Newman the parish pastor
Newman’s church in Littlemore
The church of St Mary and St Nicholas in Littlemore, just outside Oxford, is to this day much as Newman designed it in the 1830s. Parishioners still remember their preacher and benefactor in vivid stories passed down through the generations from those who knew him
In the 1830s, John Henry Newman, then vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, discovered that his parish included a small, impoverished village beyond the southern edge of the city. Since Littlemore lies three miles out of town up a steep hill, and the villagers were never seen at St Mary’s, Newman decided that they should have their own chapel and, while he was about it, a school. By 1836 he had raised enough money to build both. He dedicated the chapel to St Mary the Virgin and to St Nicholas, after the patron saint of Littlemore’s medieval nunnery, and served it himself.
You will not find quite this version of events in any biography of Newman, because this is not history but hagiography. It represents the oral tradition in Littlemore, which has long venerated Newman for his work there, and in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas, which, despite being Anglican, has been enthusiastically preparing to celebrate his canonisation this weekend. Littlemore’s relationship with Newman is illuminating. It shows us something that has always been part of the cult of saints, but which we rarely get to see today: the evolution of local veneration and its complex relationship with church history and authority.
Stories about Newman reach the present generation from Littlemore’s oldest inhabitants, who knew the grandchildren of people who knew him. The stories are vivid, fragmentary, and polished by piety. Some may be pure oral tradition. Some have probably been derived from books at some point. No one is sure of the difference, or cares. The important thing is that these are our stories.
Even before the church was built, we believe, Newman regularly walked or rode out from Oxford to visit the villagers. Sometimes he stayed overnight at a pub, the George. He would knock on any door and go in, and if the family was at dinner he would sit and eat with them. When the school was built, he bought material for all the girls to make aprons, to keep their clothes clean. He took his violin to school, accompanying the children as he taught them hymns to sing in church.
At the heart of Littlemore’s memory of Newman is wonder: that someone so high-flying, so famous even then, so far “above” ordinary people, should have come to be with them, teach them, and break bread with them. Littlemore’s Newman is a pastor, a preacher, but above all a man who loved his people and was loved by them. Those who know Newman as a theologian, controversialist, and Prince of the Church might be tempted to raise an eyebrow at the thought of his being much concerned, even after death, with healing the sick. To his former parishioners, however, nothing seems more natural. The fact that he never actually acted as Littlemore’s curate is overlooked as irrelevant: he came and he cared, and that is what matters.
Day-to-day veneration, as at many shrines, is focused on and in the church itself. The building is still much as Newman designed it, and some people say they feel his presence here. On the north wall of the aisle is a plaque: “Sacred to the memory of Jemima Newman [John Henry’s mother], who laid the first stone of this chapel, July 21st 1835; and died before it was finished …” Because of this, we think of Newman as a warm, family-minded man. We remember that on a return visit in 1868, he wept at seeing the memorial again.
That sense of him is reinforced by the list of donors to the original church building on the west wall, which includes several of his relatives. Remarkably, this list also includes, among a host of higher clergy and luminaries of the Oxford Movement, no fewer than 22 “children of the parish”, listed by name as benefactors. In Littlemore’s children, Newman saw both vulnerable members of society who needed help and encouragement, and models of faith to be celebrated and memorialised as an inspiration to others.
The growth of veneration in the parish has often paralleled that in the wider world, and occasionally anticipated it. A few years ago the church commissioned an icon – unorthodox or prophetic, depending on your viewpoint – showing Newman in his cardinal’s robes, haloed. Candles are lit before it.
One former vicar’s relationship with Newman began before he came to the parish. “When I was an ordinand,” says Bernhard Schünemann, “I picked up a second-hand copy of the Apologia, which turned out to be a first edition signed by the author. I now regard this as a true relic on my bookshelf.”
But veneration is never a one-sided relationship. With it goes a strong sense that we have been empowered by Newman’s presence among us; entrusted to carry on his mission. Newman believed that Littlemore mattered. Because of him, this still small, impoverished suburb of Oxford still believes that it matters. It has been seen and spoken to by a man of God. Now it has responsibilities: to pray as deeply as he prayed and to act for the world as faithfully as he acted.
This is what a local saint does for a community. She or he creates a sense of the presence of God and a summons to do God’s work, which is all the more compelling because it is experienced, not just in time and place, but in our time and place.
The present vicar, Margreet Armitstead, goes further. “He was this giant,” she says, “but somehow he needed this community to ground him in pastoral care. Who was blessing whom?” The recognition of saints living among us reminds us that we are not only blessed by God, but that we are called to bless God and one another. Nobody is so poor that they do not have a blessing to give.
Local saints have another distinctive quality: we’re stuck with them. We are neighbours, so we have to live with their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Newman was not perfect. At a time when the Oxford Movement was advocating the replacement of bands of church musicians with organs, he picked a fight with the Littlemore band and sacked them all. What hardship this brought to the players is not recorded, but it is not ignored either. It reminds us that God, perforce, works through the imperfect. The important thing is not to be perfect, but to commit.
Newman’s commitment is often on our minds. The question, “What would Newman do?”, hovers over any new parish initiative. We claim him as a pioneer of “think globally, act locally”. We argue fiercely over whether he would have allowed the removal of pews from the nave to make more room to welcome visitors. He can even be invoked as a patron of interfaith dialogue. His hymn, “Lead, kindly light”, contains little doctrine, but so vividly describes a journey into a deep and transforming relationship with God that one can sing it with Jewish and Muslim friends.
Newman’s canonisation is a huge global event. His life and work bestride modern theology, ecclesiology and education; they changed Christian lives everywhere. Locally, his canonisation will be celebrated primarily in Littlemore’s Roman Catholic Church of Blessed Dominic Barberi, and in the College, where Newman lived for several years and which is now looked after by the Catholic Sisters of The Work. The Anglican church will celebrate alongside them with a proper sense of its marginality, and the fragility of its traditions about a man whose life and work are so well documented.
Newman was only ever passing through Littlemore, on a long and demanding intellectual and spiritual journey. Even at the time, his presence here was only a fraction of his life. Nowadays, pilgrims who visit are often Anglicans who are contemplating converting to Catholicism. This is still a place most people are passing through.
But that is true of all places of pilgrimage, and all saints’ lives, and all lives. To honour a local saint is to be reminded that we are all only ever passing through. And while he was here, Newman transformed this village. The school brought education; the church, not only worship but practical support for the poor. Like an echo – imitatio – of Christ at work in the villages of Galilee, Newman gave his parishioners a glimpse of the kingdom among them that they have never forgotten.
I wish both the Catholic and Anglican Churches would canonise more – especially recent – saints. People of great faith are the visible, relatable assurance of things hoped for, the proof of things unseen. Remembering them enlarges a community’s sense of the world and of itself. Early Churches knew that, and were generous in recognising holiness. Their instinct to canonise was a profound one, spiritually and pastorally. How better to assure us that God is with us always?
Teresa Morgan is professor of Graeco-Roman history at the University of Oxford and a non-stipendiary priest in the Anglican parish of Littlemore.