Dear John Henry

The joint letter published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anglican Church of Canada on the occasion of Cardinal Newman’s canonization is prompting my reflection on this new saint’s legacy, and on the inspiration and guidance I have drawn from him in my own spiritual and ecclesial journey. If I sound like bending his insights and contributions to justify my own needs, choices and understandings, then may I ask: do most of us not do this without much thought? I make no claim to speak with any formal authority or ecclesial sanction. I am merely engaging Newman’s witness to increase understanding of my own spiritual and ecclesial paths. Interpretation through the lens of our own life is simply the pair of glasses our minds and hearts wear. In using my particular glasses on John Henry Newman, I would like to think that he could indeed be the patron saint of today’s ecumenical movement.

I know, O my God, I must change […]
Oh, support me, as I proceed in this great, awful, happy change,
with the grace of Thy unchangeableness.
My unchangeableness here below is perseverance in changing. JHN

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. JHN

But what kind of ecumenism would John Henry have embraced? Would he agree with the sharp analysis of Professor Merrill Tenney who wrote in his book The Gospel of Belief: “Unanimity means absolute concord of opinion within a given group of people.  Uniformity is complete similarity of organization or of ritual.  Union implies political affiliation without necessarily including individual agreement. Unity requires oneness of inner heart and essential interest or a common life.” So, when Jesus prayed that we “all may be one” (Jn. 17:21), he certainly was not praying for unanimity or uniformity.  Even the Roman Catholic Church does not have that.  Nor was he praying for union, otherwise his prayer has been unanswered for at least a thousand years since Rome split with eastern Orthodoxy.  Rather, Jesus was praying for true unity which all Christians (already) have, East and West, by virtue of our common confession in the early creeds and outward conduct of love manifest to all (Jn. 13:35).  (pg. 248)

Dear John Henry,
How impressive — you made it to the highest honour in the Roman Catholic Church, official sainthood. One, holy, catholic and apostolic church is what you lived, loved and died for. Church relations were very different in your time, coloured as they were by a spirit of animosity and scorn, infected with political maneuvering and ploys. It would still take another century before Rome could write declarations such as Nostra Aetate, Lumen Gentium and the Decree on Ecumenism. Paradoxically, it is in part thanks to your ground-breaking and intense scrutiny of the Christian tradition, John Henry, that Rome could, at Vatican II, say: “Many important elements build up and give life to the Church itself, and can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit….Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion…these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and…are capable of giving access to that communion in which is salvation” (#3, Unitatis Redintegratio).
I am inclined to concur with RC Bishop Fintan Monahan who wrote in the Irish Times earlier this week: If Newman was an Anglican today he may not have seen the need to convert, but would have worked quite happily in dialogue between the two churches.

Your sermons and tracts, books and other writings, John Henry, continue to animate invigorating debate and edifying discourse in church halls and colleges. By far your greatest contribution to the life of the church was undoubtedly your Essay on the Development of Doctrine and your conviction of the primacy of one’s personal conscience above all else. Both these contributions played key roles in the deliberations and developments that arose from the Second Vatican Council. Apparently Pope Paul VI described you as an “invisible presence at Vatican II.”  Both contributions also played a key role at crucial spiritual and ecclesial intersections of my own life journey with God and with the church.

While you, John Henry, moved from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic tradition, I made the same move in reverse. While you felt a deep pull to the Roman Church because you recognized in her the fullness of faith in Christ Jesus, despite its historical wanderings and occasional missteps, I felt a strong divine call to the God-given Anglican charisms and its particular ethos of discipleship, to bear ecumenical fruit in the Anglican household of God, bringing the best from my Catholic formation with me. To this day, many still follow our example in a distinctly two-way flow of denominational traffic between our two traditions.

In both of us the ecclesial move was a slow but sure ripening over time, engaging both mind and heart, stirring our deepest levels of being. Your insistence on and utmost respect for the primacy of conscience made both our moves possible.** Moreover, my move into the Anglican tradition occurred without negative reasons to leave the RC fold, but instead sought to wed the two households of God in my own being. Like you, I continue to cherish all that is holy and good and beautiful and sound in my ecclesial family of origin.

We do not see the truth at once and make toward it, but we fall upon and try error and find it is not the truth. We grope about by touch, not by sight, and so by a miserable experience exhaust the possible modes of acting till naught is left, but truth, remaining. Such is the process by which we succeed; we walk to heaven backwards; we drive our arrows at a mark and think him most skillful whose shortcomings are the least.” JHN

Ordaining women to the priesthood was nowhere on the horizon in your time; you had very different fish to fry. Even though Rome has spoken clearly on the matter of priestly ordination for women, I hope and pray with all my heart that this might be reconsidered someday, especially through applying your principles for sound doctrinal development. From where I stand, the discernment principles you formulated could help to trace a certain view of today’s priestly ordination of women as latent in the tradition, as your First and Second Note state, most notably through the creation account and in the Incarnation itself. The notion of a female priesthood can also be grounded in the Biblical witness of prominent women in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ruth, Deborah, Hulda etc.), the Apostle to the apostles Mary Magdalene, this first witness to the resurrection of Christ, and women leaders in the early church as listed by name in Acts. Despite this evidence much resistance occurred when the Anglican Church began to ordain women to the priesthood, and now to the episcopate, and still exists in some parts of the Anglican Communion. I hope and pray that some day your criteria for testing doctrinal development can verify in this controversial decision a continuity with tradition and preservation of the principle of the priesthood. If this development turns out to be erroneous, this too will show over time (see Newman’s Note #7:  Corruption cannot be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development). All I know for certain is that I feel deeply called to live this development at this time in the history of the church, allowing it to verify either its authenticity or its error in and through my Anglican priestly ministry. In either case, I, a sinner in daily need of mercy, surrender myself to God’s service in this matter.

You displayed an enviable surrender to the Holy Spirit in your intellectual as well as your spiritual pursuits. This was most evident when scrutinizing the Christian tradition against Scripture and the early Church Fathers. A sure sign of your grounding in God was your acumen in debates and dialogues. Your unwavering spirit of respect for the other, including your opponents, infused your search and research, your tracts and writings, with ruthless honesty and humility, including and especially in your own self-examination as you diligently sought God’s will and truth. You lived in your bones what St. Thomas Aquinas stated several centuries before you: “We must love them both: those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have laboured in search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.” It is this striking posture of yours, sadly uncommon, that now makes Prince Charles, an Anglican who will be attending your canonization in Rome on October 13, write without hesitation in today’s edition of VaticanNews: (Newman) “could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and perhaps most of all could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion.” In today’s conflict-ridden world and scandal-ridden Church, we desperately need your example, your intercession and your guidance, John Henry. And is it any wonder that your canonization is taking place amidst the Synod on the Amazon?

Reading your journals and correspondence reveals the emotional agony you felt over leaving behind the beloved Church of England, the ecclesial womb which had so nourished your spirit, and in whose bosom your keen mind, pastoral heart and deep love for God in Christ Jesus grew an ever greater pull to Rome. While you concluded that the Church of England had erred and existed in a state of schism, you continued to hold dear all that was good and holy and beautiful in her. As for me, I will always hold dear the Mother Church in whom my faith in Jesus was nourished and my priestly call was born. In fact, I experience a deep spiritual unity in my own heart and mind that weds both of our traditions in love and mercy, grace and joy. This may well echo Newman’s Fifth Principle on doctrinal development, i.e. anticipating our future, if not on earth, then surely in heaven. Moreover, this ecclesial unity in my spirit reflects in no small measure my own earthly marriage of 40 years to my RC husband Jim.

And so, as the joint Anglican–Roman Catholic Letter states, rejoice with us in heaven as we now rightly claim your legacy and witness as the foundation for the recovered kinship and growing affection, mutual understanding and appreciation between our two traditions: “Though Newman’s life has at times been a source of tension between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the past, today we are able to affirm together that Newman is a figure whom all of us can celebrate in common; a brother in Christ Jesus, in whose formation both our churches had a share. Indeed, we can even see in his legacy the planting of many seeds in both communities which later contributed to the ecumenical fruit which has grown between us at the global and local levels.”

  • The above usage of John Henry might have some humorous connotations to the expression “put your John Henry there,” meaning put your signature there. This popular expression, derived from cowboy slang, has no relation to Cardinal John Henry Newman, but originated from John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
  • Here is a thoughtful piece on Newman’s canonization, continuing to challenge us all in today’s changing landscape for both church and world.

    **There will be readers who might question the claim that my move to the Anglican tradition is on par with Newman’s decision to join the Roman Catholic Church. Here is a thoughtful read on Newman’s understanding and respect for personal conscience, an understanding that is now reflected to a great extent in Pope Francis. I am struck by the last line: The Catholic tradition of conscience is in a time of renewal. The canonization of Cardinal Newman confirms the sound theological depths of this turn.

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