24 October 2011

Introducing Anglican Spirituality

The Canticles, sung by great cathedral choirs, often provide the first introduction for many to the riches of Anglican spirituality

Patrick Comerford

For many people outside the Anglican tradition, Anglican spirituality is experienced in its full splendour when they hear Choral Evensong, and the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis sung by great cathedral choirs. And so, our opening music this morning is the canticle Magnificat sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, from the Gloucester Service by Herbert Howells.

At the beginning of the term, Maurice set the ball rolling with these periods devoted to Spirituality by rooting our spiritual formation in the Christian context, specifically in our Trinitarian faith and in knowing God.

Paddy has introduced us to the Spiritual Disciplines and to an appropriate spirituality for ministry, and Katie has introduced us to Wesleyan spirituality

This morning, I want us to look at the riches and the diversity of Anglican spirituality.

There are many varieties of Anglican spirituality. They cannot be confined to the labels of evangelical, catholic, liberal, conservative, charismatic … and even when they are reduced to these categories, they often overlap and can never be mutually exclusive.

The Anglican gift is to hold these not in tension, but in creative tension, so that we are enriched, so that Anglicanism is enriched, and so that the Church Catholic is enriched.

So what holds these different Anglican traditions of spirituality together in one community of faith, in one pilgrim people?

When we look outside the Anglican tradition, we find some traditions in the Church are named after their claims to universality or to holding the whole faith, as with Catholics or the Orthodox. Others are named after a founder, for example, the Benedictines, Franciscans, Lutherans, Wesleyans or Calvinists. Others are named because of a particular emphasis in prayer and spirituality, such as the Methodists, Salvationists, Jesuits, Redemptorists or Quakers. Others still have names that reveal a particular sacramental or organisational emphasis, including the Baptists and Presbyterians.

But Anglicans are not Henricians or Elizabethans, nor are we Cranmerists, not Laudians. The name Episcopalian might describe us in organisational terms, but we are not the only ones with bishops. And I am slightly uneasy with a term like Anglican – for we are not the English overseas at prayer. Yet “Anglican” is a convenient shorthand for a family of churches that have a shared spiritual heritage.

So, what is Anglican spirituality?

And is there something unique about it?

There is a theological maxim, Lex orandi, lex credendi. In other words, we can tell what a people believe when we see how they pray.

This is particularly so when we look at Anglicanism, for there is no distinctive Anglican theology as propounded in other traditions that take their name from their founding theologian. There is no central, established authority, such as the Roman Catholic magisterium or curia. Nor do we have an extra-creedal summary of doctrine, such as the Presbyterians’ Westminster Confession of Faith. Even the 39 Articles do not hold the same authority for Anglicans.

Instead, Anglicans have typically appealed to the Book of Common Prayer as a guide to Anglican theology, spirituality and practice, with its selection, arrangement, and composition of prayers and exhortations, the selection and arrangement of daily scripture readings in the Lectionary, and in the rubrics describing permissible liturgical actions and variations.

Anglican theology places a high value on the traditions of the faith, acknowledges the primacy of the worshipping community in articulating, amending, and passing down the Church’s theology; and thus, by necessity, is inclined towards a comprehensive consensus concerning the principles of the tradition and the relationship between the Church and society. In this sense, Anglican theology is strongly incarnational.

But Anglican spirituality cannot be reduced to descriptions of prayer life or to the contents of the Book of Common Prayer. Nor can it be contained in the 39 Articles, or limited and constrained by the Formularies – those three traditional pillars of Anglicanism.

Indeed, the 39 Articles – while they have an important historical place in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England – are not part of the shared history of all Anglican churches. The Book of Common Prayer means different things in different countries. And as for the formularies – the Ordinal in particular – they too have been challenged by different understandings of ordination, first exposed in the debates over the ordination of women.

Three insights and influences

So what has shaped Anglican spirituality?

Three profound influences on Anglican spirituality can be found in Patristics, the Benedictine tradition, and the Sarum Rite.

Only a few generations ago, no-one would have entered on a course leading to ordination in an Anglican theological college without receiving a solid grounding in their first year in Patristics, the writings of the Early Church Fathers.

The Anglican reformation was not just about Church structures but also an effort to return to the early worship of the Church and to return to Patristic ideas of liturgy and worship.

The rediscovery of the Early Fathers of the Church, and the quest to return to Patristic forms of worship, was an important factor in the Anglican reformation.

The legacy and bequests of this search are scattered throughout the Book of Common Prayer. But a noticeable example – and one that has become part and parcel of the Anglican spiritual heritage – is the Prayer of Saint [John] Chrysostom:

Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise, that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests; Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

But even before the Reformation, the Rule of Benedict had a profound influence on English and Irish expressions of Christianity. The Benedictine daily offices later shaped the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. The Benedictines had developed the Liturgical use of Scripture. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, which are based on the Benedictine offices, are almost entirely Scriptural in their words and phrases.

The Psalms provide the basis for the versicles and responses, for example. The Psalter is the only book of the Bible to be fully contained within the Book of Common Prayer, originally with the expectation that the Psalms would be read in church daily, and that the full Psalter would be read through each month.

The Book of Common Prayer brings the offices of the Benedictine monastery into the daily life of the parish church, morning and evening. For, as the Book of Common Prayer succinctly tells us, our duty as Christians is to live “a godly, righteous and sober life.”

Two related and connected strengths of the Book of Common Prayer, and two that have shaped and marked Anglican spiritually over the generations, are the canticles and the collects.

One of the great spiritual experiences for many and sometimes their first and lasting introduction to Anglican spirituality is experiencing the way we use the Canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evening Prayer, particularly at Evensong.

Famously, when John Keble was asked about what was at the heart of Anglicanism, he replied: “Study the Collects in the Book of Common Prayer.”

And thirdly, Anglican spirituality is, of course, liturgical. This Anglican liturgical tradition has been shaped by the western rite, strongly influenced by the Sarum tradition, and was first modernised and reformed at the Reformations by Thomas Cranmer and other.

If Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were to shape Anglican spiritual practice on a day-by-day basis, then Anglicanism was also a return to the Eucharist, the Holy Communion or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as the central act of worship of the Church.

As Anglicans, no-one was to be a spectator, as in the mediaeval church. Instead, all were to be participants.

And if the people felt too unworthy, then the Prayer of Humble Access reminded them that they were not present as spectators but as participants:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Devotional legacy

Julian of Norwich ... All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well

There is such a rich inheritance of devotional literature that it could be said that Anglican spirituality has been shaped by Anglican devotional writers, and the Anglican spiritual heritage is also a literary heritage.

But we should not forget there is a pre-Reformation corpus that is an integral part of Anglican spirituality. This includes the anonymous work we know as the Cloud of Unknowing, as well as the writings of mystics such as Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, the most popular of English mystics.

Dame Julian was a joyous mystic who stressed the homely love of God which has been poured upon this planet and humanity for ever. She concludes in these beautiful and well-loved words: “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

When we come to great post-Reformation writers in Anglican spirituality, we should remember too that, like Julian of Norwich, these writers have not always been ordained and have not been exclusively male. Indeed who could have been a more unexpected but-oft quoted author of a pithy but mystical and spiritual understanding of the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, than Elizabeth I?

Elizabeth can be credited with holding together in one Anglican tradition the competing claims within the Church of England and Anglicanism after the death of her half-sister Mary. And it is she who is said to have written of the Eucharist:

His was the Word that spake it:
He tooke the bread and brake it:
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.

In the immediate post-Elizabethan age, Anglican spiritual writers included country parsons such as George Herbert (1593-1633), who is remembered for his careful pastoral nurturing of his parish and his parishioners, and for his poetry, much of which has been adapted as hymns.

Herbert’s spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence. His poetry is constantly evident of the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, he is held safe by the Crucified Christ.

Richard Baxter later said that Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes in God and as one whose business in this world is most with God.

In his poem Obedience, George Herbert wrote:

O let thy sacred will
All thy delight in me fulfil!
Let me not think an action mine own way.
But as thy love shall sway,
Refining up the rudder to thy skill.

George Herbert ... Prayer, the Church’s banquet

For George Herbert, prayer is concerned not only with things heavenly, but also with the earthly. In his poem Prayer he writes:

Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

In this poem, George Herbert is saying that in prayer it is possible to be transported, even if momentarily, to another real. “Angel’s age,” “the milky way,” and a “tune beyond the stars” suggest that prayer touches the infinite. The poem concludes with “something understood” – a profound but elusive encounter with the mysterious otherness of God.

George Herbert was close to Nicholas Ferrar and the Community of Little Gidding, which showed that prayer, community life, and a life of discipleship and service ought to be inter-woven.

Herbert, John Jewel and Richard Hooker were profoundly influential on the Caroline Divines, including John Cosin, Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor,

John Cosin as a bishop sought to improve the worship and liturgy of the Church, and who drew on patristic sources for his Collection of Private Devotions, as did Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) in writing his Latin Devotions. There he wrote that “he who prays for others, labours for himself.”

John Donne ... Each man’s death diminishes me

Lancelot Andrewes was a contemporary of the poet John Donne (1571-1631), who was Dean of Saint Paul’s for his last ten years. He is best remembered today for his lines:

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.

The devotional writings of the Caroline Divines emphasise the centrality of the incarnation in Christian spirituality: the incarnation revealed to humanity in Christ, the Word Incarnate, in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, in the revelation of Christ’s continuing presence in the holy example of the saints. In their devotion, the Carolines shied away from abstraction in favour of the fruits of love and charity, and their devotional life was worked out in their pastoral service.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), who ended his days as a bishop in the Church of Ireland, in the dioceses of Conor, Down and Dromore, is best known for his Holy Living (1640) and Holy Dying (1641), which had a profound influence spiritually on later generations, including figures as diverse as John Wesley and John Keble.

No book other than the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer has had a more profound and lasting influence on the distinctive inwardness of Anglican devotion. No other book so clearly expresses the essence of the classical Anglican understanding of the spiritual life, with its insistence that there is no division between what is religious and what is secular.

Nor should we neglect the Puritan divines, who were contemporaries of the Caroline Divines but are often written out when it comes to telling the story of Anglican spirituality.

Among them was Richard Baxter (1615-1691). He too was influenced by the poetry of George Herbert, and although he ended his days as a Presbyterian he spent most of his life as an Anglican. He described his faith as ‘catholic’ or ‘mere’ Christianity – a term that we can see was later to be adopted as his own by CS Lewis. One of his most joyful yet mystical contributions to our hymnody is Ye holy angels bright, with its mystical understanding of the Communion of Saints.

Thomas Traherne was a hidden mystic of the same period, whose writings only became known long after his death in 1674. In his Centuries of Meditation, Traherne sees God in everything and everything praising God.

Curiously, the most influential book from this time, though, may have been one whose author remains unknown. The Whole Duty of Man, first published in 1657, reached its 28th edition in 1790, so that for more than a century, this anonymous book shaped an Anglican spirituality that was defined by the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in terms of doctrine and worship, and in practice by an understanding “that religion without morals is but superstition, that Christianity is not a set of beliefs but a way of life.”

Jeremy Taylor’s spirituality, as expressed in his Holy Living and Holy Dying, has many echoes in William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), which brought deeply sacramental piety and emphasis on community of the Nonjurors back in the mainstream of spirituality, especially through his influence on John Wesley.

The great Anglican movements of the late 18th and the 19th centuries were the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement, which had a second generation expression in the Anglo-Catholic Movement

Those two strands were not so much about style and churchmanship as about mission work: the evangelical movement gave us the Church Mission Society (CMS) and its related family of mission societies, while the Oxford Movement and the later Anglo-Catholics gave us USPG and its family of mission agencies.

In both cases, they show us once again that to be truly Anglican is to be incarnational. And in living this through, their faith was expressed in social action. For men like William Wilberforce, it was translated into action through their opposition to slavery and the slave trade. He was convinced that Christianity required the response of the heart as well as the head. For a later generation of Anglo-Catholics it was lived out in commitment to the poor and the oppressed in the slums and the inner cities, exemplified in the life and work of the slum priests.

The great hymn writer of the Oxford Movement and of the later Anglo-Catholics was John Keble, whose hymns and poems are collected in The Christian Year. If what we sing rather than how we pray shows what we believe – a new way of looking at the maxim Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi – then through the English Hymnal Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams have had a profound influence on modern expressions of Anglican spirituality.

But two of the most influential writers in terms of Anglican must have been CS Lewis and TS Eliot. CS Lewis, who was born in Belfast, is known to all of us as a spiritual writer ever since we first read the Chronicles of Narnia. However, if you have not already read it, could I recommend to you The Four Loves, which is known and loved well beyond the Anglican tradition of spirituality?

TS Eliot, on the other hand, is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. Ash Wednesday (1930) is the first long poem written by him after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. In this poem, Eliot deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith strives to move towards God. Sometimes referred to as Eliot’s “conversion poem,” Ash Wednesday is richly but ambiguously allusive and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation, inspired by Dante’s Purgatorio. Its groundwork of orthodox Christianity discomfited many of the more secular members of his literary circle.

The Four Quartets ... considered by many to be TS Eliot’s masterpiece, it led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

However, Eliot – along with many critics – considered The Four Quartets his masterpiece, and this was the work that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature. In The Four Quartets, Eliot draws upon his knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four long poems, each first published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, each approaches the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, and is strongly theological and spiritual.

Burnt Norton asks what it means to consider things that might have been. East Coker continues the examination of time and meaning, focusing in a famous passage on the nature of language and poetry. Out of darkness, Eliot continues to reassert a solution: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” The Dry Salvages strives to contain opposites:

… the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled.

Little Gidding is the most anthologised of the Quartets. Here, for the first time, he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

In The Four Quartets, Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints” and whispers of children, the sickness that “must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.

I conclude with the last canto of Little Gidding:


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

There are others. We could have looked at Dorothy Sayers, for example, playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, or writers like Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox today. Who can say whether the lyrics of U2, most of them Dublin-born Anglicans, will shape future spiritual thinking? – we have had celebrations that have used the designation U2charist.

But spirituality is always elusive and mercurial when it comes to defining or analysing it. It is not always true that its influences and growth can be found in writers and poets.

Who can claim credit for the interesting movements in the past century, such as the Parish Communion Movement of the 1930s, the Charismatic Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the search for Fresh Expressions of Church in our own time? Yet each has had a profound impact on our understanding of Anglican spirituality.

Many of these new insights have been and hopefully will continue to be channelled into the life of the church, and become part of the spiritual life of all Anglicans, though liturgical revival, through theological education, through the ways we live out our lives.

Our closing music is the Canticle Nunc Dimittis sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, from the Gloucester Service by Herbert Howells. Then, after our silence, we come back here at 9.50 to gather together and close with the Collect of the Day and the Lord’s Prayer.


I concluded with the final canto from Little Gidding in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. His conversion which led him to Anglicanism, like so many of our conversions I am sure, was deeply spiritual and he knew there was no going back to the old ways. He marked this with his poem, Ash Wednesday, which opens:


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Let us pray:

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
Help us to hear the,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our Father …

God the Holy Trinity
make you strong in faith and love,
defend you on every side,
and guide you in truth and peace:
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be with you and remain with you always. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This Introduction to Anglican Spirituality was prepared for the Spirituality Hour in the institute chapel on Monday 24 October 2011.


Charles Kinnaird said...

Great post! I'm passing this one along to my friends.

Andrew Falconer said...

Thank you for such a concise and thoughtful reflection on spirituality. It's a very rich tradition. Do you think there is anything we take from early Celtic Christianity?