Trinity 18 2019 ~ John Henry Newman


Trinity 18 2019 – A new man of prayer for our online age

2 Tim 3:14-4:5 - Luke 18:1-8

How do you pray? - How do you pray?

According to an official Church of England press release this week, Church of England prayer apps were used more than five million times over the last year as a record number of people sought Christian contemplation and reflection online. Apps allowing users to pray the ancient ‘Daily Office’ of morning, evening and night prayer were used 4.2 million times on Apple devices alone in the last 12 months, an increase of 446,000 on the year before. This does not include other social media prayers, reflections and posts by the Church of England, which now have an average reach of 3.6 million every month.

Meanwhile other figures reveal that there are 1.12 million regular worshippers at Church of England churches in 2018. There were nearly eight million attendances at Church of England Christmas and Advent services in 2018, including special services for civic organisations, schools and local communities. The Church’s reach on social media throughout Advent and Christmas 2018 was 7.94 million – up by 1.14 million from 2017. And, to complete the picture, an average 871,000 people attended Church of England services and acts of worship each week, which is 2.6% lower than in 2017. This slight ongoing downturn is arguably balanced, if not exceeded by the significant increases in online interest now being shown. And this may tell us as much about changing trends towards prayer as it does about our church. The world is changing, if you haven’t noticed! Meanwhile the words of Paul to Timothy might be noted:  “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable”.

It’s a long way - or is it? – from a little boy in 1805, being mesmerised by the candles lit in windows to celebrate and give thanks to God for the victory at Trafalgar. The way we pray changes and it doesn’t change. Prayer is basically the same down the ages, however we do it, why we do it, and how we do it. Prayer is offering of thanksgiving, appeal for help, and sharing of worry with a higher power.

That little boy was John Henry Newman, who, you may have heard, was canonised by the Pope last weekend. He was born in London on 21 February 1801, the son of a banker, educated in Ealing and Oxford, ordained Church of England deacon in 1824, and priest in 1825. He became vicar of the University Church in Oxford in 1828. In 1832 he visited Greece and Italy, but the following year he became seriously ill in Sicily - probably with typhoid fever; he then travelled back to Britain, composing ‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom’ while at sea between Palermo and Marseilles on 16 June 1833.

We shall sing that - indeed we are singing all three of his main hymns today. The great hymnologist John Julian described ‘Lead, kindly light’ as ‘one of the finest lyrics of the nineteenth century’, and connected it to Newman’s increasing dissatisfaction with the Church of England in these words:

Angry at the state of disunion and supineness in the Church he still loved and in which he still believed; confident that he had ‘a mission,’ ‘a work to do in England;’ passionately longing for home and the converse of friends; sick in body to prostration, and, as some around him feared, even unto death; feeling that he should not die but live, and that he must work, but knowing not what that work was to be, how it was to be done, or to what it might tend, he breathed forth the impassioned and pathetic prayer, one of the birth-pangs, it might be called, of the Oxford movement of 1833 (p. 668).

Newman returned to England just in time to hear John Keble preach on ‘National Apostasy’ and that sermon is regarded by many as the birth of what became known as the ‘Oxford Movement’. Our own church building stems from that, built as it was by William Butterfield, who is also associated with that ecclesiastical move towards a more catholic understanding of liturgy, tradition and scripture. So it was that theologically, Newman moved from being an Anglican Evangelical with Calvinist leanings, to an Anglo-Catholic who objected to religious liberalism and maintained a love of the transcendent mysteries of the Church; and finally to a Roman Catholic who admired the pre-Reformation Church, advocated ideas of holiness and doctrinal orthodoxy, and upheld devotional pluralism, but had difficulty accepting the authority of the Papacy. From 1833 he and others began a series of papers called ‘Tracts for the Times’ and from then on they became known as ‘Tractarians’. Their main aim was to protect the Anglican Church from state intervention, and to preserve the Christian faith from liberal reform. The tracts were controversial, not leastly in that Newman argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican church could be sympathetic to Catholic interpretation, which they were hardly intended to be. Newman was condemned by Anglican Bishops for this, and so he left Oxford and founded a religious community for like-minded believers.

He was received into the Catholic Church on 9 October 1845, and a year later went to Rome to study for the priesthood and was ordained there in May 1847. He returned to England to serve as superior of the new English Oratory in Birmingham. He was also involved in establishing a new Catholic University in Ireland (now University College, Dublin), of which he was appointed president in 1851 and rector in 1854; he resigned in 1857 to devote himself more fully to the Birmingham Oratory. In 1864 Newman published his spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua, after having been publicly criticised by the author Charles Kingsley. Kingsley, you may remember, wrote the children’s classic about the Water Babies. The following year Newman published The Dream of Gerontius, a monologue poem describing the journey of the soul through death to the afterlife. Two passages from the poem became popular hymns: ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ - both of which we sing today too. Gerontius became famous as an oratorio in 1900 when Sir Edward Elgar set it to music.

Newman spent the rest of his life in Birmingham, and was made a Cardinal in 1879. He died of pneumonia in Birmingham on 11 August 1890.

His poem beginning ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ is sung by ‘the Fifth Choir of Angelicals’ in Part II as the soul of Gerontius crosses the threshold of death into Purgatory. The name Gerontius means ‘old man’.

‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ first appeared as a hymn in the Appendix to the First Edition of A&M, with the first verse repeated at the end, to make a hymn of seven verses, and with a tune written especially for it by John Bacchus Dykes which is aptly called GERONTIUS.

The hymn is a meditation on 1 Corinthians 15: 20-47, in which God in Christ, the second Adam, restores the world which had been lost by the sin of the first Adam. He does so by the Incarnation: God in Christ becoming human is an even higher gift than grace. This phrase ‘a higher gift than grace’ is a little controversial in that some would say that there can be no higher gift than grace. In the context of The Dream of Gerontius though, it refers to the Incarnation, and Newman is saying that God in Christ the Incarnate Word, is an even higher gift than grace. The gift of God, of himself, in and as Jesus Christ, is the greatest gift the world has known and, in Christ and as Christ, God is both the gift and the giver.

St John Newman was someone who, frustrated with the way the Church of England was going, jumped ship to the Roman Catholics, where he found renewal and a spiritual home. He was a man of integrity and persistent prayer, rather perhaps like the widow in our gospel today who never gives up on prayer. Vilified for his views, his struggle and his decision which some even considered ecclesiastically treasonable, Newman found recognition and respect after his death, and whatever we Anglicans may think about the practice and process of canonisation, Newman has been recognised by his adopted mother church in the most significant way possible. He would have been embarrassed, surely - but we need not be, but rather give thanks to God for a man of vision, integrity and tenacious faith whose graceful legacy is a gift to us all.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 20/10/19