It is some time since Newman appeared in this place, which is, by itself, sufficient excuse to write about him; but there are other reasons.
Newman was the most famous of the English converts to Catholicism in the nineteenth century; one might extend that to say of modern times. At the time of his canonisation well-deserved tributes were paid, and I found attending the ceremony an immensely moving experience. But in all of that there is a point which was not made. It is quite clear that the Catholic Church had not the slightest idea of what to do with its new convert, and from the point of view of utilising what God had made available to it, the hierarchy frankly fluffed it. In one way that is hardly surprising, their Anglican counterparts had not found a way to accommodate Newman’s talents either. Before, however, dismissing this thought, I want to extend it for a while.
One of the most talented of my colleagues made an observation which merits wider distribution, although as I am writing without consulting him, I shall keep his name to one side. English converts, he said, fall into two categories: Manning or Newman. The Mannings adapt to their new environment, and some even thrive; the Newmans endure prolonged periods of practical sterility and isolation, remaining in their new Church only because of the conviction which took them there – that this is the Church founded by Christ. In many ways this is the deepest witness to the hope that is in them. When asked how one can remain in a Church so marred with scandal, and where so many of the leaders can seem at times to demonstrate the spinal fortitude of a jellyfish, answering that “because this IS THE CHURCH” is a powerful testimony.
This should not be taken as any criticism of Manning; there is no zero-sum game. Conversion is a profoundly personal experience, and it is unwise to assume that one’s previous spiritual formation will somehow cease to be relevant. In this sense, someone who comes to Catholicism straight from a non-Christian background may find life simpler.
Newman had never entered an English Catholic Church before his conversion, and knew very few Catholics. His Catholicism was intellectual and spiritual. In his day conversions were even rarer than now, and a Community which had so recently been in political internal exile and persecuted intermittently for three hundred years, was but poorly equipped to be a welcoming one to incomers with no knowledge of it or its ways. The handful of aristocratic Recusant families who had kept the flame alive so long were beginning to die out, and were, in any case, geographically and socially isolated from the new, Irish, influx which brought so many more Catholics to the mainland. Newman fitted in with neither group. It is so often underplayed in the story of his life that he spent so many years working in Birmingham with that most underprivileged immigrant group, as indeed did Manning in London.
The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham is, in one sense, an answer to the wider problem illustrated by Newman, that is the difficulty the Church and converts sometimes have integrating with each other. Those converting de novo, often integrate more swiftly, those from another religious tradition can find the process more difficult, as can the Church which receives them.
On the one hand there are those in the Church who see the converts as unwelcome reinforcements for conservative causes (as they see them) or tradition (as others see them) such as an all-male priesthood and distrust them for that reason. On the other hand, for the convert, there is the inevitable culture shock.
One of the first things to strike me was the banality of the Missal. It made the Alternative Service book I had been used to as an Anglican seem well-written. Then there was the absence of the altar rail and the queue for the Eucharist, which was received in the hand rather than, at my Anglican church, kneeling at the altar rail and on the tongue. There was also the sense of coming into a close-knot community which, like many such, was not necessarily welcoming to outsiders from a very different tradition.
That is where the Ordinariate, had it been available when I converted, would have been useful and where its presence is for many of us, essential. The Catholic tradition in England did not end with the Reformation, and non-one familiar with the Caroline Divines, would assume that it revived only with the Oxford Movement. It is good to see that tradition continue within the Catholic Church.