St. John Henry Newman – a saint for Anglicans?

            Anglicans have generally welcomed Newman’s canonisation in 2019 with acclaim, in my view rightly so – as you’ll see.  But there is an irony in this.  Anglicans cannot really claim to have been ahead of the Roman Catholic Church in seeing Newman as a saint.  Few Anglicans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought of him in those terms.  For Evangelicals the Anglican Newman was a crypto-papist.  Liberals and the Broad Church were no less anti-Roman.  Kingsley was not alone in accusing Newman of disingenuousness.  Even as late as 1939 the robustly Protestant Hensley Henson wrote of Newman’s “sophistry”.  Even many Anglo-Catholics were wary, and few considered his theology particularly significant or convincing.  Liberal Catholics such as Charles Gore welcomed the Essay on Development, for example, but generally they liked the basic proposition of doctrinal evolution, but not Newman’s method.

            Some partial rehabilitation began in the 1930s, especially with the centenary of 1833. Yet it would be hard to argue that at this time Newman, even in his adopted church, was regarded as much more than a figure of national rather than international importance.  It was really Vatican II that sealed the growing international reputation of Newman as a Christian thinker, and even then in Anglican circles the official recognition of his status did not begin until the 1980s and 1990s.  And we might wonder why it happened at all, given Newman’s quite severe criticisms of Anglicanism after his conversion. 

            As is well known, the Church of England, like most other members of the Anglican Communion, does not have a formal mechanism for recognizing sanctity, except for putting a name on the liturgical calendar for commemoration.  But that includes many figures we wouldn’t necessarily call ‘saints’ – such as William Laud, George Fox, John Donne, F.D. Maurice, Evelyn Underhill, and so on (which is to take nothing away from their merits and reputations).  In Common Worship, like them Newman still has only a ‘commemoration’, and not – unlike John Keble – a ‘lesser festival’.

            What do we think we’re marking, then, in welcoming the language of Newman as a ‘saint’ – if, that is, we are really trying to point to something more elevated perhaps than the broad category of ‘saints’ as the faithful dead?  Newman was a brilliant stylist, thinker, and theologian, a good friend to many, and a person of undoubted spiritual discipline and devotion.  But he was not without flaws: he could be petty, manipulative and unforgiving, and it’s one of his more engaging personal qualities that he never denied his weaknesses.  I can’t help but think – please forgive me, Roman friends! – that a mechanism that requires evidence of sanctity through miraculous healing risks distorting Newman’s (and others’) reputation.

            So why am I comfortable with language of ‘saint’ in Newman’s case?  What’s become clear in the last fifty years is the sheer profundity and originality of Newman’s voice as a theologian.  He’s poised exactly between a rigid conservatism and a pliable progressivism.  He was nothing if not orthodox, but at the same time he was acutely aware of the historical formation of Christian doctrine and the rational challenge that presents faith.  Appreciation of his significance has grown as time has passed; in a sense, the age has grown into Newman.  More than ever, though dead for over 130 years, he feels like someone who still engages contemporary philosophical and theological preoccupations.  His writing, always readable, remains fresh and relevant.

            So I regard Newman as a modern doctor of the Church – the universal Church, that is.  And Anglicans should celebrate him, not least in the Church of England because we are rapidly losing the capacity to value the distinct vocation of the theologian.  There’s an integrity of thought and ecclesial commitment in Newman’s career – to me that’s what comes out so strongly from the Apologia – and so his moral example as a theologian is in equal measure to his significance as a major figure in modern theology.  It’s quite hard to think of others of whom you could say that.  Perhaps Barth, surely Bonhoeffer, perhaps Von Balthasar, there would be others.  But when you think not only of the sheer range of Newman’s thought, but of its abiding relevance for churches other than the Roman Catholic Church, it’s impossible for me not to think of him as ultimately an ecumenical theologian.  The Essay on Development remains the starting point of modern discussion on the matter.  Newman made a major contribution, through his ‘On consulting the faithful’, to the theology of the whole people of God, and the theological significance of the laity.  The Grammar of Assent is an outstanding intervention in the modern history of hermeneutics and philosophy of religion.  And that’s just a start.

            Like the doctors of the ancient church – Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose – Newman’s theology will continue to shape the way Christian theologians and church people think and argue about their faith for generations to come.  He has that stature. 

26 August 2021

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