This sermon was preached on Thursday, February 21 by the Rev. Ann Hallisey for the commemoration of John Henry Newman. The texts for this sermon are: Song of Solomon 3:1-4, 1 John 4:13-12, and John 8:12-19.
In the fall and spring of 1981 I took several courses at CDSP in what was then affectionately known as “Anglican Finishing School.” I believe we call it the Certificate of Anglican Studies now and it’s an actual thing rather than an attempt on the part of my bishop to round out an M.Div. from Yale, pass the GOEs and make me a proper Anglican. I had been a Roman Catholic all my life and had been recently received into The Episcopal Church. One of the courses was a reading course in Anglican Church History with the venerable Sam Garrett. Among many other things Sam assigned John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Since I’d recently traveled in the opposite ecclesiastical direction from Newman – from Rome to Canterbury – I was pretty interested in his thinking, quite drawn to the romanticism of the Oxford Movement and also attracted by Newman’s deep spirituality. I remember coming into Sam’s office one day with a rather maudlin story about Newman after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Newman was standing outside the churchyard gates of St. Mary the Virgin, the University Church of Oxford where he had once been vicar, during the singing of Sunday Evensong with tears rolling down his cheeks. Well, Sam Garret the historian was having none of that. He dismissed the story as apocryphal and that was the end of that little detour into sentimentality.
Remembering that early attraction to Newman and knowing I was preaching today, I’ve spent time in the last week brushing up on his biography. It was a result of that research that I discovered he was the author of the hymn we just sang, “Lead Kindly Light.” Newman wrote it just after a nearly deadly illness on a becalmed boat returning from Italy with friends. Newman also wrote the text for our opening hymn, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height.” He was in fact, a prolific writer of theology, sermons, essays, polemic, poetry, letters, prayers, hymns and novels. Of course he is best known to Anglicans for his leadership in the Oxford Movement and authorship of most of the Tracts of the Times. In addition to these his best known works from his Catholic period are: Essay on the Development of Doctrine, The Idea of a University, his spiritual biography Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the long narrative poem, The Dream of Gerontius set to music by Edgar Elgar, and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Ascent.
John Henry Newman’s was a long life spanning most of the 19th Century. Beyond his involvement in the Oxford Movement there were a number of spiritual turning points for him, conversions, if you will. He was raised in a nominal Anglican household, sent away to boarding school at age 7 and at 15, as a result reading Calvinist theology under the influence of one of his teachers, had an intense conversion experience which held power throughout his life, even as his beliefs evolved. He attended Oxford University and became a fellow of Oriel College where he taught for several years. During this time he was ordained and became vicar of St. Mary the Virgin. Gradually he drew away from the Evangelical, low-church theology that dominated the politics and most parish practices of the Anglican Church in the early 19th Century. And his immersion in the Early Church Fathers But by the 1830s in the universities there was growing interest in recovering elements of pre-Reformation liturgy, theology and spiritual practice. This impulse eventually came to be known as the Oxford Movement because of that university’s scholars’ role in making the public argument for the Anglo-Catholic perspective. Newman started writing about these things in Tracts for the Times along with John Keble, Edward Pusey and others, hence the name, “Tractarians.” In the final tract, Tract 90, Newman argued that the 39 Articles did not condemn core Roman doctrine but only certain errors and exaggerations of practice. In Newman’s evolving thinking, the ecclesiological differences between Anglican and Roman Catholic doctrine was not a fundamental one.
The Oxford Movement was mostly clergy but also included prominent lay people. Eventually many of the devotees of this Anglo-Catholic movement found their way to Rome, as did Newman, in 1845. Newman traveled to Rome to be received and quickly ordained a Roman Catholic Priest. There he was greatly influenced by the monastic community of St. Philip Neri and returned to England to found an Oratory eventually settling his community on the outskirts of Birmingham where he lived as a monastic for the remainder of his life. Before his conversion to Catholicism he’d founded an Anglican Monastery at Littlemore outside Oxford, so there’s this monastic impulse in his spirituality from his early 40’s to the end of his life.
There are many more details and nuances to Newman’s story that you can read for yourselves, if you’re so inclined. More exposure to the complexity of his life and thought has gone a long way to remove my earlier over-identification with him, though I do confess to continued attraction of much in Anglo-Catholic spirituality and sacramental theology. In homiletic reflection, however, what today’s commemoration invites us to consider today is not so much about his doctrinal theology. You have classes for that. I’m curious about what it was that made Newman distinctive in his times. What enabled his leadership? What did it take to make the personal and spiritual transitions that he did and also deal with the considerable personal consequences of his decisions? What was going on in his soul underneath his several conversions; the turning and being turned? After his conversion to Roman Catholicism the church and university establishment in Oxford shunned him, as did lots of his friends and family. And he wasn’t treated all that well by the Roman Catholics either. His ideas were too liberal for them; he was suspect as a convert. Perhaps that’s why we have this reading from John’s Gospel in which Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Throughout his adult life it seems that Newman’s convictions led him to contend with the prevailing winds of church and culture. In its costliest moments such contention is felt as darkness, which only the love of Jesus can enlighten.
At one level I think he spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of his awakening to God at 15 years old. What is the meaning now about what happened to me then? It’s a question we might all ask, to make sense of our first opening to God and ask in each phase of our life, what does that experience of conversion mean for me now? Following Newman’s lead and his courage, because we never know where this question will take us: How do we grow in God?
Yesterday at the Quiet Day Fr. Bede said there are three core questions at every stage of life’s journey:
- Who am I?
- Whose am I?
- Who am I for?
These were questions in John Henry Newman’s life, as well. I don’t know if he would have articulated them quite that way but the answer to such questions lays the groundwork for conversion, if we let them. In matters of the spirit Newman’s wisdom was continually seeking understanding rather than mastery. Newman was indeed a great intellect but even more than that he was possessed of “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love God…,” as we pray over the newly baptized. Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s what I’m intuiting about Newman’s spirituality, that his life-long yearning to know God was shaped by his inquirer’s heart. And the grace of his baptism, like the grace of baptism for all of us, constantly grew him Godward. It may be for this reason that the lectionary offers us the first reading from the Song of Solomon, which is really a poem about human love, God isn’t even mentioned. Judaism and Christianity historically have interpreted it allegorically and that would have been Newman’s exegesis, as well: “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
In a 2010 article in the London Review of Books Terry Eagleton writes, “Born in 1801 Newman was a contemporary of Keats and Coleridge and a Romantic to his fingertips. Like Soren Kierkegaard he found God not in the evidence of the external world but in the depths of the self.” Seeking God as the Beloved was the driver underneath Newman’s ecclesiological questing. His and the Oxford Movement’s contribution to the richness of Anglicanism today was a recovery of those things in spirituality and practice that open our souls to the numinous, to the experience of God, far beyond any thinking about God.
A couple weeks ago on the PBS program “Religion and Ethics” there was a report about the Benedictine monastic community of New Camaldoli in Big Sur. The abbot, Fr. Cyprian was interviewed and he said, “If we’re not rooted in the spiritual, which we believe is actually the deepest part of being human, then we’re not fully alive. And the thing that’s really starving is our souls. We keep trying to fill them up from the outside, not realizing that there is this fountain inside.” One view of his several conversions might be a quest to fill his soul from the deep fountain of God that flows in every one of us. I think Newman’s spiritual questing was exactly that attempt to be rooted in the spiritual in a way that was congruent with his intellect and his values and in relationship with those he most deeply love.
I want to close with one of my favorite prayers in the Prayerbook. Imagine my delight when, as a new Episcopalian struggling with the intense rupture of family relationships that my own journey from Rome to Canterbury caused and the sympathy for Newman it evoked, I discovered Newman’s authorship of this prayer. It comes at the end of his Sermon 20 in Sermons on Subjects of the Day, titled, interestingly enough, “Wisdom and Innocence”:
“May He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!” Prayer number 63 on page 833 of the Book of Common Prayer.