Michael Fisher reflects on the canonisation of Blessed John Newman
‘If I looked into a mirror and did not see my face, I should have the kind of feeling which actually comes upon me when I look into this living, busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator.’
A quote from a recent newspaper article, perhaps; or from a disgruntled correspondent in the Church Times, or maybe even a bishop? No: those words were written 155 years ago by Blessed John Henry Newman (1801–1898) who, on 13 October this year, will become Saint John Newman. They were written in an age which we imagine to have been more godly, more morally upright and more law-abiding than our own, but mid-Victorian England was not as rosy and comfortable and confident as it might seem. Others would readily have agreed with Newman that ‘the sight of the world is nothing less than the prophet’s scroll, full of lamentations, and mourning, and woe…’ But before dismissing him as just another Jeremiah, consider something else that he wrote, and which Christians of all traditions will have heard and sung, many times over:
‘O loving wisdom of our God,
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight,
And to the rescue came’.
The second verse of the hymn, ‘Praise to the holiest,’ encapsulates in six short verses what lies at the centre of our faith: the love of God revealed to humanity (in all its messiness) in the person of Jesus Christ, and paradoxically in the agony of the cross.
Newman had no illusions about the world in which he lived. Though his early life was a somewhat charmed one, spent among the dreaming spires of Oxford, preaching memorable sermons in the university church of St Mary, he was later to immerse himself in the slums of Birmingham, in places which respectable society might wish to pretend did not exist. ‘This living busy world’ is—as Newman knew—the place where the Church has to bear witness to a God who is fully immersed in our life, our problems, our humanity; and whose love can be known and received by virtue of the Incarnation. Newman also knew that if he could see no reflection of the Creator, it was largely because no one had bothered to shine the light of Christ into these people’s lives. So he immersed himself amongst the urban poor of Birmingham, living out the Incarnation through pastoral care, catholic teaching, and devotion to the sacraments. It was a strategy for mission and evangelism that was followed too by some of the great figures of the Anglican Catholic movement such as Fr Lowder and Fr Mackonochie.
I first encountered Newman, as many others do, through singing hymns such as Firmly I believe and truly, Lead, kindly light, and of course Praise to the holiest; but it was not until my undergraduate days that I came to know him as arguably the greatest and most influential spiritual figure of the 19th century. Having chosen the mid-Victorian period as a special study for my history degree, I found that one of the set texts was his Apologia pro vita sua (1864). It made a deep and lasting impression on me, both as an account of Newman’s spiritual journey, and because of the way in which it was so precisely and systematically organized as a defence of his integrity against the onslaught of Charles Kingsley who had accused him of—amongst other things—untruthfulness, specifically that while still functioning as an Anglican clergyman, and vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, he had secretly adopted ‘Roman’ beliefs. The Apologia not only demolished Kingsley’s charges; it also gave Newman the opportunity to recount the whole of his spiritual life from childhood to his conversion in a publication which ran to over 300 pages and soon became a spiritual classic.
It was John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 which sparked the Tractarian Movement, with Newman at its head, taking its name from its publication of Tracts for the Times. Their principal objective was to recall the Church of England to its catholic roots: not a department of state for religion, but a divine institution, with bishops who could trace their authority back to the apostles themselves, so that, at their ordination, Anglican priests were touched by the spirit of the early Church in a very direct and tangible way. The Prayer Book Ordinal made this abundantly clear: ‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God…’ You cannot get much more catholic than that! The question that was to vex Newman more than any other was whether or not such a body could validly exist independently of the rest of catholic Christendom. The Apologia takes the reader step by step through Newman’s search for an answer in the history of the early Church, how all the arguments were whittled away until the truth, as he now saw it, stared him directly in the face leaving only one course of action left open to him, namely reconciliation with the Church of Rome. ‘He who has seen a ghost cannot be as if he had never seen it.’
It is difficult for us, looking back from a 21st-century perspective, to appreciate the breadth and depth of anti-Catholic feeling that was part of the mid-Victorian mind-set, fuelled by tales of ‘Bloody Mary,’ the Spanish Armada, the Inquisition, and Guy Fawkes. Even in the environs of the University of Oxford, ‘Catholicism’ automatically meant ‘Popery,’ un-English and unpatriotic, so the cost of conversion could be—and was for Newman—incalculable. With his brilliant career now in shreds, and with an uncertain future, he left Oxford in February 1846. The depth of his sadness, and sense of exile and banishment from his beloved university can still be felt:
‘There used to be much snapdragon growing on the walls of my freshman’s rooms… and I had for years taken it as the emblem of my own perpetual residence even unto death in my University… I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway.’ (Apologia, p.214)
What Newman called ‘the parting of friends,’ the suspicions and allegations, were only the beginning. He did not find the transition easy. Although he had finally concluded that the via media view of the Church of England was no longer tenable, he had qualms about the necessity of re-ordination when it came to that in 1847. He also felt uncomfortable in the seminary at Oscott. Subjected to quizzical gazes, he felt like a captured animal; a spectacle for the Principal, Dr Wiseman, to put on show. The former vicar of St Mary’s Oxford, and a Fellow of Oriel, now had to queue for confession at Dr Wiseman’s door along with the junior Oscott boys. As a newly ordained Oratorian, based first at St. Anne’s, Alcester Street, Birmingham, and later at the Edgbaston Oratory, he had to start again from the bottom rung of the ladder. It was, however, pursuit of the truth that had led him there; that relentless pursuit described in such detail in the Apologia. Thus, Newman masterfully parried the assaults on his integrity, and made Kingsley look extremely foolish and disingenuous. The slow, upward climb was set to yield much fruit: teaching sermons and lectures to capacity crowds at St Chad’s Cathedral, reintegrating the Roman Catholic Church into the life of the nation, and ultimately a cardinal’s hat.
Paradoxically, it is for what he left behind in Oxford that the Church of England owes Newman its biggest debt of gratitude. The Tracts for the Times came to a sudden and inglorious end in 1841 following the publication of Tract XC in which Newman claimed that even the most Protestant of the Thirty-Nine Articles were not directed against the fundamental doctrines of Catholicism, but only against popular exaggerations and errors. Nevertheless, scores of newly ordained clergy were leaving Oxford imbued with Tractarian ideas, invigorated by Newman’s Sunday afternoon sermons at St Mary’s and his courses of lectures on Anglicanism as the ‘middle way’ between Romanism and Protestantism, and of course there were the ‘remainers’ such as Keble and Pusey. It was estimated that by the mid-1840s there were over 500 ‘Newmanite’ clergy at work in parishes all over England. Thus began the great revival which—in tandem with the Cambridge-based Ecclesiologists—transformed the faith and practice of the church nationwide, returning it to its catholic roots, securing better training for clergy through new theological colleges, stimulating mission amongst the urban poor, and much else.
For his part—and unlike some of the more zealous converts, past and present—Newman readily acknowledged his own debt to the Church of England for what it had given him at that stage of his spiritual development. Had he been born into a dissenting family, he might never have heard of the visible Church, apostolic succession or other catholic doctrines, and never have gone to Oxford. He even went so far as to apologize for anything he might have said or done which might have provoked the allegation that he had turned on his mother church ‘with contumely and slander.’
It should be remembered, though, that Newman was no ritualist. To the end of his Anglican days he wore nothing more ‘advanced’ than surplice, scarf and hood, and he had no time for what he called ‘the gilt gingerbread school’ who ‘played at Popery.’ ‘It is one thing to desire fine churches and ceremonies… but quite another to desire these and nothing else.’
Despite the uneasy relationship between the two churches, Newman entertained hopes of eventual reconciliation, if not in his lifetime then at some future date, and felt duty-bound to pray for it. If Anglicans needed to lay aside the suspicions and hostilities of past centuries, then Rome needed to reform too; specifically to be more accommodating towards the English temperament which reacted on the one hand against repressive authoritarianism summed up in the word ‘popery’ (the right ‘to have dominion over our faith’ as Newman put it), and ‘Mariolatry’ on the other. Though Newman had a deep love for Our Lady, he baulked at excessive devotional practices which ‘are suitable for Italy, but they are not suitable for England.’ He also knew, from his own experience, that to win people’s hearts and minds you had first to love them, and win their affections ‘in the bonds of the gospel.’
As the date of Blessed John Newman’ s canonization—appropriately, the feast of St Edward Confessor—draws near, it will be for others to survey his enormous contribution to the life of the Roman Catholic Church, and his vast literary output of prose, verse, theology, sermons and lectures. Many of these works cut across all denominational boundaries. Romans and Anglicans may celebrate him liturgically in equal measure—Romans on 9 October, which is the anniversary of his conversion, and Anglicans on 11 August (Common Worship Calendar), and seek his prayers within the communion of saints.
If I had to choose just one constant theme of his most extraordinary life to commend to others, regardless of their religious affiliations, it is summed up in the word ‘trust.’ Convinced that the very existence of God was as real and certain as was his own existence, and responding to the call ‘My son, give me your heart’ (Proverbs 23.26), he became equally convinced that the relationship between God and the individual soul was that of sola cum solo, face to face, so that nothing could ever come between them. Hence the origin of the motto Newman chose for himself when he was created a cardinal, and which is engraved on his memorial at Rednal: Cor ad cor loquitur—‘Heart speaks unto heart.’
When in 2008 Newman’s grave was opened in order to remove his remains to a shrine specially constructed at the Oratory in preparation for his beatification, only the brass fittings from the coffin were found. Owing to the nature of the soil, and other related factors, the body had completely disintegrated. In death as in life, it was sola cum solo, and I remembered the words of St Ignatius of Antioch:
‘When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Christ’s disciple’.
Fr Michael Fisher is honorary assistant priest, St Michael & All Angels, Cross Heath, Newcastle-under-Lyme.