Newman, forty years after Vatican II


John Henry Newman’s Anglican difficulties (AD) is a series of twelve lectures delivered in 1850 to Newman’s former colleagues in the Oxford movement.  The movement began, nominally, in 1833.  Newman, at first a member of the movement, converted to the roman church in 1845.  Newman acknowledges in the preface to the printed lectures that “conversion is a simple work of divine grace.”  He then states that his lectures are meant to address the intellectual reservations which might prevent one from following through with entering the roman church once the converted conscience realizes the nature of the church and the necessity of membership in it.  The first seven lectures explain why the adherents of the movement have no place, and can have no place, in the Church of England, but only in the Church of Rome.  The last five address superficial, but pervasive, aspects of the Church of Rome that might lead some to deny its identity with the church which our Lord founded.


In my recent reading of AD I was struck by the currency and universality of Newman’s arguments.  Take these lectures, addressing a specific situation at a specific time, generalize a few terms, and you have a compelling treatment of why no movement, denomination, or sect can ever claim to be the Church of Christ while remaining out of communion with the true embodiment of the same in the roman church.


The lectures can be applied in a special way to the situation within the church today. 


We have in the church today a rift, a gap, a splitting into parties, a divide between those on the one hand who see the church of today as continuous with the church of all time, and those on the other who see a new church, or a radically changed church, as emerging within our time.  Some have said that we have a de facto schism in the church.  Even Pope Ratzinger went so far, on the 22nd of December last, as to use words like discontinuity, rupture, fracture in discussing the dangers the church faces from a wrong understanding of the last ecumenical council.  We have two ways, or two broad confluences of ways, of “being church”, which ways clash as adherents of both try to be church in one church.


Newman saw a similar pattern in his time as the Oxford movement attempted to be church, to be “true church”, while remaining within the english denomination and without the roman obedience.  The movement, he said, was foreign to the nature of the national church; its life was not derived from that of the national church; it had no future in the national church.  His most forceful expression of the misfit used biological terms: 


We know that it is the property of life to be impatient of any foreign substance in the body to which it belongs.  It will be sovereign in its own domain, and it conflicts with what it cannot assimilate into itself, and is irritated and disordered till it has expelled it.  Such expulsion, then, is, emphatically, a test of uncongeniality, for it shows that the substance ejected, not only is not one with the body that rejects it, but cannot be made one with it; that its introduction is not only useless, or superfluous, or adventitious, but that it is intolerable.  (II,6)


There is an ironic difference, however, between Newman’s subject and the situation of the church today.  Newman was writing of a movement trying to inject catholic elements into a national and essentially protestant denomination, and finding itself repulsed as a substance foreign to the body in which it found itself.  In today’s church, since the council it has all too often seemed that adherents of the true faith, the faith of the twenty-first century and the fourteenth and the sixth, fifth, and first, have found themselves cast as a foreign substance in the body of the church, while some other life, impatient of that substance, seemed to possess the body.


Finally, though, forty years after the council, we see the notion of a new church, a church of discontinuity, coming to an end.  The table is being turned.  There is a new pope in Rome and a new wind in the church.  The true interpretation of the council, which Pope Ratzinger says has all this time been quietly growing beneath the turmoil of false interpretation, is beginning to be dominant.  The “new church”, in fact, is finding itself the foreign substance in the body of the true and continuous church, a substance which that true church cannot tolerate, will ultimately expel, for it is not one with the body and cannot be made one with it.


Lex orandi lex credendi; and what is liturgical song, if not prayer?  Over these forty years, innovations in liturgy and liturgical music have been the most salient evidences of the true church vs new church conflict.  As the new wind continues to blow, we may expect to see the dust and chaff of this period blown away, as good liturgical music, new and old, resumes its rightful place in a truly reformed liturgy and truly renewed church.


These comments hardly begin to touch the depth and scope of AD.  AD is not easy reading, but it is nevertheless compelling reading, and delightful, too, and still quite alive at 155.  Lent is upon us.  AD would make mighty good lenten reading.


© 2006 Joseph Mansfield

2006.01.20 First draft

2006.02.20 Modified

2006.02.27 Modified

2006.02.27 Posted


This item was posted also to the Musica Sacra blog conducted by the Church Music Association of America.