Prebendary Norman Wallwork writes:
THE Revd Dr John Newton, who died on 27 March, aged 86, was loved and respected alike in the Roman Catholic and Anglican, and the other Free Church traditions, as within his native Methodism.
In the problems and crises of Liverpool during the 1980s, the RC Archbishop Derek Worlock and the Anglican Bishop David Sheppard frequently insisted not only that John, their fellow Merseyside ecumenical leader, stand with them, but between them. They avoided every chance that their treasured Methodist partner in their socio-political work of reconciliation would be clipped from press photos.
Before being Chair of the Liverpool Methodist District, John had already risen to a previous challenge, as successor to the famous Donald Soper, Superintendent of the West London Mission. Through modesty, humour, and warmth of personality, John successfully transferred the “high chapel” worship and social outreach of Kingsway Hall to Hinde Street Methodist Church, Manchester Square.
Born in Grantham, John was brought up by his mother, and nurtured in Boston Methodism, not least by his lay-preacher grandfather. After Boston Grammar School, John read history at University College, Hull, and, with the encouragement of A. G. Dickens and Geoffrey Nuttall, began his research into Puritanism. After a pre-collegiate school chaplaincy, and ministerial training at Wesley House, Cambridge, John became Assistant Tutor at Richmond College, London, where he began a significant friendship with the scholar and ecumenist Marcus Ward, whose biography he would eventually write.
After pastoral appointments in Louth and Stockton-on-Tees, John became church-history tutor at Wesley College, Bristol, and then, after five years’ teaching in Kenya, returned to Wesley College as Principal. His studies in the Puritan tradition were followed by a significant book, Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism (1968).
As a Lincolnshire historian, John also entered the grand passion of his studies, becoming the leading authority on the Anglo-Catholic scholar-bishop Edward King of Lincoln. The first-fruits of his study issued in Search for a Saint: Edward King (1977), and John became one of the first Methodists to be offered an honorary canon’s stall in an Anglican cathedral, in this case, at Lincoln.
In 1979, John took a calculated risk in being the first to suggest to the Methodist Conference that the time was ripe for Methodists to take a fresh look at the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church and in the gospel. It was all of a piece that, in 1981, John was elected President of the Methodist Conference. There was much delight that, during his term of office, John made an official visit to Pope John Paul II.
After his Methodist Presidency, John was twice Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council and Co-President of Churches Together in England. Such was his ecumenical standing that he was the popular choice to preach at the centenary service for John Henry Newman in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1991.
He was honoured with a Lambeth DD for his ecumenical work and scholarship; received a CBE for his work in Liverpool; and, characteristically, was elected President of the Chesterton Society.
In retirement, he served on the Roman Catholic-Methodist International Commission, and as Warden of John Wesley’s Chapel, the “New Room” in Bristol. In John’s declining years, when his memory began to forsake him, he was still able to complete the Tablet crossword and win prizes.
Always at John’s side was his wife, Rachel, most devoted of companions, with whom he shared a Catholic Methodist faith, and an equal pride in their four sons and their families.