In 1833 a reforming government seemed to threaten the disestablishment of the Church of England. This provoked a small number of clergy associated with Oxford University to address Tracts for the Times (1833–1841) to fellow Anglican clerics. Reminding them that they derived their spiritual authority not from the state, but by virtue of ordination into a church which traced its direct descent from the body instituted by Christ and his apostles, the tracts ranged from scholarly argument to templates for the renewal of spiritual life. The tract writers included John Henry Newman, John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude, Isaac Williams, and Edward Bouverie Pusey. Determined to reinterpret the Church of England to itself as the true Catholic church in England, they sought to counteract the perceived Protestant bias of the Book of Common Prayer by appealing to the early Fathers of the undivided church of antiquity, and by emphasizing the via media (middle way) favored by many 17th-century theologians.
The series that gave the movement its alternative name, Tractarianism, came to an abrupt end when in Tract XC (1841), Newman, the influential vicar of the University church, argued that the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all ordained clergy and all Oxford students were then obliged to subscribe, could be interpreted as compatible with Roman Catholic theology. For many, Newman’s founding of a semi-monastic community to which he retreated in 1843, and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, where he was followed by a number of other Tractarians, marked the end of the movement. This impression was lent continued currency both by Newman’s own account, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), and by subsequent 19th-century historians. However, the movement’s influence continued to be felt throughout the wider Anglican communion in renewed attention to sacramental worship, in church building, and in the founding of Anglican communities. The movement’s appeal to pre-Reformation theology led to its being associated with the revival of Gothic architecture, while Tractarian sacramental fervor later translated into obsessive observance of Prayer Book rubrics by the so-called Ritualists.
Admiration for the Lake Poets fed into a Tractarian aesthetic which saw poetic language as religion’s natural mode of expression, half revealing, half concealing heavenly truths, and poetic rhythm and structure as devices for controlling thoughts and emotions. As its title indicates, Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) was designed to accompany the liturgy: immensely popular, it carried the movement’s principles well beyond Anglo-Catholic circles. It was supplemented by further collections of Tractarian poetry. Institutionally male in origin, the movement nevertheless legitimated women’s work through sisterhoods, in education and as writers. Charlotte Yonge and Christina Rossetti are the two most notable exemplars of this impulse.
The movement provoked polemical fiction both from its ardent disciples and from disenchanted followers. In the popular press, Anglo-Catholicism quickly translated into Roman Catholicism, thus presenting a potential threat to English values. The revival of confession, sisterhoods, and the notion of celibacy seemed to undermine the Victorian domestic order, while priestly attention to liturgical vestments was attacked as unmanly. If Anglo-Catholicism’s long-term legacy was spiritual, its short-term effect was to politicize Victorian religion.