Newman’s Britain

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By Joanna Bogle

There are many reasons to rejoice at John Henry Newman’s canonisation. He is a man for us all: an inspiring teacher, a man who answered some of the deepest questions asked about the Christian faith in an era of change, a voice for religious freedom, a searcher for truth.

There is a particular joy in Britain. Here is a saint from among us: born in the City of London, studying in Oxford, living and working in Birmingham. He knew our railway system – brand-new and exciting in his day – and he knew our coasts and countryside, crossing the Solent to enjoy the Isle of Wight, cherishing childhood memories of a country house by the Thames.

We honour our glorious martyrs – and now we have a new saint from our land who merits our honour too.

Many people do not know that it is easy to visit some of the places associated with Newman, and enjoy a sort of “Newman trail”: there are plaques and statues of him in places where he lived or stayed, and it is fun to discover these and inspiring to use them as a way of discovering the importance of his life and message.

Newman was born in 1801 in a house that stood behind the Bank of England – it has gone now, but a marble stone marks the place at 60, Threadneedle Street. It’s now all modern offices in soaring skyscrapers – with a smart coffee- shop alongside where you can have some refreshment as part of your pilgrimage. The house to which the family subsequently moved, in Bloomsbury, is also marked with a plaque and is currently leased to an American university.

At Oxford, Newman is commemorated at Trinity College and at Oriel…and of course at Littlemore, where he was vicar and built a church, his mother laying the foundation stone. It was here that he also established a place of retreat, resigning his living as an Anglican minister to spend time in prayer and study. This resulted in his asking to be received into the Catholic church, with a visit from Bl. Dominic Barberi. At Littlemore there is now a study centre dedicated to Newman – you can pray in his small chapel there, visit his library filled with books by and about him, walk in the garden, attend lectures and other events exploring aspects of his life and teaching.

From the events at Littlemore so much more flowed. Newman went to live at Old Oscott House near Birmingham, which he named Maryvale: it is well worth a visit. Then came the establishment of the Oratory at Birmingham, a school – now at Woodcote, near Reading - his Idea of a University, and much more…

The Britain of the 19th century seems in some ways distant from us, but not utterly remote. Newman’s London was at the heart of a great worldwide Empire. Charles Dickens was writing his novels and Florence Nightingale was establishing nursing as a modern profession. General Booth founded the Salvation Army. Schools were being built and there was massive progress in education, with people relishing books and newspapers. There was poverty and progress, rural beauty and harsh labour conditions, thriving Catholicism and new forms of atheism. An era different from ours and yet somehow reachable: much of what we know in our own Britain owes something to that century.

And we can claim Newman with joy as “ours” with humble pride. He wrote in our language – and because of that Empire, English became the main world language and he is now read by millions. We sing his hymns and they have become important to people who know little of him but love the message that he taught: “Praise to the Holiest”, “Lead, kindly light”.

Newman, who did not hesitate to challenge the humbug, injustice and absurdities of his day, would grieve over modern Britain with its snarling attacks on marriage and sneering at Christian moral values. He would call us to holiness of life, reminding us of our duty of regular prayer, faithfulness to Mass and the sacraments, attendance to daily duties, reverence for all that is good and true and beautiful. He was not a man to shrug off the uncomfortable truths that challenge us: the ugliness of sin, the pointlessness of a life wasted in wilful ignorance of God. The rather wonderful thing is that we can learn about him by discovering places he knew and loved that are still part of our lives today, and go on pilgrimage there by train and bus in our own country, a country he loved.

John Henry Newman, pray for us!

Joanna Bogle’s book Newman’s London, published to mark the canonisation, is available from Gracewing Books.

Isaac Withers