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The word "Ritualists" is the term now most commonly employed to denote that advanced section of the High Church party in the Anglican Establishment, which since about 1860 has adhered to and developed further the principles of the earlier Tractarian Movement. Although this designation is one that is not adopted but rather resented by the persons to whom it is applied, it cannot exactly be called a nickname. "Ritualism" in the middle of the nineteenth century not uncommonly meant the study or practice of ritual, i.e. ecclesiastical ceremonial; while those who favoured ritualism were apt to be called "ritualists". For example, the Rev. J. Jebb, in a publication of 1856 entitled "The Principle of Ritualism Defended", defines ritualism equivalently as "a sober and chastened regard for the outward accessories of worship", and insists further that "we need something more than a lawyer's mind to examine fairly ecclesiastical questions. The Church requires that divines and ritualists should be called into counsel". It was only some time later, about 1865 or 1866, that the word came to be used as the name of a party and was printed with a capital letter.

Unlike many other party names which have grown up in the course of controversy, the word "Ritualists" does very fairly indicate the original, if not the most fundamental, characteristic which has divided those so designated from their fellow-High-Churchmen. The movement headed by Newman and his friends had been primarily doctrinal. Pusey always stated that the leaders had rather discouraged as too conspicuous anything in the way of ceremonies, fearing that they might awaken prejudice and divert attention from more important issues. Nevertheless the sympathies awakened for the traditions of a Catholic past, and especially the revival of faith in the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice, could not fail in the long run to produce an effect upon the externals of worship. Many of the followers were more venturous than the leaders approved. Moreover, the conversion of Newman and other prominent Tractarians, while somewhat breaking up the party and arresting the progress of events at Oxford, had only transferred the movement to the parish churches throughout the country, where each incumbent was in a measure free to follow his own light and to act for himself. The Rev. W. J. E. Bennett, Vicar of St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, became notorious for a number of innovations in ritual, notably in such details as the use of altar lights, cross, and coverings which brought him into conflict with his bishop (in 1850) and led in the end to his resigning his benefice. In 1859 still greater sensation was caused by the "Romish" ceremonial of the Rev. Bryan King at St. George's in the East. The roughs of the district, with some violent Evangelicals, for months together continued to interrupt the services with brawling and rioting. The English Church Union, however, founded at about this period to defend the interests of the High Church movement, lent effective aid, and public opinion turned against the authors of these disturbances.

During the years that followed ceremonial innovations, imitating more and more pronouncedly the worship of the Catholic Church, spread throughout the country. A regular campaign was carried on, organized on the one side by the English Church Union and on the other by the Church Association, which latter was called into existence in 1865 and earned amongst its opponents the nickname of the "Persecution Company Limited". The lovers of ornate ceremonial were for the most part sincerely convinced that they were loyal to the true principles of Anglicanism, and that they were rightly insisting on the observance of the letter of the law embodied in the so-called "Ornaments Rubric ", which stands at the head of the Morning Service in the Boo of Common Prayer. It could not of course be denied that the practices which the Tractarians were introducing had long been given up in the Church of England. But though these had fallen completely into abeyance, the party contended that the letter of the Prayer Book made it a duty to revive them. It may be said indeed that it is round the Ornaments Rubric that the whole ritualistic controversy has turned down to the present day. For this reason a somewhat full account of it is indispensable.

The first Prayer Book of Edward VI, which came into use on 9 June, 1549, has the following rubric at the beginning of the Mass: "Upon the day and at the time appointed for the administration of the Holy Communion, the Priest that shall execute the holy ministry shall put upon him the vesture appointed for that ministration, that is to say a white Alb plain, with a Vestment or Cope." This first Prayer Book of Edward VI remained in use for three years when it was supplanted by the second Prayer Book of Edward VI (1 Nov., 1552). In this, under the influences of Continental reformers, the rubric just quoted was expunged and the following substituted: "And here is to be noted that the Minister at the time of the Communion, and at all other times in his ministration, shall use neither Albae, Vestment or Cope ". After the accession of Elizabeth a revised Prayer Book was issued in 1559, which contained the rubric in the following form: "And here it is to be noted that the minister at the time of the Communion and at all other times in his ministration shall use such ornaments in the Church as were in use by authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward VI according to the Act of Parliament set in the beginning of the book." In spite of a brief suppression under the Long Parliament and during the Commonwealth, the same rubric was restored in substantially identical terms in the Prayer Book of 1662 which remains in force today. Now it must not of course be forgotten that the word "ornaments" is used in a technical sense which has been defined by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to include "all the several articles used in the performance of the rites and services of the Church ". Vestments, books, cloths, chalices, and patens must be regarded as church ornaments. In modern times even organs and bells are held to fall under this denomination. Further there can be no doubt that if the reference to the second year of Edward VI be strictly interpreted, much Catholic ceremonial was then still retained embracing such adjuncts as lights, incense, vestments, crosses, etc. There is considerable controversy regarding the precise meaning of the rubric, but, however we regard it, it certainly gives much more latitude to the lovers of ritual than was recognized by the practice of the English Church in 1850.

Although of recent years the innovators have gone far beyond those usages which could by any possibility be covered by a large interpretation of the Ornaments Rubric, it seems clear that in the beginning the new school of clergy founded themselves upon this and were not exactly accused of doing what was illegal. Their position, a position recognized in 1851 by the bishops themselves, was rather that of wishing "to restore an unusual strictness of ritual observance". Their tendencies no doubt were felt to be "popish", but they were primarily censured by the Protestant party as "ultra-rubricians". The first appeal to legal tribunals in the Westerton v. Liddell case (Mr. Liddell was the successor of Mr. Bennett) terminated, after appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, substantially in favour of the Ritualists. It was decided that the Ornaments Rubric did establish the legality of a credence table, coloured frontals and altar coverings, candlesticks and a cross above the holy table. This gave confidence to the party in other directions and between the years 1857 and 1866 there was a considerable extension of ritual usages such as the Eucharistic vestments, altar lights, flowers, and incense, while the claim was generally made that they were all perfectly lawful.

With the year 1866 began a period of almost incessant controversy. Six specific practices, known as the "Six Points", were about this time recognized as constituting the main features in the claims of the less extreme Ritualists. They were:

  • (1) the eastward position (i.e. that by which the minister in consecrating turns his back to the people);
  • (2) the use of incense ;
  • (3) the use of altar lights ;
  • (4) the mixed chalice ;
  • (5) the use of vestments ;
  • (6) the use of wafer bread.

A committee of the Lower House of Convocation in 1866 expressed a strong opinion that most of these things should not be introduced into parish churches without reference to the bishop. A royal commission followed (1867-70), but came to no very clear or unanimous decision except as regards the inexpediency of tolerating any vesture which departs from what had long been the established usage of the English Church. Meanwhile the Dean of Arches, and, after appeal, the Privy Council delivered judgment in the Mackonochie case and between them decided against the legality of the elevation, use of incense, altar lights, ceremonially mixed chalice and against any position of the minister which would hide the manual acts from the communicants. Even more important was the judgement of the same Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the Purchas Case (Ap. 1871), which besides confirming these previous decisions, even as against the opinion of the Dean of Arches, declared in more unequivocal terms the illegality of wafer-bread and of all Eucharistic vestments.

The reaction among the High Church party against this sweeping condemnation was considerable, and it is probably true that much of the strong feeling which has existed ever since against the Judicial Committee as a court of appeal is traceable to this cause, Many of the Ritualists not only refuse to acknowledge the jurisdiction of a secular court in church matters but they declare themselves justified in withholding obedience from their bishops as long as the bishops are engaged in enforcing its decrees. The passing of the Public Worship Regulation Act in 1874 which, as Disraeli stated in Parliament was meant "to put down the Ritualists", seems only to have led to increased litigation, and the Risdale judgment in 1877 by which the Committee of the Privy Council, after elaborate argument by counsel on either side, reconsidered the question of Eucharistic vestments and the eastward position, reaffirming the condemnation of the former but pronouncing the latter to be lawful, providing that it did not render the manual acts invisible to the congregation gave encouragement to the Ritualists by showing that earlier decisions were not irreversible. In any case there were no signs of any greater disposition to submit to authority. The committal of four clergymen to prison in the years 1878-81 for disobedience to the order of the courts whose jurisdiction they challenged, only increased the general irritation and unrest. In 1888 came another sensation. Proceedings were taken before the Archbishop of Canterbury, sitting with episcopal assessors against Dr. King, Bishop of Lincoln, for various ritualistic practices. In his judgment subsequently confirmed by the Privy Council Archbishop Benson sanctioned under carefully defined conditions the eastward position, mixed chalice, altar lights, the ablutions, and the singing of the Agnus Dei, but forbade the signing of the cross in the air when giving the absolution and the benediction.

Naturally the effect of these alternate relaxations and restrictions was not favourable to the cause of sober uniformity. The movement went on. The bishops had probably grown a little weary in repressing an energy which was much more full of conviction than their own, and in the years which followed, especially in the Diocese of London, under Bishop Temple, a large measure of licence seems to have been granted or at any rate taken. The rapid spread of "romanizing" practices, though in their extreme form they were confined to a comparatively small number of churches, began to attract general attention, while causing profound uneasiness to Evangelicals and Nonconformists. In 1898 Sir William Harcourt started a vigorous campaign against ritualistic lawlessness by a series of letters in the "Times", and almost concurrently Mr. John Kensit and his followers appealed to another phase of public opinion by their organized interruptions of the services in the churches they disapproved of. It was felt once again that something must be done and this time the remedy took the form of the so-called "Lambeth Hearings", when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, after listening to legal and expert argument, delivered a joint "opinion upon certain burning questions, to wit

  • (a) the use of incense and processional lights, and
  • (b) the practice of reservation.

On 31 July, 1899, they jointly pronounced the use of incense to be inadmissible, and on 1 May, 1900, in two independent "opinions", they concurred in forbidding any form of reservation of the consecrated elements. Very little was effected by this or by a series of Church Discipline Bills which were introduced into Parliament, but which died stillborn. Consequently in 1904 a royal commission was appointed "to inquire into the alleged prevalence of breaches or neglect of the Law relating to the conduct of Divine Service in the Church of England and to the ornaments and fittings of churches." The commission, after collecting an immense mass of evidence from ecclesiastics and laymen of every shade of opinion, not forgetting the agents employed by the Church Association to keep watch on the services in ritualistic churches, issued a voluminous report in 1906.

Although the commission has accomplished little more than the propounding of certain suggestions regarding the reconstitution of the ecclesiastical courts , suggestions which have not yet been acted upon, the "Report" is a document of the highest importance for the evidence which it contains of the developments of Ritualism. The commissioners single out certain practices which they condemn as being graver in character and of a kind that demand immediate suppression. No doubt the numerical proportion of the churches in which the clergy go to these lengths is small, but the number seems to be increasing. The practices censured as of special gravity and significance, are the following: "The interpolation of prayers and ceremonies belonging to the Canon of the Mass. The use of the words 'Behold the Lamb of God' accompanied by the exhibition of a consecrated wafer or bread. Reservation of the sacrament under conditions which lead to its adoration. Mass of the presanctified. Corpus Christi processions with the sacrament. Benediction with the sacrament. Celebration of the Holy Eucharist with the intent that there should be no communicant except the celebrant. Hymns, prayers and devotions involving invocation or a confession to the Blessed Virgin or the saints. The observance of the festivals of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Sacred Heart. The veneration of images and roods." These practices are described as having an exceptional character because they are at once

  • (1) in flagrant contradiction with the teaching of the Articles and Prayer Book;
  • (2) they are illegal, and
  • (3) their illegality does not depend upon any judgment of the Privy Council.

Similar objection is taken to any observance of All Souls' Day or of the festival of Corpus Christi which implies the "Romish" doctrine concerning purgatory or transubstantiation.

But while it is quite true that the number of churches in which these extremes are practised is small, it is important to remember that private oratories, communities, and sisterhoods, which last commonly follow forms of devotion and ritual which cannot externally be distinguished from those prevailing in the Catholic Church were not in any way touched by these investigations of the commissioners. It is in such strongholds that the ritualistic spirit is nurtured and propagated, and there is as yet no sign that the feeling which animated this revival of the religious life is less earnest than of yore.

Again everything seems to point to the conclusion that if extreme practices have not spread more widely this is due less to any distaste for such practices in themselves than to a shrinking from the unpleasantness engendered by open conflict with ecclesiastical authority. Where comparative impunity has been secured, as for example by the ambiguity of the Ornaments Rubric, a notable and increasing proportion of the clergy have advanced to the very limits of what was likely to be tolerated in the way of ritualistic development. It has been stated by Archbishop Davidson that before 1850 the use of vestments in a public church was known hardly anywhere. In 1901 carefully compiled statistics showed that Eucharistic vestments of some kind (other than the stole authorized by long tradition) were used in no less than 1526 churches of the provinces of York and Canterbury, that is about twelve per cent of the whole; and the number has increased since. A slighter but not altogether contemptible indication of the drift of opinion when unchecked by authority is to be found in the familiar "Roman collar". Less than fifty years ago, at the time of the "Roman aggression" it was regarded in England as the distinctive feature of the dress of a Catholic priest, an article which by its very name manifested its proper usage. Not long afterwards it was gradually adopted by certain High Church clergymen of an extreme type. At the present day it is the rule rather than the exception among English ecclesiastics of all shades of opinion, not excepting even the Nonconformists.

With regard to the present position and principles of the Ritualists we shall probably do well with Monsignor R. H. Benson (Non-Catholic Denominations, pp. 29-58) to recognize a distinction between two separate schools of thought, the moderate and the extreme. On the one hand all the members of this party seem to agree in recognizing the need of some more immediate court of appeal to settle disputed questions of dogma and ritual than can be afforded by the "Primitive Church " which the early Tractarians were content to invoke in their difficulties. On the other hand while both sections of the Ritualists are in search of a "Living Voice" to guide them, or at any rate of some substitute for that Living Voice, they have come to supply the need in two quite different ways. To the moderate Ritualists it has seemed sufficient to look back to the Boo of Common Prayer. This, it is urged, was drawn up in full view of the situation created by "Roman abuses", and though it was not intended to be a complete and final guide in every detail of doctrine and discipline, the fact that it was originally issued to men already trained in Catholic principles, justifies us in supplying deficiencies by setting a Catholic interpretation upon all doubtful points and omissions. The Ritualist of this school, who of course firmly believes in the continuity of his Church with the Church of England before the Reformation, thinks it his duty to "behave and teach as a Marian priest, conforming under Elizabeth, would have behaved and taught when the Prayer Book was first put into his hands: he must supply the lacunœ and carry out the imperfect directions in as 'Catholic' a manner as possible" (Benson, op. cit., p. 32). Thus interpreted, the Prayer Book supplies a standard by which the rulings of bishops and judicial committees may be measured, and, if necessary, set aside; for the bishops themselves are no less bound by the Prayer Book than are the rest of the clergy, and no command of a bishop need be obeyed if it transgress the directions of this higher written authority. The objections to which this solution of the difficulty is open must be sufficiently obvious. Clearly the text of this written authority itself needs interpretation and it must seem to the unprejudiced mind that upon contested points the interpretation of the bishops and other officials of the Establishment is not only better authorized than that of the individual Ritualist, but that in almost every case the interpretation of the latter in view of the Articles, canons, homilies, and other official utterances is strained and unnatural. Moreover there is the undeniable fact of desuetude. To appeal to such an ordinance as the "Ornaments Rubric " as evidently binding, after it has been in practice neglected by all orders of the Church for nearly three hundred years, is contrary to all ecclesiastical as well as civil presumptions in matters of external observance.

The extreme party among the Ritualists, though they undoubtedly go beyond their more moderate brethren in their sympathy with Catholic practices and also in a very definitely formulated wish for "Reunion" (see UNION OF CHRISTENDOM ), do not greatly differ from them in matters of doctrine. Many adopt such devotions as the rosary and benediction, some imitate Catholic practice so far as to recite the Canon of the Mass in Latin, a few profess even to hold the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff and to receive (of course with exception of the necessity of external communion with Rome ) all doctrines defined and taught by him. But the more fundamental difference which divides the Ritualists into two classes is probably to be found in their varying conceptions of the authority to which they profess allegiance. Giving up the appeal to the Prayer Book as a final rule, the extreme party find a substitute for the Living Voice in the consensus of the Churches which now make up Catholic Christendom — that is practically speaking in the agreement of Canterbury, Rome, and Moscow — if Moscow may be taken as the representative of a number of eastern communions which do not in doctrinal matters differ greatly from one another. Where these bodies are agreed either explicitly or by silence, there, according to the theory of this advanced school, is the revealed faith of Christendom ; where these bodies differ among themselves, there we have matters of private opinion which do not necessarily command the assent of the individual.

It is difficult perhaps for anyone who has not been brought up in a High Church atmosphere to understand how such a principle can be applied, and how Ritualists can profess to distinguish between beliefs which are de fide and those which are merely speculative. To the outsider it would seem that the Chinch of Canterbury has quite clearly rejected such doctrines as the Real Presence, the invocation of saints, and the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. But the Ritualist has all his life been taught to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles in a "Catholic" sense. When the Articles say that transubstantiation is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, he is satisfied to believe that some misconception of transubstantiation was condemned, not the doctrine as defined a little later by the Council of Trent. When the Articles speak of "the sacrifices of Masses — for the quick and the dead" as "blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits", he understands that this repudiation was only directed against certain popular "Romish errors " about the multiplication of the effects of such Masses, not against the idea of a propitiatory sacrifice in itself. Again the statement that "the Romish doctrine concerning . . . Invocation of Saints is a fond thing vainly invented", for him amounts to no more than a rejection of certain abuses of extreme romanizers who went perilously near to idolatry. In this way the Church of England is exonerated from the apparent repudiation of these Catholic beliefs, and the presumption stands that she accepts all Catholic doctrine which she does not explicitly reject. Hence as Rome and Moscow and Canterbury (in the manner just explained) profess the three beliefs above specified, such beliefs are to be regarded as part of the revealed faith of Christendom. On the other hand such points as papal infallibility, indulgences, and the procession of the Holy Ghost, which are admittedly rejected by one or more of the three great branches of the Catholic Church, have not the authority of the Living Voice behind them. They may be true, but it cannot be shown that they form part of the Revelation, the acceptance of which is obligatory upon all good Christians.

With this fundamental view are connected many other of the strange anomalies in the modern Ritualist position. To begin with, those who so think, feel bound to no particular reverence for the Church of their baptism or for the bishops that represent her. By her negative attitude to so many points of Catholic doctrine she has paltered with the truth, She has by God's Providence retained the bare essentials of Catholicity and preserved the canonical succession of her bishops. Hence English Catholics are bound to be in communion with her and to receive the sacraments from her ministers, but they are free to criticize and up to a certain point to disobey. On the other hand the Ritualist believes that each Anglican bishop possesses jurisdiction, and that this jurisdiction particularly in the matter of confessions, is conferred upon every clergyman in virtue of his ordination. Further the same jurisdiction inherent in the canonically appointed bishop of the diocese requires that English Catholics should be in communion with him, and renders it gravely sinful for them to hear Mass in the churches of the "Italian Mission" — so the Ritualist is prone to designate the Churches professing obedience to Rome. This participation in alien services is a schismatical act in England, while on the other hand on the Continent, an "English Catholic " is bound to respect the jurisdiction of the local ordinary by hearing Mass according to the Roman Rite, and it becomes an equally schismatical act to attend the services of any English Church.

The weak points in this theory of the extreme Ritualist party do not need insisting upon. Apart from the difficulty of reconciling this view of the supposed "Catholic" teaching of the Established Church with the hard facts of history and with the wording of the Articles, apart also from the circumstance that nothing was ever heard of any such theory until about twenty-five years ago, there is a logical contradiction about the whole assumption which it seems impossible to evade. The most fundamental doctrine of all in this system (for all the other beliefs depend upon it) is precisely the principle that the Living Voice is constituted by the consensus of the Churches, but this is itself a doctrine which Rome and Moscow explicitly reject and which the Church of England at best professes only negatively and imperfectly. Therefore by the very test which the Ritualists themselves invoke, this principle falls to the round or at any rate becomes a matter of opinion which binds no man in conscience.

The real strength of Ritualism and the secret of the steady advance, which even in its extreme forms it still continues to make, lies in its sacramental doctrine and in the true devotion and self-sacrifice which in so many cases follow as a consequence from this more spiritual teaching. The revival of the celibate and ascetic ideal, more particularly in the communities of men and women living under religious vows and consecrated to prayer and works of charity, tends strongly in the same direction. It is the Ritualist clergy who more than any other body in the English Church have thrown themselves heart and soul into the effort to spiritualize the lives of the poor in the slums and to introduce a higher standard into the missionary work among the heathen. Whatever there may be of affectation and artificiality in the logical position of the Ritualists, the entire sincerity, the real self-denial, and the apostolic spirit of a large proportion of both the clergy and laity belonging to this party form the greatest asset of which Anglicanism now disposes. (For those aspects of Ritualism which touch upon Anglican Orders and Reunion, see ANGLICAN ORDERS and UNION OF CHRISTENDOM.)


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