Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 7 November 2010

7 November 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Newman 1: The Apologia

During the recent visit of the Pope to Britain, there was a great deal of interest in John Henry Newman.  This was because Newman, who died in 1890, was recognised at a special service in Birmingham as being ‘blessed’ by God in a special way – which means he will probably quite soon be recognised as a Saint.   For the first half of his life, until 1845, Newman was an Anglican.  Much of that time was spent in Oxford, where with John Keble and Edward Pusey he was a leader of the Oxford Movement, which breathed new life into the Church of England and played a major part in developing the ‘high church’ tradition in Anglicanism as we know it today.  All of this made me think about Newman and his importance both for Anglicans and for Roman Catholics, so over the next four weeks I want to explore some of his central ideas to see how they can help us today.

In Newman’s time there was a sharp divide between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.  There was little sense of what these two ways of being a Christian have in common.  Nowadays, things are very different.  Much has been done to rediscover the common tradition that Catholics and Anglicans share.  Today, we tend to look at our undoubted differences (Anglicans, for example, do not make formal pronouncements about Christians being ‘blessed’) in the light of our shared faith.  When in 1845 Newman became a Roman Catholic, he had to leave behind virtually everything he loved about the Church of England.  There was no longer any place for him in his beloved Oxford.  His last sermon as an Anglican was called ‘The Parting of Friends.’

Newman would have been amazed that the Pope was recently welcomed here in Westminster Abbey as a friend and that and that the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury knelt here together in prayer as brothers.  He would have been amazed that we have a lady canon who joined in greeting the Pope when he entered the Abbey.  He would not be surprised, though, that most Anglicans who share his concern for the authenticity of the visible Church do not share the thinking that led him to Rome.  Some do, and a special way has now been opened for them to become Roman Catholic and yet retain elements of their Anglicanism.  Others, like Keble and Pusey in the nineteenth century, are happy to learn from Newman, and yet remain Anglican.  I want this morning to sketch, with the help of Newman’s Apologia, written in 1864, something of what Newman has to teach both Anglicans and Roman Catholics today.

Newman was stung into writing the Apologia (or self-defence) when Charles Kingsley, who later became a Canon of Westminster, accused him of dishonesty.  Kingsley thought Newman was secretly a Catholic long before he made his conversion public.  To us, it seems completely understandable that someone who becomes a Roman Catholic might long have seen the Christian tradition from a Catholic perspective.  But Kingsley was a great man for the either/or: either you were Church of England and protestant or you were Catholic.  Newman distanced himself from the Protestantism of his childhood long before he became Roman Catholic.  As an Anglican, he believed he could follow a ‘middle way’, a Via Media between Protestantism and Catholicism.  Kingsley accused him of being ‘economical’ with the truth.  Newman, who was very defensive of his honour, wrote a book-length riposte, showing how his opinions had grown and changed over the years.  The Apologia is Newman’s account of the collapse of his belief in the ‘middle way’ – a collapse which left him no alternative but to become a Roman Catholic.

I cannot summarise what happened here (you have to read the Apologia for that), but I would like to pick out three of the main themes Newman writes about.  I shall be saying more about each of these, with the help of other things Newman wrote, over the next three weeks.

(1)  For Newman, the visible Church became more and more important.  He tells us that as a child the existence of only two ‘supreme and luminously self-evident’ beings was obvious to him: himself and God.  Young John Henry had to learn, first, how humans relate to each other and, then, what makes the Church truly the Church.  All his life, he vehemently opposed any form of ‘liberalism’ which he thought betrayed the true nature of the Church.  For him, the outward signs that the Church of today is the same Church as that of the early centuries were vital: one important sign, which he felt had been neglected, was the ministry of bishops, in unbroken succession, going right back to the apostles.  He wanted the bishops to be much more conscious of their inheritance and of the part they play in holding the Church together.  Newman was very conscious that the Church in his own day was hugely different from the Church in the early centuries - and yet he believed it to be essentially the same.  The all-important thing was that the Church’s teaching has not changed.  It has developed but it has not changed.  To show what he meant by this he wrote his Essay on Development.

(2)  Newman was fascinated by how we become sure about anything.  Above all, he believed we can be sure about the truth of the Christian faith.  He did not think we can be convinced of Christian truth by clever arguments, by piling up more and more evidence, by trying to increase the probability that it is true to the point where we become certain.  He believed – and I am sure he was right in this – that truth dawns upon us.  He was fascinated by the way our minds become convinced of a new way of seeing things – today we talk of ‘paradigm shift’.  When we see something to be true, he said, ‘the whole person moves; paper logic is but the record of it’.  He called our personal conviction that something is true ‘certitude’.  When we have ‘certitude’ we freely give personal assent.  He thought that if we could understand better what brings us to the point of certitude we would know better how to present the faith so people can freely give their assent.  This is why he wrote The Grammar of Assent.

(3)  Truth mattered a great deal to Newman.  He was always interested in truth and the fundamental place of truth in education.  In 1854 he went to Dublin as Rector of a newly founded Catholic university.  When he reflected on the task of a university, he wanted to show how God’s truth is taught and discerned within a balanced programme of education.  He wanted to explore the place of Christian theology and the way God’s truth is found in all the areas of human knowledge (though he knew very little about science).  Today we have many universities which are completely secular, and some which have forgotten their Christian foundation.  If we re-read Newman’s Idea of a University, he can help us think through what a university, with Christian truth at its centre, may be like today

Each of these points, it seems to me, is important for us whether we are Anglican or Roman Catholic: the importance of belonging to the visible church and of the place of bishops within the church; the centrality of certitude and of personal assent in Christian believing; the part the Christian faith can play in enriching university life and inspiring the ongoing search for truth.  Seen from our perspective today, Newman can be someone who unites rather than divides.  When he died, there was written on his grave, ‘Out of the shadows into the truth’.  In the end, what holds Anglicans and Roman Catholics, what holds all Christians, together, as Newman believed, is the life of faith lived amongst the shadows of this world and the light of truth given us by God in Jesus Christ.

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