When it comes to Anglican church planting, we often think of modern evangelical or charismatic examples such as Holy Trinity Brompton in London. But what about the Anglo-Catholic movement that has its roots in the “Oxford Movement” of the nineteenth century?

Are Anglo-Catholic Church Planters a Thing?

Let’s be honest, when you hear think of the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism, mission and church planting aren’t the first things that come to mind. However, as we shall see, the Anglo-Catholic Revival also gave rise to a renewed passion for mission and social concerns that gave a new impetus to planting new churches.

The Oxford Movement’s Legacy

The Oxford Movement sought to recover the Catholic thought and practice of the Church of England. Centered at the University of Oxford, the proponents of the Oxford Movement believed that the Anglican Church was by history a truly “catholic” church. In time, the ideas of the Oxford movement spread throughout England and into other provinces, effectively planting dozens of new Anglo-Catholic expressions of church.

The contributions of the Oxford movement can still be seen in Anglican churches around the world today in a variety of ways, including

  • the use of liturgy and ritual in church worship,
  • the central place of the Eucharist in worship,
  • the use of vestments,
  • the importance of ordained ministry,
  • the establishment of Anglican monastic communities for men and for women,
  • and a strong emphasis on the importance of educated clergy.

Anglo-Catholics and Mission

Anglo-Catholicism also had a significant legacy of mission, which helped give rise to the founding of hundreds of religious organizations, including church schools, missions, and welfare organizations—as well as church planting or “church-extension,” as it was commonly called.

Rather than being anti-missional, there is something within the very DNA of the Anglo-Catholic tradition—rooted in the sacraments—that moved many of the early leaders of the Anglo-Catholic movement toward mission and church planting. John Henry Newman served for a short period as the secretary of the Church Missionary Society. While serving in Oxford, he planted a church at Littlemore. Edward Pusey personally helped several church plants throughout England.

A number of Anglican Catholic priests led the way of doing mission working to improve the housing conditions for the residents in the slums. Anglo-Catholic priests responded to the poverty of the slums by planting new churches that attempted to meet the pressing needs of their day in innovative ways.

Many of the church plants started in homes, bars, and schools. Many of the planters went into the highways and hedges to go where the church was not or had not been, such as the slums of the East End of London. Stories abound of the slum priests who ministered to the poorest of the poor and those displaced in society. Anglo-Catholics ministered among the urban poor in the places that needed them most. Many of them utilized nontraditional methods to reach people in their local context.

Let me share a few examples.

Charles Lowder

In 1856, Father Charles Lowder, founder of the Society of the Holy Cross, was invited by the Rector of St George-in-the-East to become the head of a new mission to the poor in London’s notorious Docklands.

He founded a mission that provided schooling, a hostel for homeless girls, a refuge for prostitutes, and much general welfare for the poor. He also raised the funds to buy a plot of land and build a new church, St Peter’s London Docks, consecrated in 1866 to serve this same community.

Richard Temple West

Father Richard Temple West planted St. Mary Magdaline, Paddington in 1865. The first church service register from July 1866, shows three Sunday masses and a daily Mass, with 75-100 Sunday communicants, increasing to about 150 in 1867.

From the start, West and his members reached out to the local community and eventually established a convalescent home for the poor in Weymouth Street, off Harrow Road. The church continued to grow under West’s leadership and, by 1886, the congregation had grown to over 1,000.

Arthur Osborne Montgomery Jay

One of my favorites was Reverend Arthur Osborne Montgomery Jay (1858–1945), who had been selected by the bishop of London as Vicar of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch, in late 1886 to reach the outcasts of the Old Nichol district. This district was one of England’s worst slums. Nichol was described by one person as “a district of almost solid poverty and low life, in which the houses were as broken down and deplorable as their unfortunate inhabitants.”

When Jay entered the parish, there was no church building. Instead, services were held in the loft of a stable that smelled of manure. Jay’s first service on New Year’s Eve only had 14 people. However, within ten years, he had raised enough money to build a church, social club, lodging house, and gymnasium.

Jay became controversial for two things: (1) being a high-churchman and (2) having a boxing ring where many pugilists got their start. By the late 1880s, Jay and others had come to realize that one of the best ways to engage poor men was through boxing. To combat his critics, Jay once preached a sermon at Holy Trinity, called “May a Christian Box?”

Some of the boxers who got their start in Jay’s gym were Jack the Bender, Lord Dunfunkus, Old Squash, Tommy Irishman, Scrapper, and Donkey. Jay’s story shows us that there is no place where the church cannot go to reach people for Christ.

The Need for Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Church Planting Today

These faithful Anglo-Catholics helped start missions to the poor and planted and built hundreds of new churches across England. Today, many parishes in England owe their very existence to the fundraising, hard work, and leadership of previous generations of Anglican Catholics who were determined to see new churches established.

Like Jay, the 19th-century Anglo-Catholic priest who built a boxing ring to reach people in his local context, many of today’s church planters are using both innovation and tradition to reach their local context in fresh new ways.

Today, we stand at another major crossroads of cultural change where the Church must once again proclaim the faith afresh for a new generation. We are not called to go where the church already is, but to follow the example of these early Anglo-Catholic church planters and find the places where the Church is not yet working for the sake of the gospel.

The bottom line is we need both Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic expressions of church planting for the 21st century. The different streams of Anglicanism remind us that not everyone looks, acts, or thinks alike. Anglican churches come in all shapes and sizes and are very diverse; ranging from Anglo-Catholics (typically “high church,” employing a more ceremonial and expanded liturgy) to Evangelical Anglicans (typically “low church,” employing fewer ceremonial practices).

I believe that both expressions of Anglicanism are vital, and that each can reach people whom the other cannot. We need both working together on mission.