On the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman

Sunday 19th September 2010
St John The Baptist, Clayton

To appreciate fully the life of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman we have to imagine ourselves back to the beginning of the 19th Century when Christianity seemed relatively simple: The Bible, in its lovely Jacobean language, gave instruction, strength and comfort; the clergy, settled and sanguine, did not obtrude themselves or any mild theological passions they might harbour onto their congregations who sought to live lives of cool and measured piety; and although there were stories of terrible urban squalor, rural England, on the whole, had a prosperous 18th Century.

But it was about to change from the world of Jane Austen to the new world of Elizabeth Gaskell.

In the 19th Century, most of which Newman lived through, Christianity was first struck by three immense blows: first, geology completely destroyed the pious chronology in the Bible which had culminated in Bishop Ussher's calculation that the earth was made in 4004 BC and suddenly our planet felt like a different place, more different even than it had felt 200 years before when Galileo said that the earth went round the sun rather than vice versa; secondly, Charles Darwin, not a bad geologist himself, developed his theory of natural selection and our 'descent' from primates which did not so much diminish God's view of us as it diminished our view of ourselves; and, thirdly, there was a consequent move by theologians to look more deeply into the nature and meaning of the Biblical texts, in search of the "Historical Jesus". So we need to note that Newman was in the company of brilliant intellectual endeavour which rather puts Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry in their place; neither Darwin nor Huxley would have made the same gross and fundamental error in methodology that Dawkins has made with his circular argument that nothing exists except that which science can prove, a statement in itself that science has not proven! On the other hand, no Victorian intellectual would have taken a comedian seriously as a moral and social commentator let alone as a theologian!

Then there were the ecclesiological shocks which rocked the Church of England: the realisation that an increasingly secular Parliament was not the right governing body for a church but begging the question of how it should be governed; the realisation that without a viable urban parochial system the Church would become marginal; and, of course, there was the need to adjust to a rapidly changing world.

In this context Newman was a supreme figure: he faced squarely the issue of authority within the Church and although he ultimately settled for Rome, he drew the lines along which we hold our discussions today. Indeed, in this church where the Book of Common Prayer is so revered, it might surprise you to know that there are some who think that ultimate authority within the Church of England lies in the Vatican; and there are others who follow Newman's earlier train of thought that led him to define catholic, with a small c, in terms of the Apostolic Succession of Bishops.

But Newman was no recluse of the Senior Combination Room at Oxford: he brought his faith into the pulpit and became such a famous preacher that his sermons out-sold popular serialised novels, as did his polemical tracts urging the Church of England to get itself sorted out. He was a voluminous pastoral correspondent, a hard working parish priest and a considerable poet who ensured that Christianity should remain in English popular culture in the Dream of Gerontius. Newman served out his time, even after becoming a Cardinal, in the industrial city of Birmingham, symbolic of so many of those he led who stayed in the Church of England or became Roman Catholics who worked amid the urban slums of Victorian England.

There has been some dispute this week as to whether he was a conservative or a liberal which is to belittle a man who is, alongside Anselm of Canterbury and our current Archbishop, Rowan Williams, one of the three greatest theologians this country has produced. He saw that the religious enterprise in Christ's church depended upon a creative tension between worship, authority and intellect; so if you have to have a sectarian argument, he was a conservative on authority, a liberal on intellect and a bridge builder on worship.

Newman's greatest contribution to our Church was his recognition, in parallel with Darwin's theory of organic natural development, that theology is organic, that it grows and changes through time; and we in the Church of England should be particularly grateful for his espousal of the cause of the laity in the Christian church even though this flew in the face of the triumph of ultramontanism in the First Vatican Council of 1870.

We can get too caught up in the details and there has been a great deal of rubbish talked this week by pundits about Newman as a liberal or a conservative being used by the Pope in a political manoeuvre to marginalise liberals and claim Newman as a conservative. What we need to focus on is the message by Pope Benedict XVI accompanying his visit culminating in the Cardinal's Beatification. Religion is not a private matter; it informs everything we say and do, public and private; and we are to stand up for Jesus as our brother, Saviour and Lord; compared with the giants of the Victorian era, we have little to fear; but we must be brave and we must be prepared to speak out in the face of hostility and indifference. Having said that, we must not allow our detractors to trap us into the heretically dualist view that our spiritual concerns run counter to the 'scientific', physical world.

The largely atheist or ignorant media have tried their best to rubbish the Papal visit, returning again and again to the horror of the clerical abuse of children but here again we must look to Newman for our inspiration, for although he was a cleric who became a Cardinal he had a deep sense of the royal priesthood of the whole people of god; and so must we. Our church has been so damaged by clerical abuse and clerical hand-to-hand fighting over issues of sexuality gender and reproduction, that the laity need to take on a massive responsibility to liberate Christ from his clerical prison. The Pope would not put the matter that way. Nor would Newman; but we must learn from his intellectual and emotional toughness to stand up for Jesus in, engage with, and love the real world.