A Memoir by Rev.Philip R. Newell Jr.
In the fall of 1955, Philip Newell, a young American teaching assistant at St. Andrews University, raised a question after a lecture by George MacLeod, the Scottish minister. “Dr. MacLeod, are you a socialist?” In a thick Glaswegian accent, he replied, “Isn’t every Christian?” Newell was enthralled to hear the word socialism express a principle, not of politics, but of ethics and spirituality that demanded action to help others, especially those less fortunate than a quizzical Harvard student of Byzantine History like himself.
MacLeod offered Newell a definition of Christian ministry alleviate social ills and bring, “as the gospels describe it, God’s Kingdom closer to earth.” It also gave him a practical outlet. Newell spent the following summer chipping rock with master masons on the island of Iona helping to rebuild its ancient Abbey. Founded by St. Columba in 563, this cradle of Celtic Christianity had lasted for a thousand years, until the Scottish Reformation left the church in ruins. In 1938 MacLeod had taken over the adminis-tration of the island with the ecumenical Iona Community and in 1956 Philip Newell joined them.
His experience on Iona answered Newell’s search for a profound commitment in life, “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.
Once, for example, when MacLeod welcomed tourists to the Abbey, he pointed to a stone, revealing it was where the saint had laid his head after landing in 575. But the next week, he pointed out another stone, declaring to a different group that it had happened in 569. To his assistant tour guide Newell he said, “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, that can be subverted by doctrine, ritual, and interpretation that keep us from engaging in real work based on God’s love. Philip Newell’s calling, 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.
He joined the Merchant Marine for the end of World War II, and then got drafted into the army. From home-state Albion College, Newell moved on to Boston University, where he first met Martin Luther King, and then to Harvard Divinity School. After Iona, he became a minister. From Old St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown, Washington in 1962 he made the richer move across DC to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. 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 still lives in Manhattan where he lives happily with his second wife, Dr. Madeleine Tramm, whom he married in 1991. He also came out of retirement 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, along with the question that he has asked for over fifty years as a minister: What is your calling? “How can you, in serving the cause of justice for others, serve the cause of your own and others’ wellbeing and peace?”
WHAT IS YOUR CALLING? A Memoir By Reverend Philip R. Newell Jr., 99 pp. Balboa Press. $11.99