Leader: Newman’s quest for New Testament life

15 September 2010

ON THE death of Cardinal Newman in August 1900, the Church Times wrote, with its customary foresight: “As an intellectual guide, as an ecclesiastical controversialist, Newman’s influence has already waned, and will not, we think, much outlive this generation.” The thousands who gather in Birmingham on Sunday to witness Newman’s beatification by Pope Benedict XVI, an event without precedent in British history, might wish to take issue with this view. The Guardian, a church newspaper, now defunct, which took a less knock-about line that the Church Times, wrote in its obituary of the reasons why Newman left the Anglican priesthood for Rome in terms that have a resonance today. It is worth quoting at length:

“He could not see a trace in English society of that simple and severe hold of the unseen and the future which is the colour and breath, as well as the outward form, of the New Testament life. Nothing could be more perfect, nothing grander or nobler, than all the current arrangements for this life; its justice, order, increasing gentleness, widening sympathies between men; but it was all for the perfection and improvement of this life; it would all go on, if what we experience now was our only scene and destiny. This perpetual antithesis haunted him, when he knew it, or when he did not.

 “Against it the Church ought to be the perpetual protest, and the fearless challenge, as it was in the days of the New Testament. But the English Church had drunk too deeply the temper, ideas, and laws of an ambitious and advancing civilisation; so much so, as to be unfaithful to its special charge and mission. The prophet had ceased to rebuke, warn, and suffer; he had thrown in his lot with those who had ceased to be cruel and inhuman, but thought only of making their dwelling-place as secure and happy as they could.

 “The Church had become respectable, comfortable, sensible, temperate, liberal, jealous about the forms of its creeds, equally jealous of its secular rights, interested in the discussion of subordinate questions, becoming more and more tolerand of differences; and ready for works of benevolence and large charity, in sympathy with the agricultural poor, open-handed in its gifts; willing fellow-worker with society in kindly deeds, its accomplice in secularity. All this was admirable, but it was not the life of the New Testament, and it was that which filled his thoughts. The English Church had exchanged religion for civilisation, the first century for the nineteenth, the New Testament, as it is written, for a counterfeit of it interpreted by Paley or Mr Simeon; and it seemed to have betrayed its trust.

 “Form after form was tried by him, the Christianity of Evangelicalism, the Christianity of Whately, the Christianity of Hawkins, the Christianity of Keble and Pusey; it was all very well, but it was not the Christianity of the New Testament and of the first ages.”

The attention from Pope Benedict, it is to be hoped, might encourage Anglicans to lay hold on Newman a little more firmly. One hundred and sixty years is a long time to sulk over his secession to Rome, and a greater openness to his later life and writings would match the ecumenical spirit exercised, with a few lapses, by Newman himself. There remains, of course, the Anglo-Saxon squeamishness about the beatification process. Miracles aside, it is odd to think that scholars are poring over Newman’s many volumes of writings — there are 33 volumes of letters and diaries, for example — to reassure the hierarchy that they contain nothing too unorthodox. Nothing more unorthodox, that is, than spending the first 44 years of his life as an Anglican. Perhaps the English historians dwell too much on the flaws in their subjects; their readers, none the less, feel greater affection and admiration for characters who are painted warts and all, to quote a man whose head spent 20 years on a spike just yards from where the Pope will address parliamentarians later today.

What is key is that neither denomination attempts to appropriate Cardinal Newman. Pope Benedict admires him greatly, in part because of Newman’s defence of Catholic dogma; but he must know also of Newman’s insistence on the primacy of the conscience over any other sort of primacy. No Church — Catholic, Protestant, or a mixture of the two — can claim to have manifested the New Testament model that Newman sought. If that is to be the ambition of all Christians, then, in this at least, all Churches must follow Newman’s example.

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