Some people may be surprised that I want to lay claim to John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons as an ‘Anglican classic’. After all, Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and as his spiritual autobiography, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) made clear, this was not a sudden or hasty, unprepared change, but one that had come upon him over a long period, after much personal agony of thought. Doesn’t that imply that these sermons are not really, or at least not quintessentially, Anglican?
It’s sometimes said – with some exaggeration, I fear – that Newman, as a Catholic, had not altogether left behind his Anglicanism. Cardinal Manning thought so. But his Parochial and Plain Sermons were published without much controversy while he was an Anglican, and republished likewise as a Catholic with very few alterations. They are not, therefore, Anglican in a unique or polemical sense, They express a practical, devotional spirit that sits perfectly well in both communions, provided you can concede (as I can) a high sacramental theology to Anglicanism. But the fact that these sermons could ‘work’ equally well in both confessional contexts doesn’t detract from what they have to offer Anglicans, and in that sense I’d regard them as an Anglican classic. They were preached over some twenty years from the early 1820s to the early 1840s and cover therefore practically the whole of Newman’s ministry in the Church of England. Their audience was mostly the congregation of St Mary’s, the University Church at Oxford, where Newman was incumbent – a literate, educated congregation, who would follow the complexities of his argumentation without much difficulty. There are famous descriptions of Newman’s preaching, which in time drew large congregations of students. These are not generally ‘plain’ sermons in quite the sense that, for example, many of Keble’s were, preached to a rural and semi-literate congregation. But they’re not explicitly doctrinal or speculative in the way that, for example, Newman’s University Sermons were.
The publication of parochial, plain or pastoral sermons was a common practice in the nineteenth century. Almost all the leading Tractarians did it. They give the lie to the common claim that the Oxford Movement was aimed first and foremost at an ‘academic’ context. On the contrary, since their goal was to transform the worship and piety of the whole Church of England, and since they were well aware that the heart of the Church of England was its parish ministry, their publications were always aimed as much as the parochial clergy and literate laity as they were at university colleagues. But these Parochial and Plain Sermons sermons did not set out to be ‘learned’ in the obvious sense of quoting and engaging with theologians, or establishing a controversial argument om particular points. Their goal was to demonstrate how the sacramental theology of the Oxford Movement could be a real, practical basis for Christian living. Their language is mostly plain and unadorned. Nevertheless they constitute one of Newman’s most profound contributions to Anglican thought. They express what I can only call a religious epistemology, and a corresponding theory of faith, which even now is under-received and not well understood in Anglican discourse. They are a treasure-trove of insight that can inform a High, sacramental Anglican understanding, just as much as it continued to inform the Catholic reception of Newman. They’re too rich for me to give a comprehensive account here, so I will just pick out briefly four representative themes. I’m using, incidentally, the eight-volume Longmans, late-nineteenth century edition.
First, for Newman the material world is a type or shadow of the spiritual world: that does not mean it is trivial or irrelevant, but rather that the whole realm of things in faith is a field of sacramental apprehension. That makes it, incidentally, more, not less important; more, not less, worthy of study and appreciation. There is no fearful shrinking from the world here. Clearly lying behind this is the doctrine of creation: the world, as Hopkins (who admired Newman) put it, ‘is charged with the glory of God’. As Newman says, “He loves the unseen company of believers, who loves those who are seen. The test of our being joined to Christ is love; the test of love towards Christ and His Church, is loving those whom we actually see.” (vol. iv, p. 184)
Second, and related, truth is apprehended primarily through the imagination, though enlivened or illuminated by the indwelling Spirit, who makes up any deficiencies in our prayers. There is resonance here with Coleridge, and perhaps with Coleridge’s heir F.D. Maurice (though it has to be said that Newman had relatively little time for Maurice). So, for example, Newman can say: “When we call God our Father Almighty, or own ourselves miserable offenders, and beg Him to spare us, let us recollect that, though we are using a strange language, yet Christ is pleading for us in the same words with full understanding of them, and availing power; and that, though we know not what we should pray for as we ought, yet the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with plaints unutterable”. (vol. i, p. 148)
Third, for Newman piety or devotion is not so much a mental act, as an embedded consequence of practice. This is particularly important, because it reverses or at least complicates the Evangelical assumption that devotion is a consequence of a faith cognitively apprehended. Habits form dispositions, for Newman, not the other way round. As he says, “[T]o pray attentively is a habit. This must ever be kept in mind. No one begins with having his heart thoroughly in them; but by trying, he is enabled to attend more and more, and at length, after many trials and a long schooling of himself, to fix his mind steadily on them”. (vol. I, p. 142) Here, then, is a defence of a disciplined practice of religion which fuses faith and life.
Finally, Newman, ever the realist, also understands that the logical deduction is that the religious understanding requires time, patience, an adaptation of what is expected to what is actually possible. “[W]hat treasure can equal time?” he said, “It is the seed of eternity”. (vol. vii, p. 7) This is the great Tractarian appropriation of the doctrine of reserve, which is perhaps better described as accommodation – the accommodation of religious teaching to the human capacity and context of understanding. (For the classic Tractarian statement of this doctrine, you have to go to Isaac Williams’s Tract 80, on ‘Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge’.) As Newman said, “We must wait for all opportunities of being useful to men, but beware of attempting too much at once. We must impart the Scripture doctrines, in measure and season, as they can bear them”. (vol. i., p.307) As I hope these few quotations have shown, many of these sermons bear careful reflection and re-reading. There is much more that could be drawn from them than I have done here. They may not be uniquely Anglican, or even distinctively so, but they do articulate a theology that, from a sacramental perspective, exemplifies the pastoral understanding of Anglican practice. It is, in my view, a profoundly merciful theology. And we Anglicans have much to learn from it still.