Philip Newell, recently retired pastor of the Welsh Congregational Church of New York and life-long social justice minister, died on 18 November at Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan. He was 90. His wife, Madeleine Tramm, said that the specific cause was not known but that he had been in ill health. He had just published his memoir, What Is Your Calling?, last March, with his question from fifty years of ministry – how can you serve justice for the cause of your own and others’ wellbeing and peace?
In 1955, Newell, a young American at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, posed a question to minister Dr. George MacLeod. “Are you a socialist?” MacLeod replied, “Isn’t every Christian?” Newell heard that word “socialist” express a principle, not of politics, but of ethics and spirituality that demanded action to help others, especially those less fortunate than a quizzical student of Byzantine history like himself.
MacLeod offered Newell a definition of ministry as a tool to alleviate social ills and bring the gospel closer to earth. It also gave him a practical outlet. In 1956 Newell joined the Iona Community founded by MacLeod and helped rebuild its ancient Abbey. This island cradle of Celtic Christianity, founded by St. Columba in 563, had lasted for a thousand years, until the Scottish Reformation left the church in ruins.
His experience on Iona sharpened Newell’s search for a profound commitment in life, as “a way forward to make a difference in the world by enabling people to assume direct control of their lives.” MacLeod taught him to see the difference between the essential and the unimportant, in doctrine or in practice.
For example, when MacLeod welcomed English tourists to the Abbey, he pointed to a stone where the saint had laid his head in 575. But later to a different group, he pointed out another stone from 569, later explaining, “That’s the trouble with the English; they can’t tell the difference between facts and truth!”
Focusing too narrowly on facts can distract us from essential truth. Columba lived and served on Iona. Jesus lived and brought his message of social justice, the gospel, which can be subverted by doctrine, ritual, and interpretation that keep us from real work based on God’s love. Philip Newell’s summons, his quest for ministry, came from that island truth; it’s the story of his memoir, What Is Your Calling?
Born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan, Philip Rutherford Newell Jr. grew up in a privileged family that soon unraveled. His mother disappeared into a sanatorium. His father then withdrew into business and a rigid, born-again Christianity. This “early loss of support” started Philip’s search for meaning, to resolve the problem between the beliefs a person, or a religion, claims and the actions taken, or missed, in the world.
After serving in the army, he went from Albion College to Boston University, where he first met Martin Luther King Jr., and then to Harvard Divinity School. After his Iona summer, he became a minister. From Old St. John’s Episcopal in Georgetown, Washington, in 1962, he made the richer move across DC to New York Avenue Presbyterian. There his ministry, a mastery of democratic networking, flourished.
Newell joined the Civil Rights Movement, as “a foot soldier” in Reverend King’s army, in the March on Washington, voter-registration drives in Mississippi, the March from Selma, the Poor People’s Campaign, and turmoil after King’s death in 1968. Through it all, he was “planning, working, marching for a better world.” He moved on in 1976 to community organizing nationwide and even globally, from New York City with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in urban ministry and economic justice for two more decades.
He lived in Manhattan near Columbia University with his second wife, Dr. Madeleine Tramm, whom he married in 1991. He also “un”retired to lead the Welsh Congregational Church of New York for a decade until 2016, where anecdotes found in his memoir made it into his sermons. His children Timothy, Charley, and Patsy were with him when he died that Saturday morning, as was his wife Madeleine.