Your London correspondent is off to Birmingham shortly – no, not the Alabama Birmingham, but the original one here in England. It’s Newman’s city, where he established his Oratory, still thriving in Hagley Road. But Newman would not recognise the city now: not only because of the tower-blocks and vast shopping malls, the traffic and the great motorways that curve and swoop around it all, but also because of the substantial Islamic presence.
As you leave Birmingham’s city centre and head out towards Maryvale – the house on the city’s outskirts where John Henry Newman first found a refuge when he joined the Catholic Church in the 1840s and had to leave Oxford – you pass a great mosque. It was originally called the Saddam Hussein Mosque but the name was for obvious reasons abandoned a few years ago. It is a large and substantial modern building with various ancillary buildings around it – a sign of confidence and of vibrant Islamic life. In Birmingham the Islamic presence is massive – families with ladies in full Islamic dress or in modified versions of it, shops selling Halal foods, small girls in school uniform with Islamic headscarves.
What of the Catholic presence in Birmingham? The Oratory parish thrives, and St Chad’s Cathedral – built during that same mid-century Catholic revival which Newman so brilliantly illuminated – is also a centre of busy Catholic life and worship, much-loved and viewed with pride. The Maryvale Institute is a national distance-learning college which offers degrees and post-graduate qualifications, trains catechists and teachers and is effectively Britain’s Catholic Open University.
Where Newman and his colleagues walked across fields to Mass, there are now streets of suburban housing. But Maryvale is still an oasis of peace and welcome when you go through the wide gates and up the drive. A statue of Mary stands on the corner of the lawn, and another, all in white, on the long pillared porch veranda. Every weekend sees a different group of students arriving as courses are held through the year – a new wing, built to match the original house, but with all-modern facilities, has a lecture hall, library, refectory etc.
It will be here that your London correspondent will be based for the next week or so. I am taking my 3rd-year exams for my Degree, and then settling in for a week of lectures. I’ll also be taking time to visit InVocation, a gathering for young people at nearby Oscott College, and I’ll be looking in at the Birmingham Oratory where a group from Aid to the Church in Need will be on pilgrimage. Prayers for the exams would be appreciated!