​John Henry Newman and the Church of England: Then & Now
4 November 2019 by Bishop David Urquhart

​John Henry Newman and the Church of England: Then & Now

The Bishop of Birmingham’s Lecture: St Alban’s, Highgate which took place on 23rd of September 2019

Serenhedd James

WHEN, during his lifetime, John Henry Newman was called a saint, he was both amused and embarrassed. “I have no tendency to be a saint,” he protested, “it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my way, but it is not the ‘high line’ […] It is enough for me to black the saints’ shoes.” Newman thought that people’s impression of him came about because he had “a high view of many things”. This, by his own measure, was “the consequence of education and of a peculiar cast of intellect—but this is very different from being what I admire”.

It might be tempting to think that Newman doth protest too much. Numerous writers have presented and analysed the various facets of his character and temperament which combined to make the whole, and by the time of his death in 1890 he might reasonably be described as having become something of a National Treasure. His work was seemingly everywhere, even in places that one might not necessarily have thought to look. It was thought widely after Queen Victoria died that the recitation of The Pillar of Cloud, from which comes “Lead, Kindly Light”, was among her final comforts.

In later life Newman also remarked that he often felt “like a hypocrite who can be detected by holy eyes, just as an accomplished thief […] is at once recognized by a police officer. But at a distance I look like a great man.” But Newman was a great man in an age of great men, and a polymath in an age of polymaths; his reach was immense. It is perhaps particularly stirring to think that as Charles Gordon went out to meet his doom on the steps of the governor’s palace at Khartoum in 1885, he left behind among his papers his own annotated copy of The Dream of Gerontius—the most infamous death of a century informed by Newman’s work, fifteen years before Elgar produced his choral masterpiece.

Ian Ker, the doyen of Newman’s biographers, has written that Newman may well have been “the very greatest writer of non-fiction prose in the language”, but, more significantly, that he was “one of those very few Christian thinkers who may be mentioned in the same breath as the Fathers of the Church”. It is on that aspect of Newman’s life and work as an Anglican—his links with the patristic writers and the early church—on which I now intend to dwell, to try to tease out what that meant for the Church of England then, and what it means for the Church of England now. For this it is necessary to consider the essentially patristic nature of the Church of England’s understanding of itself; which I argue is the same now as it was in Newman’s own day, notwithstanding the passage of time and the flowing of much water under many bridges.

We must, first, reacquaint ourselves with the Church of England’s own professed parameters. The Bishop’s Charge, which introduces the Declaration of Assent made by candidates at their ordination, goes like this.

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

This was Newman’s starting point of reference, and it must also be ours. That the Church of England says that it is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic denotes it as claiming, at least on its own terms, to be possessed of the Four Marks of the Church as laid out at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, but which the early church had held as necessary to its self-identity as early as the second century. At Constantinople I the fine-tuning of the doctrinal statements of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 produced the Nicene Creed in the form that we know it today. To that expression of belief we must of course add the Apostles’ Creed, but also that attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria.

The Athanasian Creed, Quicunque Vult, is very probably not by Athanasius—he does not mention it in any of his writings. Almost certainly it is not the work of Augustine of Hippo, either, but it nevertheless draws heavily on his theology. It stands as an early exposition of orthodox teaching on the nature of the Holy Trinity, and on the person of Jesus Christ. In its Christological statements it reflects the teachings of the First Council of Ephesus in 431, which formally declared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be Mother of God and defined the unity of the nature of her Divine Son with that of his Father: the homoousios confirmed at Chalcedon twenty years later.

Just as Scripture has its challenges, so the statements of the Athanasian Creed are not to everyone’s taste; indeed, its presence in the Book of Common Prayer has become something of an embarrassment for many Anglicans. It began to slip out of regular liturgical use at the start of the twentieth century, but was controversial long before. It remains mandated in the Book of Common Prayer to be recited at Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, Easter Day, and Whitsunday; at the Epiphany and the Ascension; on the feasts of St Matthias, St John the Baptist, St James, St Bartholomew, St Matthew, Ss Simon & Jude, St Andrew; and on Trinity Sunday.

The Athanasian Creed is so insistent on its doctrinal points—and particularly on the double emphasis that Jesus Christ is Son of God and Son of Mary—that it must have almost certainly been originally intended to be used as a bulwark against the heresies that had arisen by the end of the fifth century. Chief among those heresies was Arianism, which professed that Jesus Christ was begotten by the Father at a point in time, rather than coeternal with him. The Spanish Visigoths and the North African Vandals who swept through the ruins of the Roman Empire at the end of the sixth century tended towards Arianism; the Creed that has become associated with Athanasius—himself a champion of anti-Arianism two centuries before—was a timely response.

The nineteenth-century Church of England’s understanding of Arianism grew out of a book published in 1833, called The Arians of the Fourth Century. It was part of a growing interest within the late Georgian academy in the writings of the Church Fathers, which in itself developed alongside the overhaul of Theology at Oxford and the institution of a system of directed teaching that survives as today’s tutorial model. The author of The Arians of the Fourth Century was a Fellow of Oriel College, and one of the tutors upon whom the new system of studies relied: John Henry Newman.

Newman and those who gathered around him at Oxford in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century were deeply sensible of patristic theology; they recognised that the Church of England—through its attachment to the credal statements of the early church and the theological definitions of the Councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon, Nicaea I & II and Constantinople I, II & III—was essentially patristic in its constitution. Looking at the Church of England in which they found themselves, however, they saw and identified a number of factors that hindered its effectiveness of its witness to the Gospel, and as the National Church.

The most obvious of these was neglect; by the turn of the nineteenth century the Church of England was fat and bloated. The second half of the eighteenth century—the period known as the Industrial Revolution—had transformed life in England more quickly and comprehensively than any that had preceded it. By the 1820s the Church of England had still not responded effectively to the situation, and the period between 1828 and 1833 was particularly challenging.

The years that followed the Battle of Waterloo saw an intense revival of demands for reform of both Church and State. It was an issue that had lain dormant during the wars with Napoleonic France; during that time industrialisation had exploded and there had been unprecedented urban growth. In the larger conurbations there was ever-growing Dissent— mainly Methodist, but with others, too—and it was growing not only in number, but also in wealth.

The Church of England was not the only part of the establishment that was under scrutiny, but it the institution in which hypocrisy might be easily sniffed out and decried. Between 1831 and 1832 a man named John Wade brought out his Extraordinary Black Book, in which he devoted nearly 200 pages to enumerating the financial iniquities of the Established Church. He claimed that malpractice was rife, and that the Church of England gave its best jobs to the best families through the patronage system—leaving poor curates struggling to cover the workload, if they were appointed at all.

It was impossible to deny that the Church of England harboured the clerical equivalent of rotten boroughs. In 1832 the Whig government set up an Ecclesiastical Revenues Commission, which demonstrated the lack of equity in the system. Nearly half of the CofE’s livings were found to be worth less than £200 a year; just over 2% were worth over £1000, with many held in plurality by non-resident incumbents. Some of the most lucrative appointments made their holders millionaires in today’s money—a situation sent up by Anthony Trollope in The Warden.

The church had to do better, and reform of this aspect of its life was not necessarily greeted with horror—all reasonable people saw that it could not continue as it was. Other reforms, however, came with serious concerns. English Roman Catholics were emancipated in 1829, and the Great Reform Act of 1832 swept away the remaining religious disabilities. What horrified the clergy of the Church of England—and the horror was not confined to party sentiment—was the fact that non-Anglicans were now free to sit in parliament and vote on matters specifically pertaining to the Established Church.

Newman and his friends at Oxford were no exception. The first piece of legislation to be affected by this new situation was the Irish Church Temporalities Bill of 1833. In Ireland the Church of England & Ireland could only claim 10 percent of the population, and so the bill was, in and of itself, quite a sensible piece of business; it entailed the suppression of the archbishoprics of Cashel & Tuam, and of eight other sees, at a saving of the equivalent of about £15 million a year. Nevertheless, it was this suggestion that John Keble decried as “National Apostasy” from the pulpit of the University Church—for Parliament’s competence to legislate for the Church of England had now been fatally compromised.

The response of Newman and his allies—the nascent Oxford Movement—came with the Tracts for the Times. The first Tract was written by Newman himself and appeared in September 1833. It was a clarion call entitled Thoughts on the Ministerial Commission, and called his fellow clergy to an understanding of their ministry in direct succession to that of the Apostles.

Now every one of us believes this. I know that some will at first deny they do; still they do believe it. Only, it is not sufficiently practically impressed on their minds. They do believe it; for it is the doctrine of the Ordination Service, which they have recognised as truth in the most solemn season of their lives.

Thus we have confessed before God our belief, that through the Bishop who ordained us, we received the Holy Ghost, the power to bind and to loose, to administer the Sacraments, and to preach. Now how is he able to give these great gifts? Whence is his right? Are these words idle, (which would be taking God’s name in vain,) or do they express merely a wish, (which surely is very far below their meaning,) or do they not rather indicate that the Speaker is conveying a gift? Surely they can mean nothing short of this.

But whence, I ask, his right to do so? Has he any right, except as having received the power from those who consecrated him to be a Bishop? He could not give what he had never received. It is plain then that he but transmits; and that the Christian Ministry is a succession. And if we trace back the power of ordination from hand to hand, of course we shall come to the Apostles at last. We know we do, as a plain historical fact: and therefore all we, who have been ordained Clergy, in the very form of our ordination acknowledged the doctrine of the apostolical succession.

With prophetic zeal John Henry Newman reminded the clergy of the Church of England that they stood as one with the presbyters of the early church; that the gift of ordination was the same received and transmitted from hand to hand since the Day of Pentecost. Perhaps more significantly, he contended that every bishop, priest, and deacon who had submitted to ordination in the Church of England had received sacramental orders handed down from the Apostles themselves—whether they liked it or not, or indeed even understood it.

Newman was not the only contributor to the Tracts for the Times, but he led the opening salvos, and until Edward Bouverie Pusey threw his considerable weight behind them a few months later he was their most prominent contributor—although John Keble also appeared.

In Tract 2, On the Catholic Church, Newman railed against the Irish situation mentioned above.

The Legislature has lately taken upon itself to remodel the Dioceses of Ireland; a proceeding which involves the appointment of certain Bishops over certain Clergy, and of certain clergy under certain Bishops, without the Church being consulted in the matter. I do not say whether or not harm will follow from this particular act with reference to Ireland; but consider whether it be not in itself an interference with things spiritual.

Are we content to be accounted the mere creation of the State, as schoolmasters and teachers may be, or soldiers, or magistrates, or other public officers? Did the State make us? can it unmake us? can it send out missionaries? can it arrange Dioceses? Surely all these are spiritual functions; and Laymen may as well set about preaching, and consecrating the Lord’s Supper, as assume these.

The Tracts continued along similar lines until 1841, tending to grow larger and longer, before ending in controversy when Newman tried to present the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in a way that might, ironically enough, persuade those who found them a stumbling block to remain in the Anglican fold—the infamous Tract 90. It was condemned by many who were unable to see the nuance of what he was trying to do; yet another irony is that its most controversial elements, such as the invocation of the saints, have since entered mainstream Anglican worship.

The Tracts had been part of Newman’s via media—his middle way—the course that he tried to steer of being faithfully Catholic in a church that was also Reformed. A frequent appeal had, in fact, been made to the Church of England’s own Church Fathers—the Caroline Divines—whose theology frequently resonated with that of the early church but whose influence had also become neglected. Soon afterwards, however, Newman found himself what he later called his “Anglican death bed”; in the end, he saw the life of the early church and the apostolic life more authentically expressed and lived out in the Roman Catholic Church. When he later said that “Oxford made us Catholics”, he meant that it was the emphasis on patristic study of the 1820s which gave him the tools to discern in his own mind where orthodoxy lay. Conscience and integrity dictated his next move; since then many others have followed him—by Newman’s lights from shadows and imaginings into truth.

We must now grasp a very large and obvious nettle, and perhaps more firmly than other Anglican ecumenists and historians have done so in the past. In the end, Newman found the truth that he was seeking beyond the bounds of the Church of England, and in full and visible communion with the Bishop of Rome. Why, then, should the Church of England seek now to honour its most famous Leaver, and its heaviest loss? To many it may seem inappropriate, almost perverse.

Perhaps we may helpfully think of it in terms of institutional memory; of lingering shadows that remind us, however starkly, of the challenge that Newman posed to the Church of England while he was yet an Anglican, and of the challenge that he poses to the Church of England even today. Perhaps the Tracts for the Times may be read as an ongoing challenge to the Church of England now, just as they were then.

That challenge relates to what it is to be authentically Anglican; to be both Catholic and Reformed. It relates particularly to Scripture, to creeds, to patristics, and to councils. If our understanding of Anglicanism causes us to set aside portions of canonically received Scripture, then we have a problem. If our understanding of Anglicanism is at odds with the doctrinal statements laid out in the three ancient creeds, then we have a problem. If our understanding of Anglicanism brings us into conflict with the teaching of the Church Fathers, then we have a problem. If our understanding of Anglicanism causes us to differ from the mind of the first seven Ecumenical Councils on the identity of Jesus Christ, his relationship with God the Father, and the part played by his Blessed Mother in the narrative of salvation history, then we have a problem. Newman’s memory challenges us to be authentically Anglican by being Scriptural, credal, patristic, and conciliar.

These are hard sayings, of course. But while we are in uncomfortable territory, perhaps most uncomfortably we might ask ourselves, with those challenges in mind, how we might make some sort of sense of the controversies that have torn the Church of England apart over the last few decades, and which threaten to do the same in the next? It is not a question to which I have an answer; Newman’s challenges in the Tracts might well be read profitably in meetings of the General Synod—perhaps even out loud.

Newman’s memory should also stir us when our National Church becomes too comfortable in the bosom of the state; although I do think it is safe to say that the worst excesses of the eighteenth century are behind us. I confess to deep unease about the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the Upper House of our legislature, not because I would see the Church of England disestablished, but simply because I fear that the temptation to go with the multitude on inevitable forthcoming legislation relating to the dignity of the human person and to the sanctity of human life may well prove irresistible to some. Erastianism—in which the Church becomes the State’s vassal, rather than being its conscience—is an ever-present danger.

Part of the challenge is also, of course, that Newman was a very great theologian—taking us back to Ian Ker’s contention that he may be mentioned in the same breath as the Church Fathers. I have deliberately not gone deeply into the nuances of his theological writings—partly because there is so much to consider, but mainly because others have written better books on the matter than I ever could. The Church of England needs theologians as much as ever, and yet where are they? In the academy, to some extent, but the days of scholar-bishops seem to have passed forever. We might profitably ask ourselves why that should be so.

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

The vocation of the Church of England in every generation must surely be to use its position of privilege as a National Church to sanctify society, and not to be secularised by it; to identify with the life of the early church while engaging with the present age with confidence and authenticity. That was Newman’s challenge to the Church of England; it did not lapse simply because he left, and it stands today. After all, the practical successes of the movement that he once led are discernible in the Church of England, if one knows where to look—the foundation of the Diocese of Birmingham, for one.

Perhaps, in the end, the ongoing interest and engagement with John Henry Newman as he comes to be canonised by Pope Francis tells us that the Church of England, for all its troubles and crises, retains a visceral yearning to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church; that it still longs to keep faith with the first Christians through those visible and recognisable Four Marks. It may well be that its inability to shake off Newman’s memory is a sign that the Church of England still has a sense of a conscience of its own, and one that is still able and willing to be pricked. Where that conscience will lead us, however—ecclesiologically and theologically, corporately or individually—in the face of the storms that must surely come, God alone knows.

I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me