|The young John|
The “Father of the Oxford Movement” was really John Keble who preached the famous sermon “National Apostasy” on July 14, 1833 in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford, but the main driver behind the movement—and the best known of its proponents—was John Henry Newman. Indeed it was Newman who made the claim—which has stuck—that it was Keble’s sermon that gave birth to the movement.
Newman had not always been a member of the High Church party and, in fact, was for the first thirty years of his life tied to the Low Church or Evangelical Party. The oldest of six children of a prosperous London Banker he was sent to George Nicholas’ Great Ealing School where the faculty included Louis-Philip Bourbon (future King of France), and George Huxley (father of Thomas Henry Huxley, the English Biologist and advocate of Darwinism). Fellow alumni included Thomas Huxley and W.S. Gilbert.) The school was something of a hotbed of Evangelicalism and the Classics Master, Walter Mayers, loaned the young student books on Calvinism. To be fair, Newman also read the religious skeptics at this point—Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, and Hume. And more significant for his later career, he became immersed in the romantic novels of Walter Scott. The skeptics had little influence on him other than to give him a life-long horror of Enlightenment liberalism, but Calvinism pierced his soul immediately. Scott was only a seed that would later bloom as Newman moved away from Evangelicalism into High Church theology—but that is still a way off.
The particular type of Calvinism to which Newman was exposed was, in the day, referred to as “Clapham Sect” Calvinism. It was a movement within the Church of England that was classically Calvinist with its emphasis on double pre-destination and justification by faith alone but, perhaps somewhat incongruously, it was tied to social progressivism with opposition to slavery and the slave trade as well as to concern for England’s underclass. Newman went on to Oxford, Trinity College, where his desire to succeed produced an anxiety that led him to flub his exams—graduating with only third honors. Nevertheless, he was elected a Fellow of Oriel College the following year. A colleague at Oriel was Edward Bouverie Pusey who was to play a significant role in the Oxford movement as well. In 1824 Newman was ordained deacon in the Church of England and ordained priest the following year. At Oxford he met Hurrell Froude, another young priest of the Church of England. Froude and Newman developed a particularly intimate friendship which, while there is no evidence of sexual intimacy, would fall today at least under the theme of “bromance.”
Our modern word, “homosexual” only appears in the last third of the 19th century. The word is a hybrid of the Greek (‘ομοσ, “same”) and the Latin (sexus, “sex” or “gender.”). The creation of a word to describe same-sex attraction permitted people to organize their thoughts in a new way: understanding the difference between a person normally attracted to members of the opposite sex having sexual relations with a member of their same sex and a person whose sexual attraction was normally towards a person of their own sex. In other words, the creation of the word “homosexual” helped people understand that sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex is not universal and same-sex attraction needs to be considered on its own terms rather than as an aberration form some imagined heterosexual norm. Of course, this century and a half later, there are still some—notably in the backwoods of Kentucky—who just don’t get it, but I don’t want to wander down that path right now. For the moment we will concentrate on John Henry Newman who, like his contemporaries, did not have the tools to understand the deeper levels of the human psyche but who were able to choose to conform the moral norms of both religion and society in that day. Newman and Froude could not have understood the probable complexities of their relationship but they did have clear sense of moral right and wrong and there is no evidence of them crossing the moral boundaries of the day.
Froude was, tragically, ill with tuberculosis and Newman had accompanied him and his father on a tour of the Mediterranean in 1833 returning only just in time to hear the famous sermon that changed the course of the Church of England.
In the latter 1820’s and 1830’s Newman’s own theology had gradually been evolving as his scholarship led him into reading the Fathers of the Church. He came to see the weaknesses of Calvinism, in particular in its ecclesiology. Calvin saw the Church as an invisible association of those pre-destined to salvation rather than the visible and concrete communion of the Baptized. This overly spiritualized notion of Church made the Church irrelevant to salvation as, since it was known only to God who were in and who were out, the Church was of no human use. Everything that mattered lay simply in the relationship of the individual soul to God—had God chosen that person for salvation or for damnation. In Calvin’s scheme Church, sacraments, piety, prayer—all is quite irrelevant to the final outcome and Newman came to recognize that Calvinism offered him only that blind alley.
Moreover, Newman and Froude—both fellows at Oriel—took a new approach to their role as tutors, offering spiritual guidance as well as intellectual vision to the young men entrusted to them. This did not go over well with the liberal establishment in the University where Enlightenment secularism still held sway. As Newman’s views grew more and more “High Church,” the Evangelical wing grew equally alarmed with his influence.
As stated in a previous posting, Keble’s sermon “National Apostasy” triggered a series of tracts outlining and defending the High Church position. Newman was most assiduous in his contribution to the Tracts For The Times, writing almost a third of the 90 Tracts. Newman wrote the final “Tract 90” in which he asserted that there was nothing in the 39 Articles of the Church of England that could not legitimately be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Catholic Faith. This was too much and the outcry caused the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Bagot, to insist on there being no further tracts published. Bagot was actually sympathetic to the High Church party and ordered Newman and the other “Tractarians” to desist in order to protect them from being disciplined by the Church and even possibly by the Government as the Church was Established by Law as the State Church and the government, from the newly ascended Queen, Victoria down to her ministers, were quite avidly Protestant in their Churchmanship.
In all this it must be remembered that Newman’s role at Oxford was not primarily academic but priestly. He held the vicarship of Saint Mary the Virgin, the University Church, which was a benefice in the gift of Oriel College. In addition to the Tracts, Newman’s Sunday afternoon sermons were exceedingly popular with the undergraduates and his influence over the spiritual life of the University was quite marked. This alarmed the Evangelical Faction and Newman was increasingly isolated from the Academic side of the University.
In all this Newman was no ritualist. His focus was always on the theological principals and he was no liturgical innovator but stuck quite close to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the official rites of the Church of England. While many others of the High Church party were rapidly introducing Catholic practices into their Anglican parishes: Eucharistic Vestments, candles and crucifixes on the altar, incense, processions, statues and even counterfeiting the rubrics of the Roman Mass upon the Anglican Holy Communion, Newman was sticking to his surplice and hood and a reverent but plain liturgy. He would later write Edward Pusey about this stage in his spiritual journey.
The utmost delicacy was observed on all hands in giving me advice: only one warning remains on my mind, and it came from Dr. Griffiths, the late Vicar-Apostolic of the London district. He warned me against books of devotion of the Italian school, which were just at that time coming into England; and when I asked him what books he recommended as safe guides, he bade me get the works of Bishop Hay. By this I did not understand that he was jealous of all Italian books, or made himself responsible for all that Dr. Hay happens to have said; but I took him to caution me against a character and tone of religion, excellent in its place, not suited for England.
Newman never did embrace the Italian version of Catholicism which would appeal to so many of the Tractarians, both those who remained in the Church of England and those who “swam the Tiber” to become Catholics. The faith into which he was evolving and the faith to which he would cling as a Catholic was the old English recusant Catholicism, understated and discreet without the bells and whistles so cherished by Mediterranean Catholics.
As Newman’s influence declined in official Anglican circles (it was only growing among the High Church Party) he retired to a row of cottages in the dependent parish of Saint Mary, Littlemore—an Oxford suburb which was part of his parish of Saint Mary the Virgin. He was joined here by several friends who were each growing less comfortable with the Church of England and its Protestant history. The other men at Littlemore were John Dobree Dalgairns, Ambrose Saint John, Frederick Oakeley, William Lockhart, and James Christie. Like the Wesleys and the first Methodists, they adopted a sort of schema for piety with certain times for fasting, for Holy Communion, for various prayers. Unlike the Wesleys and the Methodists, they were then suspected of being a “monastery.” And in fact to some extent they were trying to adopt a common life though more on the model of Saint Augustine’s Rule for clergy than Benedict’s for monks.
Lockhart was the first of the group to become a Catholic. His conversion shook Newman who, about eight months later, preached his famous final sermon as an Anglican “The Parting of Friends” and resigned as Vicar of Saint Mary’s Oxford. He continued living at Littlemore for two more years until his own conversion. To be continued.