John Twisleton considers John Newman’s profound influence on the universal Church

John Henry Newman’s greatness lies in his capacity to point us to the big picture of things (which is Christianity’s forte) and to shake off what’s parochial and narrow-minded, the stuff that puts the brakes on forward thinking and the beckoning dynamic of history.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem was his motto—it’s on his grave: ‘from shadows and images into the truth.’ Life is a forward movement we can choose from what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 as shadows and images into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

His great Apologia was first published 5 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), a story of spiritual evolution that complements Darwin’s thesis on biological evolution. ‘To live is to change,’ Newman wrote, ‘and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ He held to a dynamic view of life and history, and like Darwin he is one of the most famous Victorians. His take on change though was always mindful of the human aspiration within the changes and chances of this fleeting world to rest upon the eternal changelessness of God. In Newman’s words: ‘Life is short, death is certain and eternity is long.’

Ironically, a thinker and writer who saw life’s limitations with such clarity is tremendously affirmative of both its value and its dynamic, and speaks to both the world and to the church today. John Henry Newman is Blessed John Henry, a saint of the universal Church, of Roman Catholics and Anglicans. He is an ecumenical, forward-looking saint whose prayers are with both of the churches he belonged to over his long life. Born in 1801, Newman went up to Oxford at 16 and won a fellowship at Oriel College in 1822. Originally an evangelical, he was swayed by figures such as John Keble and Edward Pusey and became leader of the Oxford Movement which did so much to recover the catholic heritage of the Church of England. Opposition to his teaching led to him resigning the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford in 1843. In 1845, he became a Roman Catholic and was re-ordained, continuing to have great influence from his base in Birmingham and from where he helped found the Catholic University of Ireland. He was made Cardinal in 1879, died in 1890 and beatified by Pope Benedict in 2010. A great literary figure, he wrote Tracts for the Times, Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Grammar of Assent. His two famous hymns are ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height,’ the latter based on his poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius,’ which was also set to music by Elgar.

Newman possessed a vision of the transformative power of Christianity, which he expressed as both an Anglican and a Roman Catholic. He lived (as we all do) in times of change and was aware of the impact of the industrial revolution on the world he lived in. As a historian he brought a perspective on change in both society and the church which makes him seem conservative to some, although to others it’s his rationalist Anglican opponents who were the conservatives, wanting the church to rationalize and conserve its position within English society. In an essay appended to Apologia he describes eighteen propositions of the Church of his day that are still around: ‘No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so… No one can believe what he does not understand… Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilization, and the exigencies of the times… Virtue is the child of knowledge, and vice of ignorance.’

Church development to Newman was informed by the faith of the church through the ages, by antiquity, more than by what might best suit nineteenth century society. It came about under the authority of scripture, tradition and episcopacy. As an Anglo-Catholic he saw final authority in his bishop, and as a Roman Catholic in the Pope. It was his perception that the development of doctrine through the Christian centuries has been secured by universal consent across the episcopacy, which in the end collided with his Anglicanism. He distilled his reading of the Church Fathers and the formulation of the creeds into four Latin words—securus judicat orbis terrarum—which is translated as ‘the whole world is safe judge.’ Originally Newman’s view of mainstream Christianity lay in the faith of the church through the ages, with emphasis on the ages (i.e. antiquity.) He moved on to understand that mainstream as being beyond the sense of full historical faith and instead as a faith that’s worldwide up to today. Through historical research he grew in appreciation of the track record of the Bishop of Rome as referee on the development of Christian doctrine. Seeing and suffering for himself the damage caused by rationalism outside the Roman Catholic Church led to his change of ecclesiastical allegiance.

Church reforms that confounded Newman and his Oxford Movement contemporaries were those imposed by civil power, as if the church were a state department. The suppression of Irish bishops was opposed by Keble, and the Movement opposed the introduction of a Jerusalem bishopric to oversee Anglicans as well as Lutherans whose ownership of apostolic succession was doubtful. What was at issue was the Church as a divinely ordered society in which episcopacy was the essence of its life and not just a pragmatic institution. To this day, proposed reforms to the ordering of the Church come up against the test as to whether they are faithful to the esse as well as to the bene esse of the Church. Since the English Reformation there have existed side by side within ‘the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed’ both essentialists, as Newman proved to be, and pragmatists. This will have a bearing on the Anglican future.

Apostolic succession to Newman and his fellow Tractarians, so called because of their writing the controversial Tracts for the Times, was about a succession of both faith and order, of age-old tried-and-tested Christian teaching as well as of bishops correctly ordained in historic succession. In the Tracts, Newman and others set forth the catholic faith as Anglicans have received it, distinct from both Roman Catholic and Protestant teaching, the one seen as having superfluous additions and the other dangerous omissions. Newman himself struggled with a Protestant tendency to resist devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary which he had to work through before accepting the Pope as final authority. It is to Newman, along with Keble, Pusey and other Oxford Fathers, that we as Anglicans owe our sense of holding the catholic faith seen as literally ‘whole’ or ‘full’ Christian faith as opposed to what’s partial or sectarian, which is distinct from Roman Catholic faith with its emphasis on papal infallibility. Interestingly, Newman became a helpful servant of his new church at the time of the First Vatican Council when some members were pressing to declare the Pope infallible beyond the limited role as spokesman for Catholic consensus in faith and morals advocated by moderate Roman Catholics.

Newman caught from church history a sense of the forward momentum granted by the Holy Spirit which keeps the church moving forward in the truth of God. His work on church development and how we protect the church from godless innovation to secure godly reform came most fully into its own at the time of the Second Vatican Council, of which he’s been called the patron due to his stress on the centrality of Christ, the dignity of the laity and their role in keeping the Church faithful to God’s truth. ‘What Catholics, what Church doctors, as well as Apostles, have ever lived on, is not any number of theological canons or decrees, but… the Christ himself, as he is represented in concrete existence in the Gospels.’ In these words, Newman speaks true to his evangelical upbringing about the centrality of Christ to Christian experience, which is at the heart of the reshaping of teaching at Vatican II. In the ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’ it states that the mediation of the Church might not be essential for the salvation of every man and woman. In his later years Newman wrote: ‘it does not follow, because there is no Church but one, which has the Evangelical gifts and privileges to bestow, that therefore no one can be saved without the intervention of that one Church.’

Yet as Ian Ker writes: ‘Radical as Newman was, he never embraced the kind of pluralist theology by which many Catholics were tempted after the Council. In his Grammar of Assent, he insisted that “all the providences of God centre [in Christ].” As he declared in an Anglican sermon, Christ’s “death upon the cross is the sole Meritorious Cause, the sole Source of spiritual blessing to our guilty race.”’ Ker explains that ‘the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation’—Dei Verbum—‘emphasises that God reveals his own self in Christ rather than truths about himself: Christ, it declares, “is himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation.” This understanding of revelation as primarily personal rather than propositional is also that of Newman. But, whereas there was a tendency after the Council to downplay dogmatic propositions, as was illustrated most disastrously in education and catechetics, Newman himself was in no doubt that the self-revealing of God necessarily involves propositional revelation writing: “Why should God speak, unless He meant to say something? Why should He say it, unless He meant us to hear?” If there has been a revelation, then “there must be some essential doctrine proposed by it to our faith”… Religion cannot but be dogmatic; it ever has been… After all, the Christian revelation “is no mere philosophy thrown upon the world at large, no mere quality of mind and thought, no mere beautiful and deep sentiment or subjective opinion, but a substantive message from above.”’

Such passages quoted by Ker show Newman’s readiness to defend dogma, seen as a fence for the well-trodden path of Christian believing. Dogma, the intellectual formulation of Christianity, though, was second in Newman’s approach to numinous perception. He counted the discovery of the sacramental in Keble’s Christian Year as a turning point, coming to see experience rather than reason as author and custodian of faith. He saw reason as just the instrument of demonstrating its truth. In his day, as for many Christians in our own day, reason was seen by many as the cornerstone of religious faith. For Newman, the things of the eternal God cannot be seen as the things of time are—they always need a deeper or numinous perception that involves the whole person. This approach makes him a gift to our own day with its heavy rationalism.

Holiness rather than argument is the best guide to the science of God, Newman teaches us, as in his famous hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ which speaks of relinquishing rational choice, fears, and pride to be led into a fuller vision by the light of providence alone. This poem, written during a health crisis, admits the importance of the trials of life in leading us into more certain faith. With Aristotle and Aquinas he saw that, whereas mathematics reaches definite conclusions by appeal to the necessary and unchanging, human action works in a mysterious fashion that transcends logic. Certitude is moral not intellectual, shown in humble determination to head ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (i.e. towards God).

To Newman, church development and reform is rooted in individual transformation under the authority of both the faith of the Church through the ages and what some have called the golden thread of spiritual direction. Faith is nurtured in discipleship, in the upholding in our lives of worship, prayer, study, service and reflection. It is our choice to be nurtured in holiness by and with those who have sought and today seek the Holy Spirit within the Christian church. Newman found such a community at Littlemore, and later in the Oratory of St Philip Neri he founded in Birmingham.

This pursuit of holiness is perhaps Newman’s most hopeful challenge, one taken up by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the occasion of Pope Benedicts visit to the UK in 2010: ‘In 1845, when John Henry Newman finally decided that he must follow his conscience and seek his future in serving God in communion with the See of Rome, one of his most intimate Anglican friends and allies, the priest Edward Bouverie Pusey… wrote a moving meditation on this “parting of friends” in which he said of the separation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics: “it is what is unholy on both sides that keeps us apart”. That should not surprise us: holiness is at its simplest fellowship with Christ, and when that fellowship with Christ is brought to maturity so is our fellowship with one another. As bishops, we are servants of the unity of Christ’s people, Christ’s one Body. And, meeting as we do as bishops of separated church communities, we must all feel that each of our own ministries is made less by the fact of our dividedness, a very real but imperfect communion. Perhaps we shall not quickly overcome the remaining obstacles to full, restored communion, but no obstacles stand in the way of our seeking, as a matter of joyful obedience to the Lord, more ways in which to build up one another in holiness by prayer and public celebration together, by closer friendship, and by growing together both in the challenging work of service for all whom Christ loves, and mission to all God has made.’

We move from that positive observation on spiritual ecumenism—‘it is what is unholy on both sides that keeps us apart’—to what Blessed John Newman might say to us about the Anglican future. His own conscientious search for truth is chronicled in the Apologia, which, besides answering the charges of duplicity against him and against the Roman Catholic Church, is a great literary work. To think Newman was once asked to translate the Bible but someone above him stopped this—what a loss! In the Apologia, we’re shown the plausibility of both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism and the sincerity of their adherents as he charts the intelligibility of his conversion from one to the other.

The principal relevance of Newman’s thought to our Anglican future is the tension he uncovers between a view of mainstream Christianity lying in the faith of the church through the ages, and the view that sees what’s mainstream or catholic as going beyond this sense of full historical faith to an idea of faith that’s worldwide up to today. In 2008, Cardinal Walter Kasper addressed the Lambeth Conference and put his finger on the ecclesiological issue of our day at the root of Anglican fragmentation. He spoke of ‘the episcopal office as an office of unity in a two-fold sense. Bishops are the sign and the instrument of unity within the individual local church, just as they are between both the contemporary local churches and those of all times within the universal Church.’ Appealing to ownership of this understanding in the Anglican-Roman Catholic agreement on authority, Kasper mentioned ‘the ecclesiological arguments raised by John Henry Newman, which moved him to become a Catholic. His main concerns revolved around apostolicity in communion with the See of Rome as the guardian of apostolic tradition and of the unity of the Church. I think his questions remain and that we have not exhausted this discussion.’

‘Indeed they do’—so Kasper concludes his address to the Lambeth Bishops by calling for ‘a new Oxford Movement, a retrieval of riches which last within your [Anglican] household. This would be a re-reception, a fresh recourse to the apostolic tradition in a new situation. [This would] not mean a renouncing of your deep attentiveness to human challenges and struggles… [and] the active role of all women and men in the Church. Rather, it would bring these concerns and the questions that arise from them more directly within the framework shaped by the Gospel and ancient common tradition in which our dialogue is grounded.’

In 2011, the establishment by Pope Benedict of a personal ordinariate for groups of former Anglicans in England and Wales in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus was effected under the patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman. Though both the action and the secession of many from the Anglican church over female ordination in recent years is controversial, the papal action remains an affirmation of the intrinsic catholic credentials of historic Anglicanism which would warm Newman’s heart.

How might Blessed John Henry Newman see the Anglican future? I think he would be pleased to see our liturgy and formularies which are more explicit about our being ‘part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit… professing the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’ He’d be less convinced though by the ongoing divisions between essentialists and pragmatists over whether it’s the same faith we’re called upon to profess afresh or an updated faith!

Newman saw bishops as the centre of unity and would be shocked at the reform that has allowed women to be bishops at the expense of collegiality, so that in places Anglican bishops are more a source of division than unity. The tendency for teaching from bishops and others apart from catholic consensus, as on the dissolution of marriage and homosexual marriage, would shock him, though Newman was familiar with controversial teaching among the bishops of his day.

The ascendant evangelical wing of the Church of England (a key part of our future) that is Christocentric and helping to bring access to Jesus Christ in a world with much less formality than Newman’s day would both warm and challenge him. The failure of the Church in England of whatever denomination to overcome the rationalism of our day would not surprise Newman. Nor would reasoned schemes for church growth that bypass concern for deeper experience of God that he saw as central to discipleship.

What we can be sure of—both Newman and the author of this paper—is the ultimate triumph of Christ in his Church according to his promise. The Church’s humanity will fail but, as Newman showed in his study of the development of doctrine, Christ’s divinity indwells his Church and prevails. We should never lose hope, and indications elsewhere in the world bring justice to that thought. The Church of England has a future if it stays part of the Church of God in England with a strategy of building holiness, which is the Church’s most powerful influence.

Fr John Twisleton writes from the Diocese of Chichester. This paper was delivered at St Michael’s, Lewes on 25 April 2018 as part of a series of seminars on John Keble.