Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Geoffrey Rowell on the Oxford Movement and the modern English celebration of Christmas

The title page of the first edition of A CHRISTMAS TALE, by Charles Dickens (1843)

This article, published in HISTORY TODAY on 21st December, 1993, was written by Geoffrey Rowell (1943-2017), who was at the time Fellow, Chaplain and Tutor in Theology at Keble College, Oxford. He eventually became the Church of England Bishop of Europe. Widely renowned as a specialist in 19th century Church history in general, and the Oxford Movement in particular, Geoffrey Rowell was a loving and orthodox bishop, and a member of The Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda. In this article he gives us a fascinating thumbnail sketch of the modern English observance of Christmas, emphasising the role of the Oxford Movement in its development.

The entire article is well worth reading. I share with you here just a few paragraphs on the special Christmas celebrations at Dr Pusey's church, St Saviour's Leeds:

Although Christmas was a time of festivity its church celebration in the nineteenth century owed much to the Oxford Movement. A significant feature of the concerns of the Tractarians was the revival and enrichment of the Prayer Book forms of service, and a proper observance of the seasons and festivals of the church calendar. It was no accident that John Keble's influential book of poems of 1827 entitled The Christian Year, providing verses and meditations on the Prayer Book services and on the Sundays and holy days observed by the Church of England. At St Saviour's, the church built by Dr Pusey in the slums of Leeds, a midnight Eucharist was celebrated on Christmas Eve in contrast to Leeds Parish Church where W.F. Hook had begun a mid- night Eucharist on New Year's Eve, as an Anglican response to Methodist watch-night services. J.H. Pollen, who served as a curate in the parish, wrote of the St Saviour's Christmas in 1849. The church was decked with boughs, banners and flowers:

". . . Large brass candelabra were placed before the altar full of lights; three tapers were put in the place of one in the sconces of the chancel; red hangings on the walls, a rich carpet on the floor, flowers on the altar screen, a white embroidered altar frontal.

". . . The Evensong was at nine with a meditative Sermon. At twelve, the Eucharist was celebrated and a Sermon preached on the mystery of the Incarnation. The Church was lighted, and before the Service the whole choir proceeded round the Church two and two, singing the hymn –

"Ye faithful, approach ye,
Joyfully triumphing,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."

(The unfamiliar opening of 'O come, all ye faithful', is from the translation of Adeste fideles made by Frederick Oakeley in 1841 for use at the Margaret Chapel in London.)

St Saviour’s also laid on a Christmas feast:

"Here was a vast tree fifteen feet high, all covered with lights, and hung with pictures, lolly-pops, 'spaice whistles', [i.e. barley-sugar whistles], ... On the steps at the end, a rough picture ... of a 'Presepio' (i.e. a nativity scene) was covered round with green boughs, and lighted up.

"Hostile observers were to misinterpret this picture as implying the worship of 'Adam and Eve' or 'Cain and Abel'. The 'Presepio', or nativity scene anticipates the Christmas 'crib', a custom going back to Francis of Assisi, which began to appear in English churches in the later nineteenth century. So accepted has this become that the word 'crib', which originally meant the 'manger' or 'rack' in a stable, and then a child's bed, is now used simply to refer to the representation in churches at Christmas of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem."

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell (1943-2017)


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