John Henry Newman and Ecumenism

When it was announced that the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman would be celebrated on 9 October, the day of his reception into Full Communion with the Catholic Church, rather than the day of his death (his entry into eternal life), some Anglicans, who honour Newman as much as Catholics do, were disappointed, seeing it as a slight on them and on the ecumenical endeavours of both Churches. Was it just another instance of tactlessness on the part of Rome, or was there some deep, sinister meaning behind it all?

It is sheer guesswork on my part, but I suspect Rome chose the date of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism because it marks the chief event of his life: the moment he laid aside his doubts and questionings and embraced the demands of his intellectual and moral certainty that the Catholic Church was the true Church. It was an act of integrity, entered upon after a long, painful and searching journey of faith. He is therefore an apt patron for those with what we used to call religious difficulties, who seek to know the truth whatever the cost. It does not imply any slight on the Church which first nurtured his faith. Newman himself was well aware how much he owed to the Anglican tradition.

Where ecumenism is concerned, however, I think we often confuse wanting to highlight the things we share with wanting to gloss over the things that still divide us. The ARCIC statements have indicated areas of agreement between Catholics and Anglicans, but areas of agreement are not enough, in and of themselves. We seek truth; and although we rejoice in the mutual charity and understanding we now enjoy, we know we still have a long way to go. It is something we have to work at, not just assume has already happened or doesn’t much matter. From a Catholic perspective, the schism between East and West is the most important breach in the unity of the Church and the one that most needs healing. Here in England that may not be so obvious because we tend to think solely in terms of Anglicanism, Non-Conformity, and Roman Catholicism (though the Eastern Catholic Churches are here, too).

Newman’s feast day is a good day for thinking and praying about these things. How we understand unity; what we mean by authority; the sacramental tradition; the role of Scripture and Tradition; these are all important questions, to be approached with humility. Important though they are, there is something we need to remember even more. It is not clever arguments but love which makes one holy. It is also, incidentally, what wins the hearts and minds of others.

Personal note
I trust my Anglican friends know how much I love and value them. I am a Catholic by conviction, as they are Anglicans by conviction; but we know we are not yet one in faith and practice.


6 thoughts on “John Henry Newman and Ecumenism”

  1. You speak gently about what is for some a sensitive issue.

    As an Anglican by conviction, but one who was raised in the Catholic Church I sometimes yearn for unity that would permit us to share so much more in mission and worship, and I know that there is a solution for me, but not one that I am able in conscience to contemplate – return to the fold.

    But ongoing prayer for unity is something that I can share with Catholic friends and Anglican and other denominations who long to be one in Christ, if we could somehow accommodate each other’s differences in ways that are truly ecumenical and worthy of Christ’s commission to us all – go and make Disciples.

    I live in hope.

  2. I must say that the picking out of “bits suitable” within the ecumenical movement drives me mad!
    We need look no further than Henry, like it or not, but East and West is our natural heritage. Many of our Doctors and Saints, not to mention Apostles and disciples, would shudder at today’s separations.
    I feel that at last we have a Pope who WILL drive the curia over the bumps of pig-headedness into closer communion with the East. I fear the stumbling block may be Russia (just for a change!)

  3. Provocative piece.
    I came to know Newman through his writings: The Idea of the University and Apologia pro vita sua primarily which I read in a time of great turmoil and cultural change ( the late 1960’s) whilst I was at Uni.
    The writings were part of an examination of Late Victorian Prose when the “Centre” certainly was not holding and great minds sought, again, something unshakeable in which to believe. Newman found his answer in the Roman Catholic faith. Matthew Arnold found himself in the same quandary, wrote the Grand Chartreuse, then stopped writing poetry and turned to works of corporal mercy.
    They were of course both right and to some extent, I believe, both wrong. One can trace the decline of Anglicanism from Newman’s departure and one can only wonder what souls might have sung to an ever maturing Arnold as the Modern continued to creep in.
    Catholics are right to claim him and as much as I might wish to echo Pilate and say, “Truth, what is truth?” I know that it is in the seeking that we find our salvation.
    The choice of dates really plants Newman firmly in Roman Catholic soil as if to say, “He is ours!” but that is as pointless as claiming Augustine of Hippo is anyones not everyones. Having an entire calendar from which to choose leaves no doubt that the Roman Catholic church is firmly laying claim to him and I suppose they can. But is that the ‘Truth’ of John Henry Newman? His conscience might answer differently.

  4. I walk to work past two churches. Each acts as a gentle reminder that my day should start and end with prayer. The fact that one is RC and one C of E seems to matter little at that point. I know the situation is not that simple in most other respects but we can all pray for unity – whatever that actually means…

Comments are closed.