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John Henry Newman: The light of holiness in encircling gloom

11 October 2019

On the eve of the ceremony in Rome, Rod Garner finds John Henry Newman a timely candidate for canonisation


John Henry Newman, drawn in 1845 by Sir William Ross

John Henry Newman, drawn in 1845 by Sir William Ross

FOR many Christians in many Churches, Sunday 13 October will mark a day of celebration and thanksgiving. During a ceremony in Rome, John Henry Newman, possibly the most influential English-speaking religious thinker since the Reformation, will be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church (News, 5 July).

For those who have supported the cause for his canonisation, the recognition of his sanctity is long overdue. As far back as 1963, Pope Paul VI described Newman’s arduous journey of faith as “the greatest, the most meaningful, the most conclusive that human thought ever travelled during . . . the modern era”. Two years later, the American Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton recorded in his notebook that he was moved by Newman’s holiness, by “a perfection beyond the ordinary”, achieved through his suffering and rejection.

Such tributes will seem exaggerated to some, but it is the case that, in his lifetime, Newman was viewed as a saint by contemporaries, including many outside the Roman Catholic fold. As his funeral cortège passed through the streets of Birmingham in 1890, where he had ministered and served for more than a generation, an estimated 15,000 people paid their respects to a priest known to them simply as “the Father” or “Padre”.

ACCOLADES and displays of public affection aside, it is significant that Newman never saw himself as a saint — or, even more surprisingly, a theologian. To one correspondent, he wrote: “I am not venerable. . . I am very much like other people, and I do not think it necessary to abstain from the feelings and thoughts, not intrinsically sinful, which other people have.”

By his own admission he was, at heart, a writer, a priest, and a scholar intoxicated by words, immensely skilful in their deployment and forever rewriting them. In his view, saints were not literary men — “they do not love the classics, they do not write tales” — a conclusion that he came to after penning two novels.

His rare gifts as a writer, however, tell us only a little about his character and achievements. Reluctantly, and sometimes intentionally, he was a controversialist, and had a talent for upsetting ecclesiastical and political apple-carts. He made enemies, offended critics, and, occasionally, tested the patience of friends.

Once described by a senior cleric in Rome as “The most dangerous man in England,” he was also a restrained but remarkable preacher at the University Church of Oxford. From the pulpit of St Mary’s, Sunday by Sunday over several years, he would speak in a quiet but mesmerising way of the mystery of the Word made flesh, the duties of the Christian life, the spiritual nature of the Church and sacraments, and the awe and beauty of an intimate yet transcendent God.

Before the excitement and acrimony that followed his secession to Roman Catholicism in 1845, his piety and influence had extended well beyond the university and the impressionable undergraduates who emulated his voice and mannerisms.

He, with his fellow Tractarians, gave prophetic leadership in the Oxford Movement that sought to reform an established Church of England that appeared to have forfeited the apostolic simplicity of the Gospels, and in so doing presented itself primarily as the “long arm of the government”. He was pastorally diligent, tirelessly visiting his community of 1500 souls, house by house, regardless of their faith or lack of it. His father worried about his zeal and the impact that it might have on his health. He cared for the sick, raised large sums of money for a new church building, and, following the teaching of St Paul, “remembered the poor” (Galatians 2.10), responding to what The Spectator would describe in its obituary of Newman as “the smallness and greatness of human nature”.

IN COMPANY, he could be shy yet capable of loud and infectious laughter. To some, he appeared interested in everything and everyone. But, even from the age of four, watching the lights of candles reflected in the glass of the windows where they had been placed as symbols of national rejoicing at the victory of Trafalgar in 1805, he was drawn irresistibly to another world beyond personal ambition and riches; one that engaged his heart and imagination more fully.

CHURCH TIMESNewman (seated) in Rome in May 1879 (from Wilfrid Ward’s Life of Newman)

Deeply spiritual and kind, he was also palpably human, capable of wounding and sometimes unforgiving. He wrestled with the personal demons of arrogance, resentment, and anger, but through prayer, confession, and silence sought to overcome them. Given to self-discipline in most things (including cold baths before 6 a.m.), he nevertheless enjoyed food and strong beer, delighted in nature, and derived solace from music: he played the violin into old age, and had a particular reverence for the works of Mozart and Beethoven.

He never married, and, from an early age, accepted the call to a single life which would necessarily entail sacrifice. And so it proved. At periods of his life, and despite the abundance of his gifts, he was neglected to the point of almost being forgotten, his inner spirit very close to having been broken by two Churches: the one of his birth, and the adopted one of Rome, which, at first, felt like a homecoming, but all too quickly misunderstood and distrusted him.

In 1863, he confided in his journal: “O how forlorn and dreary has been my course since I have been a Catholic! Here has been the contrast — as a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life — but as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.”

He continued to pray, applied his energies to the mundane but necessary tasks that fell to him, and wrote the books that constitute part of his abiding spiritual and intellectual legacy. In his huge correspondence with the many hundreds seeking his counsel and advice, there is ample evidence of human warmth, practical support, and, importantly, the wisdom of the Christian past that was as natural and intimate to him as the reality of God.

THERE was no single cause behind his anguished decision to leave the Church of England. For him, it was becoming a Church devoid of any real historical sense of its spiritual authority, continuity, and mission — a deeply worrying fact, as the Whig government of the day set its sights on ecclesiastical reforms.

The national Church seemed indifferent to the “holy mysteries” entrusted to its care and proclamation by the saints, apostles, and martyrs of old; and its wealth, indolence, and privilege did not sit well with the poor who lacked daily bread and decent shelter. There was also the matter of “liberalism” of thought: the encroaching secularism, doubt, and scepticism that questioned or derided the truth of Christianity, and therefore threatened the one, true, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Significantly, this corrosion of belief was not confined to intellectuals, Parliament, or Christianity’s “cultured despisers”. It was evident in the specific strains of Evangelical Protestantism that, in Newman’s view, attached no value to sacramental religion, doctrines, or creeds, and relied instead on emotional conversion, religious feeling, and the doctrine of the atonement as the centrepiece of devotion and persuasion.

His response, in the form of the Religious Movement of 1833 and the subsequent publication of the Tracts for the Times, proved explosive. Critics found the 90 missives (largely written by Newman) offensive, too extreme in their demands, and far too close to the teachings of a Roman Church that was still regarded as a “foreign mission” in England. Bishops were indignant: one said that he would not trust Newman with his purse. In some Evangelical circles he was a traitor; to his university, he was an outrage; and prominent sympathisers were silenced, suspended, or stripped of their degrees.

He resigned his Fellowship at Oriel College in October 1845, and five days later he was received into the Roman Catholic faith. In the years that followed, his writings generated suspicion and hostility in Rome and beyond, and his laudable initiatives in the fields of education and the empowerment of the RC laity, particularly in the formation of doctrine, were aborted.

It was not until 1878, and the appointment of a new Pope, Leo XIII, that his gifts were recognised and he was made a Cardinal. He was 78, and, for the remaining 11 years of his life, he remained in Birmingham working quietly and remembering departed friends on the anniversaries of their deaths. He was buried in the grave of his most beloved friend, Ambrose St John. The inscription he chose for his gravestone read “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” (“Out of shadows and images into the truth”).

THE Anglo-Catholic movement that Newman inspired, including the later Ritualists, who introduced liturgical practices and devotions that he had neither advocated nor contemplated, caused unease and division within the Church of England, and a measure of scorn, sometimes bordering on hatred, within wider British public opinion. It led to strife, to “riots, liturgical brawls, and lawsuits”, and, eventually, the imprisonment of prominent Ritualists.

Alarmed Evangelicals saw the sufficiency of scripture being threatened, and Low Churchmen and High Churchmen alike, for different reasons, came to resent what in their view amounted to popery: that “wholly un-English thing”. This repugnance — much of it unmerited, and, at times, irrational and fuelled largely by fear and prejudice — did not eclipse the achievements of Anglo-Catholicism and its gradual acceptance within a decade of Newman’s death.

It revived religious communities, restored order, beauty, and mystery to worship, reinstated the centrality of the eucharist, and rooted itself in parishes that respectable clergymen had shunned or rejected (sometimes understandably, given the level of disease and deprivation in the burgeoning cities).

The abiding influence of Newman across both Churches is secure. His prayers, hymns, and poetry — the latter including The Dream of Gerontius, set to music by Edward Elgar in 1900 — have been woven into the tapestry of Christian worship and spirituality, providing hope and encouragement in the face of doubts, sickness, and death. The Second Vatican Council held in Rome from 1962 to 1965 has been rightly called Newman’s Council, and his teaching is evident in its key documents.

His insistence on the primacy of conscience, and the critical importance of bearing witness to the truth remains vital in our own time of “fake news” and the suppression of truth within political and religious institutions.

Above all, his life and struggles testify to the presence of Christ and the reality of God, even when “the night is dark” and we “are far from home”. He is a worthy saint for our restless and uncertain times.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian. He is an Hon. Fellow of Liverpool Hope University, and Emeritus Canon of Liverpool Cathedral. His latest book Bright Evening Star: A portrait of John Henry Newman is published by Liverpool Hope University Press at £8.99

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