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John Henry Newman: The Poetics of Devotion
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John Henry Newman: The Poetics of Devotion

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English professor Stephen Gurney takes a closer look at John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, which Newman preached at Oxford between 1828 and 1841 before his conversion to Roman Catholicism. John Henry Newman is best known for his role in England's Oxford Movement, a movement which — as Gurney describes — “fused the pre-Reformational spirit of the Catholic Church with the poetic richness of English Romanticism.” Known as the Oxford Tractarians, Newman and his fellow Tractarians, John Keble, Isaac Williams, and Edward Pusey, sought to correct the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the growing materialism within England by reintegrating beauty with the doctrine of the Church’s sacraments, tradition, and ritual. On the polemical and apologetic front, Newman, too, sought to confront growing doubts about the validity of the English church with a renewed emphasis on the directing role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the one, catholic, universal Church.

In this essay, Stephen Gurney shows how in his sermons, Newman draws the listener in through the craft and beauty of his prose — and, for those who heard his sermons, Newman’s entrancing voice — while nonetheless removing himself from the spotlight in order to convey his listeners to the True Presence of Christ. With a delicate and sophisticated balance of subjective devotion and sacramental ecclesiology, Newman’s sermons invite the whole person to participate in a spiritual journey that ends in an encounter with the Divine.

This article was originally published in Modern Age, Fall 2000. Read by Ken Myers. 51 minutes.