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JHN change

The end of the calendar year is a useful prompt to reflection. On the parochial level of this blog, it has been a year which has seen huge changes: illness and then vocation, have pulled Jessica away, whilst circumstances have done the same with Geoffrey Sales, who for so long has been our mainstay here: this seems a suitable opportunity to thank both of them on our behalf – and I think and hope that with Geoffrey, there is a chance we shall see him here again. Then there was the blog going private, thanks to that strange modern liberal trait which appears to regard disagreement with its tenets as a cause of personal offence, which again, changed the dynamics. Butย AATW has survived and I am happy to continue its mission, which is to encourage dialogue between Christians of all denominations and none. This was why Jessica founded it, and it is in that spirit it will continue.

One of the reasons Newman so favoured the free interplay of ideas, was that he was convinced that it was the only way in which orthodoxy could be established. Steeped as he was in the patristic sources, he was more aware than most of the dangers attending on attempts to suppress free discussion. His great hero, Athanasius, went into exile many times, and was saved only by the Grace of God, all because he insisted on the Nicene truths at a time when reasons of State had made them inconvenient to a majority of Bishops. Accused, many times, of heresy, had his opponents been able to lay their hand on him, they would have had him executed; when the boot was on the other foot, in his later and more settled years, Athanasius did not return evil for evil.

Ideas, Newman knew, cannot be uninvented, and the attempt to suppress them makes martyrs, and martyrs make causes. Newman himself suffered in his own lifetime, both as an Anglican, and a Catholic, from the machinations of those in power who did not like what he had to say and sought to suppress it. Anglican bishops of a certain ilk did not like being reminded of the Catholic heritage of their Church, and how much of it could be rediscovered; Catholic bishops of almost every hue, did not like being told that the faithful were good for more than filling the pews and paying the bills; but Newman insisted on these things.

By ‘insist’, I do not mean that he led a campaign (although as an Anglican he did help inspire a movement whose life continue long after his own conversion), but rather than he put his ideas forward insistently. Newman was a great polemicist, but one who believed that it was through the free interplay of ideas that truth could be found. He refused to believe that one side had the whole of the right on its side, even though, as a Catholic, he did believe that the fullness of the Faith was to be found there – even if some Bishops appeared so taken by the fashions of the day that they had forgotten their own history.

Newman disliked persecution, not just because he was a victim of it, but because it got in the way of truth. Had Athanasius been executed, had the semi-Arians prevailed, then the world would indeed have been heretical. That did not happen, and Newman’s belief in the Holy Spirit was somewhat greater than that of those who applied so ardently to assist it by closing the mouths of those with whom they disagreed. He recognised the temptation to mistake one’s own views for those of the Spirit, not least in the Church founded upon the faith of Peter; Peter had been most fallible at times, how could his successors not be? The miracle was that despite their best efforts, Catholics had not destroyed the Church; Christ’s promise stood and would, Newman believed, stand until the ending of the age.

He was not, as we have seen, and will see, blind to the dangers inherent in his idea of the developing understanding of doctrine, and indeed, provided tests to help us see what was genuine and what was not. But he knew the Church was the living Body of Christ, and all living things develop; if they do not, they are dead. The Church of Christ is not a museum piece, it exists for the saving of souls, and for that work, and it alone, was it founded and continues to exist.