The canonization of John Henry Newman this year provides an opportunity for Anglicans to look back on his legacy in our own church. Newman was a priest of the Church of England before he was a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, his contribution to both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism is a legacy shared between the traditions. Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, written at the point of his conversion, is a seminal work that takes seriously the claims of Christian tradition as well as the notion of development over time. His influence has been significant in both churches, though it’s fair to say that both evidenced some suspicion of him as a thinker and theologian.
Newman was a leader of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. Sparked by the unilateral suppression by the government of a number of Irish bishoprics of the established church, the movement looked to the apostolic foundation of the church rather than its established nature as the true title deed for its ministry. Newman himself counted John Keble’s sermon on “National Apostasy” in the summer of 1833 as the beginning of the movement. A series of Tracts for the Times by Newman, Keble, and later Edward Pusey, the influential Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, as well as others, helped to focus the project of reclamation and recovery.
Newman himself came under an increasing cloud, as time went on, as some viewed the attempt to promote the principles of “apostolic succession” (Tract 1, written by Newman) and the principles and practices of the early church as enshrined in the prayer book, as in reality a revival of “popery” and an overthrow of Protestantism. Tract 90, the last in the series, written by Newman in 1841, attempted to demonstrate the consonance of the 39 Articles of Religion with traditional Catholic faith. The ensuing furor of popular outrage and episcopal condemnation was felt by Newman to undercut his position. Sometime after Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, Charles Kingsley accused him of dissembling, the implication being that he had all along been a Roman wolf in Anglican sheep’s clothing. This prompted what is perhaps Newman’s best-known work, his own Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the book that chronicled the history of his religious opinions and defended the integrity of his journey to the Catholic Church.
On the other hand, Newman’s accession to the Church of Rome was not necessarily greeted enthusiastically by the “old Catholic” minority in England. Early on, he received important support from the Vicar Apostolic, Nicholas Wiseman; but when later asked to lead the foundation of a Catholic University in Ireland, Newman found his plans to form an educated laity opposed by members of the Irish hierarchy. Projects such as a new English translation of the Bible were undercut, seemingly by the same influential leaders who commissioned the work. Asked to take up the editorship of the Catholic periodical, The Rambler, after it had been criticized for liberal tendencies, Newman then came under the same suspicion. He was theologically suspect (often by other converts from Anglicanism!) as a not quite enthusiastic enough supporter of papal prerogatives and authority in the church. His creation as a cardinal in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII finally laid to rest, at the highest level, any notion that the pope shared this suspicion.
In looking at his legacy, Anglicans should not make the mistake of understanding his conversion as a benign event, a seamless move from one tradition to another. He certainly did not understand it that way. It is clear from reading his 1850 lectures, Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, that Newman could present in retrospect a most unflattering public picture of his former church. In 1877, Newman reissued his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, originally published in 1837, as The Via Media of the Anglican Church, with additional notes, pointing out that eventually his earlier work would be reissued, and that it was best if his former arguments were met by their author’s own considered response!
If the Prophetical Office of the Church was an attempt to find a via media between Romanism and Protestantism, Newman later glossed his work in the newly prepared “Preface” for The Via Media as the construction of an artificial and ideal Church of England that never had any real existence. Newman is the best guide to his own intentions, of course, but another way of seeing Newman’s project is as an exercise in religious navigation beset by the perils of early 19th century religious liberalism and skepticism on the one hand, and sectarian Protestant “enthusiasm” on the other. Newman’s project, from first to last, was a Catholic one, rather than a search for a compromise between opposing Roman and Protestant positions. Others continue to share this project without reaching Newman’s conclusions about the unstable claims of Anglicanism to a Catholic calling.
Canonization, of course, is concerned not only with a theological legacy but more fundamentally with sanctity. Louis Bouyer, also a convert and Oratorian priest like Newman, wrote that if he were ever canonized it would be on account of Newman’s “persistence” in “his fundamental principles” (Louis Bouyer, Newman: His Life and Spirituality. New York: Meridian Books, 1960, p. 133). Bouyer acknowledges that at times this quality of character could be perceived as austere and severe, but also points out Newman’s capacity for fellow-feeling, for friendship and love. To my mind, what Bouyer describes in Newman could well be called moral seriousness, a capacity for seeing the true weight and potential of our actions for good or ill. This is something beyond a mere Victorian sensibility about things; rather, it is a grace shaped clarity of spirit that manifests itself in commitment to the apostolic life. In Newman’s case it is a mark of sanctity.
An Anglican appreciation of Newman rightly ends with his Parochial and Plain Sermons, the sermons preached by him as vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford between the years 1825 and 1843. The sermons illustrate not only Newman’s moral seriousness, but also his qualities as a writer and spiritual guide.
In truth, do what he will, Satan cannot quench or darken the light of the Church. He may encrust it with his own evil creations, but even opaque bodies transmit rays, and Truth shines with its own heavenly lustre, though “under a bushel.” The Holy Spirit has vouchsafed to take up His abode in the Church, and the Church will ever bear, on its front, the visible signs of its hidden privilege. Viewed at a little distance, its whole surface will be illuminated, though the light really streams from apertures which will be numbered. The scattered witnesses thus become, in the language of the text, “a cloud,” like the Milky Way in the heavens (“The Visible Church an Encouragement to Faith,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997, p.637).
Let us feel what we really – sinners attempting great things, and succeeding at best only so far as to show that we do attempt them. Let us simply obey God’s will, whatever may befall; whether it tend to elate us or to depress us, what is that to us? He can turn all things to our eternal good. He can bless and sanctify even our infirmities (“Reliance on Religious Observances,” p.783).
The sermons were reprinted first in 1868, under the editorship of Newman’s friend and former curate, W.J. Copeland, without any emendation or additional comment. They stand as an enduring witness to a religious pilgrimage, no doubt; as a compendium of Anglican divinity, as well, and an enduring testimony to the effect of Newman’s ministry within the Church of England and the power of the movement that he fostered.
The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee and president of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation.