A message from Father Nick 51

Changing, to remain the same

            In the autumn of 1805, a child of four lay in his cot and stared at the candles stuck in the windows of his home, flames against the dark, to celebrate the victory of Trafalgar. It was one of the first events John Henry Newman remembered by its date in history, at once definite and mysterious. Light within and darkness outside, victory far off at sea: the image remained in his mind.”

Honoured in life as a cardinal and more recently as a saint of the Church, John Henry Newman died in August, 1890, well into the era of photography. His life had virtually spanned the tumultuous nineteenth century. He was a scholar of international importance in the age of Darwin, Marx and Freud, and he had a profound sense of history. Perhaps this, more than anything else, was what brought him into the Catholic Church (a change of allegiance which caused him pain but which he saw as the providential working of the Holy Spirit).

It is difficult for us today to appreciate the significance of a man like John Henry Newman in the public life of his time. People watched him closely and many followed him. As an Anglican, he was a motivating force in the “Oxford Movement” which aimed to restore some Catholic practice to the Church of England.

He was a famous preacher whose sermons were published and widely read. And he would go on to produce great books, like his Grammar of Assent, on the philosophy of faith; the Idea of a University; the Apologia pro Vita Sua – a spiritual autobiography to answer false accusations of dishonesty made against him; and his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which he says he began as an Anglican and finished as a Catholic.

The Essay still matters to us because it deals with an enduring feature of Christian life: the fact of change. We speak of our faith as unchanging, yet as Newman observes from his own studies, over the 1800 years or so of Christianity’s history (i.e. to his own time), apparent inconsistencies and alterations in doctrine and worship can be clearly traced. They do not interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise questions.

Newman emphasises that a real idea needs time to grow – like a child who becomes an adult, or a tiny stream which becomes a river. “It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring,” he says. “Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full.”

He describes the course of such a belief and the conditions which help to refine it, and he argues that this is necessary, bringing change in us too.

“In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles appear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

St John Henry Newman