Editor’s introduction: David Alenskis is a recent graduate of Westminster Seminary California and is an ordained priest in the Anglican Church of North America. He currently serves as the associate pastor of the Anglican Church of the Resurrection (San Marcos, California) and is preparing to serve as a long-term missionary in Buenos Aires, Argentina in early 2011.
Judging by recent news reports, Pope Benedict XVI like so many pontiffs before him suffers from the malady often passed down from one bishop of Rome to the next: he is a consummate Anglophile. Like Paul in anguish for his people, one could say that the Roman pontiff has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” for British Protestants. Today, he begins his four day trip to the United Kingdom, extending in the process an implicit call for the British to return to the Roman Church. Though short, his visit to her Majesty’s realm resonates with a subtle but powerful message: the vision of the via media, the “middle way” often invoked by the clergy and laity of the Church of England, can only be found in the Church of Rome.
The Pope’s four day excursion in bonnie Scotland and merry England is not a courtesy call: there is serious business afoot. There will be many meetings and even a joint prayer service together with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in Westminster Abbey. But the primary reason for Benedict’s appearance is the beatification of the Church of England’s most famous defector: John Henry Newman. It behooves us as careful observers of current events to consider the content of the life and character of this man to understand the message of the Pope’s visit.
Newman was a bright light and leader of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the early Nineteenth Century. This movement of scholars and churchmen like John Keeble, Edward Pusey, and J. H. Newman was a British expression of religious Romanticism. In brief, Romanticism claims that God is experienced and known primarily through intuition stimulated through contact with the sublime, mediated through the natural world, through artistic expression, or even through romantic passion. According to Anglo-Catholics, this sublime experience of God is found primarily through the formation and use of elaborate rituals (derived from tradition or on top of it) and the control of the ambiance of worship. Together, a feeling of transcendence, mystery, and devotion is cultivated which draws worshippers up to God.
In pursuit of these Romantic goals, these theologians increasingly became disenchanted with the Reformation and its doctrines of salvation, authority, and worship. Instead, Newman and the others propagated belief in the via media: that God had organically preserved the Church of England to become a “middle way” between Rome and the Reformation, rooted in its own pre-Reformation tradition. Newman especially made it his project to reconcile these beliefs and practices with the actual confessional formularies of the Church of England, his efforts culminating in the infamous Tract 90 (where he argued outrageously that the Council of Trent was compatible with the 39 Articles). Newman however was too honest a man and too serious a scholar to continue this path of rapprochement for long, and in 1845 Newman joined the Church of Rome.
In a highly unusual move Pope Benedict intends to preside over the beatification mass of this same John Henry Newman; and what is more, Newman’s motto Cor ad Cor Loquitur (“Heart Speaks to Heart”) is the theme of the Pope’s whole visit to the isle. The Roman pontiff brings the message that Newman was right: religious Romanticism and the via media find truest expression in the Church of Rome. Newman’s own conclusions are reinforced through essays found in the booklet to prepare the British for the Pope’s visit (“This invitation to faith is always spoken in the language of the heart. It is profoundly personal, most often softly spoken and not at all imperious.”), as well as through interviews with the English Catholic bishops and archbishop who share their own intuitive and emotional experiences of God through nature, pilgrimage, silence, and other encounters with the sublime.
All this comes in an age when the Anglican Communion and other Protestant churches around the world have struggled with or even submitted to a creeping liberalism, seen most obviously in the celebration of homosexuality and the denial of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way to reconciliation with God. In this context, a post-Vatican II Roman Church issues a compelling appeal to the conservative heirs of religious Romanticism, whether they be Anglo-Catholics or evangelicals: come find the fullness of your intuitive grasping for God in the fullness of the Church led by St. Peter’s spiritual descendent in Rome. It was true for Newman: it can be true for you as well.
But as biblical Christians and heirs of the Reformation, we can submit neither to the Church of Rome nor to any other form of Romanticism. There is no “middle way” when it comes to worshipping God faithfully, and God does not call us to set our hope upon our intuitive experience of God but upon his self-revelation in his living, abiding and active Word as it is read, preached, and proclaimed. We fear and love this God by heeding the commandments he has given us, and we have faith in this God by trusting the promise he has given us to pardon and deliver us completely on the basis of the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God that the Pope Benedict’s trip to the United Kingdom changes none of this: his subtle invitation to a deeper Romanticism in the Church of Rome should not be a serious temptation for those of us who have set our hope upon the living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given us a sure Gospel and an unshakeable Kingdom.