Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Today is the anniversary of my father's death - if you can, please remember Philip John Whitehead in your prayers and pray for the repose of his soul.

Today is also the anniversary of certain unfortunate events in Paris on this day in 1789. What does it not say about the French that for most of the last 200 odd years, apart from the happy period between 1815 and 1830, that they have given up this day - it has been the official national day since 1880 under the 'Third Republic' - to celebrating the destruction of a fine historic monument from the medieval period. The Bastille was but the first in many casualties in terms of buildings. let alone lives and institutions, in the dreadful events that unfolded in that unhappy kingdom. As those great Oriel historians Sellers and Yeatman would say the events in France from 1789 were a Bad Thing - indeed a Very Bad Thing. As a schoolboy I basically refused to study such unsavoury matters, resuming the study of history with the restoration of something like normality and civility in 1815. I still, to adapt a phrase, refuse to extend diplomatic recognition to the events of those years. There is more about the history of the Bastille itself here.

All that is not to deny that France in 1789 was not in need of renewal and reform, but so was every country in Europe - and so, more or less, are all nations, at all times. At the time it must have looked as if France was, abit belatedly, modernising its national life. Then things got out of hand - how they did so is a fascinating historical question. Why do some countries, in effect, go mad? The answer to the need to adapt to changing times does not lie, however, with the mob. Not then, not now. The calling of the Estates General was an attempt to carry through reforms. It would not have been an easy task, but events need not have developed in the way that they did. From the recent news reports French public life under the present regime is, allegedly, every bit as venal as it ever was under the Ancien Regime, but with none of the redeeming qualities of the old France of Throne and Altar. It has always struck me that, considering all that the Monarchy achieved for France, the French were a very ungrateful lot in destroying it. Indeed the ingratitude of the French as a nation in recent centuries has not gone unnoticed, by both the French and foreigners.

Today is also the anniversary of the Assize sermon preached in St Mary's here in Oxford in 1833 by John Keble, Fellow of Oriel and Professor of Poetry in the University.

John Keble

Now, 177 years later, we appear to be finally witnessing the playing out of the drama he inaugurated. It is a day to give thanks for all that the Tractarians and their successors did and sought to do. It is also a day upon which to reflect as to what their heirs and inheritors of that tradition should now do. There are three good posts from the former Bishop of Richborough here, here and here, and also by the present Bishop of Ebbsfleet in a pastoral letter which address those issues clearly but carefully. They are of more assistance, being more thoughtful, for those outside the structures of the General Synod than sound-bite quotations in the national press.

We shall have to see what develops over the next few weeks and with the meetings scheduled for Anglo-Catholic clergy and laity in the early autumn, but there seems to be no hope, if, indeed, there ever was, of any provision for them within the Church of England. Damian Thompson has made the point on his blog that there can no longer be any doubt but that the Church of England is now a liberal protestant body, despite all the endeavours of the Tractarians. Here indeed is National Apostacy.

I have recently met Anglicans who express the hope that a new Oxford Movement can arise that will again re-energise the C of E. Well, it's a fine idea, but I cannot see where a sufficient basis upon which to build such a movement can any longer be found. We are not living in 1833 with all the norms of that society. We have seen what has happened since, for both good and ill, and the choices look pretty clear, if not stark.

Keble, ultimately, did not, or did not have to, give a final answer to the question of that National Apostacy. His successors are perhaps rather more on the spot. They need the prayers and support of their friends.

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