Newman: a Man for Our Times edited by David Brown (SPCK, £5.99)
Lavinia Byrne IBVM
I was baptised in the font of the Birmingham Oratory by Fr Denis Shield, the last of Newman's novices, a man who was proud of his connection by marriage to the family of Cardinal Merry del Val; I pursued an interest in Newman among the first editions of his works preserved in the library at the Bar Convent in York, their broad white borders intimating as much about the man as the beautiful typeface and contents of the text.
This centenary year of Newman's death is the occasion for such anecdotes and in David Brown's book they are narrated with the same mixture of pride and affection I find myself conjuring up here. For in his text eight authors both declare their hand about Newman and, in a curious sense, lay claim to him as prophet and patron of their own worlds.
These worlds are many and various; they are all exalted and the contributors match them in eminence. So the President of
the Italian Republic writes about Newman and Italy and the headmaster of Wellington College about Newman and Oxford. Henry Chadwick's insights about his importance for the Church of England are matched by a nicely balanced chapter on his significance for the Roman Catholic church by the Archbishop of Hobart in Tasmania. His work as a philosopher of religion is discussed by Dr Anthony Kenny and A N Wilson produces a highly sympathetic account of his gifts as a writer.
Newman's wider context and unrealised place within British Christian history are treated by the politician Roy Jenkins who found Newman a "wholly absorbing even if sometimes tantalising subject" and the Archbishop of Canterbury who discloses something of the ideals which have sustained him over the last few years when he singles out Newman's valuing of reserve, his ability to take unbelief seriously, his holiness and the thread of providence, the "kindly light" which led him along. More general portraits are supplied in the editor's introduction and in Lord St John of Fawsley's affectionate contribution.
My parents attended the
jubilee performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham. A Catholic world celebrated Newman's achievement with evident pride. This year's centenary has had a totally different feel to it; Edgbaston (and other small Catholic worlds) no longer own Newman — and can stop pretending they ever did.
This series of articles is unnecessarily male. After all, Meriol Trevor introduced generations of Catholics to Newman's story and I cannot believe there are not other eminent women who know Newman equally well. But it is timely nevertheless. SPCK have done a good job in bringing together such an ecumenical collection of essayists under the gifted editorial baton of David Brown.
Many of the present wave of books aimed at the captive centenary reader and devotee cost a lot of money. At £5.99 this collection is not in the same league in terms of scholarship but it does not fail in interest. The broad collection of authors alone guarantees that new questions are opened up in the debate between Newman and the needs of our own times.
Sr Lavinia Byrne is editor of "The Way"