Sermon series on Cardinal Newman: An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 14 November 2010

14 November 2010 at 10:00 am


The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

in partnership with Westminster Abbey

Over the four weeks of November, in the sermons at Morning Prayer, I am reflecting on some of the great themes in the writing of John Henry Newman. There is a renewed interest in Newman at the moment because the high point of the Pope’s visit to Britain last September was a great service in Birmingham at which Newman was declared ‘Blessed’, just one step away from sainthood. Newman became a Roman Catholic in 1845. For the first half of his life, he was an Anglican. This morning I want to look at his thinking about the development of Christian doctrine. The idea of development was enormously important to him, first in shaping his Anglicanism and then in his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Through the 1830s, Newman saw Anglicanism as a via media, a ‘middle way’ between protestantism, which did not have a strong sense of the visible Church as a body continuing through time, and Roman Catholicism, which stressed the continuity of the Church, but misrepresented Christian teaching. In the late1830s, as vicar of the university church in Oxford, Newman sought to enrich the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments through his study of church tradition, drawing afresh on the life of the early church. He believed it was entirely possible to do this whilst remaining faithful to the Church of England.

However, he had a difficulty. The teaching and worship of the Church has changed enormously over the centuries. For instance, the Church did not clarify its understanding of the relation of Jesus Christ to the Father until the early fourth century and it did not clarify its understanding of the Holy Spirit as fully divine until even later. The full doctrine of God as Trinity did not contradict what had been taught up to that point but it had never been so clearly and fully defined before. Newman was acutely conscious that the teaching and worship of the Church had grown, yet he maintained it was fundamentally the same. He believed it had developed.

In the early 1840s, Newman’s confidence that the Anglican Church had remained faithful to the essential teaching of the universal Church was badly shaken. He tried to show how the teaching and practices he had learned from the early church and was now beginning to learn from Roman Catholicism could be reconciled with the Anglicanism of the Thirty Nine Articles – only to find that the bishops of the Church of England rejected what he had to say outright. So he settled down to write his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrinewhich would, he hoped, show a clear line of development from the early Church to the Church of England of his time. For him, development was like the growth of a plant. We can watch a great tree grow from a small sapling, and, though it is so very different when it is fully grown, we can recognise that it is still clearly the same plant. How, in the case of a Church that has grown and developed, can we recognise that it remains still the same Church? Newman offered seven ‘notes’ which help us distinguish correct from incorrect developments. But he was troubled by the question. ‘Who actually decides what is a legitimate development?’ He suggested that if God has caused Christian doctrine to develop within the life of the Church he must have created some authority to arbitrate between true and false development. The only authority he could see that was making such decisions was the papacy. He came to believe that the pope had indeed been given authority to recognise legitimate developments in the teaching and worship of the Church. Once he came to believe that, he could no longer remain an Anglican.

Newman’s account of the historical development of doctrine and worship is masterly. Whether we are Anglican or Roman Catholic, he has illuminated our understanding of the Church’s tradition hugely. Faced with new developments in the life of the Church of England today, such as the acceptance of women as priests and bishops, Newman has made clear the question we need to ask: Is this a legitimate development or not? In his time, he would undoubtedly have said ‘no’, just as the Roman Catholic Church officially says no today. Anglicans who want to argue that these are legitimate developments, as I want to do, must show how they are faithful to the life and identity of the Church.

This is not easy because we know that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches do not accept women as priests or bishops. What is it that gives us the right to overturn centuries of tradition in this way? As an Anglican, I believe - as Newman did when an Anglican - that ‘The Church of Christ is ‘a congregation of faithful people in … which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments … duly administered’ - and that the first guide we have as to whether we are preaching and worshipping correctly is Scripture. The tradition of the Church guides us in interpreting Scripture, but from time to time our experience of the world leads us to read both tradition and Scripture in a completely new way. This is what happened over slavery: what was once a universal consensus amongst the churches that Scripture and tradition legitimated slavery very rapidly became an almost universal consensus that slavery is wrong. I believe a similar shift is taking place today about the role of women in the Church.

If this is right, we shall see a further development in our understanding of what it is to a bishop. For Newman, the bishops are the successors of the apostles; he simply assumed they would be male. When we have female bishops we shall see them much more as the successors within the Church of the Virgin Mary, who was with the apostles in the Upper Room as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit; and of Mary Magdalene who brought the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the eleven and became know as ‘the apostle to the apostles’. The idea of a Marian episcopate in this dual sense strikes me as a really exciting development.

How then does Newman help us on such issues? He helps us see, as he puts it, that ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’. The teaching and worship of the Church has indeed grown – but Newman also helps us see how it has remained – and must remain - fundamentally the same. For him, the Pope is called to play a vital role in the discernment of authentic development. Anglicans like myself, looking at the way the papacy actually functions, are not at all convinced that an unreformed papacy can fulfil that ministry. But we share with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers the same conviction that the Holy Spirit is leading the whole Church into all truth and whilst we struggle to find the right way forward we believe the Spirit goes on teaching us new lessons that the Church always needs to learn about patience, humility and love.

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