Now is the time to read (or re-read) Newman’s writings says Ernest Skublics who has belatedly rediscovered the contemporary relevance of his work

This was almost a book review, except… One does not usually review a book written some 150 years earlier. Especially if most of ones colleagues have (presumably) read the book long before the reviewer has. So, I begin with a confession. When I was a student, every second fellow student was reading Newman and writing doctoral dissertations about him.

The conversation was enough to make me want to avoid him like the plague. I did reluctantly attempt to read him and found him verbose, convoluted, and not much to my interest. I also had a distaste for what I perceived to be the intellectual climate of the Catholic Church of the nineteenth century, Newmans final resting place.

However, I left Newman to his admirers in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was in the process of discovering the glories of Anglo-Catholicism, as well as some of the foibles of Roman Catholicism. You might say I was travelling in the opposite direction from Newman, believing that I could have Catholicism without its flaws, Catholic priesthood without celibacy, and all this on the confirmed path towards restored communion in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. By the time I died, all would be well.

A kindred spirit

Some time ago, when on retreat in an obscure Trappist Abbey without anything to read, I stumbled upon Newmans Apologia pro vita sua. So, belatedly, I picked it up, like Ignatius of Loyola picking up the Bible and the Lives of the Saints, when he could not find anything more palatable to read!

The language was still a bit convoluted, still a bit verbose, and yes, forgive me, very Oxford. What else would you expect! But I suddenly found myself in the conversation and soul-searching, not without pain, uncertainty and fractured friendships, of a colleague and soul-mate who could have been living today and be a member of Forward in Faith!

Very particular details aside – they did not yet have women priests, homosexual marriages and umpteen separated churches out of communion not only with Rome but with each other – he could have been describing the malaise and decline of Anglicanism in our own day, giving a very careful, precise and developing analysis of its increasing Protestantism, Liberalism, and growing distaste for Catholicism. Of course! We are talking about the heyday of the Oxford Movement, spawned in response to this decline!

As I was reading this account of the development of John Henry Newmans opinions and assessments of the situation through the middle of the nineteenth century, I found myself continually saying: Yes, yes, that’s exactly it! and I kept on thinking about my friends to whom I wanted to send a copy, in case they haven’t read it yet, or urging them to read it again.

I also found that, in his verbosity, Newman did not mind picking apart his own feelings and wrestlings in public, in a way in which today I would hardly dare to do myself. Yet it is obvious that he struggled hard with being in the limelight and feeling a debt of loyalty to the Church of England and his old friends, while an inconvenient truth was increasingly pressing on his reason at the same time – he made much of wanting to be guided by reason rather than feelings. I found myself wishing we could have the same open, honest, truth-seeking discourse today, led by theological reason, wherever it may lead. Newman should have a regular column in New Directions!

Apostolic Succession

Early on, Newman recalls how, when researching the Ante-Nicene history for his study of the Arians of the fourth century, he came to see that period as ‘the basis of the Church of England’, claiming ‘antiquity’ as its foundation in truth.

This reminded me how Anglo-Catholics have always drawn comfort from the Apostolic Succession, as connecting the Anglican Communion/Churches safely to that early Church, legitimizing it even in (provisional) separation from other (Catholic) Churches. This source of comfort had come to be known as the ‘Branch Theory’, somewhat more cutely nicknamed the ‘Pipeline Theory’.

I have often had occasion to wonder why in recent years I have drawn less and less comfort from this theory – apart from the fact that neither Roman nor Orthodox ecclesiology recognizes its validity. Of course the gradual deterioration and loss of Catholic integrity in the Anglican Communion would be enough to warn one that, pipeline or not, all is not well.

Then finally I realized that Metropolitan John Zizioulas has much to answer for, as it was his work – which inspired a whole re-visioning of our theological curriculum at the seminary of which I was dean – that made me understand that it is koinonia (communion) both diachronically, ensured by Apostolic Succession, and synchronically, by living in sacramental and conciliar communion (the many being one, patterned on the unity of the Trinity) that constitutes the true Church. Interestingly, John Henry Newman began to see this rather early in his development, and articulated it with a clarity that becomes much more obvious with hindsight, after reading Zizioulas.

Safeguarding identity

It took Newman many years of careful thinking, scholarly research and agonizing prayer, after this gradually emerging insight, finally to realize that it is not sufficient to be connected through unbroken succession to the past – antiquity, the Apostles – while being out of communion in the present with the (rest of the) Catholic Church, and drifting farther and farther from it. It is continuing (or restored) communion and unity in the Faith and the Sacraments that safeguards the true Church in its truth and identity.

John Henry Newman resisted for long, and advised others against going to Rome’ as individuals, hoping that corporate restoration of unity could be achieved. Wouldn’t we all agree! In the end he realized that such a corporate move was not about to happen in his lifetime. And he was responsible for his own soul before God.

Read Newman! And caveat lectori