Holiness and Humility: Insights on Preaching from St. John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons 1 By Elisabeth Rain Kincaid, Ph.D.
In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, Jane Austen, herself a clergyman’s daughter, penned a searing parody of a Church of England clergyman by creating the bumbling and selfimportant Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins is distinguished by his consuming desire to abase himself before those of superior social status – especially those who enjoy some type of connection with his “patroness,” Lady Catherine de Borough. Despite Elizabeth Bennett’s attempt to dissuade him, Mr. Collins persists in his attempt to pay homage to Lady Catherine’s nephew, Mr. Darcy, on the ground that his clerical status exempts him from the normal delineation of social status. My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment in all matters within the scope of your understanding, but permit me to say that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy; for give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom -- provided that a proper humility of behavior is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. 2 Of course, Mr. Darcy’s response of confusion, followed by sardonic coldness, illustrates how illusionary Mr. Collin’s assumptions of clerical status are. Even more tellingly, through the course of the novel, we see that this misunderstanding regarding his social role stems from the moral failures of character of Mr. Collins – whose social pretentions result in unkindness to those whom he considers as lower in social status, and obsequiousness without limits to those whom he perceives as occupying a higher status. Twenty years after Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, another Anglican cleric stepped into the pulpit of St. Mary’s the Virgin University Church, Oxford. In a series of homilies from 1834 to 1836, John Henry Newman called upon his parishioners to reject the false morality of ordinary “moral respectability,” so perfectly exemplified by Mr. Collins’ pride and prejudice, in favor of pursuing a transformed life of holiness and humility. In this paper, I argue that careful reading of Newman’s arrangement of these sermons into the first three volumes of the Parochial and Plain Sermons, taken in the context of Newman’s own preaching context and theories of preaching, provides important insights into how preaching contributes to the transformation of the individual and the renewal of the church. Preaching and The Challenges of Church Renewal In crafting these sermons, Newman was well aware that he preached to a rapidly changing world, in a church which appeared to have failed to answer the challenges of the modern age and to be locked into a permanent spiral of decline. Newman, along with his colleagues in the nascent Oxford Movement, was not prepared to accept that the church was doomed by the spirit of the age. However, he believed that any of the solutions currently on the table in the church of England were inadequate for reform: whether the “intellectual heterodoxy” of the intelligentsia, the