What is “English Spirituality”?  

“The foundation of Christian life is the liturgy, seen as both Mass and Office, from which flows personal devotion based on the Bible.” So begins Fr Martin Thornton’s description of a key characteristic of “English spirituality,” in his classic book of the same name. Our spirituality—that is, total life responding to God’s creation—really is impacted in a particular way when liturgy is not an extra, added-on layer of devotion, but in fact a mode of living. That monastic life is an example of this may be rather easy to observe; yet English spirituality, whether it lives on British lands, on North American soil, or any of the continents around the earth, insists on the centrality of the same principle, because it is nothing less than the basis of The Book of Common Prayer.

So what is “English spirituality”? In addition to the characteristic already mentioned, there are at least seven more: five “positive” and two “negative.” There is (2) a speculative-affective synthesis, that is, a stubborn balance of intellect and action, head and feeling, study and wilderness, dogma and love: an inheritance from monastic and Anglo-Saxon roots. We see also (3) an insistence on unity of the Church Militant, that is, a pattern of parish life that distrusts clericalism yet flourishes through a prayer life held in common by laity, priest, and bishop, all of which fosters a decidedly domestic temperament and emphasis. There is (4) a sober optimism toward the harshness of life’s trials, perhaps best expressed by Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” in the face of major episodes of the Black Death. There is (5) the ideal of constant recollection of Christ’s presence, whether at home, in the pub, on the neighborhood streets or in an airplane flying across an ocean. And there is (6) a hunger for spiritual direction to grow through the stumbling blocks inherent in mature Christian life. On the negative side, challenges often encountered in this spiritual school include (7) an over-reliance on “moderation in all things” and (8) a legalist attitude to participation in parish life in response to the temptation to laxity in the face of the tasks and obligations of discipleship.

Thus understood, “English spirituality” is one of the several dozen historical “schools,” or corporate patterns, of Christian life. Its longer name is “the English School of Catholic spirituality.” It cannot be divorced from its British upbringing, any more than Our Lord Jesus can be seen apart from the Jewish culture of His day. To grasp the nature of schools of spirituality as such, a biological analogy may be useful. For just as the term “vine” actually means several dozen different varieties or strains, each that flourish according to conditions of environment and climate, yet because of diversity can all be seen to exhibit irreducible features of “vine-ness,” so is it with the holy Catholic Church of Christ and its varieties and strains. Christianity is an incarnational religion, yet amid variety always points to, and emerges from, the holy Cross. The life and health of any school of spirituality can come only from Jesus Christ and its obedient faithfulness to Him, and the English School is no different.

It takes looking at English spirituality as a whole to begin to discern its true membership in Catholic tradition. Its tapestry of spirituality incorporates theological and pastoral insights from the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tradition of Saints, Ss Augustine and Benedict, S. Gregory, the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, Ælfric, the Cistercian Fathers (including S. Bernard, William of St Thierry, and S. Aelred of Rievaulx), Hugh and the other Victorines; furthermore, medieval voices such as S. Bonaventure and the Franciscans, S. Thomas Aquinas and S. Catherine of Siena, and more have been influential. The broadly Catholic and Orthodox spirituality of Anglo-Saxons grew into more uniquely English flowering through S. Anselm, English anchorites and solitaries, English Cistercians, Walter Hilton and the Canons Regular, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle; and later in the Prayer Book era through Richard Hooker, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, John Keble, Edward Pusey, Charles Gore, Evelyn Underhill, Father Andrew, William Temple, Michael Ramsey, Sr Penelope Lawson, Eric Mascall, Ian Ramsey, A.M. Allchin, John Macquarrie, Benedicta Ward, and others.

This tradition, known-of yet still obscured and therefore functionally marginalized, and yet still a vital and active ferment, is a unique member of the family of Christian spiritual schools, distinct yet in ascetical fellowship with the various Orthodox, Roman, Old Catholic, and Oriental Catholic schools and traditions.

Fr Thornton’s seminal book English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition, reissued in 1986 with a new Preface by the author, remains the primary text used for study of Ascetical and Pastoral Theology. Yet Thornton always insisted it be supplemented by contemporary resources as these emerge (see, for example, High King of Heaven and Give Love and Receive the Kingdom, both by Sr Benedicta Ward). A work of deep erudition and pastoral wisdom, English Spirituality captures the scope and theological depth of the orthodox way of life behind “Anglican patrimony” with its full quota of saints and doctors, and invites its rediscovery as a living spiritual tradition.

[Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. The above essay was originally written the Lent 2015 issue of The Missioner, the news magazine published by Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and subsequently revised. Sample chapters from English Spirituality can be read by clicking here.]