Tuesday, January 5, 2016

HvS | The Allure of the Oxford Group (Post #100, Updated Sep 27, 2016)

The Oxford Group – an "emergency camp".
The following was generously transcribed by Michael Fitzgerald in response to my appeal for help. It is the article by Hilda van Stockum in the May 1935 St. John's Church (Church of Ireland) bulletin, reprinted from the Episcopalian journal The American Church Monthly, which was published in New York City in 1857-58 and was continued in 1917-1937. 

HvS lived in New York in 1932 and then moved to Washington, D.C. when her husband started working for FDR.

HvS likens the Oxford Group to an "emergency camp" and makes it sound a lot more like its illustrious precursor, the Oxford Movement, than I was ever led to believe. One difference is that the Oxford Movement brought evangelical thinking mainly within the Anglican Church, and had a stronger Oxford connection. 

The essay below is a strong and clear-eyed statement of the appeal of evangelical movements and their helpfulness for people seeking religious identity or inspiration. 
In HvS's case, it led to her conversion to Anglo-Catholicism–which she compares with a "Gothic Cathedral"–and eventually in 1938 to her following Evie Hone into the Roman Catholic Church.

A gothic cathedral, which HvS likens to the Catholic Church. (Cologne.)
I am no scholar and no theologian. Much of what I am going to say will seem crude to more experienced people, yet I feel there may be some to whom the faithful account of a personal growth is acceptable and helpful.

In the first place, I would like to clear the “Oxford Group” from certain unjust aspersions which from time to time have been cast upon it; and state definitely where I have found it rich and nourishing, and where I felt I had to wean myself from it.

To me the Group has been like mother’s milk, sustaining my first efforts towards spiritual life, yet unable to meet the later demands of my hungry soul once it began to grow.

I am going to deal principally with the Ideal Group, or the Group as it means to be. I want to speak about essentials and not the accidental imperfections which always will creep into any man-made movement. Now I don’t think the Ideal Group could offend any Christian–its purpose is so simple, its message so clear, and it throws such a beautiful ringing challenge into a confused haphazard world.

It wishes to put aside all theological disputes, intellectual worries, or scientific scruples, and go straight towards the “experience of Christ.” For experience is not the same as knowledge. We may be expert gynecologists and yet never bear babies; whilst a simple savage accomplishes the miracle by following blind instinct. In the same way we may be perfect theologians and yet never really experience the Peace of God which passeth understanding; while the grocer at the corner store may be full of it without knowing what it is called.

On the other hand there is no reason why experience and knowledge should not go together, and no one will deny that that is a more perfect condition. All the Group asks is that we shall not confuse the two, that we shall be able to put aside the intricate concoctions of our intellect and find the hidden flaw which is preventing us from following those instincts which through the ages have led man to God. And this is not begged of us as a favour, nor impressed upon us as a duty; but it is flung at us as a challenge, with a blast of trumpets, waving of flags, and beating of drums.

The Group does not ask us for a specific act or belief; it does not want us to fit into a special code; it takes us where we are and as we are and treats us in that irresistibly impudent fashion which is common amongst small schoolboys; it dares us to do something specially difficult, something almost impossible, by telling us that So and So, two houses farther down, performed the same feat successfully.

It asks us to “surrender” our wishes, our personality, our dreams, even our pet prejudices; to give our whole heart as a gift to God, and walk as did one of the first disciples of our Lord, doing His will.

There is something very fine about such a stupendous request. It is actually easier to comply with than a less exacting demand would be, because it fires the imagination, which is after all one of the chief moving forces of our human nature. Such a challenge takes one’s breath away. Daily trifles sink into nothingness and life seems astonishingly simple.

For a moment a cold fear grips our heart; the idea of giving oneself to the Great Unknown creates a panic–yet the appeal is irresistible, and we let go. The barrier which divides us from God is washed away by a flood of penitent and grateful tears, and He comes pouring in on us with a sweetness and light that momentarily transform the world. We get up from our knees and we feel that we are different and will never be quite the same again. However far we may stray, we never can forget this moment.

Perhaps only a little of all this is noticed by outsiders, yet our intimates may suddenly find us easier to deal with, less rebellious or self-assertive and with an obvious newborn happiness. That, at any rate, is what the Group did for me. After years of puttering about and searching in books and churches for “religion,” it came to me as simply as that–through a few sentences in a book written by a “Grouper.”

It was the challenge that pierced me and roused me to action; making me realize how I was drifting and indulging in self-pity and “sulking” against a God whom in my heart I worshipped. I was so utterly unaware that such experience of God is as general as it is beautiful, that Christian churches are full of men and women who have had it one time or another in their lives, that I made rather a fool of myself trying to convert perfectly genuine Christians to the Oxford Group, believing it was the only surviving branch of the old Apostolic tree. It was only later that I began to realize that the “tremendous revelation” was only the first initiation into real Christianity.

There is another dictum of the Group which seems to me very helpful and healthy, in a world that  undoubtedly has suffered through certain “Protestant Virtues,” especially the virtue of “reticence” or “reserve.” It is true that some natures find it difficult to communicate with others. There is the feeling of having a “Holiest of Holies” which must not be desecrated by profane eyes (“profane” meaning in this case anybody’s eyes but one’s own). This sentiment one finds often expressed in “novels written for young ladies,” where the heroine would rather be torn to pieces than to confess a perfectly harmless little belief or emotion.

I used to be jealous of such fortitude, for I myself could never hold my tongue nor seem ever to have anything worth concealing. This strong, silent businessman’s ideal, which is individualistic and easily leads to spiritual pride, besides being utterly unlike the New Testament Spirit, has been duly punctured by the Group, and pronounced by it to be purely selfish. We are to share our joys and sorrows and sins with our fellow creatures, and no man is too mean to be taken into our confidence (within the limits of good taste, of course).

To my mind such a conception is wholly in keeping with the Spirit which made Saint Francis embrace the leper, and it is a very healthy reaction against the sort of attitude which made my granny [Emily Hélöise MacDonnell] think it bad form to mention God, as though he were a poor relation. 

The Ideal Group, then, is not a sect and can never grow into one if it remains true to its ideals. It wishes to unite instead of separate. It stresses those points which different denominations have in common and encourages experience of God as the important thing which comes before mental affirmation. Thus Baptist, Quaker, or Roman Catholic are all alike to the Group as long as they are living a “surrendered” life. The Group wishes to serve the Holy Spirit which “bloweth where it listeth” and cannot therefore be judged according to the standards applied to a special sect. For it does not know whither it will be blown and is prepared to move wherever it pleases the Spirit.

Its object is not to replace the Church, but to fill it with spiritual power. Thus the Group is able to reach people who otherwise would have continued their existence thinking of Church and Christianity as extinct volcanoes; it challenges those who did not know there was any challenge in the message of Jesus; it awakens sleepers who had been passed by in the daily routine of professional Church-workers.

Perhaps one reason why the Group strikes such a refreshing note in a rather compromising and weary world is that it has a strong and startling definition of sin: “anything which comes between you and God, or between you and your fellow-creatures.” What a light such a definition throws on many petty “virtues” which we indulged in for our own self-gratification even when they but irritated the members of our household through the smug righteousness of our manner. How many “weaknesses” are thus exposed as ugly growths?

To me, at any rate, there was a lot of revelation in the way the Group saw the world and its temptations. Many prejudices of mine found themselves suddenly without foundation, and it became necessary to reconsider entirely my philosophy of life. I began to read voraciously. First of all the books published by the Group. “Sam” Shoemaker’s sermons, Harold Begbie’s “Life Changers,” “For Sinners Only,” etc. Then I started on those written by other Christians outside the Group, such as Leslie Weatherhead, Maude Royden, Studdert-Kennedy, and Stanley Jones. My eyes grew round with amazement when I saw how much there was to know about the old Christian message; how many ways there were of applying it to our modern conditions; and how many great minds and noble natures had tried to live a life of which I had only recently learned the existence.

But even so, those books did not satisfy me, nor did the services in the “low” Episcopalian Church which I attended appeal to me as the fullest expression of what I felt lying inarticulate and unformed at the bottom of my heart. The Group, which I at first visited regularly, soon wearied me. For, through its own nature, it had only its challenge to offer me. Once I had accepted that I wished to learn more about the “how” and “wherefore”, it was then that I began to learn the limits of the Group.

Being continually, in a manner of speaking, punched in the same spot, had a rather hardening effect on me. I began to get accustomed to certain expressions so that they failed to rouse me, and I could listen to the most passionate pleading with an even pulse. For like the drugs we use for bodily ailments, the medicine of the soul must be taken sparingly, so as not to weaken the system.

Of course the Group realizes this and encourages “action” as an outlet for the energy which has been called forth during the meetings. This action consists of handing on the “medicine” to others. “Living religion is like a germ” according to the Group, “and if you’ve got it others will get it. If you haven’t, they won’t.”

There is a lot of truth in this, as in all sayings of the Group, yet it is a dangerous doctrine to take too literally and it certainly encourages “scalp-collecting” and “man-hunting,” while it gives rise to misunderstandings and blunders. The very thought that “winning people” is the proof of the reality of one’s faith takes away that quality of self-forgetfulness which is essential to helping others, and makes the victims of our efforts feel that it is not their interests that we have at heart but our own conquest. It also encourages a lot of amateurish tinkering where perhaps the services of a trained psychologist would be more appropriate; and it fosters a kind of religious fanaticism in very young converts, which tends to become narrow and critical and cut-and-dried as soon as the first soft radiance of its “surrender” has faded away.

Very soon I had to face the fact that notwithstanding my gratitude to the Group and my enthusiasm for their work, they could no longer supply me with those “vitamins” which cause spiritual growth. So I turned to other sources. It chanced that for the first time I was introduced to an Anglo-Catholic church, the only one in our town. To me it was a revelation. My whole life long I had hankered after the Roman Catholic Church, but being brought up a Protestant I had never been able quite to overcome the barriers which divided me from it. Now, with my new experiences slowly fading in the “light of common day,” I felt a desperate need for some “form” which would preserve what was left of it, and help me to grow in the life I had decided to follow.

In the Church I found exactly what I was looking for. The symbols and faith were the same as in the Roman Church, yet there was not that rigid barrier which the Roman Church sets up, and I had a chance to “experience” Catholicism and thus to learn to understand it. From that day on a new life unfolded itself for me. I found many an explanation to questions that heretofore had baffled me. The more I penetrated the Catholic Faith, the more my admiration for it grew. It seemed so full and many- sided and it offered so much that there I could always find the answer for some special need.

The ritual opened up the channels of my emotions, and in acts of devotion I found an outlet for my religious enthusiasm. Very soon I began to notice the effects of a practiced Catholicism. Instead of wavering between extremes of pentitence and gigantic resolutions, my devotional life became more stabilized, more human, more humorous. I learned to take things with a little salt, to mistrust sweeping statements, and to be content with growing slowly and steadily. Where “confession” in the Group had often been embarrassing, I found that confessing to a priest gave the necessary peace to my rather scrupulous conscience without incurring the dangers of exhibitionism, or running the chance of shocking or corrupting others.

In short, I began to see that all those ideas that the Group believes in can be found in the Catholic Faith, only they are not unduly stressed, and “contrary” truths are not overlooked. When I read the lives of Saints who lived ages and ages ago, I realized how crude the philosophy of the Group is, how it is a mere preliminary sketch which has yet to be worked out.

The difference between the Catholic Faith and the evangelism of the Group is the difference between a Gothic Cathedral and an emergency camp. And yet I owe it to the Group that I found the Catholic Faith. That is why I cannot hear the Group slighted without wishing to speak up for it; for perhaps they are right, and once they have awakened you, God shows you the rest. I know that it happened so with me.