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John Henry Newman: ‘I never heard a more exquisite voice’

by
11 August 2023

In his diary, a young canon of Truro recorded a visit to the aged John Henry Newman, discovers Howard Tomlinson

Church Times

Newman in 1873, from an engraving by Joseph Brown

Newman in 1873, from an engraving by Joseph Brown

IN THE autumn of 1878, an honorary canon of Truro Cathedral set off by the 7.48 a.m. train to undertake what he later described as the “enormous” journey from Cornwall to Birmingham. As he reflected on the day’s expedition later that evening, his final diary entry for 30 September 1878 read: “Tomorrow a.m., [I am] to see Dr Newman at the Oratory.”

The clergyman’s name was Arthur James Mason, appointed by E. W. Benson earlier that year as diocesan canon missioner: the first person to be given the title in any English diocese.

According to Mason’s detailed diary account, one of the reasons for his visit arose from his Cornish missionary work. As befitted a High Church evangelist, who was strongly drawn towards Christian community living, Mason explored with Newman the possibility of establishing an Anglican oratory in Truro.

But there were other reasons for his visit. His sister, Mitty, had already secretly contacted Newman for advice about whether she should become a Roman Catholic. Mason’s response to Newman’s conviction that she was now ready to join another Communion was direct. “I was not intending to be knocked over even by him,” he wrote, “and replied that I was sure if he knew her as I knew her, he would see that she was not convinced.”

So, the young priest was not overawed by Newman’s presence. And, as a theologian, Mason was surely curious about meeting one of the most distinguished RC thinkers of his time. Indeed, the two had already exchanged works. Mason had sent him his historical essay The Persecution of Diocletian (published in 1876), and in return had received Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a heavily revised edition of his best-known theological work, which had just come out.

Mason, fearing that his slighter offering might be subject to some criticism, after Newman’s opening remark that that he had found the piece “very interesting”, had “somewhat imprudently” distracted his host by thanking him profusely for the gift of his seminal work.

 

SUCH was the background to Mason’s visit to the Edgbaston Oratory on that raw October day in 1878. His detailed diary account of this meeting gives us an idea of the oratory building, especially its library and school, as well an insight into the nature of its founder in old age — Newman was 77 at the time — as seen by a pioneering Anglican clergyman 50 years his junior.

Mason was ushered into a waiting-room with an open confessional and, on the wall, a framed address to Dr Newman from RC priests of the Birmingham diocese, which thanked him for his Apologia and “for not suffering the unworthiness of the assailant to shield him from rebuke”.

After the porter had insisted on lighting a fire for the venerable Superior’s comfort, Mason met his host. He later recorded his first impressions of the great man: “Presently rapid and light but somewhat shuffling footsteps came along the passage, and with some trepidation I saw Dr Newman come in. He wore his cassock and over his shoulders a thick cape of several folds of tweed, not quite black, and a biretta. He held himself very upright for so old a man, and his face had none of that satirical look which I had imagined from the photographs.

“But the strange thing is that I can hardly recall his face at all to my mind’s eye, striking though it was in the extreme. I remember, however, the great fold of skin hanging down from under his chin along his throat, and I never heard a more exquisite voice.”

After talk about Mitty and the exchange of books, the conversation turned to F. J. A. Hort’s Two Dissertations, a work published two years earlier — “which led to his asking a good many questions about theological study at Cambridge, and comparisons of Cambridge and Oxford”.

Mason then “heartily agreed” to be taken up to the library: “It was a delightful room, about forty feet long, and rounded at the far end, and the books in terraces. ‘This is my old Oriel Library’, he said. He began showing me some of the books, beginning with one — a St Basil, I think — which was said to have belonged to Bossuet. There was nothing, however, to prove it, except some slight annotations in pencil on the margin. . .

“Dr Newman was on the terrace, sitting sideways on the long bookshelf, and I beneath on the ground floor. And it was picturesque and delightful to see the old man’s hearty amusement when I said I was very ignorant on the matter but were lead pencils invented in the time of Bossuet? He said it had never occurred to him that the question admitted of so easy a solution.”

 

THE two scholars slowly circulated the library. Next to a shelf of works on Anglican theology was a continuation of Baronius’s Annales Ecclesiastici: a laborious history of the Roman Catholic Church from 1588 to 1607 in 12 folio volumes. Newman doubted — correctly, as it turned out — whether Augustin Theinar’s compilation would ever be published, the “abundance of material . . . [being] so great”. He then observed “how ecclesiastical history had been the special field of the oratorians”.

This gave Mason the opportunity to raise questions about oratory houses in general. Newman responded “most frankly”. He pointed to the differences between the French communities, which were under one Superior and had the same rule, and the independent Italian and English houses. The English oratorians (he explained) took no vows, had no common purse, and no special offices beyond those of the secular clergy, and did not preach beyond their own walls.

AlamyA. J. Mason in later life, when he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, with President Theodore Roosevelt, who was receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws

Mason thereby arrived at the main reason for his visit: “I then told him . . . why I wanted to know all this, and that we were really hoping to form a house at Truro. He asked how many people there were at Truro, and when I said 14,000 [an over-estimate by some 3000], he asked whether I thought it sufficiently large to make it a good place for a community . . . our object was rather different and that we were to preach on missions and go about under the bishop’s direction.

“‘Oh’, said he, ‘the people whom you should know about are the oblate fathers of St Charles. They are the preachers and entirely at the disposal of the bishop.’ We then went to look for their rule. . . ‘But’, said he, ‘of course you can gain nothing from a mere set of rules; you need the tradition to give it life.’”

Mason further enquired — “hesitantly”, he related, presumably understanding the sensibilities — whether he might be able to see anything of the life of the house at Westminster, which had split from the Birmingham Oratory nearly 30 years previously to become a distinct foundation in 1856.

“[Newman] smiled, or rather laughed very significantly, and said that he was not personally acquainted with them. ‘But you know they are completely subject to Cardinal Manning. I have no doubt if you went there, you would find them very polite and attentive, but I cannot . . . answer for how much you would be allowed to see.’”

His reply is a tiny illustration of the unbridgeable gulf that had by then separated Newman from the Roman Catholic hierarchy under Manning and the English Ultramontanes.

Mason was next taken to see the oratory school “for gentlemen’s sons”. As a former schoolmaster — he had briefly served under Benson at Wellington College — it was an area in which he had direct experience. As he and Newman ascended the stairs, the conversation turned to educational matters: “‘You know my own opinion is that we Catholics in England are rather over-schooled and looked after, but I fear that we must plead guilty to our share of the blame’. I said: ‘I suppose, however, sir. . . your system is quite different from that pursued by the Society of Jesus, for example, and much more like that of an English public school’.”

He laughed again, and said: “Yes, that was our intention, but you know they beat us. No sooner had we opened our school and began to get about 50 boys, than they started a new one near Windsor [Beaumont College] when they soon attracted more than a hundred. . . One fault . . . of having so few boys was that they were unable to group them sufficiently, or to get sufficient competition.” Mason writes that Newman “made a sign of pleasant envy when I told him that, at Wellington, we had more than 500 boys”.

Mason was given a tour of the school, including the boys’ private chapel in the gallery — “a tribune, we call it” — above the main church, and the masters’ room, “where they would be close at hand, without being spies”. Newman then proudly announced: “We had the duke of Norfolk here” — the leading RC layman who, in 1875, Newman had publicly addressed in his famous Letter denouncing extreme Ultramontane views on papal infallibility.

Mason was finally shown the great church — “almost as imposing as any church I have seen for a long time” — and, after passing through the cloister, took his leave. This was not quite the last mention of Dr Newman in the Cornish diaries; for, on 13 April 1882, at an Oxford conference, Mason viewed Ouless’s new portrait of the Cardinal (as he had become) in Oriel Hall. He confided to his diary that it was “interesting but not so beautiful, nor so kind, nor so old as in life”.

As for Mason himself, he left Cornwall in January 1884 to become Rector of the richly endowed All Hallows’, Barking, by the Tower of London. The promotion meant “the indefinite postponement, if not the abandonment, of the monastic ideal which has been so long before me”. But, by this, he was able to establish a college of mission preachers, which he had intended to set up in Truro.

In 1895, he returned to Cambridge as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, before spending his last years as a residentiary of Canterbury Cathedral — a dignity that he also owed to Benson’s patronage.

 

Dr Howard Tomlinson is a former Headmaster of Hereford Cathedral School and a Lay Canon Emeritus of Hereford. He is grateful to A. J. Mason’s descendants for giving permission for the publication of extracts from the family diaries.

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