Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Adrian Worsfold
There is one of those junction points coming in my life. I am attending my last Anglican church, as I reaffirm my basic Unitarian connection, and I am resolved not to attend any others, at least not in terms of involvement.
I have often mixed with people in the process of what might be called deconversion. The Sea of Faith Network, based mainly in the UK and New Zealand, but also in the United States, peopled by those who have followed the writings of Don Cupitt and similar liberal-postmodernists (as opposed to conserving postmodernists, like the Radical Orthodox), is a grouping that spans various stages of deconversion from those who are highly questioning liberal Christians, to those hanging on with the fingertips to those who have decided they are religious humanists. Some people are straightforward humanists. Some continue in church attendance for religious as well as social reasons, some change denomination, some continue for social reasons and others give up.
Deconversion can happen to anyone. Like conversion, it can be instant or cover a long period. It can go in a straight line (let’s say downwards) on a regular basis and it can have periods of recovery followed by loss again. It is a very intense religious reflective period. It is very often marked in relationship and contrast to an institution, but it can also lead to changing of institution. An evangelical or charismatic can become secular overnight; or someone may go through the equivalent of salami slicing. It often happens in theological college, leaving ministers with personal struggles in front of congregations and the employment of all sorts of strategies, including, in some cases, a lot of Anglo-Catholic holy smoke.
History is full of examples. Joseph Blanco White was a Roman Catholic priest who deconverted first to Anglicanism and then to Unitarianism. Harriet Martineau, sister of the towering Unitarian theologian James Martineau, became a secular writer.
Now Pope Benedict XVI is coming to Britain, and many would wish that he was not. He is soon going to beatify John Henry Newman. Some people will then pray ‘through’ John Henry Newman. In the spirit of deconversion I’d like instead to beatify Francis William Newman, although I will loyally keep to his stance of not praying through anyone.
We need to examine the life of the other significant Newman.
At school between 1812 and 1821 his senior classical master, Rev. Walter Mayers, the writings of Presbyterian author Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) and the Calvinist author Thomas Scott of Aston Sandford (1747-1821) led to his subjective sense of conversion in 1819; and in 1821 F. W. Newman was confirmed in the Church of England by William Howley, Bishop of London. Prior to matriculation he shared accommodation with brother John Henry at Seale’s Coffee House, Oxford. So here were two evangelicals.
Francis William’s first miracle was to be a polymath at a time of the increasing specialisation of intellectual disciplines. This was so especially regarding history and mathematics, never mind theology, and we should add economics and languages. However, his early need was to evangelise abroad, and he dropped his university work. He went in September from Dublin in 1830 on a missionary trip to Persia with six others, some of whom died, and he nearly did, in a largely futile effort to penetrate resistant religious cultures. He was back in 1833 to get a second rejection from his intended wife (who ended up as a Roman Catholic nun).
It was in that year that Newman first met a Unitarian at any depth during his new job as Classics Tutor at Bristol College. This was the son of Dr. Lant Carpenter. In 1835 he read Moses Stuart’s Letters on the Divinity of Christ (1819) and thus John Henry Newman was writing that his brother had now become a Socinian, although on July 7 1836 Francis William took immersion as a Baptist in Broadmead Chapel, Bristol. On December 22 he married Maria Kennaway.
Most significantly, however, in 1840 Newman was appointed Professor of Classics at Manchester New College, where he met Unitarians James Martineau and John James Taylor. In 1845 he was writing for The Prospective Review, edited by James Martineau, J. J. Taylor, and Charles Wicksteed. He wrote a theodicy and then twenty articles mainly on the Old Testament, also in 1845, in A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, edited by John Kitto. He was developing his views to be seen in his arguably main work, History of the Hebrew Monarchy, published in 1847 anonymously to spare the feelings of his wife. When in July 1846 Newman was appointed Professor of Latin at University College, London, one student was, again, James Martineau. In 1848 his The Soul: Her Sorrows and Her Aspirations was of original thinking and a quick seller. Later in March 1850 came his more radical still, and arguably subjective, Phases of Faith; or, Passages from the History of My Creed. In the spring of 1850 a new friend Thomas Scott of Ramsgate was hosting Sunday evening lectures in London for free-speaking on religious subjects. Newman attended these and thus met important radical religious thinkers.
So the second miracle is that in the context of being able to change his mind, he produced new and original thinking.
In 1852 Henry Rogers, writing anonymously, attacked Newman’s religious views as in his The Soul: Her Sorrows and Her Aspirations. Evangelical and conservative Christian reviews regarded The Eclipse of Faith; or, A Visit to a Religious Sceptic as their killer critique of the likes of types like F W Newman in England and Theodore Parker in America and this achieved six editions in two years. So next year, urged by friends, Newman responded with a second edition of Phases of Faith, with a response to The Eclipse of Faith and added more detail to criticise the notion of moral perfection in Jesus of Nazareth. The year after that Henry Rogers replied again with A Defence of the Eclipse of Faith so that Newman became regarded by many as someone alongside the anti-Christ.
In 1858 Newman published Theism, Doctrinal and Practical; or Didactic Religious Utterances and, in the Westminster Review, ‘The Religious Weakness of Protestantism.’ A year on came a largely sympathetic review about the liberal Anglican Benjamin Jowett’s Epistles of St. Paul, with some focus by Newman on the intellectual difficulties and ethics of such Anglican clergy. A sixth edition of Phases of Faith changed his Reply to The Eclipse of Faith into a larger Reply to A Defence of the Eclipse of Faith. He commented in 1863 on another shaker of liberal Anglicanism, Bishop Colenso’s Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1862): ‘The Reformation Arrested’ and ‘The Future of the National Church.’
He was still quite sympathetic to such Anglicans, but was already clearly moving on, so that on April 24 1864 he went to South-Place Chapel, a Unitarian setting itself becoming ever more secular, and in response to the new historical-liberal effort of Frances Power Cobbe, in Broken Lights, raising Jesus to an heroic status, Newman wrote A Discourse Against Hero-Making in Religion.
Like other Unitarians he was already fiercely anti-slavery, and much of his political writing was towards emancipation. Late in his life, in 1889, he assembled his anti-slavery essays, from between 1863 and 1879, and published them as Anglo-Saxon Abolition of Negro Slavery. He was active for women’s suffrage. He was also anti-alcohol and later started lecturing for vegetarianism, eventually becoming President of the Vegetarian Society between 1883 and 1885.
In April 1867 he was able to write a letter to The Radical, which was published as ‘Why Do I Not Call Myself a Christian?’ His ecclesiology, however, was similar to the broad comprehension of Martineau, so that In response to James Martineau’s advocacy of a ‘Free Christian’ loose amalgam of Churches as yet one, in 1868 Newman proposed Thoughts on a Free and Comprehensive Christianity, as published by Thomas Scott.
From 1869 to 1883 he was a vice-president of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, after which he was elected president. He publically affirmed his support for the B&FUA at its anniversary in 1875 after he preached ‘Sin against God’. In 1870 he was seen as the person to moderate a debate in Bristol between Rev. A. J. Harrison for theism and Charles Bradlaugh for atheism, soon himself next year to deliver a lecture there On the Causes of Atheism.
Newman did have a connection with the United States. Between 1871 and 1875 he wrote twenty articles for The Index, a new weekly paper for the advancement of free religion and secularism, edited by Francis Ellingwood Abbott, at that time a Unitarian minister in Toledo, Ohio. The first article was ‘The True Temptation of Jesus.’
His position was constantly broadening so that in 1874 he revised his Theism of 1858, becoming Hebrew Theism: The Common Basis of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedism. He was later to consider that this portrayed a far too optimistic position on immortality.
Despite his affirmation of a purer theism, he continued to be friendly towards Christianity as such, and affirmed all theists, and this was why he discontinued support for The Index, once F. E. Abbot had indicated some hostility to the Christian religion. Charles Voysey, minister of the Theistic Church, was editor of The Langham Magazine, and Newman sent him three articles in 1876. He invited Newman to give a sermon on April 13 1879, which was called ‘Religious Mischiefs of Credulity’ and given to the Theists’ meeting at Langham Hall, London. He would later once occupy his pulpit. Religion, not History, was published in 1877 and he produced Morning Prayers in the Household of a Believer in God a year on. In 1881 came a pamphlet What Is Christianity without Christ? In 1892 Secret Hymns was a clever title for hymns revised so that theists could sing them.
So another miracle is his vast, continuing and rapid output of texts.
After a mild stroke in 1881 and following a number of family deaths (his wife in 1876, so he married her best friend and maid in 1878; his sister Jemima Charlotte in 1879; brother Charles in 1884) he started to consider his life’s work; his Miscellanies (unpublished and published pieces) actually started coming out in 1869, but the second in 1887: there were to be five volumes and many were revised; he published Christianity in Its Cradle in 1884 (the year that bored by rote Latin learners could begin to read his Robinson Crusoe Latin translation) and it was much enlarged two years later. He also had published Life after Death? Palinodia, to modify the earlier impression for immortality. John Henry died in 1890, and Francis William showed sensititivity by staying away from the funeral, but the next year came his popular Contributions to the Early History of the Late Cardinal Newman, regarded by some as rather cold and hardly that of a brother. He kept busy: in 1893 The Gospel of Paul of Tarsus, and of His Opponent, James the Just, from Our Current New Testament came out, and he started its revision, called Christianity before and after Paul of Tarsus, with the Tales Accepted as Sacred in the Anglican Church, 1894. A year after that came the even more longer titled Hebrew Jesus: His True Creed; from Canonical Texts of the Anglicans, before Paul of Tarsus Was a Christian, with the Cardinal Prayer of Jesus as Our Sole Sufficient Creed.
Two years on, in 1897, he fell down his stairs, was bedridden and died.
Of course in proposing miracles towards his beatification, none of them are unique or reality-bending, because we of this stream do not pretend to believe in reality-bending miracles. Nevertheless, deconversion must be a miracle, because before it happens believers are insistent about their certainty of belief, the ground on which they stand. Either suddenly it has gone, or they realise it is going, and their personal story changes. They give up supernatural beliefs as being profoundly unreal to them and to everyone else in favour of the research demands of history, social science and science. God, if the term retains meaning, ceases to be a large ear that intervenes, and becomes instead what transcends
What strikes modern eyes is just how biblically drenched in language these nineteenth century intellectuals were as a baseline, from which they made the different categories from evangelical to pure theist (with the Catholic as those absorbed in that tradition). I often think they would be aghast at our relative biblical ignorance, even among some clergy, and would be surprised at our basic secular assumptions about every day life and causality, even among believers. Also evident is the inescapable shadow, in England, of the State Church, which he included in his last titles as a kind of institutional given for beliefs about Paul (as opposed to what Paul may have thought about himself).
It is often forgotten that Baptists maintained a General Baptist ethos as well as a Particular Baptist ethos more prevalent today. He was clearly liberalising as he was immersed, but his position was to become attached to the changing B&FUA as an identity of radicalness as he went towards pure theism.
We find that strange today too. Because of a basic secular knowledge and reasoning, today believers tend to be more human drama centred and so perhaps more Jesucentric regarding a tragic, heroic and curiously victorious figure, with less stress on the theistic. The nineteenth century discovery of the problems of history and the critique of the biblical text led to a reduction of the status of Jesus and towards more religious theism, ‘Christ’ when used started to become a general and cosmic ideal as Jesus was dropped in significance. The issue in the 1950s and 1960s was the problem of God, but the issue before had been Jesus and the Bible. I noticed this difference myself, after having encountered John Robinson’s Honest to God (1962) and yet found in the 1980s a different debate within the long-made changes in Unitarianism.
There is no obvious baseline destination for a deconversion, and indeed it is wrong to think of it as happning more or less (as deconversion does, unfortunately, imply: the term is more about a process). There is, rather, a struggle with finding an appropriate language to best represent the subjective or postmodern religious sentiment one wants then to express, assuming a maintenance of a religious or spiritual sense. For some, a basic religious humanism is best, whereas a number will want a Western Buddhist programme, for others a Jesucentric tragic-heroism will help, for others still a simple theism makes sense, for a few a kind of spirit of common life-force in religions, philosophies and nature is their new perspective, and different folks find a rediscovery of Pagan earthly reference points for a new spirituality.
Against this, the inner political struggles of Anglicanism appear to be archaic, all focused on the contradictions of hierarchy, of being either in or out, whether at the international scene (in or out of an intended Covenant) or in a church hierarchy on the ground. That contradiction of in or out is at the heart of the American Church (a curious combination of democracy and purple hierarchy) regarding the broader Communion, identified as being ‘out’ by some other Anglican Churches.
It is archaic because when you deconvert, the only answer can be liberal and democratic, that is a basic freedom to organise your own beliefs, and a democratic formation of the church that helps you do something about them. In the end, such a position excludes Anglicanism as a whole, because it embeds hierarchy, as well as rejecting its core ultimately supernatural beliefs.
Still, I recommend Francis William Newman as a Saint for Deconverts, even among Anglicans, but especially for Unitarians, as a different approach to dogma from that of his brother, for giving up dogmas and unrealities and acquiring a freshness of thought and cooler spirituality.
Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.