To Birmingham, to be ordained priest. The car journey north from my home in the suburbs of Oxford starts out by taking me past Newman Road in Littlemore.
I reflect, not for the first time, on certain parallels between my life and that of the great Victorian cardinal. Like him, I was raised in an Evangelical family within the Church of England. Like him, I served as an Anglican clergyman at the University of Oxford. Like him, I swam the Tiber aged 44. And now there is to be one further thing in common: like Newman, I will be made a priest of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Hurrah!
As I drive up the M40, I rehearse these parallels more to amuse myself than for purposes of serious reflection. Newman was the greatest theologian of the 19th century and some say his was the most powerful Catholic mind since that of St Thomas Aquinas. I, on the other hand, know a lot about Narnia.
In The Last Battle, CS Lewis’s final Chronicle of Narnia, the foolish donkey, Puzzle, finds himself standing next to the noble unicorn, Jewel. Jewel is very kind to Puzzle, “talking to him about things of the sort they could both understand, like grass and sugar and the care of one’s hoofs”. That’s the sort of conversation Newman would have with me.
Arriving at Birmingham, I check into the Plough and Harrow for the night. I’m pleased to notice a blue plaque by the hotel’s front door announcing that JRR Tolkien stayed there with his wife, Edith, in 1916. Given that Tolkien grew up in Birmingham and was educated at the local King Edward’s School, the connection between him and this area is not so very special. Still, hoteliers, like ordinands, have to make the best of what they’ve got.
After Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12 his guardian was Fr Francis Morgan, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory. The Oratory is just a few hundred yards from the Plough and Harrow, so I nip along the road after supper to case the joint in preparation for tomorrow’s service. It’s my first visit. Newman founded the Oratory in 1849 and died here in 1890.
I reach the church just as they’re finishing a Mass for the feast of Ss Peter and Paul. The place is humming.
Next morning I turn up again, early, with my seven fellow deacons for a run-through. It’s determined that we will prostrate ourselves in two rows of four within the sanctuary itself. There’s just enough room. We’re arranged in alphabetical order. Being “Ward”, I’m last. Where are the Zimmermans when you need them?
We’re to be ordained within the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, whose patron is . . . Blessed John Henry Newman. Our Ordinary, Mgr Keith Newton, being a married man, isn’t technically a bishop, so he has arranged for Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham to ordain us on his behalf.
Family and friends gather in the church. My father, a devout Anglican, is, at 85, attending his first Catholic Mass. His supportive presence means the world to me. How different things are, I note, from Victorian times. When Newman left the Church of England, his family was so upset that one of his sisters never spoke to him again.
The clergy gather in the sacristy. The time is drawing near. We vest with more solemnity than usual. The archbishop greets the candidates quietly and warmly, one by one. Everyone lines up. The room goes quiet. Then someone whispers urgently to the archbishop: “Where’s your crozier?” Sudden panic, it seems. But someone just forgot: he won’t be using his own crozier because these are ordinariate ordinations, not diocesan ones.
A young oratorian hastens from a doorway, carrying what the archbishop has agreed to use. Like wildfire the news runs round: it’s Newman’s crozier! My heart lifts. Newman’s crozier. How often is a precious relic actually pressed into present-day use? But here is the very shepherd’s crook Newman himself carried. I eye it with awe as I pass into the church.
Everything goes smoothly, thanks to the master of ceremonies, Fr Daniel Lloyd. We prostrate ourselves, are raised, are prayed over. All is done reverently and in order.
After the service, word goes about that there are now precisely 100 priests in the ordinariate. Which means, I suppose, I’m the hundredth. For a few moments, there were just 99 sheep and then the straggler was brought at last into the fold – “the one true fold of the redeemer”. I’m home. I’m a priest. No Newman, to be sure, but let us hope, by God’s grace, and by your prayers, a new man.
Fr Michael Ward is the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis (OUP)