Comment Opinion & Features

The house where Newman’s journey to sanctity began

John Henry Newman’s childhood home

There can be few more enjoyable ways of spending a summer evening than walking along that glorious stretch of the River Thames from Richmond to Ham, where the tow-path goes along by the Petersham meadows and then through cool woodlands, while boats chug up and down and there is a choice of excellent pubs on arrival.

We were walking to John Henry Newman’s childhood home, Grey Court House, at Ham. He loved the place, and wrote of it years later with great affection. The route takes us through one of the most beautiful views in England, one specifically protected by an Act of Parliament in 1902.

Dear Newman – denounced as a modernist (he most certainly wasn’t one), distrusted by Pius IX, valued by Anglicans and Catholics alike, rightly seen as a father of the Second Vatican Council, quoted as an authority in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His canonisation will be a source of joy to us all.

His writings have a clarity that is both useful in assisting our understanding and attractive in style and sound. And he is, despite being a Victorian figure, somehow still close to us: a man of railway stations and umbrellas and controversies in the papers. A man teaching timeless but sometimes complicated truths in the face of prejudice and misunderstanding. A man unafraid of change while being essentially conservative.

Over the past year friends have walked around the capital with me discovering places associated with Newman. The resulting book, Newman’s London (Gracewing), has just been published.

Our history walks (catholichistory walks.com) explore all sorts of other places. For too many Catholics, the only known story is Henry VIII and all that, but the faith in this country goes back to Roman times, flourished anew with the conversion of the Saxon invaders, and saw saints and heroes long before the medieval period. All worth discovering.

***

At this time of year various school projects with which I am involved come to fruition, and the children’s work arrives in batches to be assessed for prizes. The Children’s Handwriting and Artwork Project – run by the splendid Ladies Ordinariate Group, or “Logs” – brings particular joy. Children at primary schools write out the Lord’s Prayer, illustrate it by hand any way they like (but no downloading pics or emojis from the internet) and answer simple questions to show their understanding of it.

When asked “Who taught us this prayer?” most children correctly state that it was Jesus Christ himself. Some get more specific. “Well,” one child wrote thoughtfully, “My mum and dad taught me, but I don’t know about anyone else.” Others explained laboriously that “Mrs Higgins taught us, but Miss Smith taught Green Class, and Yellow Class haven’t done it yet.”

Another offered a lengthy explanation: “I think that Jesus taught his disciples, and they taught other people, and they taught other people, and …” and so on for half a page ending with “and then someone taught our vicar and he taught us.”

The project is an ecumenical venture, open to all schools. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity has not been erased from schools. Indeed, it is firmly on the curriculum. But it is often poorly taught by teachers who have little idea of it themselves or are vaguely embarrassed by the subject.

Help is needed. A specific project, simple in itself and with no complicated administration, can be a boon. Grateful thanks to the Catholic Union, which funded the small prayer books we offer as prizes: basic prayers every child should know, including some psalms, hymns by Newman and, yes, the Lord’s Prayer.

***

Another project, for senior schools, involves studying events of Christ’s life: miracles, death and Resurrection. Female accounts of Cana often include lengthy descriptions of bridesmaids’ dresses, and the wedding menu. They are surprisingly conventional, often wistful: “The bride and groom then promised to be together for ever and ever and never leave each other.” Chicken and chips is a favourite for the wedding feast.

On the Crucifixion, boys often dwell on details of the Roman army: drill, weaponry, uniforms.

Descriptions of Christ are almost invariably conventional: white robe, tender expression, a sense of authority. There is a fascination with the miraculous, and an understanding of the hugeness of God – and of his goodness.

Pupils can often grasp deep things: the 5,000 fed and a link with the Eucharist; a garden in Eden, and then Christ in a garden suffering.

Of course there are howlers: “Christ rose at the Insurrection”, “Jesus healed the leopards”. We get Pontius the Pilot, the “verging Mary” and, poignantly, the “Lost Supper”. That one gives pause for thought. Not lost: all was gain at Calvary and is still with us. Deo gratias.

Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian. Mary Kenny returns next week