An Unprofessional Review

Ashley Null’s review of my biography of the Book of Common Prayer is really irresponsible work. Let me briefly explain.

Null writes that Jacobs “welcomes the rise of the Oxford Movement, since the ‘flamboyantly emotional and wholly word-based’ approach to spirituality which preceded it could only be ‘effective in the short term’ but in the long run was ‘disastrous’ (127) — a conclusion so many evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail have reached in our own day.” He describes this as my “having happily nailed [my] colors to the mast” — my Anglo-Catholic colors.

But here’s what I actually wrote:

The Tractarians believed that the evangelicals pursued this goal [of the spiritual renewal of the English people] by wholly inadequate means, and that the evident waning of evangelical energy and influence in the first decades of the nineteenth century demonstrated this inadequacy. For Newman and his confederates, Whitefield’s neglect of the traditional formal worship of the church in favor of a flamboyantly emotional and wholly word-based model of spirituality may have been effective in the short term, but in the long had been disastrous. Even Wesley’s attachment to formal worship had been deficient; his followers were far more neglectful. The evangelicals, like some of the seeds in Jesus’s parable of the sower, had sprung up quickly, but “when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away” (Matthew 13:6).

Quite obviously, then, I have not nailed my colors to the Anglo-Catholic mast: I am describing the Anglo-Catholics’ own view of things (“the Tractarians believed” … “For Newman and his confederates”). How Null came to the conclusion that views I so clearly mark as belonging to others are my own, I cannot imagine.

In fact, while I strive throughout the book not to take sides in the various Anglican controversies but to represent everyone as even-handedly as possible, at the end of that same chapter I couldn’t refrain from expressing some concern about the Anglo-Catholic way:

All this was done in professed and usually genuine obedience to the Ornaments Rubric, but the practices nevertheless can feel quite distant from Cranmer’s belief in the power of words to convey theological truth, and his consequent insistence that priests should enunciate their prayers clearly and “in a loud voice.” The auditory churches of the Restoration era did much to capture this impulse, even as they neglected much of the ceremonial power of the pre-Reformation church, but in justifiably seeking to restore those ceremonies, the Ritualists may have erred in the opposite direction. They transformed Cranmer’s powerful words into a kind of ambient music, often heard without acknowledgment, received aesthetically but not necessarily with the ear of understanding.

Like C. S. Lewis, I prefer to think of myself as “a very ordinary layman … not especially ‘high,’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else,” but if I were forced to describe myself as belonging to some wing of Anglicanism, I’d call myself a high-church evangelical — an echo of John Wesley’s self-description. I am certainly not an Anglo-Catholic.

Yet Null, whom I have never met and who clearly knows nothing about me, confidently states that “Jacobs considers Anglo-Catholics to be the true guardians of the Anglican prayer book tradition. He’s a member of their tribe.” And then he reads my entire book in light of that assumption.

Criticize my scholarship or thought, by all means! This is what scholars do. But to claim to divine the inner lives and unexpressed beliefs of writers is unprofessional in the extreme.