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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Charles Reding, son of an Anglican clergyman from the English midlands, enrolls at Oxford at a time when the university is in the throes of significant religious controversy. A number of the university’s influential professors and religious leaders have been questioning the legitimacy of the Church of England, and a number have already converted to Roman Catholicism. Charles, too, has doubts about aspects of his Anglican faith. He confides some of his concerns to his friend William Sheffield, who is even more skeptical about religious matters.

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In his first year, Charles speaks of these matters with tutors and several fellow students. At various breakfasts and dinners, and on long walks with others, he hears cogent reasons to accept the Anglican faith despite his doubts but also gets strong encouragement to abandon the Church of England and convert to another denomination. Older men suggest that the current crisis at Oxford over matters of faith is simply a fad. Some of these scholars, such as Vincent and Bateman, present a rationale for remaining in the Anglican faith, although they have different reasons. Vincent stresses the theological soundness of the Anglican Church. Bateman suggests that the cure for the Anglican Church’s woes lies in restoring many of the Roman Catholic rituals that it had abandoned over the years. By contrast, Freeborn, a proponent of Evangelical doctrine, urges Charles to reject the entire priestly theology on which the Catholic Church is built, insisting that one can be saved only through a direct and personal relationship with God.

Charles sees other young men like his friends White and Willis undergoing some of the same struggles. Both seem tempted to convert to Catholicism, which most in Charles’s circle seem to think the worst possible solution to solving one’s crisis of faith. Charles attends a sermon by a college official who suggests that there is room for all the sects currently at odds over matters of religious doctrine and practice, but Charles sees that factionalism has gripped Oxford. His discovery of Willis at a Dissenters’ chapel is particularly disturbing, given that Oxford students are under instruction not to associate with either Dissenters or Roman Catholics. Shortly thereafter, however, Willis becomes a Roman Catholic and is expelled from the Oxford community.

After a brief respite at home, where questions of faith seem less compelling, Charles returns to Oxford. There his doubts about the efficacy of Anglican doctrine return; he finds especially troubling the contradictions he sees in the Thirty-nine Articles, the summation of the Anglican Church’s doctrine. Once again his conversations with both High Church supporters and Evangelicals leave him confused. Charles’s intellectual trials are suspended when his father dies suddenly, forcing him to assume responsibilities as head of his family. Reflecting on his father’s life, Charles realizes he was a good man whose actions were directed by his faith. Fortified by this example, Charles reasserts his commitment to the Anglican Church and vows to put aside doubts about its legitimacy.

Nearly two years later Charles is back at Oxford completing his studies for a bachelor’s degree, aiming to become a clergyman like his father. Nevertheless, the doubts that plagued him earlier have not gone away. Conversations with William, Vincent, Freeborn, and Bateman only serve to reinforce his belief that the Anglican Church cannot offer him the surety he seeks in matters of faith. Meanwhile, his friend White, once a doubter, has become a staunch advocate for the Church of England. During a vacation from the university, Charles engages in a series of conversations with Carlton, an Oxford graduate who serves as a mentor for him. The two discuss matters such as celibacy, sin and...

(The entire section contains 977 words.)

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