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An intolerant sort of liberal

26 October 2002

12:00 AM

26 October 2002

12:00 AM

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN: THE CHALLENGE TO EVANGELICAL RELIGION Frank M. Turner

Yale, pp.740, 25

In 1845 Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church. More than a century and a half later, the fires of controversy ignited by the Oxford Movement which he led, as an Anglican priest, until his reception, seem to have died down. Newman himself is widely regarded as a great Christian apologist and a sympathetic and good man. Above all, the story of Newman is a popular and moving tale.

English Roman Catholics are proud of his fame. Many Anglicans are happy to accept his sacramental legacy, if not the disciplines that go with it. Conservatives admire his stand against liberalism and liberals enjoy using and abusing his doctrine of development. Into this general contentment Professor Turner has now poured a very large can of high-grade intellectual petrol: the embers are about to roar into flame.


Immediately after his reception, Newman was largely forgotten. As Turner puts it, ‘So might the story have ended.’ But in 1864 Charles Kingsley attacked Newman for untruthfulness. Newman launched his reply in Apologia pro Vita Sua. Turner’s case, and I must crudely summarise 700 pages, is that in 1864 and later Newman took the opportunity to turn the events of the Oxford Movement into a tale to which the reception was a sort of inevitable climax and ending. From 1833, the start of the Movement, Turner holds that Newman’s opinions were in fairly chaotic motion and agitation. The Movement was not a movement but a series of motions and a set of angry young men. It had ‘no teleological direction leading him into the Roman Catholic communion’. The reception, when it came, was ‘sudden, rapid’ and not logically necessary. If anything was consistent it was an undiscriminating anti-Evangelicalism, a do-it-yourself monasticism and a love of polemic. In tidying up the mess into a tale, Newman also played down the anti-Evangelicalism and cast himself as an anti-liberal. In fact he was himself a sort of liberal asking to do as he pleased and follow his private judgment, antagonistic to authority, ‘in schism with all Christendom’ including, largely, Rome. He did a service to secular liberals by subverting the national church and Protestant consensus. Newman was a seceder who wanted toleration for himself but would not accord it to others.

These are the high charges. There are lower ones. The Tractarians learned at Oxford ‘to pursue ambition


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