[Note: The following essay was written for Formatio Online Journal, once published by the Ambrose Institute (of Nashotah House). It can be usefully seen as an introduction to my master’s thesis on Martin Thornton, available here to download .]
The Principles behind Martin Thornton’s Theology
by Matthew Dallman, May 2015
Martin Thornton’s theology has been “largely overlooked,” in the words of Dr Rowan Williams. He went on to say, “There is no good reason why he is not read today.” Although Fr Thornton’s books on pastoral theology and prayer in the Anglican tradition have been read widely in the US and UK since the 1950s, absorbing and applying his insights remains a task begun by Anglicans yet far from finished. The tumultuous 20th century—the “culture war” battles within the wider Church, the collapse of Constantinian Christendom, rapidly changing technology and social norms, all within English post-WWII reconstruction, late-stage Lux Mundi theology, enduring Anglo-Catholic ritualism, emerging Evangelicalism and liturgical renewal, and the increasingly popular Parish Communion movement—seem to have impeded the deepest consideration of Thornton’s gifts to the Church.
I am of the view that this may in fact be Providential. A farmer, Anglican priest and spiritual director who lived primarily in the UK yet also taught in the US (and almost became a professor at Nashotah House), Thornton’s voice in his 13 books remains remarkably sober, pastoral, and witty—yet rigorously theological and erudite. We often need some distance to appreciate brilliance.
His purpose was simple: he wanted to equip priests and lay catechists with the appropriate tools to teach prayer—liturgically, biblically, doctrinally, devotionally—that cultivates Anglican parish health within the Catholic Church toward our eventual union with Holy Trinity at the Second Coming of Christ. His value to us today is that he wrote in prophetic anticipation of the then-nascent reconfiguration of Christian life post-Christendom. That is, he wrote not to “keep the boat afloat” but rather to “pick up after the party.” Anglicans have got themselves into quite a predicament, to put it mildly. For Thornton, the recovery of Anglican strength and genius lies not in recreating past glory but rather ressourcement: creative re-application through prayer of what formed us in the first place. It should then come as no surprise that his theological outlook is anchored in the Book of Common Prayer seen as Regula, that is, as a corporate system or Rule of “ascetic” in the tradition of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
With respect to Thornton’s insight use of that term, “ascetic,” from time to time I am asked about a distinction he made in the 2nd chapter of English Spirituality, a chapter which is called “Meaning and Purpose of Ascetical Theology.” Here is what he wrote:
I have said that ascetical theology is primarily a practical and synthetic approach to all other branches of theology, and only in a secondary sense is it a “subject” within theology. It may be convenient to think of the first as “ascetical theology,” an approach or process of theological thinking, and the secondary subject as “ascetical-theology”: in the first phrase “ascetical” is an adjective, the second phrase is a compound noun. The second derives from the first; the subject grows out of the process.
So Thornton distinguishes between ascetical theology and ascetical-theology, without and with a hyphen. The possible implications of the absence or presence of a hyphen may seem, it is true, like an odd topic to consider. What’s more, the conventional definitions of ascetical theology—“the science of the spiritual life” and “the science of human spiritual endeavor to attain to perfection,”—do not clarify much here. To be sure, Thornton would hardly reject these definitions. Both were important to his re-reading of formative influences for their profound bearing on Anglican prayer life (ressourcement). This distinction between ascetical theology and ascetical-theology was in fact another key to that larger effort, and I think Thornton’s insight remains potent for us today.
Thornton surely felt constrained by the fact that “ascetical theology,” being then a well-worn term, could not be easily redefined or even re-thought. Today, our situation is not so constrained, ironically, because “ascetical theology” as a term has effectively vanished in much of the Church. Thornton would no doubt applaud all efforts to re-cultivate this mode of Christian thought, for it may be that the “spiritual hunger” reported across at least the western Church might be met by just this particular approach to the Christian faith. After all, spirituality is the stuff of ascetical theology no matter how it is conceived. Yet what, then, is a key to reviving ascetical theology along Thorntonian lines?
Basically Thornton made a distinction between a way of doing theology on one hand, and a practical subject within theology on the other. The latter—ascetical-theology—refers to the wide variety of practices of personal devotion, such as particular set-prayers and devotions, biblical or theological meditations, fasting practices, mortifications and other acts. This is what for many people is the common connotation of the term “ascetical,” and this is what is generally meant by the Oxford Dictionary definition. Commonly, such ascetical-theology is suggested by a spiritual director or guide, whether parish priest or other trusted adviser. Hence, Thornton also called this “applied theology,” that is, the art of applying theology to the needs of particular individuals.
Thornton in no way would diminish its importance. Asceticism, or ascetical-theology, is a primary subject of his still-popular Christian Proficiency, and the subject figures prominently in several other books. He devoted significant analysis to such topics of actual versus habitual recollection, colloquy, composition of place, the division of prayer, biblical meditation, the relationship between prayer, fasting and mortification, temperaments, the “Three Ways,” and the like. A distinguishing characteristic of Thornton’s theology, in fact, was his mastery of the ascetical-theology writings standard to his day. He drank deeply from early 20th-century Anglican ascetical writing from the likes of Underhill, Harton, Hardman, and Frost, as well as from Roman Catholic ascetical writing from the likes of Scaramelli, Baker, Ignatius, Guibert, Tanqueray, Goodier, and others. These and other writers provided what Thornton meant by “ascetical manuals and textbooks.” Indeed, Thornton mastered the rules before he sought to renovate them.
In so doing, Thornton grappled with the deeper question. What, he asked, might undergird such ascetical-theology practices? Ever the farmer and gardener, Thornton sensed that there must be a wider theological environment within which ascetical-theology is embedded, the existence of which gives ascetical-theology its ground, meaning and final purpose. If so, how would we describe such an environment?
All of this points to one of Thornton’s most overlooked theological contributions. The answer lay in the question, what is ascetical theology in fact a theology of? The answer was this: ascetical theology is the theology of “ascetic.” A simple answer, yet should this surprise us? After all, consider the various departments of theology. Dogmatic theology is the theology of Christian dogma; moral theology is the theology of morality (choice and ethics); liturgical theology is the theology of liturgy; mariology is the theology of Mary, and so on. As a matter of course, ascetical theology would in some sense have to be the theology of ascetic. But what does “ascetic” mean?
Thornton spent significant time clarifying his use of ascetic. We find it as early as his second book (Pastoral Theology; later reissued as The Heart of the Parish), and it was firmly in place by the writing of English Spirituality, his seventh. What he meant by ascetic is an overall corporate model of total spirituality and growth (obedience and practical discipline). Thornton anchored his insight upon the recognition that training and exercise—askesis—presupposes a “race” to run, else what is the training and exercise for? In Thornton’s theology, “ascetic” is a compound and technical metaphor of the active participation in the overall Christian race—more commonly, “journey”—that is, the obedient and disciplined following of Jesus. Biblically speaking, our journey can be said to begin with “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8.34) and become ultimately fulfilled in “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48). In other words, ascetic commences with the initial stirrings of the redeemed sense life and consummates in the eventual union with the triune God.
Ascetic, then, is an integral model of the contours of corporate obedience both actual and potential. Ascetic attempts to grasp the spiritual terrain of the threefold Church whereby the People of God follow Jesus along the penitential journey from sinfulness to perfection. Jesus disclosed this terrain himself through the Cross and Resurrection along with his promised Second Coming. The Church safeguards the boundaries through the doctrines of the Incarnation and Theosis. Yet this is a terrain of prayer, the obedient discipline of corporate Christian life. Hence ascetic, as a model, emphasizes the doing of Christianity, that is, corporate discipleship—“a comprehensive system aiming at wholeness, or better holiness, of life in Christ.”
This provides the true meaning of ascetical theology. Simply put, ascetical theology is the describing, seeking, framing and pastoral shaping of ascetic for use in community life, which today most commonly means the parish. Ascetical theology is the theology of ascetic. The articulating of ascetic, always within actual, given contexts and fluctuating situations, is ascetical theology.
So how can this renew Anglican theological thinking? The renewal can come because ascetical theology in the Thorntonian sense is deeply committed to the Incarnation of Christ (in the widest sense inclusive of the entire life, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth). The premise or underlying motif of his theology is “Every truth flowing from the Incarnation must impinge upon our corporate prayer.” Applying that motif as ascetical theology means all thinking, reflecting, teaching, counseling and writing about God presumes the Christian reality of ascetic, teleologically and actually. All such theology emerges within an obedience-discipline environment that seeks to regard everything as potential food for spiritual reflection and growth. Theology done in an ascetical way brings everything to God and assumes all data, even the most arcane bit of doctrinal nuance or ancient liturgical evidence, and certainly all doctrine, dogma, liturgical rite, ministerial encounter and, yes, everyday experience, impinges upon—that is, has some degree of actual or potential relationship with—our corporate prayer life. Ascetical theology, the articulating of the Church’s corporate experience at every level and phase, means everything matters during our “journey” through obedience-discipline environment of ascetic. As Thornton summarized, “If theology is incarnational, then it must be pastoral.”
This was the key to his ressourcement of Anglicanism’s formative influences and hence the Book of Common Prayer. Expanding upon the traditional conception of ascetical theology was precisely what he proceeded to do in the riveting chapters of English Spirituality that weave together the ascetical insights of Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor and the rest. This all was in full accord with the ressourcement spirit of Yves Congar (1904-1995)—for Thornton sought to move from “a less profound to a more profound tradition; a discovery of the most profound resources,” and he was primarily concerned with “the unity of the ever-living tradition” of the Church. Those were Congar’s words but they easily could be a description of Thornton’s theology. Those resources, those voices—saints, doctors and divines—constitute much of what lie “behind” the Book of Common Prayer and clarify what it can still mean for us today as our corporate system of discipleship.
The great works of theology, as Thornton emphasized, are almost invariably occasional because they are ascetical. Such works are rooted in real people’s lives and challenges: their journeys with Christ by turns joyful, confusing, painful, yet seeking salvation through the hope of Christ. It is when theology loses touch with ascetic—that is, detached from the environment of pastoral reality and prayerful application—that theology risks becoming, in the words of Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a “theoretical or intellectual construct . . . purely a game.” Rather, if the relationship between theology and ascetic is maintained, as Thornton would insist is crucial to Anglican tradition, a wider world of orthodox interpretation and prayer emerges that opens up our practice of the Christian life. Ascetical theology, whether by Thornton or anyone else, invites spiritual growth because it is always prayer speaking to prayer.
Overall, Thornton’s “hyphen without and with” distinction amounts to a matter of emphasis. “Ascetical-theology” is an important subject within theology; its personal, individual emphases focus on the applied practices of obedience and discipline. “Ascetical theology,” on the other hand, has a decidedly corporate emphasis and presumes the doctrines of Incarnation and Theosis in order to articulate the ascetical environment upon which the People of God journey. Thus several of the key principles of Thornton’s theology are ascetic and ressourcement. From both he derives his understanding of the Book of Common Prayer as our fundamentally Catholic and Benedictine system of ascetic, as well as his particular paradigms of ascetical theology and ascetical-theology.
Our Lord taught Saint Peter and all practitioners of theology, when he said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16.17). Theology in the Thorntonian sense demands that everything, whether mundane or sublime, be interpreted as food for discipleship because the true purpose of everything is only revealed by God Almighty—the maker, lover, and keeper of all things bright and beautiful, the telos of all creatures great and small.
. The first statement is from personal email correspondence and the second from a private interview granted me on July 2, 2014 in Cambridge.
. Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, Massachusetts:0 Cowley, 1986), 20.
. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 144 and 1543.
. Thornton acknowledged the term’s wider connotation meant an “ascetical person” such as the “Desert Ascetics.” The original Greek noun, askesis, meaning “exercise, training,” derives from the verb, askein, meaning “to exercise.”
. Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 1989), 10. This book was originally published as Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation.
. Matthew Dallman. Catholic and Anglican: Motif, Model, and Operations in Martin Thornton’s Theology. Master’s thesis. Nashotah House Theological Seminary, 2015. For a good but incomplete statement of Thornton’s premise, see English Spirituality, 21.
. English Spirituality, 21.
. Thornton’s ressourcement—that is, retrieving and re-reading patristic, medieval, and modern theologies in light of his theological motif and model—shares important similarities with the Nouvelle Theologie in the Roman Catholic tradition and with aspects of Paris School in Orthodoxy.
. See Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray, eds., Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012), 4–5.
. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion (Toronto: Stoddard, 1999), 82.