Tuesday, August 02, 2005

moving along

While in England, I bought a paperback copy of Sheridan Gilley's biography, Newman and his Age. It was on sale in the Durham cathedral bookshop run by the S.P.C.K. -- which is in a large round stone room that once served as the kitchen for the medieval monastery.

I picked it up because while I know who John Henry Newman was, at least, superficially, I was curious to know more about this fellow who helped start the Oxford Movement bringing about an Anglo-Catholic focus in the Church of England before leaving the COE and joining the Roman Catholic Church.

I've visited the church of St. Mary the Virgin, the university church at Oxford, where Newman was a vicar in the 1830s, the same church where Archbishop Cramner and the two other bishops (Lattimore and ?, I tend to forget this) were tried for heresy and were burned at the stake under Queen Mary Tudor. And I've visited Arundel Castle outside of Brighton, the ancestral palace for the Dukes of Norfolk, the highest ranking Catholic peers in England. In his R.C. period, Newman was a friend of the Duke, and I believe he dedicated the rather opulent late Victorian chapel in the castle. And I've seen the beautiful Oratory in London that Newman had a hand in establishing.

Back to Newman. Episcopal priests often quote Newman, but I cannot say that I've ever read much of him outside of his essay on the ideal university in my sophomore college British lit class. AKMA has referred to Newman in discussing current rifts in the Anglican Communion, and I know that our Church worship has shifted from a morning prayer church to a Eucharist based church, and assume that the roots of that stretch back to the Oxford Movement, so I thought it would be interesting and helpful to read an introduction to Newman.

So I am getting to know a little about JH Newman. Because the book is titled as referring to the age, I find that I am also learning a bit about the many groups in England that were forming or that had already formed by the time that Newman became a student and later scholar at Oxford. A few reactions:

  1. The early 19th century had its own culture wars, and Newman was in the middle of them. He had no compulsion about verbally attacking those with whom he disagreed with -- I had never heard about the Tractarian part of the Oxford Movement, the series of published tracts linking Anglicanism to a Catholic faith of the first five or six centuries (pre-Council of Trent), to argue for baptismal sacramental meaning against Evangelical/Calvinist ideas of santification and works, and especially to counter liberalism and attempts by the State to water down Christian creedal theology. This tension, this argumentation feels very much like the current period.
  2. Liberalism in this context is not classical economic thought, but rather secular rational approaches to scholarship and society. Given that the Church of England was part of the State, decisions in the 1830s by Whig governments and Oxford administrators (under the influence of Jeremy Bentham and his followers) to consider wider tolerance for Catholics and dissenters (evangelical groups), Jews and non-believers awakened in Newman and his associates a great amount of anger and scholarship in support of what they saw for defending the true Church.
  3. Their Tory sensibilities were as strong as their dogmatic passions, and Gilley, a Newman partisan, points out occasionally how that Tory connection made for somewhat embarrassing or absurd arguments to our ears.
  4. Newman seems to find that his provocative statements and attacks that were so unsettling to his opponents was a necessary tactic to put his opponents on the defensive and to attract loyal support. I assume that Gilley thought that at times they were also unfair, something that Newman would face as his opponents resorted to similar tactics.
  5. Read the comments of folk like Judge Bork or other current day conservatives interested in the current cultural war, and the spirit feels quite close to the fears and understandings of Newman and his associates.

I plan on trying to read Newman after finishing this biography. I also bought a bio of Henry VIII. And will look for one about Cromwell. One doesn't have to tour much of Christian England to come across the terms dissolution, the commonwealth, and dissenters, to understand that these religious arguments had a connection to real events and lives. I plan on reading more about the 17th century as well. And about Wesley, too, in the 18th century. It's nice to know that our current struggles have a relationship to the past, and that folk struggled and argued over them, not knowing the outcome. While reading the Newman bio, I read about the unrest in the early 1830s over efforts to make Parliament more representative, and about the riot in Bristol in 1831 that led to the burning down of the Bishop's palace in that city. Having just left the Bristol Cathedral, I had already heard the story about the riot, and how a verger had prevented the mob from entering into the Cathedral to burn it down as well. There is a wall plaque that commemorates his brave defense of the cathedral. The Cloister aisle where the mob marched was where our choir lined up each afternoon before processing into the Cathedral. We ate lunch everyday in the 12th century Chapter House that was also partially burned in the same riot. According to the canon, burn marks can still be seen in the room.

In the dream world of today, we act as if the past has no connection to our time. Reading histories/biographies gives me aid in trying to understand philosophical/theological arguments. I know these arguments transcend their time, but if I can imagine the place where they took place, it is easier to grasp their points, and more particularly who they were trying to persuade and why.


Caelius said...

I think Nicholas Ridley is the name on the tip of your tongue.

Don said...

Thank you. Someone else kindly sent an email this morning as well with the info. Terrible. I should know that.