On the English School of Catholic Spirituality

That within Anglicanism is a school of Catholic spirituality is a view that derives from Martin Thornton and especially English Spirituality, which, along with Pastoral Theology, is his masterpiece. It is one of his most used phrases.

But what does the term mean? Let us turn directly to Thornton and read from the second chapter of his book, Margery Kempe: An Example in the English Pastoral Tradition. This is an excellent book that deserves wider reading. And incidentally, this was his favorite book; and Kempe, his favorite figure within English tradition. She was his favorite because, against the tide of academic criticism, he saw Kempe as a “poor mystic . . . but first-rate parishioner.” That is, he interpreted her Book  according to ascetical principles that animated all of this theological thinking, and in so doing, found in her Book a rich resource of pastoral and ascetical examples that parish priests and catechists can use to teach habitual recollection, biblical meditation, colloquy, and much more.

Keep in mind that this book was written in 1960, and in the excerpt below, a couple moments might benefit from updated language and some tweaking. There is obvious reference to England that might be less applicable elsewhere in the Anglican world. Be that as it may, I suggest you focus on the main points about (a) what a school is, and (b) what it means for Anglicanism to be such a school:

A school of spirituality is the local and corporate expression of the great Pauline doctrine of diverse gifts within the unity of the Mystical Body; and it is the logical consequence of the Incarnation itself. In one sense, Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, recapitulates the whole of humanity within himself, and the doctrine issuing form this fact is dogmatic, changeless, and Catholic. On the other hand, Jesus is a man, with a particular personality and temperament. His own spiritual life, and his death, redeemed the whole world, yet he lived within the pattern of a particular strain of first century Judaism. The prayer of Christ is the prayer of humanity, because all true prayer is prayer in Christ. But Christ’s prayer was also very specialized; it was a synthesis of the Priest-Prophet Jewish tradition: Christ belonged to a “school”.

Note well: Christ belonged to a school. Have you ever considered that possibility? He continues:

From this balance between the total body and the unique characteristics of every human soul, there arise the great Catholic schools of spirituality, all differing according to temperamental and racial traits yet all in harmony with the dogmatic facts of the one faith. As seven musical notes are arranged and woven into an infinity of harmonies, so the clauses of the Creeds, by emphasis and arrangement but without omission, are woven into the rich diversity of Christian spirituality. One of the most impressive arguments for the true universality of the Catholic Faith is that it is so readily qualified by any number of adjectives: Eastern and Western, French, Italian and American, Franciscan, Cistercian and Carmelite. It is impossible to speak in the same way about Western Buddhism or African Confucianism.

The analogy to music is profound. He is saying that the Catholic Church is the totality of musical possibilities (think a piano, if you like, and all the possible tonal combinations). Each school plays the piano and weaves and realizes its harmony differently because that is the nature of incarnation. No one plays the piano exactly like anyone else. But as the deep harmony of music is ever-present and ever-animate in and through all piano players, the underlying Catholic unity — love, beyond abundance — is ever-present and ever-animate in and through all Catholic schools. Take a moment to soak that in.

Back to Thornton:

Within all this wonderful richness, and as a true part of Catholicism, stands the English school of spirituality. And in a period of pastoral flux such as we now experience, I believe it to be of the first importance that we pay more attention to our own particular tradition. Whatever liturgical or ascetical experiments we wish to try, it is wise first to decide whether they are likely to grow and flourish on English soil. This does not mean insularity, but it does suggest a measure of solidity upon which our individual and parochial spirituality can be built, embellished, if need be, by facts from foreign traditions. It is one thing to decorate a room in an English country house in the Japanese style: it is quite another to build a row of cottages in that style in the middle of a Norfolk village. The latter is analogous to our present neglect of English spirituality in favor of Oratorian, Carmelite, and Salesian methods. Let me say at once that there is nothing wrong with any of these methods — nor with Japanese architecture — but if they are to be useful to use they must be incorporated into our own tradition. First our own tradition must exist in a flourishing state and, if this is to be, it must be re-studied from its sources, and we must pay special attention to its greatest periods.

He goes on to describe how English spirituality is traceable to the Celtic Church, through St Benedict, eventually into St Anselm (which decidedly brings in St Augustine), later the Victorines, Julian of Norwich and others into The Book of Common Prayer, and so on. I’ve assembled the more comprehensive map of ressourcement at right. Characteristic of our school for Thornton is (1) superb synthesis between Affective and Speculative strains of Catholic spirituality, (2) a spirit of optimism and theological humanism, and (3) a constant an thorough-going insistence upon the unity of the Church — religious and secular, priest and layman, bishop and people: all are knit together in the One Body of Christ. Thus English/Anglican pastoral reflections are “warm, ‘homely’, domestic” that prizes the “uniqueness of each individual soul growing happily within the corporate order of the Church.”

That is what it means, for Thornton, to refer to Anglicanism as possessing, historically as well as presently, the English school of Catholic spirituality within it. Whether we should do so remains an open question. Presumably anti-Catholic folks within Anglicanism would not be happy. On the other hand, plenty of good Christian people of whatever stripe might not be persuaded by an English theologian they have never heard of before (Thornton, by and large, remains unknown to the majority of Anglicans). The postliberal movement might want to correct or fine-tune. And of course Thornton might be just completely off-base in this entire analysis.

But at this point in a very weakened Anglican state of being, we are begging for renewal. If Anglican renewal is understood to be a parish- and family-rooted phenomenon (I think that is the only truly sustainable location for renewal, although all dimensions of Anglicanism ought play a role), then the envisioning of Anglicanism as a school of Catholic spirituality directly presents a renewal agenda: in parish formation programs, get to know our tradition! That is, renew intentional engagement with our inherited “conversation” — talk formally and informally about ideas, say, from Julian of Norwich in parishes and at the kitchen table — so that we can slowly but surely nurse our tradition back to health and regain a healthy sense of self, rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. At that point we can flourish again toward our ever-constant mission to be a fruitful and sustaining partner in the wider Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Or as Thornton writes in English Spirituality (p. 14):

Well in the background [of contemporary Anglican studies] remains the English School of Spirituality; sane, wise, ancient, modern, sound, and simple; with roots in the New Testament and the Fathers, and of noble pedigree; with its golden periods and its full quota of saints and doctors; never obtrusive, seldom in serious error, ever holding its essential place within the glorious diversity of Catholic Christendom. Our most pressing task is to rediscover it.

To rediscover it.