September 21, 2013

Perfect simplicity...

This excerpt is from Bouyer's biography of Bl. John Henry Newman. It's about his preaching when he was Vicar of St Mary's, Oxford, while he was still an Anglican. He would preach at Evensong, because St Mary's was the University Church as well as a parish, and Sunday morning sermons were reserved for the grandees of the university...

...Sunday by Sunday, having nothing in view but the spiritual welfare of a few shopkeepers, charwomen, and college servants, Newman was accustomed at the close of day to mount the pulpit and to expound in the simplest language some text from the Bible...

...Every Sunday saw newcomers to St Mary's. In the porch with its twisted pillars surmounted by Laud's statue of the Virgin, one noticed few but youthful faces. First came undergraduates from Oriel, soon followed by men from other colleges. The congregation continued to grow, till at last all the most brilliant people in Oxford began to make a point of attending Evensong at St Mary's, rubbing shoulders there with pious shoeblacks, devout housemaids, and a few High Street shopkeepers, who did not think it right to let Sunday go by without a spot of church-going. Nothing in the preacher's tone or bearing, and little in the subjects treated, indicated that he had become aware of the change that had taken place in the character of his audience.

All the same he had noted it, and acted immediately. At first he had been a little mystified, not less by the comparative absence of his parishioners proper, than by the formidable invasion of eager listeners from elsewhere. Quit simply and plainly he made up his mind about the matter. Without deeming it necessary to make any drastic change in the subject matter of his sermons, he took upon himself, as a duty laid upon him by God the responsibility for these alien souls now coming to him in the place of his regular flock, who cared for little outside their business.

In view of the fact that they were mainly young people who kept coming to him in impressively increasing numbers, he did his best to touch on subjects appropriate to his audience, taking great care however never to go so far in this direction as to risk saying anything over the heads of his parishioners proper. Never did his sermons deviate from that perfect simplicity which had been their outstanding characteristic from the beginning. When great controversies came to be debated, people went to St Mary's curious to hear what the Vicar would have to say. As a rule they were disappointed to find that the preacher seemed to be quite uninformed about them. Never was there the most distant allusion to matters of topical concern. Never did Newman champion from the pulpit the cause of any particular party. He preached the Gospel; that and that alone. But the manner of his preaching, the way he brought the listener to the heart of the sacred word, did more to win disciples to the Movement than any amount of discussion and argument could have done.

More clearly than anything else, these sermons brought out what it was that the Tractarians were aiming to do, and that was, not to found a school, but to revive a religion. Whosoever came to hear him, in friendly or in hostile mood, realised, when the time came to depart, that what the preacher had above all things at heart, as not to label people, but to help them recognize God's will, and then, in due course, to fulfil it...
St Mary s Oxford South Laud Porch
Posted by John Weidner at September 21, 2013 9:25 PM
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