There is no doubt that the Tractarians . . . recovered a more organic relationship between mystery and life. For, like the Fathers, the Tractarians connected the Christian life and Christian ethics with the mysteries of Christ, present in the Church. Not only was Christ to be regarded as an ideal pattern for imitation but, in all his mysteries, as a principle of life.
Alf Hardelin, “The Sacraments in the Tractarian Spiritual Universe”
In response to political and religious upheaval in England during the late 1820s and early 1830s, a group of men centered at Oxford University began publishing a series of tracts known as the “Tracts for the Times,” from which the group was eventually named the Tractarians, and their cause the Tractarian Movement. In all, they wrote 90 tracts between 1833 and 1841. Among the authors were John Keble, John Henry Newman, Edward Bouvarie Pusey, Isaac Williams, and Hurrell Froude. The tracts addressed a number of political, theological and social issues that arose in the wake of the Parliamentary reforms of Church and State.
Of particular importance for the Tractarians was their wish to address the identity vacuum created by these reforms. The reforms, by removing (among other things) the requirement that Members of Parliament must receive Holy Communion according to the rites of the Church of England, signaled that the character of British identity was no longer coterminous with the character of the Established Church. As J. C. D. Clark points out, “In 1828–9, the English were to discover … that Protestantism was not enough, for the Protestant Constitution was fundamentally redefined, or abandoned, by Parliament itself.” As the cultural and political hegemony of the Church crumbled, a deep chasm or vacuum grew in the very heart of the nation.
The Tractarians were troubled by the increasing tendency of some to fill this vacuum with an identity based mostly on a sense of nationalism. This tendency (or ‘Erastianism’), they observed, would remake the Church in the image of the culture. While they did not believe a sense of nationalism was wrong, they did not believe it should be the primary source of a Christian’s identity.
They believed this tension posed a far-reaching challenge for individual Christians. On the one hand, the Christian could not avoid the vacuum by disengaging from society. On the other hand, while acknowledging the inevitability of reflecting one’s surrounding culture, the Christian must ensure that his values remain the values taught by the Church. Indeed, the Christian should be seeking to shape the values of the nation according to the values and practices of the Church — values from a non-national source that could be embodied into his own local context with no loss of essential meaning.
To address these challenges of identity, the Tracts presented a distinct understanding of the Christian life wherein the Church functioned as the Christian’s primary public, not separate from the broader culture, but nonetheless a distinct entity within it. They taught that a Christian’s primary socio-political identity, and its attendant praxis, should come from membership and regular participation in the Church. In other words, among all the voices that influenced the Christian’s identity, the Tractarians argued that the Church must be allowed to speak with the loudest voice. This was true whether that voice complemented or conflicted with the national voice.
The Tractarians believed that the Church should function for Christians, in terms of their identity and values, in the same way that the nation was then functioning for those outside of the Church:
[Christ] has actually set up a Society, which exists even at this day all over the world, and which … Christians are bound to join; so that to believe in Christ is not a mere opinion or a secret conviction, but a social or even a political principle, forcing one into what is often stigmatized as party strife, and quite inconsistent with the supercilious mood of those professed Christians of the day, who stand aloof, and designate their indifference as philosophy.
Tracts for the Times, No. 11
The Christian’s commitment to the Church must be primary in every aspect of life. It must supersede all other conflicting commitments. Nevertheless, the Church was not to function in isolation from the rest of the nation. Rather, the life of the Church ought to inform the Christian’s interaction with the culture around him.
Fundamental to this understanding of Christian identity was a proper understanding of the Communion of Saints. The Tractarians, following the Church Fathers, said that the Christian must have a “deep sense of the Communion of Saints, as a relation really subsisting between them and the Patriarchs and Prophets, and not merely a figure of speech.” They stressed that the Communion of Saints was not a metaphor describing the work and witness of those who had gone before, but a real and living connection between all Christians, living and dead. Neither time nor space, neither death nor life formed boundaries for the Communion of Saints.
The Christian’s membership in this Communion is dynamic, not static. While one entered the Church through baptism and left it only through excommunication or apostasy, the real bond of the Communion of Saints demanded continued participation in the ongoing life of the Church:
‘The Communion of Saints’ is maintained by unity of worship, by similarity of devotional forms, by one Baptism, and also by her Saints’ days; whereby various Churches throughout the world, by commemorating the same Saints, on the same days, preserve a communion of spirit with the living, and also with the dead, whom they commemorate.
Tracts for the Times, No. 87
This devotional life ought to mark the Christian out from the surrounding culture by informing one’s values and grounding all identity in the Church. This active participation with the saints who had gone before reminded the Christian that when one acted in accordance with the particular national context, one was doing so as a representative of and participant in a body that extended beyond the geographical and chronological boundaries of the day. Thus, the Christian must see the social and political issues of the day in the larger context of the issues facing the Communion of Saints throughout time and space.
Participation in the Eucharist is the most important part of the ongoing, dynamic life of the Church. Receiving Holy Communion on a regular basis not only acted as a visible marker of one’s membership in the Church, but it also reaffirmed one’s baptismal commitment and brought one’s focus back to Christ. Moreover, when the Christian receives the bread and the wine, that person receives a measure of the same grace received in baptism. This grace renews the Christian and gives increased strength to live faith- fully when one leaves the church building and enters the larger society.
Participation in the Eucharist is also a real and substantial link between the visible Church and the heavenly Kingdom, for this is the meal in which all members of the Church commune and come together. The Tractarians believed that, in the same way in which Christians shared one baptism, they also shared one meal. The Eucharist offers spiritual nourishment not only to the one receiving it, but also to the entire Church body, both living and dead. It was thus a mark of unity between heaven and earth as well as between individual Christians. It is ultimately both the sign and the reality of the union between the whole Church and Christ himself.
As an event that brings heaven and earth together in a great communal feast, the Eucharist for the Tractarians resolved the tension between mystery and common life by providing an identity rooted in the Incarnation. The society of those who are invited to that table, both living and dead, are indeed the Christian’s true countrymen and companions; for Christ is the true king. Only by participating in the Eucharistic feast, in the company of the saints, might Christians find their true identity.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my colleague, Anglican scholar Ben Amundgaard. Ben is product manager of Anglican resources for Logos Bible Software, and a graduate of Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. (M.A. Church History), specializing in the Oxford Movement.