WHEN the BBC covered the papal visit to Birmingham in September 2010, they asked two expert witnesses to explain the significance of John Henry Newman’s beatification: Monsignor Rod Strange and the late Bishop Geoffrey Rowell. Two clerical gentlemen — one Roman Catholic, the other Catholic Anglican — discussed the ecumenical reach in today’s world of Victorian England’s most brilliant and enigmatic clerical gentleman, who in life was not fully accepted by either tradition until after the death of Pope Pius IX in 1878.
In 2008, the Vatican ordered the exhumation of Newman’s remains, buried in the same grave as his beloved companion of more than 30 years, Ambrose St John. The complete dissolution of the body, in a coffin not lined with lead, effected Newman’s last act of resistance to the more oppressive side of Vatican authority. But how can today’s audience make sense of such a loving relationship between two men, lived chastely in community?
A different but related question lies at the heart of the latest addition to OUP’s excellent Handbook series. It concerns Newman’s relevance today, considered in the light of Lawrence Poston’s recent comment that “Newman stands in opposition to almost every trend that post-Victorians find most interesting in the Victorian period. . . Today’s secular readers are likely to find narratives of the loss of faith more compelling than those [such as the Apologia] that describe how faith was won.”
The 26 chapters in the Handbook demonstrate that Newman’s contribution in the fields of education, history, literature, philosophy, and theology is certainly compelling, not least because he is a controversialist, who works out his ideas in dialogue with his friends and in opposition to his enemies.
In Part One, Context for his Writings, Peter B. Nockles weighs the contributions of Newman, the Oxford Movement’s “moving spirit”, and those of his colleagues to the movement, while Joshua King offers a lively account of Newman’s grasp of the power of print culture in a “media-saturated world”.
A great letter-writer, Newman intervened in contemporary debates through letters to the newspapers and by editing journals such as the quarterly British Critic. Keith Beaumont explains in his chapter on the Oratory that the Jesuits were too conservative to attract Newman the convert, who chose instead to lead “a community of secular priests, living together without vows, for the fulfilment of their ministry, under a rule and with privileges given them by the Holy See”. There are also engaging chapters on Ireland and on Newman’s brothers.
Among the influences on Newman that define Part II are the British Naturalist tradition of philosophy and the work of Richard Whately. On Evangelicalism, Gareth Atkins wrestles with Frank Turner’s iconoclastic biography of the Anglican Newman, but agrees with Turner that Newman’s youthful beliefs have been underplayed and under-examined. Benjamin J. King, writing on the church Fathers, quotes Döllinger’s assessment of Newman as the “greatest living authority on the history of the first three centuries”, but argues that, by modern scholarly standards, Newman “made the mistake of seeing the Fathers as his contemporaries”.
Jane Garnett claims that, by comparison with other Tractarians, and later with fellow Catholics, Newman was “less concerned with ecclesiology and the institutional Church than he was with securing and articulating (within a community of believers) the underlying intellectual grounds of faith, themselves rooted in moral understanding, and the fundamental authority of conscience. This priority he took from Joseph Butler.” In this, Newman was far from alone.
Part Three considers the theological themes of Newman’s writings, with chapters on the Anglican parish sermons, justification, sensus fidelium (a contested term), revelation, ecclesiology and infallibility, and on ecumenism, Mariology, and the papacy. In an important essay, C. Michael Shea argues that “the theory of development epitomizes nearly every salient motif in Newman’s theological work. Reason and the act of faith, theological narration, the question of doctrinal authority, the Church, Mary, the incarnation, contemporary ecclesial events, and the sacramental character of grace — all stand in close relation to the idea of development.”
Philosophical and literary themes are reviewed in chapters on epistemology, political and social thought, philosophy of education, the Apologia, and the literary stylist. Geertjan Zuijdwegt and Terrence Merrigan quote Newman’s “remarkably forceful declaration” on conscience, a recurring theme in the Handbook: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
Part Four, Ongoing Significance, is perhaps the least successful, as it does not provide sufficient pointers to the future of Newman scholarship. Separate chapters address Catholic theological receptions, the university, historiography, and literary legacy. Rowell’s parting words on Anglican theological receptions are full of insight, as well as charming reminiscences. He is much missed.
OUP keeps delivering these scholarly books by many hands to the highest of standards. Eyebrows will be raised at the price, even for a book destined for the library. But with 600 pages, and large pages at that, it is worth every penny.
Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and chairman of Gladstone’s Library.
The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman
Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King, editors
Church Times Bookshop £99