The Contours of Prayer in the Anglican Tradition

To study prayer in the Anglican tradition is to study the English school of Catholic spirituality. The language of any school of spirituality is known classically as “ascetical theology”, which is the theology and practice of how we walk with God. A scriptural example of ascetical theology is St Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, which is filled with instruction, advice, and coaching (to use contemporary terms) to the community in Thessolonica about how to make their community more Christ-centered.

Martin Thornton, the premiere Anglican ascetical theologian, a perhaps one of the more important ascetical theologians in the history of the Church, has suggested that the English school of Catholic spirituality has produced through its history a balanced spirituality, what he calls a “synthesis” between intellectual and affective poles; that is, between thinking and feeling. Our most well-known examples include Anselm, Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Margery Kempe. These writers through their work demonstrate their own walking with God as examples of how we might do so ourselves, creatively, imaginatively, and rooted in orthodox doctrine. And of course, our school is thoroughly Benedictine, and Benedictinism is enshrined in our Book of Common Prayer.

Thornton suggests that one of the primary tests for catholicity is whether a tradition or school follows the Rule of the Church. By this he means “the Liturgy“, understood comprehensively and ascetically. that is, the “three-fold regula” which is a systematic (yet fundamentally dynamic) relationship between Mass, Office, and Devotion. That our corporate life, including our confession of official doctrine, is ordered by regula directly determines our ecclesial typology, that is to say, our type of Church. Our typology, our spirituality, our prayer tradition, is pragmatic (cf Harvey Guthrie in Anglican Spirituality). What fundamentally makes one an Anglican is one’s doing with the Church what the Church does liturgically, sacramentally, and empirically; this is to be pragmatic. Our tradition is neither “confessional” (that is, membership is determined by assent to an extra-liturgical doctrinal statement; ala Augsburg Confession, Westminster Confession, or Creed of Pius IV), nor is it “charismatic” (that is, membership is determined by a common, subjective religious experience). Our Anglican basis of membership in our school, our pragmatic basis, is full and active participation. A pragmatic school of spirituality is necessarily an existential school of spirituality, for membership presupposes active choice and decision, the very ingredients of existential reality. This basis for membership is not only Anglican, but it is also patristic, for it is the model of the early Church. This Church, Thornton tells us, was one of spontaneity, simplicity, and cheerful joy (even in the face of martyrdom). It understood Psalm 100 quite well: O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.

Our prayer tradition, which Thornton further describes as domestic and parochial, is understood and assumed to be a journey taken as individuals within a corporate body. It is thus fully Anglican, and thus thoroughly Catholic according to our school of spirituality, to treat liturgy and specifically liturgical creeds and formulas as catechetical tools to be used on a journey. For any journey, but particularly a journey of walking with God, a journey that lasts all of this life and into the next, we benefit from good maps. The Church provides devotional maps: the books of Scripture, our liturgy, our creeds. These are to be not idolized, but used. These are tools: guides for our walk. So for Martin Thornton to write a book (Prayer: A New Encounter) on the notion that the contemporary age, like all ages in the life of the Body of Christ, our understanding of our tools might very well need updating, sharpening, repairing, or even overhauling, is hardly surprising but rather the plainest of common sense. The formula for which Thornton is drawing a “new devotional guide map” is the Apostles’ Creed. His premise is adopted from John Macquarrie (another thoroughly Catholic Anglican): (1) I live in the world (which is our existential starting point), and (2) I believe in the Creed, which is to say that we accept the Creed as an ontological given — it is a study of our relationship with God, with holy Being, a study we did not write ourselves but was given to us through baptism.

The crux of the book, and what might be understood as the philosophical crux of the English school of Catholic spirituality, is this: “what is the meaning of ‘Being’?”

Note first and foremost that the question immediately lends itself to devotion and contemplation. Take an orange. We can describe easily the attributes of an orange. Yet when we grasp its being, its fundamental “is-ness”, and still more when we grasp that its attributes presuppose and require its being, and still more that we can only grasp its being by going through the attributes of the orange, what can this process demonstrate but precisely the method by which we read holy Icons. Only by going through, and reckoning with, and participating in, the physical attributes of an Icon can we grasp its fundamental Being, which is Christ; and only through Christ can we reach the Father. For as we acknowledge in the Nicene Creed, Christ is “of one being with the Father”. Grasping the Being of the orange models the grasping of the Christ of the Icon.

Thus the relationship between beings and Being is nothing more or less than the relationship between physical attributes of an Icon and Christ. If one can understand how to use an Icon devotionally, one can understand how to use “Being” devotionally. For the difference between being — that is, things, entities, items, whether physical or not — and Being is precisely the Incarnation. The Incarnation renders “being” (lowercase b) open to “Being” (uppercase B). Because of the Incarnation, our being is thrown open and given a “clearing” for the possibility of total relationship with God. That is, the Incarnation gives us a gift. Because of the Incarnation, we have the possibility to recognize, develop, and deepen the ontological continuity between our being and God, who we devotionally might understand as “Personal Holy Being”. Just as the being of the orange is prior to, and fundamental of, its attributes, Holy Being is prior to, and fundamental of, created beings and their attributes. For he has made us and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture (Ps 100).

“Being” is, and can only be, devotional. The question of “what is the meaning of Being?” leads into questions such as:

(1) What is the meaning of creation?
(2) What is the purpose of creation?
(3) What is the meaning of our existence?
(4) What is the purpose of our existence?

These are all devotional questions. These are questions about the nature of Being, and about the nature of God and God’s creation. We learn in Exodus that God is “I am that I am”. This very name calls us to devotion about Being of the most fundamental and profound degree that through it we can truly speak of “holy Being”. Julian of Norwich did nothing less than “read” that acorn for its expressive Being as an Icon of Christ.

Thus the notion that “Being” can be devotional, as well as the existential-ontological approach to theology more generally, is at root absolutely nothing innovative or new. The study of Being (a.k.a. “ontology”), or in more strictly ecclesial terms, “prayer”, immediately demands a contemplative awareness that embraces our sense-experience. And contemplative awareness brought forth through the study of Being brings us square to the awareness that God, that holy Being, is only grasped through beings — that is, through God’s manifest creation. For precisely this reason, we can carefullly, but truthfully, affirm along with Thornton that Christianity is the most materialistic of all ways of life. Being, holy Being, Personal Holy Being, pours itself out — “lets-be” — all of creation, past, present, and future. And only through relationship with creation’s being-aliveness — modeled fully and finally by the Incarnation, itself the perfect Icon — can we seek understanding, or seek to grasp the significance, of our walk with God. We say in simple terms of philosophy: beings disclose Being. Or in simple terms of the Church: the Incarnation discloses God.