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  • Newman's Apprenticeship:The Sermons at St. Clement's
  • Lawrence Poston (bio)

On May 25, 1824, a little less than three weeks before his ordination to the diaconate, John Henry Newman wrote to his father, "I am convinced it is necessary to get used to parochial duty early, and that a Fellow of a College after ten years' residence in Oxford feels very awkward among poor and ignorant people" (Letters and Diaries 175). To be sure, the site of Newman's prospective curacy, the Old Church of St. Clement's, was not far distant from the "dreaming spires" of the university: outside the city limits on the London side of the Cherwell river (McGrath, Sermons 5: xviii–xix).1 In its general flavor, however, it was quite different from the academic environment of Newman's previous eight years. Oxford itself was already undergoing its transformation into a bustling commercial center, and St. Clement's stood in a parish which had doubled in population from 1800 to 1821 and was to double again over the four years immediately following.

In his pastoral and preaching duties at St. Clement's over the next twenty-one months, during which (in May 1825) he was ordained to the priesthood, Newman could not expect much practical assistance from the septuagenarian Rector John Gutch, under whom the duties of parish visitation appear to have largely lapsed. Newman preached his first sermon at St. Clement's on Sunday morning, June 27, and presided over his first service the following week. On July 28, just a month after the initiation of his duties, he was writing to his mother:

About ten days ago I began my visitation of the whole parish, going from house to house, asking the names, numbers, trades, where they went to church etc etc. I have got through as yet about a third, (and the most respectable third) of the population. In general they have been very civil—often expressed gratification, that a clergyman should visit them—hoped to see me again etc etc. . . . I rather dread the two thirds of the parish which are to come, but trust (and do not doubt) I shall be carried through it well and as I could wish. It will be a great thing done—I shall know my parishioners, and be known by them.

(Letters and Diaries 180) [End Page 21]

Newman's biographers disagree on much, but they seem to agree that he threw himself into his duties at St. Clement's with uncommon zeal (Gilley 49–59; Ker [1988] 20–27; McGrath, Sermons 5: xvii–xxxv; Turner 116–122). In addition to undertaking parish visitation and presiding over a fundraising drive for a new building, he committed himself to an exceptionally ambitious program of preaching at both morning and afternoon services on Sunday, including eighteen sequences on particular topics (for example, Advent, the Trinity, the Jewish law, and idolatry) ranging from three to fourteen sermons each, a practice he was to continue at St. Mary's (McGrath xxix).

The term "apprenticeship" which I employ in my title conveys two levels of meaning. The first is that the St. Clement's post represented Newman's first and indeed only involvement in parish life as a full-time parochial clergyman. It was not until after his secession to Rome, when he threw himself into the daily urban life in Birmingham as an Oratorian Father, that he found himself once again in a largely working-class, non-academic milieu. The second (and for our purposes here, the principal) meaning is that, of necessity, he had to learn the art of sermon-writing. Of the over 140 sermons he preached at St. Clement's, he chose only four for inclusion in his collected Parochial and Plain Sermons.2 Clearly Newman himself regarded the St. Clement's sermons as immature specimens of the art, and he spoke of them disparagingly when many years later, in 1881, he bundled them up with an explanatory note: "None of these Sermons are worth anything in themselves, but those preached at St. Clement's . . . will show how far I was an Evangelical when I went into Anglican Orders" (Sermons 5: viii). A historically...


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