I did promise to write something about my relationship with Blessed John Henry Newman, and for the first time in quite a while I do feel like writing again, if only I can get back the ability to concentrate which I used to possess in spades. Even a small fraction of my previous powers in this area would be enough to start blogging again properly!! I am certain that many former Anglicans would cite Newman as an influence in their laborious journey “out from Ur of the Chaldees” so to speak. Many who remain in the ecclesia Anglicana also describe him as a profound influence in their lives, but they do not follow his thought to its reasonable conclusion – as he himself found it was impossible not to do.
When I was young, I suppose I was ten or eleven years old, my Father gave me a sort of box of cards with little articles on them covering much of English history. Among them were events, architecture and so on, but also personalities. Among these were all the ones you would expect in such a traditional gift to a child: “Bluff King Hal” and his eldest, “Bloody Mary” along with her half sister “Good Queen Bess”. Also Edward the Confessor and Edward Longshanks, and Harald Hardrada, and the Empress Maude, along with Ss. Augustine and Thomas à Becket and so on. Of Nineteenth Century greats, such figures as Queen Victoria, Dickens and Trollope I remember well. Of course there were others and among these were Pusey (a dreadful photograph of him I remember), Keble (a beautiful sketch) and Newman. That was the first I knew about the “Oxford Movement”. The name of Oxford – that mysterious city which had produced Lewis and Tolkien and consequently the rich worlds of my childhood – drew me at once to wonder what this movement to which it had given its name was. The picture of Newman, however, was not flattering (it is the one to the left!) and so it was Keble (whose volumes The Christian Year and Psalter in English Verse already peeped down at me from my Father’s bookshelves alongside such other things as Keats and Tennyson), who I stuck on my wall. That was the end of Newman for a while, and, indeed, for a while the end of my church-going Christianity which waned away after my Mother told me in quite absolute terms that to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation for the reason of escaping Sunday School (and a particularly odious Sunday School teacher) was not acceptable. Instead I escaped by not going. I didn’t return to church until I was about sixteen, by which time I was entering a phase of life in which Romanticism, with sometimes a rather gothic (in the Northanger Abbey sense) twist, exerted a strong pull upon me. Newman of course was ideal. Indeed, in the intervening years I had somehow become aware that Pope John Paul II (who, although we were not Roman Catholics, was considered our Christian leader) had raised Cardinal Newman to the status of Venerable. Not that this conveyed a great deal to my mind at the age of 13 (the status of Venerable was conferred in 1991), but it seemed to mean a great deal more than when we addressed the Archdeacon with the same title.
At any rate, finding Newman again eventually brought about my return to the (Anglican) fold. He suited me in as much as I understood him to be a man for whom conscience and and romantic spirit were written together into a perfect symphony. He had tragedy and pathos (as well as bathos), he had his slight narcissism and temper tantrums (as it seemed), and yet he had his wonderful holiness, his life dedicated to works of mercy and of love, to the search for what was true and meaningful in an existence which could otherwise have become overshadowed by the difficulties he seemed to face every time he attempted any project which required the co-operation of others. (This last part seemed – and indeed seems – to bring us into the deepest kind of communion!)
It was not until I was at university and became deeply involved in Anglo-Catholicism that this sort of harmony between Newman and I, and my seeing my own experiences reflected in his, and my own ideas given shape and flight by his, turned into real devotion to a heavenly friend. I could see from the outset the difficulty of the my position: I was in love with Catholicism as the expression in history and in my history of genuine Christianity. And yet, I was not, and was not willing to countenance becoming, a Roman Catholic. It was in such a valley, between “a rock and hard place”, that I spent the next five years arguing with Newman as a teacher (through his written work) and pleading with him as a holy friend (in prayer). This may seem a long time, but for me coming to Faith did not happen in a revelation (I had already had a “moment of clarity” in which I accepted Christianity as something real, but that is another story), but occurred in steps or increments, sometimes leaping forwards, sometimes drawing back, but always requiring time, “patience with the windings of the soul” as the Archbishop Rowan Williams once wrote somewhere.
It was really 2003 when I began to reflect in a truly meaningful way on Eucharist as the heart of faith and therefore to the Church herself as the great sacrament of communion and salvation. I was constantly drawn back to this question: Where is the Church? And Newman drew me not only to one of his own great acute and insightful works – the four paragraphs of his “Note E” of the 1865 edition of the Apologia (more properly The History of My Religious Opinions) in which he describes the “poor Anglican church” as “the veriest of nonentities” (!) – but also towards Cardinal Ratzinger, and something definitive in the form of an essay in the sort of Festschift published by Ignatius as Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith entitled The Ecclesiology of the Constitution Lumen Gentium. (I don’t think it is a real Festschift as the articles are not original, but draw together Ratzinger’s ecclesial theology from a range of his own works – I am not sure what the proper name of such a collection should be!) Ratzinger concludes that essay with a quotation from St. Ambrose, which seems to me to sum up Newman’s understanding of the Church and in part why his conscience led him to her despite the huge personal cost:
Stand firm, then, in your inmost heart!…Where the Church is, there is the firm standing place for your heart…For in the Church I have appeared to you, as once I did in the thornbush. You are the thornbush, and I am the fire…to burn away the thorny tangles of your sins; to bestow on you the favour of my grace.