Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A New Angle On The Oxford Movement

I got a very worthwhile book as a Christmas gift from our niece, Simon Jenkins, Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations. More than an enthusiast coffee-table book, Jenkins, a major figure in the historic preservation movement, has quite a bit to say about architecture and social context. He doesn't mention Tract 90, and Newman had almost nothing to say about railways, but Tract 90 appeared in 1841, just as the technological and commercial success of railways was initiating the Railway Mania.

Established historical analysis places the Oxford Movement in the context of the 1832 Reform Act, which granted civil rights to non-Anglicans. But the Reform Act itself occurred in a wider context, and the first successful English railway on the modern paradigm was the Liverpool and Manchester, which opened in 1830. More than expanded suffrage, railways in the first half of the century represented a much more direct threat to English cultural norms. Jenkins points out that the architecture of railway stations, the most direct interface people had with the new technology, had to represent something unthreatening and reassuring.

Thus railway station architecture tended to display historical eclecticism, deliberate archaism, and even escapism, for both commercial and political reasons. The Oxford Movement is a parallel tendency, a response to the industrial revolution, social upheaval, and the commercialization of society. Not only did stations have to draw in customers, but they had to be satisfactory to the local landowners, on whose lands they were often built, and whose properties the railways needed to cross.

Jenkins points out, in fact, that the unique style of 19th-century English railways, one of archaism and eclecticism, has proven exportable in the form of the enormously popular Thomas the Tank Engine and JK Rowling franchises. The Oxford movement has been similarly exportable -- but I think we need to recognize that it's a franchise, a stylistic product, in considerable measure an escapist fantasy.

Jenkins sees English railway stations certainly as an effective fantasy, one that can now contribute to renewed social cohesion -- but they're nonetheless a commercial product, and indeed a social construct, even a form of propaganda. (They're now owned by the government.) The UK railway system acted to reinforce social cohesion during two world wars. As did, of course, the Church of England, which found eclecticism and archaism suited its purpose for much of the same period.

One feature of Protestantism, at least the Lutheran-Reformed version, is that it proved from the start amenable to state control. Anglo-Catholicism is, let's face it, a version of state-controlled Protestantism that is not really compatible with Roman Catholicism. I don't think Cardinal Law recognized this, and I don't think Bp Lopes does, either.

In the end, though, it's a style, something that emulates the thing, not the thing itself. It's a means to an end, not the end itself.