Sorry, Professor Milbank, Newman was no ecumenist

The well-known Anglican theologian Professor John Milbank has expressed a warm welcome for the Pope’s visit, which he says is of “crucial importance because Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are under increasing attack in the United Kingdom …. At the same time Catholics play a very important role in British cultural and political life. They and all other Christians in this country need the encouragement that the Pope can give them.”

And so on. John Milbank’s feelings about the Pope are not surprising; he is associated with the predominantly Anglo-Catholic movement known as “radical orthodoxy” and is known for his anti-secularism: in this and other ways the  present Pope’s mind-set is congenial to him. It is what he has to say about John Henry Newman’s forthcoming beatification that needs to be questioned. He sees it as giving an ecumenical boost to Anglican/Catholic relations. “Newman is a sign of unity” he claims: “he belongs to both Churches and I am sure that our prayers to God through him will aid us in the cause of Church unity…”.

The “cause of Church unity”, however, was hardly one ever espoused by Newman, and I fear that Professor Milbank’s mellifluous  sentiments are part of a general movement towards setting him up as a somewhat anaemic “plaster saint”.

The fact is that Newman was the very opposite of an ecumenist: he was, in his very bones, a controversialist in such matters. To say that “Newman belonged to both Churches” is absurd: the Catholic Newman didn’t believe that the Established Church was a Church at all, but a mere national institution.

This is how he addressed those of Catholic mind within the Church of England (Difficulties of Anglicans, lecture 4):  “You can have no trust in the Establishment or its Sacraments and ordinances. You must leave it, you must secede; you must turn your back upon, you must renounce, what has—not suddenly become, but has now been proved to you to have ever been—an imposture. You must take up your cross and you must go hence.”

Or how about this (lecture 1):  “the Established Church has no claims whatever on us, whether in memory or in hope … they only have claims upon our commiseration and our charity whom she holds in bondage, separated from that faith and that Church in which alone is salvation. If I can do aught towards breaking their chains, and bringing them into the Truth, it will be an act of love towards their souls, and of piety towards God.”

So the message of the beatification to Professor Milbank is surely this: “you have in so many ways intellectually more in common with us than with the Established Church. In Newman’s words, ‘you must leave it, you must secede…  You must take up your cross and you must go hence’. That was Newman’s idea of Christian Unity: it is naturally also the Pope’s. Think about it: you know it makes sense.