At some point any serious, committed Anglican — particularly someone who understands, or has been told, that Anglican spirituality is actually thoroughly Catholic, though distinct from Roman, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Oriental Catholic — is likely going to confront a simple but serious question: What is the nature of Anglican theology?
This is a good question. Perhaps for Catholic Anglicans, it is a crucial question, because this particular question might get at the heart of authentic Anglican identity. And doesn’t the Anglican communion face a crisis of identity that would be particularly good to resolve, in order to save what might be an imploding tradition?
Many Anglicans know, and all should, that Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (d. 1972) famously said about Anglicanism, “We have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and these creeds we hold without addition or diminution. We stand firm on that rock.” These words ought plaster the top of every formation handout given to Anglicans in parish formation classes. Fisher’s statement is profound, scriptural, patristic, and humble. Its truth guides our tradition.
Yet there is a difference between doctrine and theology. These are intimately related, but markedly distinct. Indeed, in my view (the point is debated, to be fair), the Archbishop remains correct: Anglicanism has no unique doctrine of its own. At its core, it reflects a “school of Catholic spirituality.” Spiritual schools, after all, do not concoct new official doctrines. Rather various Catholic traditions work with the doctrines that holy Church has defined, according to the whole — the Vincentian Canon is ever-useful: “Care must especially be had that that be held which was believed everywhere, always, and by all.” But yet again, we have the distinction between what is believed (doctrine) and how the doctrine is worked with, how it manifests in the life of a particular tradition or school (theology).
So we know what Anglican doctrine is. It is Catholic doctrine, as believed everywhere, always, and by all (which is not to even slightly suggest its use is merely static and perfunctory) — foundational doctrines include the Doctrine of God, the Doctrine of Creation, and Doctrine of the Church, and so on. But the nature of Anglican theology is another matter. And here we are entitled to claim a particular “theology”. But let’s be clear: we follow Anselm (along with many, if not most, Christians) in defining “theology” as faith seeking understanding. Or to expand this: theology is the manner by which faith in the orthodox doctrines of holy Church seeks to develop both language and practice in the dynamic life of Christian communities. Immediately we perceive that “the manner by which” presupposes a plurality of theologies. Different theologies emerge in the working out in actual Christian lives of doctrine universal to the whole Church from its first moments today. Different schools have their differing languages and differing practices — within the Mystical Body of Christ exist a matrix of complementary living theologies. This is all well and good, and thoroughly orthodox. Because there are various Catholic schools within the historic Church, it follows that there are various Catholic theologies.
So, amid this plurality, the many strands of catholicity within the Church, what is Anglican theology? What is our school of Catholic theology, born of our spirituality?
ENTER MARTIN THORNTON
I would propose that Martin Thornton has given Anglicanism a permanent gift, which is his book, English Spirituality. This book is already well-loved and appreciated in Anglicanism, certainly in the United States. It is the go-to book to discuss ascetical theology and is a resource for pastoral theology. But I would argue that neither application exhausts the book’s gift. No, its true significance is more profound: it is nothing less than a thorough map of the “English School,” that is, of Catholic Anglican theology in its lineage, prepared for ressourcement. From Thornton, we have a clear sense of what the core curriculum of renewal is, and should be, for Anglican theology. His might be the very first instance that the contours of our school of theology have been thoroughly and concisely articulated.
Thornton never used the term ressourcement, but I doubt he would disagree strongly with this analysis of his work. (My master’s thesis is on his corpus.) In any event, all are advised to pull out their copy of English Spirituality and give it serious attention in this new light. I will not rehearse here the extended argument that Thornton makes, because it is nuanced and does require participation in Anglican liturgical and sacramental life to fully appreciate (as any school would require).
All that said, at this time, I merely want to diagram Thornton’s map for ressourcement. Some of this is indicated by the Table of Contents of English Spirituality, to be sure. Yet the finer details are not, and I might add that the diagram would bear further detailing. This is a broad-brush perspective intended to orient Catholic Anglicans to the genuine root-stock of our theological breeding, which is the English School of Catholic spirituality.
Here is the diagram, with a bit of commentary to follow:
The middle column is the primary strand of theology whereby contemporary Anglicanism corresponds with the New Testament Church. Thornton saw two “flowerings” of the English School. The first was in the 14th and 15th century with the quartet of Rolle, Hilton, Julian, and Kempe—and he also saw The Cloud of Unknowing as central, as well. The second flowering was the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer and the resulting Caroline Age. He defined the latter more broadly than most: from Hooker’s Lawes through Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life—essentially the seventeenth century. In terms of the side columns, we see Sts Augustine and Aquinas as the most influential across the ages. Additionally we see how the English School, and hence Anglicanism, has within it Franciscan, Dominican, Victorine, and especially, Cistercian influences.
Let me add some additional remarks:
Importantly, Archbishop Ramsey wrote an article called “What is Anglican Theology?“. I do recommend it, yet one must immediately note his answer is not to outline a curriculum, but to describe our Anglican method. Thornton talks about method, as well, in English Spirituality — he calls our method “speculative-affective synthesis”; but this can be described different ways, so Ramsey’s piece is useful. The “how” is just as important as the “what.” Yet do grasp the difference: above is Thornton’s understanding of the core curriculum of Anglican ressourcement. Thus something of this map is how Anglicanism has been, and must continue to be, a theological tradition, and not merely a methodological tradition — again, nothing short of being one of the genuine schools of Catholic spirituality.
Again, whereas English Spirituality has been interpreted and used as a guide for ascetical theology (a good thing!), I suggest its fullest gift is as a clear presentation of our true lineage of historical theology — as well as a helpful general commentary upon each of the major theologians living in our tradition, ancient and more contemporary, which is summed up as ressourcement. I believe that discerning and then living out explicitly our true inheritance of theology (as of 1986 when Thornton died) would go a long way toward long-term resolution of the identity crisis that plagues contemporary Anglicanism, and has hobbled Anglicanism for far too long of time. It is not a panacea, to be sure, but a thoroughly helpful guide, not merely to be looked at but used. Thornton invites you to pray with the works of our tradition, and English Spirituality is an expert-level commentary to help you as you do.
Obviously one could add complexity to this map in any number of directions with myriad additions. I’m unfairly lumping all the Caroline Divines together, for example, several of whom were in significant dialogue with, and critique of, various Reform theologies, not to mention an array of Fathers. The same could be said for the Tractarians and in particular Newman. The term “Ecumenical Divines,” is chosen to echo with the common “Caroline Divines,” as well as the also used “Evangelical Divines” and “Tractarian Divines.” The adjective “Ecumenical” simply refers to the fact that these theologians—the full list is longer, of course—lived in an age of marked ecumenism and ecumenical exchange within the Church both East and West, including the Second Vatican Council, which despite ecclesial disunity, impacted the entire Church. Thornton also would add the retired archbishop Dr Rowan Williams to this list, as Thornton saw Williams’ Resurrection as an excellent work of pastoral theology.
Acknowledging possible amendments to this diagram, let us not make it too complex. What Thornton has provided is the foundational map of our school of Catholic spirituality. In other words, we can add to it — after all, our school, if it is to be a living school, must be dynamic — but we ought resist subtracting from it, because to do so risks a deformed picture of who we are and how we have tended to follow Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, seminary application of this map would be one thing; yet at the parish level for formation courses, even this basic outline provides an ample treasury of resources for reflection and devotional/doctrinal study. Parish priests can catechists take note!
Here is a short “core list“, recommended as a starting point for a curriculum in Catholic Anglican theology (historical and present-day):
St Augustine: Enchiridion
St Benedict: Rule
St Anselm: Proslogion
Walter Hilton: The Scale of Perfection
Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love
Margery Kempe: The Book of Margery Kempe
Jeremy Taylor, Rules for Holy Living
See also his “Syllabus for Anglican ressourcement“, which is longer yet intended for study over two or three years.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media.” Well, all hinges on what via media actually means. For Martin Thornton, it means the “speculative-affective synthesis”—that is, Benedictine balance of thought and feeling expressed in prayerful, creative action, which for him was a primary characteristic of the English School of Catholic spirituality. And as to whether there is no via media, figures such as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, John Wesley, John Keble, Charles Gore, Evelyn Underhill, William Temple, Michael Ramsey, John Macquarrie, Martin Thornton and, well, a lot more all argue against Neuhaus’ view. And, although I am biased, I think they get the better of it, by a long shot.
Cover image “Appearance Behind Locked Doors” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original