|John Henry Newman in 1844.|
What I respect above all, however, is the common struggle we have experienced, wherever each of us has landed. I have been moved by the accounts of Newman's theological wrangling and nagging conscience, for they are reminiscent of my own struggles to formulate solid theological propositions and construct an Anglo-Catholic identity within the Episcopal Church. Newman and I doubtless wrestled with some of the same theological problems, and so I find much solidarity and companionship in reading about his journey, which had great integrity. As one of my theology professors in seminary insightfully noted, "every theological proposition solves one problem and opens up another." I think we can thus thank Newman for showing us that going to Rome does not necessarily get round the difficult theological questions; it may only delay answering them and sometimes can even expose new problems. Indeed, for many in the Church of England, such as Keble, Pusey, Selwyn, Gore, and countless others in later generations, giving up on the hard questions related to the Catholic nature of Anglicanism was not an option; they stuck it out, wrestled with it some more, and got us a bit closer to the truth. Newman explored one solution, and his Oxford colleagues explored others.
It can be difficult in this day to be an Anglo-Catholic, for the word means many different things to many different people, and each of us is bidden to figure out how we are going to understand and live out this identity. Society and the Church can also be unkind in their treatment of people who use this label, sometimes based largely on stereotypes or misinformation. Much of what Newman wrote as a catholic-minded priest in the Church of England, for example, provided deep nourishment and comfort for me as a seminarian whenever I encountered anti-Catholic prejudice and invective in both of the seminaries in which I trained. As someone who left one faith in sad protest as an adolescent, wandered aimlessly for a couple of decades, and then found a new faith, I am inclined to be generous in my estimation of Newman. I am sympathetic to his struggle. So, in answer to my original question about how we might understand or remember Newman, I would say that we might respect his decision to walk apart, and yet still be grateful for the time we spent walking together.