BOOK REVIEW / Anxious years for turbulent priests: 'The Parting of Friends' - David Newsome: Gracewing, 15.95 pounds

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IT ALL seemed so important then. While the Established Church came to terms quite quickly with the Darwinian revolution, the advances in biblical scholarship were a different matter. An eternity of absolutes appeared to some to be at an end. Yet one certainty remained, or so it appeared to others. Membership of the Church of Rome, with its alleged faithfulness to the early Church, offered a passport to eternal salvation.

The beguiling personality of John Henry Newman stood as a central figure in these turbulent years of the 19th century. One of the truly great prose writers of the English language, Newman could prove to be a pretty unpleasant fellow. But he was, and remains, one of the imposing characters of the last century.

Newman's importance was such that his conversion to Rome sent vibrations through English society for the following half century. Following in Newman's wake came a distinguished group of Anglican priests and laymen. Not least of these was Henry Manning. His reshaping of Roman Catholicism in England benefited the nation as greatly as his ludicruous campaign on papal infallibility damaged the worldwide Roman communion.

Such was the dynamics between these two towering figures that commentators even today, let alone then, feel compelled to write of one only to disparage the other. Newsome himself mischievously begins an essay by observing that Manning had a butler called Newman. His lecture to the Friends of Lambeth Library gave a foretaste of the qualities of what is planned as his next book, which will study these two almost deified characters. In the meantime an enterprising publisher has reissued The Parting of Friends, which must be among the best dozen historical studies published since the Second World War.

Newsome has a rare ability to take one back through the pages of history with such style and verve that the reader becomes actively involved in the events unfolding. Here the anguish, passion, recklessness, ambition of some and modesty of others, is recalled in the relationship between one of the great 19th-century families, the Wilberforces, and Henry Manning. Samuel Wilberforce - Soapy Sam, as he was unfairly called - was the son of the great slave emancipator who was quickly promoted through the hierarchy, ending his days as Bishop of Oxford. Had Gladstone been prime minster at the right time, he would no doubt have urged Queen Victoria to make Sam Wilberforce Primate.

Samuel married one of the beautiful Sargent daughters. Henry Manning married another. The Parting of Friends is a study of these brothers-in-law, together with Robert and Henry Wilberforce, Samuel's two brothers. It is impossible for the reader not to feel despair as events unfold. TB strikes to make Samuel Wilberforce and Henry Manning widowers and so bring them closer together. The Gorham judgment on baptismal regeneration then cruelly rips this friendship apart as the explosive quality of this judgment blows Manning over to Rome. Sam's brothers follow and the bishop is left to mourn their parting while simultaneously attempting to deflect any guilt by familial association.

A second, equally important theme of The Parting of Friends is Newsome's study of those early 19th- century forces which plunged into such turmoil the traditional Anglican party loyalties. Newsome comments that many of the activists grouped around Newman, in what became known as the Oxford Movement, had had evangelical conversion experiences and were later to undergo a second conversion to become members of the Church of Rome. Until The Parting of Friends this phenomenon has never been adequately explained.

Towards the end of Newman's long life he travelled to Hursley, where John Keble, his hero and the greatest friend of his youth, was vicar. So many were the years between Newman's conversion and this reunion that Keble was at first unable to recognise his visitor. Parting then meant the total rupture of the deepest friendships.

What a difference between then and now, when no one cares in the least who joins or remains in what church. Not so then, when nothing could be more important. How lives were changed, how some of the greatest friendships were blown asunder, with careers lost and rebuilt, is the second theme Newsome weaves together in a web of prose, the brilliance of which even Newman would have recognised.

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