John Twisleton preaches on the canonization of St John Henry Newman
Love and truth walk in the presence of God, writes the Psalmist (89:14) and so do his saints. Saint John Henry Newman’s walk with God appeals to both heart and mind as expressed in his motto and grave inscription. Cor ad cor loquitur—let heart speak to heart. Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem—from shadows and images into the truth.
Today the Christian world gives glory to God for raising up an exceptional servant who has moulded Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions up to this day through his teaching and holiness. Both traditions helped form our saint and both are built up in love and truth through his patronage. I stand here this evening grateful to Newman with millions of fellow Anglicans. Through his influence and that of the Oxford Movement the 1662 Prayer Book Catechism was revised 300 years later in1962 to include the following definition. ‘The Church of England is the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed. It proclaims and holds fast the doctrine and ministry of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’.
Our saint contributed to a recovery of Anglicanism as being in continuity with the early and medieval Church though that perception was so unwelcome in his day as to trigger Newman’s transition to Roman Catholic obedience. I dare to say that such a perception is more accepted nowadays even if recent discontinuities in Anglican ministry await the verdict of history.
As a scientist by training, I have always been attracted to Newman, whose writings counter what would put a brake on the best forward thinking. His great Apologia affirming both Anglican and Catholic heritage was published 5 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), a story of spiritual evolution complementing Darwin’s thesis on biological evolution. ‘To live is to change,’ Newman wrote, and to be perfect is to have changed often. Life is a forward movement we can choose—he chose it—from what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 as from such shadows and images into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Our saint, though aware through his sufferings of life’s sad limitations, is a teacher affirmative of life’s value, and dynamic, an ecumenical, forward-looking saint whose teaching, love and prayers are with both churches he belonged to over his long life. Saint John’s work on church development and how we protect the church from godless innovation to secure godly reform came into its own at the time of the Second Vatican Council, of which he’s been called patron through his stress on the centrality of Christ and 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, he wrote, is not any number of theological canons or decrees, but Christ Himself, as He is represented in concrete existence in the Gospels. In those words Newman speaks true to his evangelical Anglican upbringing about the centrality of Christ to Christian experience which is at the heart of the reshaping in emphasis within Roman Catholic teaching expressed in the decrees of Vatican II.
Our Saint was always ready to defend dogma, the fence alongside the well-trodden path of Christian believing, but intellectual formulation of Christianity was second to his warm hearted approach to God. His motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, expresses this: let heart speak to heart. Newman teaches us holiness is the best guide to the science of God, not argument, as in his hymn ‘Lead, kindly light.’ There he speaks of surrendering rational choice, fears, and pride to be opened up to a fuller vision by the light of the Holy Spirit. This poem, written during a health crisis, admits the importance of the trials of life in leading us into more certain faith. Whereas scientific research reaches conclusions by appeal to the necessary and unchanging, human action by contrast works beyond logic. Certitude is moral not intellectual and is shown in humble determination to head from shadows and images into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
To Newman, church development and reform is rooted in such individual transformation, under the authority of both the faith of the Church through the ages and the golden thread of spiritual direction reaching down the Christian centuries. Faith is nurtured from discipleship, from upholding in our lives worship, prayer, study, service and reflection. Such disciplines express 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 on in the Oratory of St Philip Neri he founded in Birmingham and London.
When our saint decided to make his transition into communion with the See of Rome, his Anglican friend, Edward Pusey, observed wisely of the separation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics: ‘It is what is unholy on both sides that keeps us apart.’ Today’s canonization is both a celebration and a challenge. The Church’s mission to the world is damaged by its spiritual immaturity expressed in its divisions even if there are friendships across denominational divides. It is appropriate to recall Anne and my friendships with many here at St Paul’s through our 18 years in Haywards Heath or nearby Horsted Keynes. The recent loss to Christine and all of you of Deacon Gerard Irwin was our loss as well. Over recent years I recall heart-warming occasions like the 24/7 prayer in St Paul’s Hall in 2004, Churches Together events in the Dolphin Leisure Centre and bridge-building occasions fostered by charismatic renewal and the True Life in God apostolic network. I’m delighted to hear of a new venture of ecumenical prayer starting at St Paul’s and we hope to be part of it.
As someone who attends Mass at St Richard’s and here on occasion, St John is my patron. I yearn for the visible unity of the Church to complement the spiritual unity expressed tonight. ‘We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord,’ but let’s not stay there, as the song continues, ‘and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.’ Why? So that Our Lord’s prayer for us in John 17:21 can be answered: ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’
That prayer and task is ours for the good of Haywards Heath and the world. In such an aspiration, heart will speak to heart as we invoke our new Saint trusting God for many among us to be drawn from shadows and images into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Fr John Twisleton is a retired priest ministering in Brighton. This sermon was delivered at Vespers in St Paul, Haywards Heath on the day of St John Henry Newman’s canonization, 13 October 2019.