English Spirituality

I came across an interesting blog posting which made me think of something to add to the subject of Anglican patrimony. It is not only the Romantic paradigm with which I myself identify, but also a distinct spiritual tradition going back far beyond the Reformation.

The article in question is Crazy King Henry: Did Anglicanism begin with lust and divorce? I owe the hat tip to Embryo Parson’s Anglicanism Didn’t Begin With Henry. It looks a tad on the polemical side with an apologetic approach to the history of Henry VIII. That bit doesn’t interest me, but what the author expresses further down on the page.

A distinctive spirituality

Martin Thornton argues in his English Spirituality (Wipf and Stock, 1986) that by the fourteenth century England had developed a distinctive spirituality. This was the first golden age of what he calls the “English School” of spirituality. It was an “ascetical theology,” which means that it carries doctrine into prayer as the basis for life. Thornton says this approach is rooted in the synthesis of doctrine and prayer taught by two Christian greats: Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian whose Confessions are an extended prayer, and Benedict of Nursia, whose monasteries modelled the Christian life as work amidst liturgical prayer. English Christianity has been deeply influenced by both Augustine and Benedict.

Anselm was the father-founder of this English spirituality, which Thornton argues has six characteristics:

A speculative-affective synthesis. This is the conviction that our spiritual experience should always be guided by what the Church has taught in doctrine, and that doctrine should be lifted up in prayer and meditation. It is “the insistence that prayer, worship, and life itself, are grounded upon dogmatic fact, that in everyday religious experience head and heart are wedded”. We see this spiritual harmony in Anselm’s treatises and also in Julian of Norwich’s (1342-c.1416) Revelations of Divine Love, where “every distressing detail of the Passion [is related to] almost a treatise on the doctrine of the Atonement.”

Unity of the church militant. There is a deep, “family” relationship between the most prominent Church leaders and its most humble parishioners. The Book of Common Prayer is used by both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the schoolgirls confirmed yesterday. Anglicans have a deep-rooted distrust of clericalism, the attitude that only the clergy make up the “real” Church.

A unique humanism and optimism. This is the biblical virtue of hope in the midst of the endless details of everyday life. It maintains cheerfulness despite setbacks because it knows that God loves his people and will bring them to victory in the end. Margery Kempe, another important 14th-century Anglican writer, can be agonizing at times in her penitence, but she shares Julian of Norwich’s all-conquering hope: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The foundation of Christian life is the liturgy. This is the worship in which we participate at Sunday Eucharist and also in the Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer in the Prayer Book). These have come down to us from the early church and have been steeped in prayerful meditation and theological precision. They teach us how to pray. All of these prayers and meditations are biblical, either by direct quotation or indirect reflection. You see these biblical roots in the 14th-century “meditation” on the gospel story from the Bible, and the 17th-century Caroline return to the principle of liturgy—rooted in Scripture–inspiring devotion. The Caroline divines were the Anglican writers such as Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor who preached and wrote in the 17th century during the reigns of Kings Charles I & II.

Habitual recollection. This is the thinking and doing during one’s day that meditate on and are inspired by the liturgy in Morning and Evening Prayer.

Spiritual direction. This is the English tradition of getting spiritual guidance from an individual who is further along the pilgrim road. Anselm was a renowned spiritual guide. So were Margery Kempe, Julian, and all the Caroline divines. Thornton himself was a famous spiritual director, known for leadership of retreats and personal guidance of many Anglicans.

I find a tremendous insight in this passage. Kindness and optimistic humanism was not limited to England. It is found in great saints like François de Sales and Filippo Neri. During my seminary years in Italy, I found a tremendous amount of resonance between the Italian humanists and English spiritual writers. The contrast is with the classicism of Cartesian and Jansenist France where everything had to be so much more systematised. Yet, the English divines were Augustinians and sought high standards of integrity and morality. Implicit in this quote may be an idea of contrast between a devout piety based on the liturgy, Scripture and the Fathers on one hand and sentimental devotions with more apocryphal underpinnings.

The critical mind can always reply by asking what is peculiarly English about all this? St Augustine came from a part of the Roman world that became Muslim and latterly a part of the French Empire in North Africa. St Benedict was Italian. Is it perhaps the way those spiritual references tie in with the northern dimension of our English way? Ascetical theology (spirituality) is a large subject and a true discipline in any theological faculty. It merits further study.

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