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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Minor Characters in the Oxford Movement

Strictly speaking, my favorite minor character in our text wasn’t part of the Oxford Movement at all. He shared a common realization with Newman, Pusey, and the rest, in that he recognized the imperative need for reform in the church as it existed at the time. However, his vision for the changes necessary took a very different tack.

Thomas Arnold is described as “the Headmaster of Rugby School and a former Fellow of Oriel.” (9) He was a contemporary of the Oxford crowd, but his suggestions for reforming the church could not have been more at variance. Instead of attempting to return to the ancient theology and practice of the Western catholic tradition, Arnold proposed revolution: opening up the practices and traditions of the church, structuring reforms to make it an umbrella body: a place where all Christian believers (excepting Roman Catholics, Quakers and Unitarians, who he felt were likely to be disinterested, and to remain independent) were embraced. He published his ideas in a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Church Reform, which was both widely read and roundly lambasted.

Obviously, his ideas were not accepted. Our text condemns them as “theologically naive,” and “far too radical for serious consideration.” (10) Rather than triggering desired reforms, Arnold’s ultimate role seems to have been only to intensify the ongoing debate, and spur the Tractarians to action. Nevertheless, I find I have a certain sympathy for the hapless idealist. Certainly he had the courage of his convictions, and was willing to take a significant personal risk in laying out his vision so publicly. And that vision, of the Church as a place where a broad range of Christians come together for worship, is one that I can share.


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