St Michael’s and the Oxford Movement

St. Michael’s Church was founded by Fr Penfold as an Anglo-Catholic church, influenced by the Oxford Movement. This Movement began among a small group of clerical dons including John Keble, John Henry Newman, Richard Hurrell Froude, and Edward Bouverie Pusey at the University of Oxford. A religious revival in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century in England saw the beginnings of Methodism, of the Clapham Sect and of the Evangelical movement within the Church of England. Meanwhile in Oxford on 14th July 1833, the Revd John Keble, Professor of Poetry in Oxford University and Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford preached a sermon before the Assize Judges in the University Church of S. Mary the Virgin. Although replete with Biblical quotations and analogy, it was, in effect, an attack on the Whig government of the day for its proposal to suppress certain Irish bishoprics and to apply their endowments to general educational purposes. Keble’s attack, however, was not based on the merits of the particular piece of legislation before Parliament. His objection was to the principle that an institution of the state that was no longer exclusively Anglican, could legislate for matters which were the exclusive preserve of the Anglican Church. He argued that the Church was a divine society, founded by Jesus Christ himself and his authority was held by his Apostles and their successors, the bishops of the Church in direct line from those in the Upper Room at Pentecost. The underlying principle of Church governance was the doctrine of Apostolic Succession.

There were also other problems. Over the centuries churches were funded by gifts and endowments made by individuals. Now the population had grown hugely but ancient Anglican endowments for the upkeep of churches were not in the places with the greatest population growth or ‘greatest pastoral need’.1 New towns and cities appeared yet the system of church administration was still based on that formed when most people lived on the land rather than in towns. The rights to present to wealthy benefices were bought and sold on the open market, and plural livings, even for bishops, were not uncommon in poorly endowed parishes.2 Within the established Church Evangelicals, Broad-churchmen, and High-Churchmen all differed in their opinions about what reform was needed, if any. No forum existed for discussing these differences because Convocation, the traditional meeting of the church, had been suppressed in the eighteenth century.

John Henry Newman and others began to publish and disseminate numerous Tracts drawing attention to the problems besetting the established church and offering alternatives firmly based on theology. As a result they became known as ‘Tractarians’. They asked if church and state should be separate as in America, and whether bishops should continue to be regarded as just functionaries of the state and administrators, or instead seen as the inheritors of the apostolic tradition as the Tractarians believed. Their aim was to bring about a Catholic revival within the established Church of England. They laid stress on the essentially Catholic nature of the Church of England, and placed a renewed emphasis on the significance for all mankind of the Doctrine of the Incarnation: Christ on earth among us, and the ‘indwelling’ of Christ within us.3 The Sacraments, including especially Baptism and the Eucharist, were ‘all God’s gifts’. The Tractarians wanted Anglicanism to represent a Catholic theology, but not a Roman Catholic theology. The Oxford movement now moved beyond the University to the whole country.

By the later part of the nineteenth century Tractarian practices were often referred to as ‘ritualism’ because the Oxford Movement priests adopted Catholic vestments and ceremonies. Ritualist churches were distinguishable from others within the Church of England by six points in their liturgy: facing east during the Eucharist; wearing full Eucharistic vestments; mixing water with wine in the chalice; using lighted candles on the altar; using unleavened or ‘wafer’ bread during the Eucharist; and the use of incense.4 St. Michael’s today remains firmly within this Anglo-Catholic tradition.

Nineteenth century ritualism caused controversy dividing public opinion. Within the Anglican Communion some believed ‘ritualistic practices’ were not authorized by the Book of Common Prayer. Strong feelings led to the disruption of Anglo-Catholic services with abuse and cat-calling. The English Church Union defended ritualists, while the Church Association was the rival Evangelical body.

The Earl of Shaftsbury, a leading Evangelical, tried to introduce a bill into parliament to restrain ritualism, and the Government set up a Royal Commission in 1867 to look into the controversies. The Royal Commission reported in 1868 and 1869, deciding against the total prohibition of vestments. Instead the use of vestments, lighted candles and incense should be ‘restrained’. The subsequent Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 was passed as an attempt by bishops, principally the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait, to recover some authority and credibility and set in place a universally acceptable system. Its officially avowed intention was to rationalise the ecclesiastical position, to make it more efficient and better able to respond swiftly to demands placed upon it. However during its passage through the House of Commons, debates indicate the Bill’s opponents saw the real aim quite differently. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli declared the aim was to “put down ritualism” and to put and end to the “Mass in masquerade.” High churchmen had relentlessly opposed the Bill, with Gladstone leading the parliamentary rearguard action.5

The Act provided for a new ecclesiastical court, but one presided over by a layman. The appointment of James Plaisted Wilde, 1st Baron Penzance , as Dean of the Arches in 1875 was not popular with High Churchmen. He had previously presided over the Probate and Divorce Court and could now pass judgment on matters of ecclesiastical ritual and ceremonial practices in the Anglican Church. Cases could only be brought with the consent of the diocesan bishop, whose right of veto was absolute. The new Court could make orders including monition, meaning formally ordering defendants not to do something. Failure to comply with a court order was contempt of court punished by imprisonment.

Over the next few years opponents of ritualism brought numerous complaints about ritualistic practices before the new Court. The Church Association backed the first in 1876, that against the Rev. C. J. Ridsdale of St Peter’s in Folkstone. The case against him was proved and he agreed to be bound by the Court’s judgment. But the next cases brought under the Act were marked by confusion and failure to comply with technicalities. Most importantly these cases were brought against priests who were unwilling to compromise their principles and unwilling to accept either the jurisdiction of the Court or its decisions. They were however willing to suffer the consequences of their actions.

In 1876 Fr Arthur Tooth of St James Hatcham refused to appear before the Court and disregarded every ruling made against him by Penzance. It was said that although Tooth’s position was legally indefensible, it was morally correct and that the Act and its consequences illustrated ‘a misuse of law such has never been known in history.’6 Tooth’s actions exposed the weakness of the Act. No one had envisaged that the clergy against whom the Act was directed would refuse to comply with its rulings. Tooth was imprisoned in Horsemonger Goal on 22nd January 1877 where he remained until 17th February. Once released the indomitable Tooth broke into his own Church and celebrated Mass before a congregation of three hundred with vestments and full ritual. The Church Association then brought objections to the judgment against Tooth on technical grounds and in the event Tooth resigned his benefice and retired to East Grinstead.

Subsequently several other Anglo-Catholic priests were brought before the Court and were then imprisoned for contempt when they refused to obey its orders. Those imprisoned included S. F. Green of St John’s, Miles Platting, Manchester, Thomas Pelham Dale of St Vedast’s Foster Lane and R. W. Enraght of Holy Trinity, Bordsley. Great scandal was caused in 1880 in the latter case when a consecrated host was produced in Court as an exhibit duly stamped and marked. This action was greatly offensive to many High Churchmen and others too.

When Fr Penfold, an Oxford graduate and an Oxford Movement priest, founded St Michael’s Church in 1877 he would have been very aware that he faced possibly serious difficulties. After all Fr Alexander Mackonochie from nearby St Alban’s in Holborn had come very close to suffering the same fate as his fellow Anglo-Catholic priests. Between 1867 and 1883 complaints had been brought against him to the Court five times for the use of ‘unauthorised rituals’ in the church. Mackonchie was not imprisoned but instead suspended for three years and then persuaded to resign his benefice and become Vicar of St Peter’s London Docks. In 1883 he was banned from all ecclesiastical appointments in the Province of Canterbury and the Ecclesiastical Commission ceased to pay his stipend. Fr Mackonchie then returned to St Alban’s to work as a Curate until his death in 1887.7

Newspaper reports of the time suggest that Fr Penfold did indeed meet with hostility. The local paper, the Camden and Kentish Town Gazette, reported on a public meeting in 1881 held at the Royal Park Hall in Camden Town where a member of the public, Walter Walsh, spoke out against the new church, in particular against the ‘characteristic secrecy of ‘Ritualists’ and clergymen who claimed to be ‘moderate’ but then introduced what he referred to as ‘Romish doctrine and ritual.’8 When the foundation stone of the new chancel at St Michael’s was laid in 1893, the ceremony was attended by the two bishops of St Albans and of Marlborough, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, two Members of Parliament, and a very large number of clergy from near and far. In 1893, the same local paper reported that ‘a strong sermon was preached by the Bishop of St. Albans’ complaining about the ‘rash legislation’ passed by Parliament injuring the Church of England at a time when it was doing such great work among the ‘mass of the people.’9 Fr Penfold continued his work regardless of criticism.

Mary Sokol.



  1. Geoffrey Rowell, The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, Oxford, 1983, p. 2
  2. Ibid., pp. 2-3
  3. Ibid., pp. 14-20; see also G. I. T. Machin, Politics and the Churches in Great Britain 1869-1921, Oxford, 1987, p. 3 on church reform.
  4. Machin, 1987, p. 4.
  5. Ibid., 1987; see pp. 5-8 on differences of opinion within the established church, and pp. 70-76 on the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons.
  6. James Bentley, Ritualism and Politics in Victorian Britain: The attempt to Legislate for Belief, 1978, p. 100; see also Peter Benedict Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857, Cambridge 1994, pp. 216-7.
  7. Machin, 1987, pp. 82-3.
  8. Camden Local History Library, Camden and Kentish Town Gazette, 1881. Walter Walsh was the author of a highly successful book, The Secret History of the Oxford Movement, which detailed what he saw as the abuses and illegalities of Anglo-Catholics.
  9. See also In the Beginning, History of St Michael’s Camden Town.