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 Martin Thornton’s description of a key characteristic of “English spirituality,” in his classic book of the same name. One’s 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 American soil, or any of the continents around the planet, 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 five more. There is a speculative-affective synthesis, that is, a balance of intellect and action, head and feeling, study and wilderness, dogma and love: an inheritance from the monastic roots of Anglicanism. We see also an insistence on unity of the Church Militant, that is, a parish life that distrusts clericalism yet flourishes through a prayer life held in common by laity, priest, and bishop. There is 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.” There is 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 a need for spiritual direction to grow through the stumbling blocks inherent in mature Christian life. Challenges to this spirituality include an over-reliance on “moderation in all things” and a legalist attitude to participation in parish life in response to the temptation to laxity in the face 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. 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 the Cross. The life and health of any school of spirituality can come only from Jesus Christ and its obedient faithfulness to Him, and English spirituality 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 tradition, Saints Augustine and Benedict, Saint Gregory, the Cistercian Fathers (including Saint Bernard, William of St Thierry, and Saint Aelred of Rievaulx), Hugh and the other Victorines, Saint Bonaventure and the Franciscans, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Catherine of Siena, and more. It flowered through Saint 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 through Richard Hooker, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, John Keble, Edward Pusey, Charles Gore, Evelyn Underhill, Father Andrew, William Temple, Michael Ramsey, Eric Mascall, Ian Ramsey, A.M. Allchin, John Macquarrie, and others.

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

Martin Thornton’s book English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition is a primary text used in the Ascetical and Pastoral Theology courses taught at Nashotah House and highly recommended, but Thornton would insist it be supplemented by contemporary resources. A work of deep erudition and pastoral wisdom, the book captures the scope and theological depth of the full 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 meditation is my contribution to the Lent 2015 issue of The Missioner, the news magazine published by Nashotah House Theological Seminary. A sample chapter from English Spirituality can be read by clicking here.]