movement, published in 1891.
With due acknowledgement to the pioneering work of other recent scholars, Nockles supplies detailed evidence of the revival of the High Church (or "Orthodox", its preferred term) party within the Anglican Church during the reign of George III, as witnessed by the extent of the patronage the party enjoyed and by its increasing organisational cohesion, largely through the influence of the so-called Hackney Phalanx. The Tractarians paid occasional lip-service to those whom they were wont to describe as the "Z's", but tended to dismiss their spirituality as "high and dry", wanting in warmth and partaking in no more than a sober moralism - thereby doing less than justice to "Hutchinsonians" like William Jones of Nayland and George Horne, bishop of Norwich, as well as influential figures such as Samuel Horsley, George Daubeny and Thomas Burgess. In fact the affinities between the Tractarians and their immediate predecessors were closer than Newman and Froude (in particular) wished to acknowledge, apart from an early alliance on the common platform of political conservatism, a form of "moral Toryism" that led to the defeat of Sir Robert Peel in the Oxford election of 1829, an event Nockles rightly represents as the true starting point of the Oxford Movement.
Political concerns were soon to be displaced by theological and dogmatic issues, but here again the Tractarians seemed determined to distance themselves from those who shared their respect for the Caroline divines and their constant appeal to the teaching of the early Church Fathers. This was no "rediscovery" by the Oxford party; nor was Newman's opening salvo, in his early Tracts, on the crucial doctrine of the apostolic succession either novel or unwelcome to the ears of the "Z's". There were grounds, therefore, for a powerful alliance based on this consensus, which the Tractarians chose to shun. "They had their own agenda", as Nockles writes.
Perhaps the breach was inevitable. To Newman, the Orthodox party, "for all their patristic learning, had a defective appreciation of the ethos of the early church"; to the "Z's", the Tractarians seemed guilty of a faulty reading of history, selecting from the Caroline divines what suited them, and then driving their contentions to extremes, especially in their low opinion of the English Reformers and Newman's increasing preoccupation with "catholicity" as opposed to "apostolicity".
But Newman is not the central figure of Nockles's book. On occasion he comes in for serious criticism, especially for his unfounded claim that he was driven from the Church of England by the hostile episcopal reaction to Tract 90 - a myth arising from Newman's over-sensitivity to criticism, and perhaps also his "zeal for martyrdom". More sympathy is shown to the younger "Z's", whom posterity has neglected largely because of their disparagement by the Tractarians: William Palmer of Worcster College, Hugh James Rose, Edward Churton, even the allegedly "pedestrian" A. P. Perceval. There was something rather noble in Churton's attempts to act as peacemaker after Newman and Pusey had successfully wrested control of the British Critic from the hands of the "Z's" in 1838-39; something truly gracious in Palmer's public defence of Tract 90 against his private feelings, in a vain attempt to placate Newman at the last.
For the Church of England, the Oxford Movement brought both loss and gain, in Nockles's final judgement. There was an injection of vitality, especially appealing to a younger generation, a greater philosophical depth and ethical insights lacking in the contribution of the "Z's" - but there was also irretrievable division, and among the ironies consequent upon disunity was that a movement that had begun as a plea for the exaltation of episcopal authority ended with a weakening of Church order. "Ironically, it was the liberal Protestant comprehensiveness of the Church of England against which the Oxford Movement reacted, which ultimately ensured for Anglo-Catholics the freedom to protest and advance their views."
So concludes a fine work of scholarship that deserves to stand as an authority for students of ecclesiastical history for years to come.
David Newsome was formerly a lecturer in ecclesiastical history, University of Cambridge.
The Oxford Movement in Context:: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857
Author - Peter B. Nockles
ISBN - 0 521 38162
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 342pp