Sunday 17 October 2010

Blessed John Henry and Ambrose: Newman's Last Sermon

The media caravanserai has moved on, but Cardinal John Henry Newman is now and will remain known as Blessed John Henry. He remains also a significant, if complex, figure for gay and lesbian Catholics in his relationship with his beloved Ambrose St John, and in his theology for progressive Catholics more generally. The theology is subtle, and has been too easily misappropriated by people on both sides of the Church ideological divide. I do not (yet) want to enter that territory. About the relationship with Ambrose, I feel more secure.
Inscription for a grave in which both John Henry and Ambrose were buried
Alan Bray ("The Friend") has written extensively about this relationship, showing how it fits into an ancient tradition of close, even passionate friendship between male couples in the Church:
The gesture of his burial with Ambrose St John was one Newman shared with a distant Catholic past, the faith it expressed was the same: and he knew it. … What impelled Newman’s gesture was … the memory … of Joseph Gordon, Edward Caswell, and Ambrose St John; and with that gesture one steps out of … history … into the contemporary world. Did Newman’s conviction still subsist there?
Bray has described a number of such couples who were buried together in church tombs, and also the rite of "sworn brotherhood" by which many of these couples made comittments to each other, in church. (John Boswell, in "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe", has described similar rites of liturgical union in the Eastern Orthodox church, where archaeologists have also found ancient graves in which same sex couples were buried together). In our own day, it could be that there are many similarities between the notably close relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and his secretary, Georg Gastwein, and that of Blessed John Henry and Ambrose.
I have no desire to suggest any sexual content to these relationships, especially not those of Newman or Benedict,both of whom took vows of celibacy. For the other examples we know of, some were certainly sexual, others were not. One scholar of the medieval church who has specialised in these unions has argued strongly that they were not "gay" relationships, but specifically spiritual unions, in which a younger disciple would commit to an older man as spiritual guide and master.
The rather heated debates over whether these early relationships, or those of John Henry/ Ambrose and Benedict/ Georg were "gay" relationships, or resembled modern marriage, entirely miss the point. Relationships across the globe and through history have taken a multitude of forms, as they do still in the modern West. To try to shoehorn all such relationships into a marriage-like / not-marriage binary divide is to create a false and misleading dichotomy. Instead, we should simply recognize and value the evidence that there can be great spiritual value in close personal relationships between men, as there can be between a man and a woman in marriage. The modern world assumes that heterosexual marriages include sexual love, but this was not always so: some early Christians advocated celibacy even within marriage.  So it is that there can be close, emotionally intimate and spiritually valuable relationships between men who have taken vows of celibacy - but also between those who have not.
This reflection was prompted by a facebook group I have just joined, "Newman's last sermon", administered by the Catholic theologian Gerard Loughlin, and which I recommend. The opening statement includes lengthy quotations from Newman's "Apologia Pro Vita Sua", and from Alan Bray. I offer below just some short extracts.
“I have closed this history of myself with St. Philip's name upon St. Philip's feast-day; and, having done so, to whom can I more suitably offer it, as a memorial of affection and gratitude, than to St. Philip's sons, my dearest brothers of this House, the Priests of the Birmingham Oratory, AMBROSE ST JOHN, HENRY AUSTIN MILLS, HENRY BITTLESTON, EDWAED CASWELL, WILLIAM PAINE NEVILE, and HENRY IGNATIUS DUDLEY RYDER?.......
And to you especially, dear AMBROSE ST. JOHN; whom God gave me, when He took every one else away; who are the link between my old life and my new; who have now for twenty-one years been so devoted to me, so patient, so zealous, so tender; who have let me lean so hard upon you; who have watched me so narrowly; who have never thought of yourself, if I was in question.
=Apologia Pro Vita Sua
Let me now turn back to that inscription to which Newman himself turned in his note in anticipation of death, after expressing his last, imperative will to be buried with St John.......
“[John Henry Cardinal Newman
From shadows and images into truth.
11 August in the year of salvation 1890.
May he rest in peace.]

“’From shadows and images into truth.’ Newman’s explication was that in friendship we can see a stray beam or a dim reflection here in this world of what will be our unending delight when one with God in the next: thus it is that it can endure beyond the grave … . On the one side his inscription. On the other his burial in the grave of Ambrose St John. What one says in words, the other says in gesture; they signify the same.

“In his letter Pope John Paul asked for prayers that the time could soon come when the church could beatify Newman... In Catholic belief, the process toward which that proclamation may point in Newman’s eventual canonization is inseparable from the care of his relics...... The inheritors of Newman’s faith should not separate them from his final gesture. Is it comprehensible that one could now credibly tear his remains from ... the remains of the friend who was also as far as this world was concerned his first and last? That gesture was Newman’s last, imperative command: his last wish as a man, but also something more. It was his last sermon.”
- The Friend
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