March 11, 2007

"critics by conviction and Christians by habit"

From Meriol Trevor's excellent biography of John Henry Newman, vol 1, Newman: The Pillar of the Cloud.

...Liberal Churchmen had no monopoly of the social conscience, though they were more concerned with politics than other parties in the Church. What really distinguished them was their approach to the doctrines and history of Christianity. In effect, if not always in theory, they gave the highest authority to Reason.

But Newman had just come to believe that Reason, improperly exercised to judge the data of a divine revelation, was the chief instrument of the World in the modern age — the World of which Satan was the ruler: nature, human and non-human, so far as it is in rebellion against God and in opposition to the kingdom of Christ. During 1829 and 1830 his sermons in St. Mary's expressed these ideas of the World and the Church, which were basic to his thought for the whole of his life. He published his last words on the subject when he was eighty-four and quoted some of these early sermons.

With his clear mind — Whately himself had said it was the clearest he knew — Newman foresaw the general development of the liberal idea in religion, as in fact it has come to pass. Wherever reason is made sole judge of religious truth, faith weakens and in logical minds is destroyed ; not because the Christian faith is irrational or false, but because it is something given to the human mind, not discovered by it. Reason is within the scheme, not superior to it. Perhaps Newman saw this so clearly because of his own early scepticism ; Christianity could never be to him merely an habitual frame of reference, within which the individual critical reason could be let loose without danger. But to most of the liberal Churchmen, this was just what it was ; they were critics by conviction and Christians by habit. Later generations shocked them by losing the habit. Newman was not shocked, though he was grieved, because he expected it. In fact, he began by expecting general scepticism to arrive sooner than it did.

Whately never understood the nature of Newman's opposition to Liberalism. He thought Newman abandoned the liberal cause for orthodoxy because orthodoxy was in power, that his motive was worldly ambition ; yet the truth was that Newman parted company with the liberals because he saw that their principles, though they did not realize it, would betray the Church to the World...

The Anglican (in America Episcopalian) Church has three main factions or flavors. Evangelical, Liberal, and Anglo-Catholic. A bit of history that I find quite stupefying is that two of these groups originated, in the 1830's, in the common room of Oriel College, Oxford! (The Evangelicals arose in the 18th Century. The most famous of them were John and Charles Wesley, who left to form the Methodists.)

Richard Whately, mentioned above, "...was a strong liberal, and bid fair to be the leader of the new party of progressive men in the Church...He did not look on the Church as a sacred society preserving divine doctrine, but as a kind of moral order within society..." He and other Oriel men, Hampton, Hawkins, and Arnold of Rugby, started the liberal movement in the Anglican Church that spread rapidly through Oxford and beyond. And Newman raised up an opposition, known to history as the Oxford Movement, or the Tractarian Movement. Whose most important members, Newman, Keble, Pusey, and Froud were also Oriel men. (Though some had taken "livings," that is, positions as rectors or vicars of parishes. But they remained members of their college. All Oxford and Cambridge Fellows were, in those days clergymen, usually young, who expected to take up livings as soon as possible. If for no other reason than that they could not marry as long as they remained in the university. There were no old fossil college teachers then.)

The Evangelicals are still a large part of the Anglicans. The liberals are still the liberals, culminating in a certain peculiar lady bishop now head of the Episcopalians. The Tractarian flavor became what is now known as "Anglo-Catholic," that is, those Anglicans who feel that their church is part of the "Church Catholic," though not Roman Catholic. Newman, and many since, came to the conclusion that that just wasn't true, and left to join.......The Church.

Posted by John Weidner at March 11, 2007 5:12 AM
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