Friday, January 19, 2007

Glorious Battle

[ just an ordinary review; not for any challenge ]

Title: Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism

Author: John Shelton Reed (see information here; an Angelfire personal website without attribution, so I have some reservations as to its reliability)

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Length: 396 pages

Copyright: 2000, Vanderbilt University Press, ISBN 0826513808 (paperback)

Summary: Fascinating, cultural investigation of the shifts in practice in the Church of England during the era roughly spanning the years, 1833 - 1890. Reed primarily investigates how and why the attitudes and practices re-introduced by the Oxford Movement took hold at this particular point in time. What was the movement reacting to and how did the rise of ritualism in its wake become part of the mainstream? What were the various factions that drove the shifts in thinking and practice? His interest is less in the theological debates and more in the social pressures that forced the institutional Church into new channels. This is a thoroughly accessible history for those with an interest in the Victorian period.

Extract: This directive set off a flurry of meetings, petitions and protests throughout the diocese, and Philpotts withdrew it soon after issuing it. But at the parish church of St. Sitwell's, Exeter, already divided and suspicious because of an earlier conflict, the curate ill-advisedly wore the surplice for preaching anyway. Two-thirds of his congregation walked out, and he was mobbed on his way home by two hundred protestors. The next Sunday he required a police escort to protect him from a mob of two thousand. The following Sunday, he relented, but five thousand people were on hand to see that he did. (Glorious Battle, page 36)

The above paragraph references the Surplice Riots of 1844. I hope you hear the faint humor in Reed's prose. Yes, people allowed themselves to become overwrought to the point of violence over a garment worn in the pulpit. But you should read the volume to better understand why. Note that Reed is entirely respectful of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and of the body of activist Christians who moved into the slums of London as a part of the ritualist movement. It is only the truly silly, ostensibly theological debates that evoke a certain entertainment in his narrative.

Perhaps the best summation of his work is found in the next to last paragraph of the book when he quotes another historian from 1897 who said, "it is perfectly marvellous to observe how things are now accepted which once provoked suspicion and even actual rebellion."

Also Relevant: I know. The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism; that subtitle just screams "bestseller". You're wondering, is this really anyone's idea of leisure reading?

I read this book for several reasons: my interest in nineteenth century British literature and history, my active lifetime participation in the Episcopal church in modern-day America, and my curiousity about the ecclesiastical tensions that surface in much of Trollope. Certainly, the Episcopalians are variously known as the "Frozen Chosen" and the High-and-Dry even as Robin Williams makes fun of us for being "Catholic-Lite - all the ritual; half the guilt." Given the upheavals that currently threaten my denomination, I thought reading up on some of the historical background made sense.

The good news is that by reading Glorious Battle, I'm persuaded that my church, having suffered through some fairly dramatic hoo-rah in the past, will likely survive the current threats of schism. I know some in my parish can't believe that we are still arguing points of church law with regard to women's ordination, while others wish we could go back to the 1928 Prayer Book. It's somewhat upsetting until you read something like this history and realize that 140 years ago, the issues were really just as absurd despite all of the very human participants' very serious, anxiety-ridden, yet basically good intentions.

This is really fairly demanding reading in some ways. One chapter at a time and synthesizing what I read the next morning was frequently the only way I could get through it and be sure I had something of a grasp on the discussion. But it's an interesting read. And despite the truly distressing news from the South (do read this Washington Post article), we will get through this.

[Quick Post-Script] I just wanted to note that the type of issues that raised hackles in the Church of England at this point in time included such fearful notions as having flowers at the altar as well as candles. Such things smacked of popery, to use their vocabulary. Given that I can't recall a single Episcopal church that I've ever attended as being without either of those two elements, the point is made that much of what we're agonizing over today may seem absolutely run-of-the-mill in the future. Reed's book discusses how the Victorians ended up getting from Point A to Point B.