John Henry Newman on liturgical tradition

John Henry Newman on liturgical tradition

Cardinal John Henry Newman

Much of what Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote remains prophetic more than a century after his death in 1890. This is true of the periods before and after his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845. The following passages are taken from one of Newman's sermons delivered while he was still an Anglican, on the occasion of the Feast Day of Our Lord's Circumcision. He uses the opportunity to emphasise the importance of holding onto traditional liturgical practices, and to point out the likely consequences of discarding or changing them abruptly, for whatever apparently sound reasons.

When our Lord came to John to be baptised, he gave this reason for it, "Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness;" which seems to mean, - "It is becoming in me, the expected Christ, to conform in all respects to all the rites and ceremonies of Judaism, to every-thing hitherto accounted sacred and binding."

Hence it was that he came to be baptised, to show that it was not his intention in any way to dishonour the established religion, but to fulfil it even in those parts of it (such as Baptism) which were later than the time of Moses.

It was on this account that he was circumcised, in order, that is, to show that he did not renounce the religion of Abraham, to whom God gave circumcision, or of Moses by whom it was embodied in the Jewish Law. We have other instances in our Lord's history, besides those of his circumcision and baptism, to show the reverence with which he regarded the religion which he came to fulfil.

St Paul speaks of him as "born of a woman, born under the Law," and it was his custom to observe that Law, like any other Jew. For instance, he went up for the feasts to Jerusalem; he sent the persons he had cured to the priests, to offer the sin-offering commanded by Moses; he paid the Temple tax; and again, he attended as "a custom" the worship of the synagogue, though this had been introduced in an age long after Moses; and he even bade the multitudes obey the Scribes and Pharisees in all lawful things, as those who sat in Moses' place (Matt 23:2-3).

Such was our Saviour's dutiful attention to the religious system under which he was born; and that, not only so far as it was directly divine, but further, where it was the ordinance of uninspired though pious men, where it was but founded on ecclesiastical authority. His Apostles followed his pattern; and this is still more remark-able, – because after the Holy Spirit had descended, at first sight it would have appeared that all the Jewish ordinances ought at once to cease.

Now from this obedience to the Jewish Law, enjoined and displayed by our Blessed Lord and his Apostles, we learn the great importance of retaining those religious forms to which we are accustomed, even though they are in themselves indifferent, or not of Divine origin.

We sometimes meet with men who ask why we observe these or those ceremonies or practices; why, for example, we use forms of prayer so cautiously and strictly? or why we persist in kneeling at the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper? why in bowing at the name of Jesus? or why in celebrating the public worship of God only in consecrated places? why we lay such stress upon these things? These, and many such questions may be asked, and all with this argument: "They are indifferent matters; we do not read of them in the Bible."

Now the direct answer to this objection is, that the Bible was never intended to enjoin us these things, but matters of faith; and that though it happens to mention our practical duties, and some points of form and discipline, still, that it does not set about telling us what to do, but chiefly what to believe; and that there are many duties and many crimes which are not mentioned in Scripture, and which we must find out by our own under-standing, enlightened by God's Holy Spirit.

Tradition and long usage

Matters of faith, indeed, he reveals to us by inspiration, because they are supernatural: but matters of moral duty, through our own conscience and divinely guided reason; and matters of form, by tradition and long usage, which bind us to the observance of them, though they are not enjoined in Scripture. This, I say, is the proper answer to the question, "Why do you observe rites and forms which are not enjoined in Scripture?" Though, to speak the truth, our chief ordinances are to be found there, as the Sacraments, public worship, the observance of the Lord's-day, ordination, marriage, and the like. But I shall make another answer, which is suggested by our Lord's conforming to the Jewish Law in the rite of circumcision; and my answer is this.

Scripture tells us what to believe, and what to aim at and maintain, but it does not tell us how to do it; and as we cannot do it at all unless we do it in this manner, or that, in fact we must add something to what Scripture tells us. For example, Scripture tells us to meet together for prayer, and has connected the grant of the Christian blessings on God's part, with the observance of union on ours; but since it does not tell us the times and places of prayer, the Church must complete that which Scripture has but enjoined generally.

The Bible then may be said to give us the spirit of religion; but the Church must provide the body in which that spirit is to be lodged. Religion must be realised in particular acts, in order to its continuing alive. When persons attempt to worship in this (what they call) more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshipping at all. This frequently happens. Everyone may know it from his own experience of himself. Youths, for instance (and perhaps those who should know better than they), sometimes argue with themselves, "What is the need of praying statedly morning and evening? why use a form of words? why kneel? why cannot I pray in bed, or walking, or dressing?" they end in not praying at all.

External symbols

Again, what will the devotion of the country people be, if we strip religion of its external symbols, and bid them seek out and gaze upon the Invisible? Scripture gives the spirit, and the Church the body, to our worship; and we may as well expect that the spirits of men might be seen by us without the intervention of their bodies, as suppose that the object of faith can be realised in a world of sense and excitement, without the instrumentality of an outward form to arrest and fix attention, to stimulate the careless, and to en-courage the desponding.

No-one can really respect religion, and insult its forms. Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself.

In most minds usage has so identified them with the notion of religion, that the one cannot be extirpated without the other. Their faith will not bear transplanting. Till we have given some attention to the peculiarities of human nature, whether from watching our own hearts, or from experience of life, we can scarcely form a correct estimate how intimately great and little matters are connected together in all cases; how the circumstance and accidents (as they might seem) of our habits are almost conditions of those habits themselves.

How common it is for men to have seasons of seriousness, how exact is their devotion during them, how suddenly they come to an end, how completely all traces of them vanish, yet how comparatively trifling is the cause of the relapse, a change of place or occupation, or a day's interruption of regularity in their religious course!

Consider the sudden changes in opinion and profession, religious or secular, which occur in life, the proverbial fickleness of the multitude, the influence of watchwords and badges upon the fortunes of political parties, the surprising falls which sometimes overtake well-meaning and really respectable men, the inconsistencies of even the holiest and most perfect, and you will have some insight into the danger of practising on the externals of faith and devotion. Precious doctrines are strung, like jewels, upon slender threads.

Our Saviour and his Apostles sanction these remarks, in their treatment of those Jewish ceremonies, which have led me to make them. St Paul calls them weak and unprofitable, weak and beggarly elements (Heb 7:18; Gal 4:9). So they were in themselves, but to those who were used to them, they were an edifying and living service. Else, why did the Apostles observe them? Why did they recommend them to the Jews whom they converted? The Jewish rites were to disappear; yet no one was bid forcibly to separate himself from what he had long used, lest he lost his sense of religion also.

Much more will this hold good with forms such as ours, which so far from being abrogated by the Apostles, were introduced by them or their immediate successors; and which, besides the influence they exert over us from long usage, are, many of them, witnesses and types of precious gospel truths; nay, much more, possess a sacramental nature, and are adapted and reasonably accounted to convey a gift, even where they are not formally sacraments by Christ's institution.

Much might be said on this subject, which is a very important one. In these times, especially, we should be on our guard against those who hope, by inducing us to lay aside our forms, at length to make us lay aside our Christian hope altogether. This is why the Church itself is attacked, because it is the living form, the visible body of religion; and shrewd men know that when it does, religion will go too. This is why they rail at so many usages as superstitious; or propose alterations and changes, a measure especially calculated to shake the faith of the multitude.

Outward form

Recollect, then, that things indifferent in themselves become important to us when we are used to them. The services and ordinances of the Church are the outward form in which religion has been for ages represented to the world, and has ever been known to us. Places consecrated to God's honour; clergy carefully set apart for his service, the Lord's day piously observed, the public forms of prayer, the decencies of worship, these things, viewed as a whole, are sacred relatively to us, even if they were not, as they are, divinely sanctioned.

Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason, - for the Church's authority is from Christ, - being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls. It continually happens that a speculative improvement is a practical folly, and the wise are taken in their own craftiness.

Therefore, when profane persons scoff at our forms, let us argue with ourselves thus - and it is an argument which all men, learned or unlearned, can enter into: "These forms, even were they of mere human origin, which learned men say is not the case, (but even if they were), are at least of as spiritual and edifying a character as the rites of Judaism.

Yet Christ and his Apostles did not even suffer these latter to be irreverently treated or suddenly discarded. Much less may we suffer it in the case of our own; lest, stripping off from us the badges of our profession, we forget there is a faith for us to maintain, and a world of sinners to be eschewed."

The full text of this sermon is available in a collection of Newman's sermons, 'Newman Against the Liberals' (Roman Catholic Books), selected with a Preface by Michael Davies. Inquiries about this book may be directed to James Duckett Books, tel +61 (02) 9579-1149.

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