THE devout hope was expressed this week that in John Henry Newman, a son of the Church of England who is to be canonised in Rome on Sunday, there will be a saint who is a focus of unity: “In an age of polarisation, we have somebody who can actually bring people together.” Indeed, the special events in Rome are a means of furthering that aim in themselves, bringing together, as they will, large numbers for the rare event of the papal see’s declaration of the heroic sanctity of an Englishman who did not suffer a martyr’s death.
Newman’s example of life is already accorded such recognition by the Church of England as it currently claims the ability to confer in Common Worship. In fact, he had, when he died, passed into a realm of public esteem where the language of sanctity would be used without reservation. The New York Herald declared bluntly: “his life was that of a saint.” Our predecessors at the Church Times, never shy of explaining where they differed from the Cardinal on ecclesiology, wrote: “That which will live the longest is the spiritual warmth and vigour which radiates like beams from such a life and character as his. A man must be ‘more than a prophet’ when he can but merely attract the multitude into the wilderness in his life-time, but when his influence remains, and even increases, in extent and force when he is dead, that is only possible when the prophet is also a saint.”
The Guardian, usually a more reserved Anglican organ, founded by Dean Church, who stood between Newman and his censure by the University of Oxford after the publication of Tract 90, spoke of him as “not only a man of singular purity and beauty of character, not only an eminent example of personal sanctity, but the founder, we may almost say, of the Church of England as we see it.” His influence has not been as great in the Church of Rome, but is increasing; and his position as the First Vatican Council met is far more in accord with the mind of Rome in our day than the Ultramontanism of some of his contemporaries.
Newman’s genius as the “lost leader” of the Oxford Movement reawoke and reshaped the Church of England, however much that legacy is increasingly overshadowed by a resurgent Evangelicalism (where his faith originated) and the use (some call it misuse) of his theory of development to innovate (he strongly opposed liberalism). But the dual challenge that he presents is as valid for Rome as it is for Canterbury; for in essence it is the reconciliation of the claims of universality and of individual conscience in such a way as to advance the cause of holiness. The questions with which Newman was engaged are not far from those that rack the Churches today, and any assistance that he can provide should not be declined.