Sunday, 13 October 2019

The mixed Evangelical and
High Anglican background
of John Henry Newman

Cardinal Newman’s bust in University Church, Dublin ... he is to be canonised a saint by Pope Francis in Rome today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is being canonised a saint in Rome today [13 October 2019], nine years after his beatification on 19 September 2010by Pope Benedict XVI during his four-day visit to England.

The canonisation of John Henry Newman today is of interest both for Anglicans and for many people in Ireland, for Newman was one of the most influential figures in English Church life in the 19th century.

Today’s new saint came from an evangelical background in the Church of England, studied at Trinity College Oxford, and became a Fellow of Oriel College Oxford in 1822. He was ordained deacon in Christ Church, Oxford, in 1824, priest in 1825, and became Vicar of the University Church (Saint Mary’s) in Oxford in 1828.

Tom Tower and the Quad at Christ Church Oxford, where Newman was ordained (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1832, Newman went on a holiday in Italy with his friend Richard Hurrell Froude (1801-1836) of Oriel College and his father. He left them in Rome as he travelled on to Sicily, but there he became gravely ill with a fever. When he recovered, the weather delayed his return to England and he was forced to stay on board his ship for a further three weeks.

During those weeks, he wrote one of his best-known and best-loved poems, Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom. The poem shows his sense of complete uncertainty and disorientation, and reveals his sense of groping in the darkness, pleading with God to lead and guide him.

The University Church of Saint Mary, where Newman was Vicar during his days in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the Sunday he returned to Oxford, 14 July 1833, Newman heard John Keble (1792-1866), Professor of Poetry at Oxford, preach his famous Assize sermon in Newman’s own church. Keble’s sermon was an attack on state interference in church affairs, prompted by government moves to reform the diocesan structures of the Church of Ireland, and is now seen as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Meanwhile, Newman was gaining a reputation as a poet and his edited collection, Lyra Apostolica, including Lead, kindly light, was published in 1836.

Alongside Edward Pusey and John Keble, Newman became one of the leading lights of the Tractarian or Oxford Movement, and was the principal author of the Tracts for the Times, writing 27 of the tracts. In a seminal exposition of Anglicanism in his Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), Newman maintained that the essential points of Anglicanism are its doctrine, its sacramental system and its legitimate claims to be the Catholic Church in England. However, he reached a turning point in 1841 with Tract 90, in which he tried to reconcile the 39 Articles with the decrees of the Council of Trent and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Newman was censured by the university and was silenced by the Bishop of Oxford. He resigned from Saint Mary’s in 1843, and after considerable hesitation became a Roman Catholic and was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Dominic Barbieri on 9 October 1845.

He defended this decision in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Five years later, the Roman Catholic hierarchy was officially founded in England and Wales. Newman founded the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Birmingham, and remained at the Oratory in Birmingham for the rest of his life – apart from a few short years in Dublin.

Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Birmingham … Newman regarded Pugin as “intolerant” and “a bigot” and despised his Gothic style of church architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the time of Newman’s conversion, Roman Catholicism in England was going through a traumatic transition. Until the early 19th century, it was dominated by the old landed recusant families – the sort of families who would later figure in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted. But it was changing with the increasing influx of poor Irish immigrants, and Birmingham became the heart of the Irish slums in the English Midlands.

Saint Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham was designed by AWN Pugin, who also designed Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, and Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney, around the same time. But Pugin had strong disagreements and debates with Newman, who regarded the great architect of the Gothic revival as ‘a man of genius’ but ‘intolerant’ and ‘a bigot.’

Newman House, Dublin, where Newman was Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1854, Newman moved to Dublin, and for four years he was rector of the newly-founded but short-lived Catholic University of Ireland. His plans for a university were frustrated, yet his stay in Ireland saw him publish his The Idea of a University.

His college chapel survives as the University Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, beside Newman House, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the former site of Wesley College.

University Church, Dublin, built by Pollen for Newman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The University Church was designed by John Hungerford Pollen, who was invited to Dublin by Newman as Professor of Fine Art. Newman rejected Pugin’s Gothic style, seeing in it echoes of the pagan forests of Northern Europe; but he also associated the classical style with his Anglican past and Greek and Roman paganism. And so, he favoured the Byzantine style for his university church.

Pollen’s design is the only successful Byzantine-style church in Ireland, and shows the influence of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.

The interior of University Church, Dublin … Byzantine architecture inspired Newman’s vision and Pollen’s design for University Church, Dublin

Practical organisation was not among Newman’s gifts, and after four unhappy years in Dublin he returned to Birmingham. Little did he know that his efforts to establish a university in Ireland would eventually bear fruit in University College Dublin. The Literary and Historical Society (L&H), which he founded, remains one of the best-known university debating societies in Ireland.

Back in England, a controversy in 1863 and 1864 involving the Anglican social reformer, Charles Kingsley, led Newman to publish his Apologia pro Vita Sua, earning his place as one the greatest Catholic minds of his time. His other great works include The Dream of Gerontius (1865) and the Grammar of Assent (1870).

Newman was not uncritical of his new Church. His opposition to the Pope’s retention of temporal powers led to a breach in his friendship with Cardinal Manning (1801-1892), another former evangelical Anglican and subsequent Tractarian who had been Archdeacon of Chichester and then became Archbishop of Westminster in 1865 and a cardinal in 1875.

Yet Newman retained many Anglican friends throughout his life, including Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a nephew of Sir Richard Church, the Cork-born liberator of Greece. He read Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers on the recommendation of Pollen. When Newman heard of Kinglsley’s death he acknowledged Kingsley’s role in prompting his Apologia, his defence of the Athanasian Creed, and how he had preached kindly about Newman in Chester Cathedral, and added: ‘I said Mass for his soul as soon as I heard of his death.’

A copy of the portrait of Newman as a cardinal, by Sir John Everett Milais, in University Church Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although never a bishop, Newman was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 at the suggestion of the Duke of Norfolk. When he died on 27 February 1891, he was buried in Rednall Hill, Birmingham, in the same grave as his lifelong friend, Ambrose St John, who lived with Newman as his companion for 32 years.

To thwart attempts to make a cult of his remains, Newman ordered that he should be buried in a rich compost so that his corpse would decompose rapidly. When his body was exhumed 11 years ago in an attempt to retrieve relics, nothing was found except the brass plate and handles of his coffin.

Newman’s coat-of-arms as a cardinal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Was Newman a pious Anglo-Catholic who prefigured those who Anglican priests who moved to Rome in recent years?

Or was he essentially an Anglican who continued to resist Papal encroachments on the Church and on the conscience of the individual?

What has been called the ‘battle for Newman’s legacy’ took on a new intensity at the time of his beatification with John Cornwell’s book, Newman’s Unquiet Grave: the reluctant saint.

Pope Benedict claimed some years ago that Newman was a faithful supporter of the papal magesterium and pontifical dogmas on many issues, and was an opponent of Catholic dissent. However, John Cornwell portrayed Newman as a dissident when it came to papal authority, infallibility, the downgrading of the laity and the primacy of papal dogma over individual conscience.

‘I shall drink to the Pope if you please,’ Newman once wrote, ‘… still to conscience first and the Pope afterwards.’ He once wrote of the ageing Pope Pius IX: ‘He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know fact, and does cruel things without meaning it.’

Cornwell did not question whether Newman ought to be considered for sainthood. But he challenged the criteria on which the Vatican has found a miracle in the healing of Jack Sullivan, an elderly deacon and former court official in Massachusetts. It is ironic that Newman himself, in his own words, would have been a reluctant saint, for he once remarked that he had ‘no tendency to be one.’

Newman’s hymns include Praise to the Holiest in the height and Firmly I Believe, both from his poem The Dream of Gerontius, and both of which are in the Irish Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland (hymns 108 and 320). A third, well-loved Newman hymn, Lead, kindly light (Hymn 653), shows how he was never a man for easy answers or the ready acceptance of imposed dogma and authority.

Writing in the Tablet yesterday [12 October 2019], Professor Roderick Strange of Saint Mary's University, Twickenham, quotes Newman writing in 1848: ‘God has created me to do him some definite service … if I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him.’

Newman as a young don in Oxford … a copy of a well-known image in University Church Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This posting includes material first published in August 2010 in the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine,br />

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