From Oxford to Rome: Newman's Ecclesial Conversion

By Conn, Walter F. | Theological Studies, September 2007 | Go to article overview

From Oxford to Rome: Newman's Ecclesial Conversion


Conn, Walter F., Theological Studies


CONVERSION IS AN ABOUT-FACE, a significant change of direction, a fundamental horizon shift from one reality to another, indeed, from one world to another. (1) It often involves two distinct moments: a negative deconversion from and a positive conversion to. (2) On October 3, 1845, John Henry Newman wrote to Edward Hawkins, the provost of Oxford's Oriel College: "I shall be obliged to you if you will remove my name from the books of the College and the University." (3) This request represented Newman's negative moment of deconversion from the Anglican Church. Six days later, on October 9 at his communal retreat in Littlemore, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church by the Italian Passionist Father Dominic Barberi. This signified his positive moment of conversion. At the end of a long journey Newman's agony was finally over. Two decades later, he wrote in his Apologia: "it was like coming into port after a rough sea." (4)

Newman's conversion from the Anglican to the Roman Church was the most famous and publicly important event of his life (1801-1890). But, as I have argued elsewhere, (5) this conversion was neither his first nor even his most personally profound. Three decades earlier, at age 15, he had experienced a basic Christian moral conversion, moving him from the conventional values of the Anglican Christianity inherited from his parents to a deeply personal Evangelical faith. Then, in his later 20s, he underwent another conversion, a structural cognitive conversion that effected a shift from his Evangelical to an Anglo-Catholic form of Christianity.

It was only in 1833, however, that the controversial period of his life began with the initiation of the Oxford Tractarian Movement. For most of his next twelve years as an Anglican, Newman and his colleagues attempted to recast the Anglican Church from a Protestant into a catholic mold. After years of turmoil Newman's leadership in the Movement came to a definitive end in 1845 with his conversion to Rome. That conversion has been the object of endless interpretations, including Newman's own defensive presentation in his classic 1864 Apologia and most recently Frank Turner's controversial 2002 revisionist version. (6)

This article attempts to bring together the strengths of each of these two views--Newman's insistence on the cognitive, spiritual conversion to Roman Catholicism and Turner's focus on the affective, social deconversion from Oxonian Anglicanism--into a new constructive synthesis. This new synthesis, moreover, will itself be situated within an original overarching interpretation of Newman's ecclesial shift emphasizing cognitive conversion and moral decision. I will show, indeed, that because Turner actually explores Newman's deconversion from the Anglican Church rather than his conversion to the Roman Church, he in fact helpfully highlights the existential deconversion factors that made Newman's transitional process so long and difficult.

The central point I will develop in this new, synthetic interpretation is that Newman experienced a cognitive conversion of content in his understanding of the church between 1839 and 1841, and that, when turned directly on himself by 1843, this conversion demanded an enormously difficult moral decision that Newman was able to make only in 1845. Thus I will trace the moments of deconversion and conversion through a three-phase process, through three two-year periods ending in 1841, 1843, and 1845. However, before turning to this new three-phase interpretation, I must first review and analyze Newman's own version of these six crucial years between 1839 and 1845.

IN A MIRROR CLEARLY

By the late 1830s Newman had articulated his own version of the 17th-century Anglican divines' Via Media. Anglo-Catholicism was the "true and intelligible mean" (7) between Liberalism and Evangelicalism within the Church of England, and between Roman Catholicism and rationalistic unbelief beyond it. …

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