Revisiting Anglican classics 3: Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons

            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.

The faith of poetry and the poetry of faith

            My first book of poetry was a Puffin book of children’s verse, with a light blue cover; I enjoyed poking around in it, but I can remember very little else about it.  Poetry disappeared from my life in early adolescence, but reappeared at ‘O’ level with passages from the Prelude, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and a selection of Keats, much of which I learnt by heart for exam quotes, and which has therefore always stayed with me.  Likewise at ‘A’ level we had as a set text an anthology of contemporary poetry – Let the Poet Choose I think the book was called – in which living (well living when the book was published) poets writing in English chose two of their poems.  This will date me: it included W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Charles Causley, R.S. Thomas (I wrote to him, and got a polite, encouraging but brief response, which I’m sad to say I can’t currently find), Vernon Scannell, Ted Hughes, amongst many others.  I loved it, and as my intellectual horizons opened up, poetry became a kind of permanent fixture in my reading habits, though I’m embarrassed to admit my reading of living poets’ work is fairly limited and obvious – Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Andrew Motion, a few others. 

            All the same, I think the fact that I’ve continued to read poetry – going through Milton again at the moment – means that the relationship of poetry and faith has always intrigued me, and I’ve begun to think a bit more seriously about it recently.  There are three dimensions of the relationship which I can get out the way fairly quickly.  The first is quite, simply, that there are obviously poets writing today whom we’d happily call ‘religious poets’ – Malcolm Guite would be one, Rowan Williams another (I know he probably doesn’t want to be categorized that way, but it’s hard not to see him, like Malcolm, as a priest who’s also a poet, and therefore as a ‘religious poet’ in the sense I’m intending).  These are people who comfortably inhabit the mental and imaginative world of faith, and write out of it and about it, though also about other things.  There are many examples in the past – Keble, Rosetti, Herbert.  I read all these and others.  But this phenomenon is not what interests me here.

            There’s also inescapably a sense in which the poets of the past, as well as some writing today, were Christian, so that Christian ideas and values flow through their work and it is to a considerable extent unintelligible without attending to them, even though we don’t necessarily think of these poets primarily as ‘religious poets’.  This is true of the vast majority of poets who wrote before the mid-nineteenth century or so, and of many, probably the clear majority, of those who wrote up until around the mid-twentieth century.  It simply doesn’t make sense to approach, for example, Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, without taking any account of their religious and spiritual convictions.  Even in those who were somewhat heterodox, the presence of Christian preoccupations and values can’t be ignored.  Tennyson, for example?  Robert Bridges, the Brownings, even Shelley and Byron to an extent.  Nor is this second dimension of the relationship what interests me here.

            The third dimension approaches much more closely to what I want to explore.  That is the conceptual overlap between poetry and theology, what I tentatively call the ‘metaphysical landscape’ (with a nod to Hopkins’s inscape) of much poetry.  Poetry offers transcendent perspectives, opening up insights or views that take us outside the specificity of one personal experience.  These insights may or may not be dependent upon an overarching metaphysical system, and they may not aim even to articulate metaphysical concepts as such, but sometimes they do, perhaps even conceiving of an alternative mythology to that of conventional religious belief – Hughes’s Crow is a particularly clear example.  There’s obviously a long list of words and images that have an affinity with theological ideas – creation, fall, inspiration, redemption, sacrifice, offering, presence, and so on – because they are in some sense bearers of metaphysical ideas.  Ted Walker’s Easter Poem (for John Cotton) is a good example of what I’m describing, even though the theological idea articulated here is essentially a-theistic, almost nihilistic and certainly parasitic on conventional Christian language.

            Though this third phenomenon helps to suggest why so many theologians find poetry to be so generative and productive of insight – and I’m well aware that I’ve not even attempted the complex, separate task of actually trying to define what poetry is – once again it’s not actually what I have in mind as I try to think more about faith and poetry.  My hunch – I can’t put it yet more strongly than that – is that the affinity between poetry and faith doesn’t hang solely on what poetry (in the various forms in which people read it) is itself and itself seeks to do, but rather on what theology and faith are.  One of the books that had a great impact on me when I was reading for my Theology degree was Janet Soskice’s Metaphor and Religious Language (1985).  I haven’t read it for years, and I’m fearful of doing it an injustice, but one of my main, remembered ‘takeaways’ from it was the sense in which almost all human attempts to define or describe the realm of being, even including science, ultimately entail resort to terms that are irredeemably metaphorical.  Theologians have always been aware of this, because the descriptions they offer of the substance of faith concern ‘things unseen’, and therefore one of the primary tasks of the theologian is to discipline and refine the use of concepts in faith to try to protect against their illegitimate or over-restrictive use.  Everyone knows the word ‘father’ used of God is a metaphor; how do we protect and refine the ancient doctrine of the fatherhood of God to prevent it becoming, for example, a justification for patriarchy? 

            But if, as Soskice taught me to see, the same challenge exists in all our use of language, then faith is not so much a separate, specialized category of knowledge – in fact it’s not really knowledge in a reductive sense, i.e. knowledge of ‘things’ – as a way of seeing the world in continuity with the ways others see the world.  In order to do that, people of religious conviction interrogate their own experience using language which reaches beyond the specific and limited to embrace a metaphysical horizon.  Faith is a sort of poetry of human experience.  The moment we try to bring factitious language to bear on it, we miss the point of it.  One of the problems with the ‘New Atheism’, for example, is that when I say ‘God exists’ I can’t possibly mean that God exists in quite the same sense that I can say the chair I’m sitting on exists.  The chair has being, a presence in the world of time and space; I can measure it, study its constituent parts, analyse its chemical composition.  God is above and beyond being; I simply can’t know he exists except through faith.  When we start to use language about theology with the same presumed precision that we might attempt in, for example, the analysis of a chair, we risk going seriously awry from the off.  Likewise, I can’t measure and define the quantity of love or suffering.  So the language I use about love and suffering takes me beyond the realm of physical measurement and analysis.  Let’s say faith and theology make a similar move to poetry, from human experience to ultimate meaning.

            But that puts human faith in the position of attempting to express the ultimately ineffable.  No matter how much I try to describe what I experience and believe, in the end, unless I am simply and deliberately describing an interior, psychological state alone, then I am trying to capture something in words that constantly fall short of what I want to say. 

            That’s not to say that there isn’t a logic and discipline in theology.  This requires a much longer post – a book or five or six – but in Christian theology, faith is rooted in a knowledge of God derived from the sources of Scripture, tradition (i.e. the experience of the ages), and faith-inspired reason.  The systematic methodology of theology draws on these, and compares and interrogates different attempts to clarify their meaning.  The doctrine of the Church acquires authority from the regard in which successive generations hold it, but it is never completely frozen or static.  Yet we do again and again come back to the basic point that the language of faith ultimately seeks to express something beyond definitive expression.  How do we know, then, that it is of any use at all?  Because it is language of faith – its premises are not based on empirical observation, but on the divinely-inspired imagination, so that the presupposition of faith is that God is present in all we attempt to do and say.  My guides here are, at least in the English tradition, Coleridge and Newman.  With Coleridge I can say, for example, “in all finite quantity, there is an infinite, in all measures of time an eternal; that the latter are the basis, the substance, of the former; and that, as we truly are only as far as God is with us, so neither can we truly possess, that is, enjoy our being or any other real good, but by living in the sense of His holy presence”.  (Aids to Reflection)  Rahner for one would have agreed.

            So for me all theological language peters out over the horizon of mystery.  That gives it a plastic capacity, a sense that if I define things in faith too sharply, I risk emptying them of meaning; there is always an ‘overplus’, something more to be said in all our attempts religiously to say anything.  And that again is why I’m much more interested in the poetic character of theological language, including the language of faith itself, than I am in any pretence it has to rational precision. 

Revisiting Anglican Classics 2: A.M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936)

            Is this the greatest book of Anglican theology published in the twentieth century?  I think there’s a good case for saying so.  It’s certainly one of the most influential, and a book which retains much of its freshness and vitality 85 years on from its publication. 

            It’s not without flaws.  So let’s get those out of the way first.  Its assumption of something like a single Patristic witness, while consistent with the Anglo-Catholicism Ramsey had embraced, won’t stand up to critical scrutiny now.  The book was written before great strides were made in liturgical and Patristic scholarship, and Ramsey himself came to recognize its deficiencies.  Likewise, the latent assumption of a largely self-consistent New Testament voice would sit uncomfortably with many Biblical scholars today, though some schools of thought (e.g. canonical criticism) would be happier with it.  Perhaps most seriously, there’s a somewhat undefinable, and philosophically unexplored, quality to the central claim made in the book that the order of the Church is itself an expression (‘utterance’ is the word he uses) of the Gospel.  With it, Ramsey pulls history and proclamation together in a way that echoes his interest at the time in neo-Orthodoxy, and the influence of Barth’s translator Hoskyns, though it probably also reflects a lingering influence from the philosophical Idealism of his mentor William Temple, and others. 

            Maybe I’m biased – well, I am! – but though some people would regard Ramsey’s appreciation of F.D. Maurice as mystifying, I wouldn’t be among them.  Ramsey plainly understood Maurice’s intellectual breadth and imaginativeness, and grasped that the whole with Maurice is always more than the sum of the parts – admittedly another way of saying it’s not always clear how Maurice ultimately justifies his position.  But Ramsey perceived the importance of Maurice’s attempt in The Kingdom of Christ (1838; completely revised 1842) to honour his own Anglican perspective while at the same time taking to heart the precious truths proclaimed in other, separated Christian traditions, and in a way his book echoes that same fundamental move.  I have to admit, though, that Ramsey is always much more readable than Maurice – in fact, that very readability is one of the great surprises of the book, and something that keeps it alive even today.  It’s one of the best-written books of modern Anglican theology, without question.

            So why ‘the greatest’?  Ramsey spotted the abiding problem of modern Anglican theology, and tried to think a way through it.  That is, quite simply, the cohabitation of two (or even three, though the third is less easily defined) completely different and apparently irreconcilable theological systems within the one Church tradition – the Evangelical appeal to the authority of Scripture and its consequent ‘leaping over’ the importance of the tradition of the Church, and the Catholic appeal to the authority of Church tradition and its apparent demotion of Scripture.  The one position mandates (I’m not saying this is what all Evangelicals think – it’s a kind of tendency or norm) a sort of Scriptural simplicity that has the unfortunate side-effect of rendering much of human history otiose, the other a sort of traditional identity that embraces the significance of history but risks losing the radical message of the Gospel.  If there is a third, it is of course the ‘Liberal’ appeal to reason, or rather to the adaptability of the Gospel and the Church to changing human situations, which implies in turn the susceptibility of both to critical interrogation.  Ramsey leans very heavily on Maurice in his reading of this ‘third’ position (not that he simply identifies Maurice with it), but since Maurice’s concept of ‘reason’ was the spiritual capacity entailed in Coleridge’s use of the term, and not a logical, ‘rationalist’ view, it doesn’t directly affect the main lines of Ramsey’s case.

            Ramsey’s solution is effectively to argue that each of these two positions is incomplete without the other.  They are really two sides of one reality, God’s speaking – God’s Word – in history.  And since Ramsey accepts in the fullest sense the Pauline theology of the Church as Christ’s body, the Gospel is articulated not only in the Church, i.e. functionally as the Word of God is read, proclaimed, and taught, but through the Church in sacramentum and in its own very ordering.  This is a classic Coleridgean-Mauricean move – the limitations of two positions are transcended in a fusion of both.  Stephen Sykes (in The Integrity of Anglicanism, 1978) hated the resultant confusion (as he saw it), but he did I think miss or at least underestimate the extent to which Ramsey was trying to take the Church as we have received it through history seriously as the endeavour of the followers of Christ to remain true to his word.  Ramsey’s argument is the authentic Christian riposte to Nietzsche’s ‘There was only ever one Christian and he died on the cross’.

            The need for these two positions to ‘speak’ to each other, to be seen as part of the one reality of the Church, is so evident from the recent history of division and disagreement within the Anglican Communion, and particularly my own church, the Church of England, that the abiding relevance of Ramsey’s effort surely doesn’t need pointing out.  Of course – and he was well aware of this – it doesn’t resolve the actual, messy task of trying to work out how to regard different issues and different historical changes as they impact upon the Church, but it does defend the basic Anglican endeavour to contain these apparently different ecclesiologies within the one body, and indeed to articulate an overarching ecclesiology that can do justice to both.  This was not only something of which Anglicans needed to be reminded in the 1930s.  It was also something essential to holding together their ecumenical ambitions, which ranged over both Protestant denominations, and the Old Catholics, Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  No one has set out a more compelling vision of what an Anglican ecumenical strategy should aim to do than, by implication, Ramsey did in this book.

            There are two further points.  One is that, although at first reading one might be struck by Ramsey’s attempt to fold the Evangelical appeal to the Gospel into arguments about Catholic order, an equally important move is the modification he makes to the traditional ‘Catholic’ position in Anglicanism.  Gone is the somewhat narrowly defined, ‘supercharged’ (the word I think is Peter Nockles’s) theory of tactile, manual succession as the constitutive element of apostolicity, as received from the Tractarians.  Ramsey moves things on, allowing an opening out of the understanding of apostolicity to include a fidelity to the Gospel and an identification with wider currents of Church history, and thus enabling the broader view of apostolicity that was later to emerge in, for example, the Porvoo agreement, but also in the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC from the 1970s on.  Ironically – though he again he would have been aware of this – from a Roman Catholic perspective, this was merely stretching the concept of apostolicity to its appropriate breadth.  A mark of that was Yves Congar’s appreciation of Ramsey.

            Finally, Ramsey achieves all of this not by a simplistic or crude idealization of the Church.  He had a thoroughly Augustinian notion of the Church as itself, in the specific conditions of history, often deeply flawed.  It needs constant reform, constant recall to its foundations – that is the importance of the Evangelical constitution of the Church.  I’m often struck today by how easily people seem to be disillusioned by the Church, and by Church leaders.  When did we learn to be so naïve?  The Church is called to be a peaceable, loving, safe and affirming community, but it will always fail, just as much as it succeeds.  It’s made up of sinners, after all.  Any alternative view would be a kind of Pelagianism, a trust that by our own efforts we can perfect ourselves.  We can’t.  ‘Catholicism always stands before the church door at Wittenberg’, wrote Ramsey, ‘to read the truth by which she is created and by which she is judged’ (p. 180). 

The demands of love

We can’t talk about love if we can’t also talk about sacrifice.  This seems so obvious to me that I’m not sure I’ve ever really tried to formulate it explicitly before.  But it is the way talk of love in contemporary discourse slips so easily into the assumption that love serves self-fulfilment which has struck me with ever greater force as I read the ongoing, and often rather futile, musings of Christians about human sexuality (and by the way I’m not excluding myself from this criticism).  Of course love seeks its own fulfilment, not least as the expression of desire, of eros.  But if love is only the fulfilment of desire, then it is masquerading as selfish passion, an appetite like any other.  Love cannot assume as its ultimate end its own fulfilment, but the fulfilment of the other person.  That may imply love’s own disappointment, its lack of completion, its self-limitation.

You can perhaps see this most completely in parental love.  Parents try to love their children into being, and into maturity, and as they see them grow, they have to accept the limits of their ability to guide, steer and protect them.  Their desire for their children to become fully mature, independent, secure people in their own right must entail the risk of loss and disappointment for themselves as parents: they cannot make their children like themselves; they cannot ensure they are always near them; they cannot control their children’s life choices when it comes to partners, friends and life styles.  The best parents learn to let go, but that letting go is almost never without pain.

But this is also true for all relationships of love, surely.  It’s certainly true in marriage and lifelong partnership.  Unless one partner is a brainwashed doormat (in which case can we really say love is present at all?), there will always be differences of outlook and interest that from time to time cause one or other partner pain.  To be in a committed, lifelong partnership is to accept the limitations of our own pursuit of pleasure, and to place at the centre of our lives, by contrast, the flourishing of our partner, our love. 

So that means sacrifice.  This is often an incredibly hard thing to discuss with couples seeking marriage.  What are you prepared to give up to make this marriage work?  How much space can you give each other to grow and change, even if at times that’s uncomfortable or difficult for you?  What comes first, your happiness, or the happiness of your partner?

I could put this argument on a Christological basis, for Christ surely is the one who supremely shows us love is exemplified in sacrifice – greater love hath no man than this…

But I’m simply trying to capture something of what makes love work humanly and practically.  It seems to me that the very idea of love implies the placing of oneself second, not first.  And doing that requires a kind of training, a discipline or ascesis.  Things that are hard need to be learnt, and re-learnt, sometimes day after day.  A Christian view of marriage, or lifelong partnership, then, implies an emptying out of the soul’s desire, if we take desire here as meaning to possess.  Love Christianly can’t be translated into possessive or acquisitive desire.  It may even require the renunciation of desire, though again a practical view of human love has to recognize the security, stability and joy which follow from mutual fulfilment.

If this is so, then there’s much more to be said about the Christian quality of relationships than is often said in the slagging match of contemporary ethical discussion.  In a way, the sheerly physical basis of human identity and desire is beside the point: the supreme question is, rather, what are we prepared to give up, or at least to struggle with, in order to promote the well-being of those we love?  We can’t simply apply the idea of rights in regard to love without also speaking of obligations 

I can hear alarm bells ringing.  Does this mean, for example, requiring same-sex couples to accept a greater sacrifice than others, as some might assume?  I don’t think so.  I’m not talking about the relative status of one set of relations over against another, but about the nature of human relations.

Another question might be, doesn’t this risk encouraging those demeaned or abused or betrayed to stay in relationships that perpetuate their suffering rather than leave?  Again I don’t think so.  There always has to be a practical judgement about the nature of an actual relationship: failure to confront often prolongs or even deepens abuse, giving the abuser (seemingly) more reason to carry on with their abuse.  There has to be reciprocity for a true partnership to work. 

And a further concern might be that all this risks displacing the proper sense of self-fulfilment and security that must lie at the heart of all healthy relationships.  Isn’t it the case that those who don’t look after themselves can’t really look after others properly?  This is true, surely.  But self-confidence and security are not the same thing as selfishness.  I’m not saying there isn’t a proper self-regard, a proper care of ourselves.  But that’s not what love is; it may be a precondition of a healthy, loving relationship, but it’s not love itself.

What all this amounts to, in my mind, is a plea to restore to contemporary arguments about rights in relation to sexuality the Christian quality of sacrificial fidelity.  I wish we would all talk a bit more about that.  If we did, it’s just possible that largely hidden grounds of agreement might come into view.

9 October 2021

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

The politics of pastoral encounter

            I imagine most people will look askance at the title of this post.  What has politics got to do with pastoral care?  Isn’t pastoral care something intensely and essentially personal, so that politics shouldn’t get in the way of it?  Well yes…and no.

            Yes, because Christian ministry can’t be parcelled up into differential modes of care depending on people’s politics and even life situations.  It was always a rather cheap jibe at the liberation theologians that they didn’t seem to have a gospel for the rich – but of course they did!  It is easier for a camel…go and sell all you have…But it’s true that the love of God leaves out no one, and it would be a shocking thing to start denying people care and compassion simply because of their views and actions.  I’ve always thought the most startling example was John Robinson, at Westcott House during the war, praying for Hitler.  We pray for the souls of murderers, thieves, abusers, drug suppliers, and so on.  It might be uncomfortable for some people, but that’s what Christians do.

            But the other side of the matter came to my mind reading Hensley Henson’s Disestablishment (1929) the other day.  Henson had done a seemingly abrupt u-turn on his views on establishment after the House of Commons twice rejected the revised Prayer Book in 1927 and 1928, showing up the much-vaunted, new legislative independence of the Church of England as a fiction.  With the recent example of Welsh disestablishment as a background, Henson concluded that the traditional constitutional relationship of Church and State no longer worked to the Church’s (or even the State’s) good.  But he’s very fierce against the idea that disestablishment would turn the Church of England into merely a sect. 

And he goes on to chide his clergy – he was bishop of Durham, and part of the book is a ‘Charge’ to his clergy – for neglect of pastoral visiting.  I really warmed to that.  He doesn’t concede anything to the claim that the Church, if disestablished, should abandon its community outreach and its appeal to every person in one place.  This is where the idea of politics is relevant, surely.  First, Henson would have strongly rejected the idea of a specific political bias as a requirement of Christian commitment – he was quietly scathing about William Temple’s views – but he would absolutely not have disputed that in a broader sense the Church of England’s pastoral responsibilities were part of the landscape of England’s political history. 

Neglect of pastoral encounter was, then, a form of political statement.  If – by implication – it was a wilful, deliberate neglect, motivated for example by resentment or by disapproval of someone’s views or position in life, you could at least say that it was a neglect with political consequences.  And likewise, if Christians persist in trying to reach out in compassion and care to those whom others are telling us should be shunned, then that too is a political statement of sorts.

But second, there is obviously another sense in which a Christian theological anthropology requires more or less explicitly a specific understanding of human community, or human sociality.  Christians commit to building up the polis – the social life, the relationships, the values, and of course the structures by which human community is shaped and defined.  And they do bring a particular perspective to bear on that – that’s what faith and the moral life require of us.  Pastoral encounter is a political act.  That doesn’t make it any less spiritual or personal – on the contrary.

23 August 2021

Revisiting Anglican classics 1: W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (1977)

            When I was at theological college in the early 1990s, Bill Vanstone’s book was spoken of with awe, as a profound essay on the risk of love.  I think because of that reputation, I held off from reading it for years, fearing I’d be disappointed.  But I needn’t have done.  It is an extraordinary tour de force of theological reflection, beginning with the most unpromising of material, the apparent trivia of parish life and his impatience with it, and going on to develop a penetrating analysis of the costliness of divine love, and its imbrication with all the seemingly minor endeavours and disappointments by which our lives are structured.

            Despite a brilliant academic background and predictions of a glittering career, Vanstone chose to spend much of his ministry working on a Lancashire housing estate, giving practical effect to the attentiveness and patience (his next book was called The Stature of Waiting) that is an important theme of this book.  He waited until his mid-50s to publish it, and the word is that it was turned down by a number of publishers, until it was taken up by DLT and became a prize-winner and best-seller. 

            It’s a bold argument.  Without conceding anything to theoretical challenges to divine impassibility, Vanstone supposes that the risks we see inherent in love as we know it in our own terms – its willingness to recognize its own limits, its renunciation of control, and its openness to unforeseen change – must also be characteristic of the love of God.  Whilst the love of God is an infinite outpouring, the endeavour of God’s love is itself fraught with risk, with self-limitation and the denial of coercive control.  We see this supremely in the tragedy of the cross (for those in the know, there are echoes of Donald Mackinnon), but also in the life of the Church.

            Vanstone’s God is a God of small things.  We are constantly tempted by the grand gesture in the Church today.  10,000 new congregations!  Don’t think small, think big!  Grand strategies are what we need, aren’t they?  Yet the skeletons of failed grand initiatives litter the historical landscape – the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917, Towards the Conversion of England in 1945, the decade of Evangelism, Mission-Shaped Church, perhaps even Renewal and Reform?  Well, few of these were or are outright failures.  Perhaps they all have their place.  Perhaps they all have helped to slow decline.

            But for Vanstone, I suspect, they would all have been beside the point.  What he learnt in his years of serving the people of his parish was that there was no disjuncture between the significance of the little action or gesture, and that of the great.  Where God’s people are, whatever the seeming triviality of their concerns, each one of them is fully the preoccupation and end of God’s love.  God’s grace is alive and working in each of them, and he is to be encountered where they are.  For me, this is the touchstone of parish ministry. 

            The book ends with the poem – ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’ – which has become a well-known hymn, set to Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Song 13’.  All is good, but the verse that sums up the gist of Vanstone’s essay is the fifth:

Drained is love making full;

Bound in setting others free;

Poor in making many rich;

Weak in giving power to be.