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Angela Tilby: Canonisation will matter to Anglicans

12 July 2019

church times

Cardinal Newman, from a photo by Father Anthony Pollen (1889)

Cardinal Newman, from a photo by Father Anthony Pollen (1889)

IT IS important news for Anglicans, as well as for Roman Catholics, that Cardinal Newman is to be canonised (News, 5 July). Newman’s spiritual journey took him from Protestant Evangelicalism within the Church of England to Roman Catholicism, at a time when such transitions were widely considered scandalous. As an Anglican, he was one of the most influential and articulate theological writers of his age, and, as an RC, he outlined thinking that bore fruit at the Second Vatican Council.

As an Anglican, during his Oxford years, he had argued that the Church of England constituted a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He even attempted to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles in a way that made room for a more Catholic understanding. When he went over to Rome, he argued against his earlier claims. Although he always believed that he had been “saved” as an Evangelical, he came to think that Evangelicalism was so dependent on subjective religious emotion that it could lead away from faith into scepticism.

I have always had a respect for Newman’s writing, without ever having felt the impetus to become a Roman Catholic. My mother was RC, however, and I was actually baptised in the RC Church. I even remember joining in as a Catholic in a grisly playground game in which “Protestants” and “Catholics” chased each other and held mock executions. Later, for complicated family reasons, we either went to our parish church or not at all. Every now and then, I get a touch of Roman fever, and find myself drawn to an RC church (usually Westminster Cathedral), where the architecture and internal ordering speaks so obviously of God’s transcendence.

For me, the most important of Newman’s writings is his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, published in the year of his secession. This is a study of the Early Church and the doctrinal conflicts from which orthodoxy emerged. Newman rejected the Protestant view that the primitive faith had been corrupted by, for example, later populist beliefs about Mary and the saints. He also denied that certain doctrinal views succeeded over others only because they provided a good “fit” with the prevailing environment.

Instead, he described the development of doctrine in the Church as the work of the Holy Spirit, drawing out the implications of the faith over time. It does not all depend subjectively on “me and Jesus”. In fact, “me and Jesus” depend objectively on the Church’s tradition. There is a solid theological basis for a developed and developing faith.

Newman’s confidence in the Spirit’s work in history has influenced Roman Catholic theology. Perhaps it is time that his belief in the Spirit’s work through tradition reignited Anglicanism.

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