Martin Thornton: Farmer, Priest, Author

1. Biography
Martin Stuart Farrin Thornton lived from 1915 to 1986. He was the youngest of three boys born to Alfred Augustus Thornton and Ida Beatrice (Farrin) Thornton on 11 November 1915. He was born in Hockley, England, and his name was chosen because his day of birth was that of the feast of St Martin. His father established and owned a patent law firm, and the family’s home was a Georgian style house on grounds of two acres, with a 7-acre field part of the property as well. Martin was baptized in the following Spring 1916.

Thornton’s initial exposure to Christianity through his family life appears to be of largely unspectacular and commonplace. All of the children were baptized in the local Church of England parish church (Hockley Parish Church of St Peter), and Thornton’s elementary education followed broadly the Church of England ethos. His older brothers went off to college when he was eight years old, so he was something of an “only child” until age 15 when he went off to boarding school. Hence he described himself as “imaginative, because solitary”.

Thornton’s formal education began in the field of agriculture and began adult life as a farmer. His father had acquired property (in Finchingfield in Essex) which Thornton then managed and farmed pigs, sheep, and sugar beet. He is said to have innovated a style of ploughing that is not straight lines but round and round in decreasing circles, and he was an early adopter of what are now called “sustainable/organic” farming practices.

In My God: A Reappraisal of Normal Religious Experience, Thornton describes a spiritual, or numinous, experience that he had as a farmer in Finchingfield. It appears that part of this land was previously a Cistercian grange (or satellite farm of the monastery). Here is a brief excerpt of his longer description of what happened as he walked in the field, working out a sense of personal anxiety about his direction in life:

It was mid-November, dark, dank, negative, and I walked through a swamp and across two meadows. . . . Then the fog descended, and so did the Spirit, all-shrouding is better than all-enveloping, because the former words hints at death while the latter has the false (in this case) connotation of comforting protection. If you want to make shallow jests about omnipresence and holy fog, then go ahead; I shall not be amused, not shall I be abashed. The presence of God was disclosed through the total foggy environment; and the disclosure pointed to the Father transcendent, to a Providence who brooked no opposition and no argument. It was very frightening, very uncomfortable, and very real.

It was also very confusing: no dialogue, no prophetic pointer, no answer. Then the fog cleared off, almost at once, in a most spectacular fashion, and a series of integrations, contemplative syntheses, took place. Creation through which God spoke, in which he dwelt, concentrated itself into a single beech tree. As befitted the occasion it was straggly, in a sinister way ugly, not especially significant compared with many of its fellows. But herein God took his stance, herein he disclosed. I, too, experienced a personal integration, a contemplative awareness. The beech tree spoke. . . .

A few weeks later a near-hurricane swept through the valley, but doing surprisingly little damage. I took the same walk, not to recapture the presence because that does not do; that would be Schubert Ogden’s semi-idolatry. There was nothing sacred about the beech tree: once it had been a pin-point of a total creation in which God dwells, a medium for his disclosure, that is all. I crested the hill and the tree was not there, only a gap making visible transcendent uplands beyond. The tree had succumbed to the gale, uprooted and straddled across the lane; a farmer friend was clearing a way through and cutting it up to burn. He could not understand it, for it was a healthy tree, and it was surrounded by decrepit elms which are especially susceptible to high winds, shallow rooted and brittle. Beeches do not readily fall. There were no more casualties within sight. . . .

Am I seriously contending that God intervened, intruded, destroying a beech tree for my personal benefit? No, I don’t think I am. It is more like Noah’s rainbow, just an ordinary rainbow, but nevertheless a specific disclosure at that point. Or who moved the stone? The holy women worried, but they need not have done. I worried, deep-down I think I was frightened of that tree: I need not have worried!

Everything came to pass as I knew it would. Now I am glad: Benedicite, omnia opera. O ye Winds of God, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him for ever.

Whether this experience of the “numinous”, as well as his farming background, sheds light on Thornton’s subsequent theological method and approach appears to be intriguing answered in the affirmative. Themes that connect doctrine and theology with the natural world of creation appear in his first book through his last.

Thornton graduated from King’s College London with a degree in Theology in 1946, and was ordained a priest in 1947 by the Bishop of Norwich. He published his first book a year later. In 1949 he began at Christ College, Cambridge to read theology, receiving his M.A. in 1955 having studied with the likes of Ian Ramsey. In 1955, he professed full vows to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. This non-residential order employed a rule that called for daily Eucharist, private recitation of the Office, celibacy, intellectual study, fellowship, and stewardship. In 1962, he accepted a teaching post (warden) at St Deiniol’s Library in Harwarden, Wales. A residential library, it trained ordinands and laity, and he additionally authored seven books while stationed there.


In terms of his personal life, Martin and Monica Thornton were married on 11 September, 1968, at St Mary Magdalene Parish, Loders, Dorset. The decision to marry meant that Thornton had to leave the Oratory. Nearly a year later, Monica gave birth to their only daughter, Magdalen Mary, on 23 July 1969. The photograph above of the three Thorntons was taken in May, 1985.

Subsequent to St Deiniol’s Library, Thornton was a visiting lecturer at The General Theological Seminary in New York (receiving an honorary doctorate in 1966; see photo, Thornton is 2nd from the right), and later at Philadelphia Divinity School. He almost became a professor at Nashotah House, but by the time the position was offered in 1975, he had returned to England to begin what became his last position. This was Canon Chancellor at Truro Cathedral in Truro, England, where he was responsible for the cathedral library and school, various administrative duties, and regularly presiding at Cathedral liturgies; additionally he developed a four-year course to train spiritual directors.

He died on 22 June 1986 in Crewkerne, England, where he is buried. He had authored a corpus of 13 books, a variety of contributions to other books, four substantial journal articles, and a variety of book reviews. His audience appears to be more centered in the United States than in the UK, although his book, The Purple Headed Mountain (1962) was named the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book of 1962, and Archbishop Michael Ramsey authored its Foreword.


2. Reflection
It is fascinating that Thornton is both so known and so unknown — a presence in Anglicanism beloved by many and invisible to many more. Martin Thornton was a man whose work was endorsed by the likes of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, John Macquarrie, Eric Mascall, and Donald Allchin. Given his wide variety of experience — a parish priest in the Church of England for many years, visiting lecturer at The General Theological Seminary and other theological schools, ten years Canon Chancellor at Truro Cathedral, specializing in spiritual direction — and despite the fact that he was recognized and celebrated during his life, it is curious that he said that he felt like he was something of an outsider in the Church of England.

Few now know that he was first a farmer and was an early adopter of organic/sustainable agriculture. Later, he was an early adopter of the theology of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, as well as contemplative practices for ordinary Christians. I would still further and say he was an early adopter of an “ecumenical Catholic Anglicanism” and ressourcement well before the Second Vatican Council, and he was an early adopter of the brilliant theology of John Macquarrie, whose “existential-ontological” dogmatic writing deeply impacted Thornton’s theology, starting with The Rock and the River, published in 1965.

Through it all, Thornton’s voice is that of the Catholic imagination, rooted in sanity, balance, and honesty. His writing is by turns erudite, witty, “homely”, and prophetic. He’s been described as “strictly orthodox and strictly radical,” but that only begins to describe him. For him, to be “orthodox” is to be “devoutly experimental”, and vice versa. His career began just after World War II, and he absorbed the impact felt by the entire western Church of emerging existential philosophy, the Liturgical Movement, the Second Vatican Council, the fall of “Christendom” and rise of “post-Christianity”, increasing secularization, and the reality of smaller and smaller average Sunday attendance in English pews.

Intellectually, one would situate his work with that of John Macquarrie, Michael Ramsey, the ressourcement theologians, C.J Stranks, A.M. Allchin, Karl Rahner, Eric Mascall, as well as following on from G.K. Chesterton and Evelyn Underhill. He is certainly among the most well-read Anglican theologians of the last 150 years, particularly given the scope of his theological interest.

Without question, all of his books are brilliant. Yet in English Spirituality, his magnum opus, he offered a comprehensive interpretation of the theological roots and dynamics within Anglicanism the likes of which have never before or since been expounded with as much clarity, detail, and thoughtfulness. Margery Kempe: An Example in the English Pastoral Tradition grew out of Thornton’s research and writing of English Spirituality and should be seen as its partner, and Spiritual Direction is a prequel to both despite being published twenty years later. The Purple Headed Mountain is the best introduction to his theological approach, and Pastoral Theology, philosophically, biblically, and theologically meaty, is the seed-bed for his whole corpus. All of his books form a mission statement for the future of Anglican theological study, in seminaries and in parishes.

He reinvigorated, even revolutionized, the discipline of ascetical theology, seen not merely as the “theology of ascetical practices” but more inclusively as the articulation of the Church’s corporate experience. This is evident his exceptional commentary on the works of Sts Augustine, Benedict, Bernard, Aquinas, and Anselm, as well as the likes of Hugh of St Victor, William of St Thierry, the Ancrene Riwle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe, Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor and other Caroline Divines, John Keble, and many more — the whole point of which is to demonstrate that the following statement is not idyllic speculation but simple fact:


In other words, his objective is to reinvigorate Anglicanism through the teaching of how it came to be in the first place — in a sense, the history of its prayer life — and how it can continue to live, thrive, and offer itself to the wider Christian community. For within Anglicanism, Thornton argues persuasively, there is the English School of Catholic spirituality — one of many schools within the historic Holy Church — and it is high time Anglicans actively claim this spirituality: because doing so is plainly the best response to the needs of our pastoral situation today.

Yet what he was all about was simple: he wanted to teach people how to teach the prayer life. He lived and wrote so that ordinary Christians could grasp the richness, profundity, humility, and rightness of faith in Christ Jesus as expressed and developed in the English lands, from the first days of Christianity all the way through into the 20th century. Although he never rejected the provocative formulations of early career (inspired by E.L. Mascall, Rudolf Otto, and Evelyn Underhill, among many others) by the end of his life his articulation of the Christian prayer life had grown, matured, and deepened into one thoroughly ecumenical, contemplative, biblical, creedal, and exciting. He believed that the primary pastoral need today is for competent spiritual direction, and for him, Anglicanism properly understood is perfectly suited to that task with its bulk of amassed spiritual riches, anchored in the Prayer Book, and a deeply ingrained DNA of Benedictine “family” life in the local parish.

In my view, he is a true Doctor and Saint of Holy Church, and will come to be recognized as such by more and more people as the exposure of this work increases.

Be that as it may, Thornton’s writing is simply unparalleled in all of Christianity. A substantial dimension of my God-given vocation is to help make all of this evident not merely to academics and bishops, but to ordinary, heroic Anglicans who live, breath, and grow in the Christian faith every day.

Matthew Dallman
Feast of St Gregory the Great 2014