Edward Dowler considers the legacy of St John Henry Newman
‘So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.’
Many have found St John Henry Newman’s famous poem Lead, Kindly Light to have a timeless quality. But in my personal experience, it does so in a very particular sense: whenever I read it or rather painfully try to play one of its musical settings on the piano, I associate those whom he describes having ‘loved long since, and lost awhile’ with figures such as Keble and Pusey: Newman’s Anglican friends, from whom he was more or less separated for ever in 1845, upon his reception into the Roman Catholic Church. Although Newman tells us in his Apologia pro Vita Sua that he wrote Lead, Kindly Light in 1833, his words seem to evoke this painful ‘parting of friends’ that would occur some 12 years later. Yet the poem also hopefully anticipates that, despite the poignancy of this separation, in the life of heaven, these parted friends will again be restored to one another.
Around the same time that he wrote the poem, Newman posed a challenging question in the first of the Tracts for the Times: ‘On what ground do you stand, O presbyter of the Church of England?’ It’s a question that has haunted catholic-minded clergy in the Church of England ever since, causing many to search their souls and their consciences. For better or for worse, Newman has bequeathed his doubts and difficulties, his agonized interior struggles, his ‘state of unsettlement’ to subsequent generations. Many have grappled with the question of how clearly the Church of England is the Church of Jesus Christ, built on the witness of the apostles and the teaching of the Church Fathers, or whether, written deeply into its DNA, it has an inbuilt tendency to default to being a sort of well-intentioned religious civil service for the English people.
I wonder whether this legacy has, at least in more recent years, been at the root of some of the difficulties that catholic Anglicans have when engaging in mission. If evangelism is about inviting others on to the ground upon which we ourselves are standing, this is not helped when we feel that this ground is itself somewhat wobbly. Similarly, if sharing the faith with others involves communicating some big ideas with force and clarity, it is not helped if some of our own thoughts about Christian faith and life are somewhat clouded and unsettled.
Anglo-Catholics have found a variety of responses to Newman’s question. Some have been able to reassure themselves, in a way that Newman could not, about the catholic identity of the Church of England, and so have been able to move on from his doubts about this matter. Others have followed his example and, in many further instances of the parting of friends, been received into the Roman Catholic Church. Others have suggested a more pragmatic approach: that whilst ecclesiological concerns may have their place, too much concentration on them might be a damaging distraction from more important priorities of worship and evangelism.
My own view is that Anglican clergy cannot easily evade the questions that Newman so forcefully put to his contemporaries in the 1830s and 40s, so we must continue to struggle and wrestle with them. Such continued struggles need not be destructive and debilitating: if we bring them to God in prayer they have the potential to keep us in a positive way dissatisfied with aspects of the church’s current institutional life, and thus more intent on seeking the Kingdom; humble in what we claim for ourselves and our own status, and open to wider horizons and fresh possibilities that the future may hold.
However, for those who continue to find themselves challenged or even afflicted by the questions about Anglican life that Newman opened up, his canonization comes as a perhaps slightly unexpected game-changer.
Catholic teaching encourages us to look to the saints as living companions on the journey who have undergone the same struggles that we have, and thus know what it is like to be who and where we are. In the words of Isaac Watts:
‘Once they were mourning here below,
And wet their couch with tears;
They wrestled hard, as we do now,
With sins and doubts and fears.’
With the canonization of St John Henry Newman, we now know, as far as is humanly possible, that we have a friend in heaven who knows from the inside out all about the doubts, fears and interior struggles that have afflicted catholic Anglicans over the last two centuries. Whilst this does not solve all our confusions, it gives a wonderful reassurance that, whatever the resolution of these questions and difficulties may eventually turn out to be, they are brought to God’s heart by a saint who knows us and, I believe we can be sure, loves us and prays for us.
Similarly, Lead Kindly Light continues to remind us of our goal in that heavenly light towards which we press forward. On the morning of the new creation, when we will have passed ‘out of the shadows and phantasms into the truth’, the angel faces will be smiling upon us as we exchange unsettlement of mind for perfect peace, and are reunited with parted friends whom we have loved long since, and lost awhile.
The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings.