Tag Archives: Bernard of Clairvaux

“Prayer and Incarnation”

By Martin Thornton[1]

Contemporary theology is in confusion: which is at least to start with a proposition that nobody is likely to dispute. It is neither my present task, nor is it within my competence, to try to unravel the tangle; I am to be concerned with an examination of incarnational prayer within the contemporary situation. Nevertheless theology and prayer are inextricably bound together; theology without prayer is sterile, while prayer without theology can be over-fertile, giving birth to all sorts of outrageous monsters.

“Theology may be defined as the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available.”[2] Thus: “ . . . some experience of the life of faith precedes theology and may indeed be said to motivate it.”[3] “Participation in a religious faith,” “experience of the life of faith,” are reasonable definitions of prayer: so prayer precedes and motivates theology. Conversely theology guides prayer, supplying it with an intelligible structure and foundation.

Modern controversy remains peripheral to my purpose, yet in view of this theology-prayer interplay, some attention must be given to it. After that it will be necessary to reverse the process and take a look at contemporary trends in spirituality: how in fact do modern people pray? What is their aspiration and attrait? What sort of questions and problems most frequently confront the spiritual director? Only after such a preliminary skirmish can we get down to our real business: an examination of incarnational-or christological-prayer as it impinges on the experience of the modern faithful.

I

For present purposes the current debate might be seen as between the “orthodox” (a significant word since it means right worship instead of, or at least as well as, right belief) and the “radical.” This is an oversimplification: radical theologians may come up with a refined and enlightened orthodoxy, while all of the orthodox would be happy to be called radical in the literal sense of getting to the root of the matter; their objection is to the theory that you must cut down and burn the whole traditional tree in order to reach that root. However, the rough distinction should be fairly clear. Let us settle for orthodoxy as sanely conservative, paying humble if not uncritical homage to the wisdom of the past, regarding tradition not as antiquarian but as a living lifeline; as against the tear-it-all-down-and-start-from-scratch school. To narrow the context, we are concerned with those to whom the principles enshrined in the definition of Chalcedon are true, however validly the statement may be criticized, reinterpreted, or put into a different philosophical frame; and those to whom this formula, especially as it touches upon the full divinity of Jesus Christ, is regarded as suspect, inadequate, unintelligible or superfluous.

Given a controversy of this sort, it is impossible for a struggling Christian to remain unbiased; whatever one’s intellectual integrity and logical discipline, it is inevitable that the process of prayer itself, one’s intuition, faith-venture, experience, instincts, or whatever, will incline towards one side or the other. It is more honest to state one’s bias quite bluntly, inviting readers to adjust their response accordingly, than to claim impartiality. I am on the orthodox side, which brings me to a prior objection to the opposing viewpoint.

Much radical theology (another necessary generalisation within the brief compass of this essay) inclines to an arid intellectualism; a kind of neo-rationalism. What cannot be logically demonstrated or intellectually explained must perforce be dismissed. This is not only arrogant but curiously old fashioned; rationalism is itself two centuries out of date, and more recently I thought I heard something like its death knell in James Ward’s Psychological Principles, in F. R. Tennant’s tirade against the “psychologist’s fallacy,” and in A. N. Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism.’ Even more curious is that this outlook runs counter to contemporary, existential-and indeed biblical-emphasis upon the synthetic wholeness of human experience. The contemporary stance might be expressed as something like: “I ex-ist, stand out in creation as self-conscious being, therefore I am.” Some of our radicals would appear to go back to quasi-Cartesianism: “I think, so perhaps I am, but nothing will convince me except cerebration.” One suspects this school to be confusing belief with faith, and then failing to see the connection between them: more simply, are they leaving prayer on one side? Or to introduce Professor Macquarrie’s important distinction, are they confusing theology with philosophy of religion?[4]

There is nothing to be said in favour of obscurantism, or in favour of blind faith. There is much to be said for intellectual integrity, but the first step towards it is the admission of intellectual inadequacy, especially when we are dealing with the superior human aspiration like prayer. All of which is not to side with the simple faithful against the professional academic, to set piety against theology, but to insist upon the necessity of their marriage. Moreover, however interdependent the marriage partners, it is prayer, “participation in a religious faith,” that “precedes and motivates” theology. Total faith-experience, not just intellection, is our premise.

My second criticism of much (obviously not all) radical theology is that it is inclined to be narrowly biblicist. The New Testament is placed against its widest contemporary background, all the scholarly tools of the critical trade being brought to work upon it. But it is then abstracted from its ecclesiastical context. If theology is as defined, as the Church clarifying its experience, then the total, ongoing life of the Church cannot be ignored: “the theologian speaks out of the community of faith, the philosopher of religion is an individual investigator.”[5] The biblical interpretations of the Fathers and the Schoolmen may be questioned by contemporary scholarship, but they cannot be ignored, and the doctrinal formulations arising from Patristic and Scholastic interpretation cannot be dismissed. You cannot reach the root by cutting down the tree. I find it difficult to subscribe to the view that the Church, however defined, was infallibly inspired when it wrote the New Testament and formulated the canon, and has been consistently wrong ever since.

It is conceivable that the Church might have interpreted the experience of the Last Supper as a dominical exhortation to a sort of extended, secularised, grace-before-meals, while developing a liturgical extravaganza at the heart of which was ceremonial feet-washing. According to the Fourth Gospel, should not something like this be the central act of Christian worship? But no New Testament scholar however objectively glued to the text, can ignore the fact that throughout its progressive life-history, the Church has thought and acted differently. In fine, you cannot do theology, even biblical theology, without reference to how the Church, that is Christian people, felt, thought, prayed and worshipped, throughout the ages, not excluding our own. Biblicism reduces itself to religious philosophy.

My last dissatisfaction with the radical school is that it appears to be deficient in pastoral perception. This needs explanation. I have no use for the view that all theology ought to be immediately applicable to the practical situation; that books and lectures that do not inspire parish priests to produce next Sunday’s sermon with added zeal are to be dismissed as academic and useless. But if we stick to our definitions, theology should articulate the total experience of the living Church, which includes the prayer and experience of its individual members. If Auntie Emily tells of visions of angels behind the henhouse it is the business of theology to discern, investigate, diagnose and guide. In my experience, which is inevitably both narrow and biased, orthodoxy is surprisingly good at this; its theology may be written in what looks like metaphysical obscurity, yet it manages to keep one foot firmly on the ground, behind the henhouse. Radical theology is inclined to be academic in the wrong sense, which is itself unorthodox. The vast Augustinian corpus for example: De Trinitate, Confessions, Enchiridion, et al, may not be easy reading but it is all pastorally orientated. It is the work not of an academic but of a struggling Christian and a Bishop dealing with a diocese. It is all embedded in prayer and a sunny spot behind the henhouse is not a bad place from which to tackle it. Radical theology looks lost outside the senior common room.

II

That launches us upon our investigation from the opposite, and primary, position: how do modern people pray? What is their aspiration, attrait, learning, experience, which it is the business of theology to clarify and articulate?

Riding rough-shod over the sophistries, we must begin with some explanation of what I choose to call the existential stance. By this I refer to the instinctive, intuitive, conditioned outlook of modern Western people, especially in so far as it differs from the outlook of the recent past. The change has come about in the last century, perhaps since 1900, perhaps 1914; that is for the sociologists and professional historian-anthropologists to argue about. The point is that modern people think and live according to existential, rather than substantive, principles and interpretations. Modern people in the Western world are existentialists, even if they would be surprised to be so described and even if they have never heard of Sartre or Heidegger. I support this viewpoint by asking a simple question: what is a rolling-pin? The Fathers of the Church, the Schoolmen, the Caroline Divines and the Victorians would answer that it was a cylindrical piece of wood; modern people would define it as a tool you made pastry with. The first is the substantive answer: what is it made of, what are its attributes? The second is the existential answer: what is it for? how is it used and experienced?

The change is recent. The Victorians spoke of gold-sovereigns, we do not talk about paper-pounds, because we are no longer interested in what money is made of, only in what we can do with it, how we can experience its worth.

I am almost forced to change sides and throw in my lot with the radicals, who recognise that our credal formulae, including Chalcedon, are written in language that makes little sense to modern people, and which is no satisfactory guide to contemporary christological prayer. To the modern Christian, a list of the divine attributes is as helpful as a wooden cylinder is to a budding cook. Is Jesus a redemptive presence or a metaphysical complex of natures and persons and substances? My orthodoxy here recognises the genuine strengths of the radical position. But will the radical respond by mitigating his intellectualist, biblicist, and anti-pastoral emphases, and begin at the beginning: how do modern people pray? And which of us can best guide them?

The first result of this change of outlook is an emphasis, either recognised or subconscious, upon total integrated being rather than psychological analysis of the person. In current jargon, prayer concerns the whole being, it is a total response, an absolute commitment. If the movement may properly be called existential, it is also both biblical and dominical: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” But if we recognise the biblical doctrine of man, this must mean all at once not faculty by faculty.

This accounts for the modern reaction against Ignatian-type mental prayer, and consequent movement towards simple contemplation. The one is discursive, analytic and intellectualist—“mental” in fact—while the other is concerned with total synthetic experience. So Ignatian-type mental prayer would appear to be the natural carry over from a good deal of radical theology today, hinting that such theology is not only out of step with contemporary philosophy but also out-of-date for modern pastoral practice.

The emphasis is on relationship, in Christian context baptismal relationship. Modern prayer begins not with something one does but with the acceptance and working out of a status that one has been given. In the next section I hope to show that this, too, fits in very well with orthodoxy, and that we are liable to come to a savage full-stop without incarnational and christological orthodoxy.

If spiritual direction is to be competent, such christological orthodoxy expressed in contemporary, non-substantive terms, can prove a great stimulus, especially with incarnational contemplation. On the other hand, contemporary spiritual guidance would lose much efficiency if Chalcedon were completely thrown away. Despite five centuries of legitimate criticism, the condemnation of the four heresiarchs still offers invaluable safeguards and warnings. When put together, ancient and modern interpretations of orthodox christology combine vital experience with clarity of thought.

III

Precisely what is meant by incarnational prayer? This question can now be examined in the light of the foregoing, and such examination should throw light on its congruence with radical and orthodox christologies.

I suggest that four main types, or stages, of prayer come under the general heading of incarnational. They overlap, yet they are progressive stages in which incarnational theology needs to become more sophisticated and more important.

The first stage is prayer based upon the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. What did Jesus teach about prayer? Comparatively little, but enough to give some sort of guidance. The Pater Noster itself can be studied and analysed to give rise to specific forms and methods. The example of Jesus is more fruitful: did he himself adopt any specific method, outlook or ascetical structure? This question has been fully examined by many scholars and, despite obvious disagreements in interpretation, a clearer pattern emerges.[6]

The living and praying Christian is guided by the scholars, but he also needs guidance from Christ himself, which means meditation upon his words, works and acts. Some kind of Ignatian-type, discursive exercise comes in at this point.

The christological assumptions of those making this type of prayer will colour its value and authority. Yet it is not wholly incompatible with radical, quasi-Arian interpretation; Jesus is a significant teacher of prayer, who may be studied in the same way as St Bernard can be studied. But there are snags when this sort of christology is placed in its wider New Testament context, and still more when it is widened into the whole ascetical tradition of the Church. The holy women and St Thomas the Twin worshipped Christ; to devout Jews to whom idolatry is the sin of sins, this can only mean that they regarded his as divine: Chalcedon grows out of the experience of the living Church. Moreover, the multifarious and diverse schools of prayer which later arose not only followed Chalcedon, but they would all fall to pieces without it.

The second stage of incarnational prayer is that which sees Jesus as Mediator and Intercessor. This might be stretched into compatibility with an Arian christology: Jesus is invoked to mediate and intercede after the fashion of the invocation of the saints. But more difficulties arise. Why should any mediator between God and man be required—the time-honoured Protestant question? Because of the infinite gulf between them. We are inevitably led into the doctrine of the Trinity without which no christology makes sense. Jesus points to the transcendent Father. The New Testament is clear about that if it is clear about anything, and yet the error of immanentalism is rife in contemporary prayer, life and thought. If man was made but little lower than the angels it is forgotten that the angels were made infinitely lower than God. So any genuine mediator must be considerably more than human: Cur Deus Homo? is still a good question. Perhaps a quasi-Arianism, or some more sophisticated Arian interpretation might still just be possible. But if that is so we have departed from meditation and descended to invocation, or straight intercession. But invocation-intercession, in any Christian sense, depends on the doctrine of the Church, which in turn depends—as we shall see later—on orthodox christology.

The third stage of prayer is that which arises from the idea of encounter. Jesus is neither ancient teacher not remote intercessor but living presence: “Lo, I am with you alway.” Prayer now consists in meeting with the living Christ; eucharistically, recollectively, and by way of continuous personal guidance. We no longer live according to remote and objective Christian principles, neither do we rely on some shadowy faith that Jesus makes continual intercession to the Father for us. Jesus is here, over there, in encounter, to talk to, lean on, argue with; he is our friend and brother, present guide and leader. Right action depends not on principles but on what Jesus commands here and now; right prayer depends on his initiative. We approach the situation-casuistry in ethics and the existential interpretation in prayer: there is Christ and here am I, so let us talk, embrace and work things out from where we are.

That looks as if we are drawing nearer to radical christology, especially the type which argues that if Jesus is God, man, and sinless, then he is too remote to enter fully into the human situation. In fact we are drawing further away from this kind of thinking; there are far more snags than we found before. Living encounter must mean a God-man encounter in two senses: first man meeting God, and secondly man meeting God transcendent through the mediation of a God-man. Because if Jesus is Man, pseudo-god, and possibly sinful, then we might find ourselves on happier terms with him than with the Christ of Chalcedon, but we are on no terms at all with God. So prayer has stopped. Moreover, could one reasonably speak of encounter with the living presence of a Man-possibly-sinful-pseudo-God? We can follow the written teaching of the man-Jesus or of St Bernard; we can ask either to intercede for us with the Father; we can believe in the communion of saints in which St Bernard is in some sort of living intercessional rapport with us, but can we realistically encounter the living and resurrected and glorified Bernard? Perhaps, but there is a difficulty and a difference: you cannot put Jesus at the top of the list. If the invocation of St Bernard means anything it depends upon a doctrine of the Church that depends on a christology something like Chalcedon.

The fourth stage is that which is, for reasons explained in section 2 above, generally adopted in pastoral practice and which seems meaningful and attractive to modern Christian people. This is the concept of prayer based upon the Pauline doctrines of the Church and of our status en Christo: the idea of baptismal incorporation.[7] We do not merely encounter Christ, still less follow his teaching or ask for his mediation: we are “in Christ,” incorporated into the Body of Christ. What does this mean in terms of prayer and day-to-day spiritual experience? It means that the sacred humanity of Jesus is ontologically extended to embrace humanity, and in a particularly creative way, baptised humanity. The whole of our nature, the whole of our being, intellect, senses, emotions, intuitions, appetites, and the rest, are made one with their counterparts in the humanity of Christ: we are wedded to Jesus and the twain shall be one flesh: to taste an apple is to participate in the sacred humanity.[8] Prayer becomes contemplative, non-discursive, total and supra-intellectual.

There is overlap; the prayer of incorporation, incarnational and eucharistic, does not preclude the concept of encounter, although it transcends it, neither does it eliminate the notion of mediation or New Testament meditation. But this common stage in incarnational prayer, common in pastoral guidance and not particularly “advanced” but congenial to the modern temper, is wholly dependent upon orthodox christology. You can learn about prayer from both Jesus and St Bernard, you can invoke both to intercede for you, you might, at a stretch, encounter them both, but it is impossible to speak meaningfully about incorporation into the humanity of Bernard. The Jesus of Chalcedon is nearer than the saints so soon as one’s prayer has got off the ground. The conclusion is that if the neo-Arian christology is adopted then Christian prayer is confined to the kindergarten, from which it has no hope of emerging. We could, and strictly speaking should, go on further to stages five, six and seven: into the realms of Christian and christological mysticism. But space, not discounting this writer’s limitations, forbids.

What I have tried to do in this brief essay, having freely admitted to personal prejudice, is to look at theology, both orthodox and radical, from the viewpoint of spiritual and pastoral experience, and of ascetical theology. I have little use for intellectual obscurantism, for blind faith, and still less for the criticism that the wretched radicals disturb the faith of simple Christians; a little disturbance does simple faith no harm, and if the incarnation is taken seriously and prayerfully, then faith must be severely tested every morning of the year.

From our stance, however, radical theology does not come out of the examination very well, for it would appear to suffer from a threefold restrictiveness: a narrow intellectualism, a narrow biblicism, and a lack of historical perspective. It is nothing very new; all three weaknesses arose in the eighteenth century and led into Deism. Today they go into the opposite direction towards an all-prevailing immanentalism: theology is displaced by religious philosophy, Christ becomes man, the Church is turned into a human society, and religion sinks into moralism. There is no place left for God the Father Almighty, and so for religion. Pastoral prayer—the adjective is superfluous—remains the premise and springboard for theology, and despite the interrelations, it must be the final judge of theology. Its judgement favours orthodoxy because only orthodoxy can support it. Theology is the articulation of the Church’s experience, it is not speculation about God in a vacuum.

[1]. Martin Thornton, “Prayer and Incarnation.” Christian 4, no. 4 (1978), 317-324. Transcribed by Matthew Dallman for the occasion of Martin Thornton’s centenary, 11 Nov 2015; Martin Thornton, pray for us.
[2]. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition (SCM Press: London, 1977), l.
[3]. Ibid., 5
[4]. Ibid., 21-25.
[5]. Ibid., 2.
[6]. For example, J. Jeremias, The Prayer of Jesus (SCM Press: London, 1962); Lewis Maclachlan, The Teaching of Jesus on Prayer (James Clarke: London, 1960); William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (SCM Press: London, 1960).
[7]. See E. L. Mascall, Christ, The Christian, and The Church (Longmans: London, 1946), 77ff.
[8]. G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1943), 57-8.

Martin Thornton’s Ressourcement Syllabus

[from the appendix to English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition, rev. ed. 1986.]

A Course of Study in Ascetical Theology for Parish Priests and Theological Students of the Anglican Communion

After delivering lectures on this and kindred subjects, I am invariably asked for a “reading list” by those of my audience whose interest has been stirred, or more likely, by those whose politeness and charity wish to give that impression. It is an immensely difficult request: we are not dealing with a “subject” with its own clearly defined literature, but with an approach to theology springing from, and leading back to, prayer. Neither are we dealing with scholars for whom theological study is their main job, but with busy parish priests and students whose burdensome curriculum does not include ascetics as such. This practical point is frequently forgotten by the compilers of such reading lists or courses of study; nothing is more frustrating to serious students and parish priests than to be given prescribed reading at the rate of twenty tomes a month, or to be exhorted to such scholarly ideals of sticking to original sources and eschewing simple commentaries. Since those giving this advice frequently spend their lives writing commentaries, one is forced to wonder what is the point of them all.

The following scheme is an attempt to avoid such impractical ideals. It is, I think, the sort of scheme that a serious reader of this present book—itself no more than an introduction—might naturally compose for himself. Spread over two years, in eight quarterly periods, the scheme suggests ten books to be seriously studied, which is possible to a parish priest giving only five hours a week to it. These books are listed in the first column. Column 2 lists twenty more books which might be “read through” rather than pored over; almost bedside books; or which may be referred to casually at odd free moments. The third column contains a selection of “devotional” books for use in private prayer, which fit in with the reading and which should give a fair picture of English spirituality in action.

My scheme is obviously suggestive: details may vary with personal choice, and it is not meant to be adhered to rigidly. The daily Office is of course assumed, as is meditative use of the Bible throughout. Anyone who finds difficulty with the Office might well bring in some of the Caroline devotional teaching much earlier than the last six months of the two-year period. I have omitted the fundamental “background” books like Harton, Pourrat, and Scaramelli: these might be regarded as general works of reference. I have also kep rather too strictly to the English School: we have seen how St Ignatius Loyola and the Carmelites can be usefully incorporated, while slight acquaintance with, say, the Rhineland Dominicans brings English spirituality into relief by contrast.

I have tried to keep only to books currently in print, and have included devotional books most of which are now available cheaply in paperback form. A few visits to a good theological library, however, would reveal extra riches, particularly in the form of seventeenth-century manuals of private devotion.

If five hours a week of serious study (column 1) are backed up by a similar period of mental prayer or spiritual reading, I think we might have a creative scheme not unduly arduous to the type of reader in mind. Remembering the central speculative-affective synthesis, the main columns also tend to become interchangeable: Anselm and Julian can obviously either be studied or prayed. With a little fluidity and ingenuity it will be found that the four yearly quarters more or less fit with the liturgical season (Advent-Septuagesima, Septuagesima-Easter, Easter-Trinity 10, Trinity 10-Advent). I do not think a parish priest following such a scheme need spend much time on sermon preparation or devotional addresses: nor do I think these would be sub-standard!

My own scheme here appended is neither perfect nor invariable, but as a pattern I hope it may be practical and of use.

For the specific recommendations in the Syllabus, see here.

“The Diverse Riches of Prayer”

By the Rev. Dr Martin Thornton
The Times (UK)
14 December 1968

The Creeds grew out of the first disciples’ confrontation with Christ, that is out of “prayer,” and they remain the only source of responsible experiment in prayer. But these formulae need reinterpretation in every age; spirituality constantly changes with new situations and “traditional” prayer presents itself not as some simple set pattern but in a gloriously rich diversity.

All the great names in the unfolding story of Christian devotion were startling innovators in their day. Now, as then, “modern” theology is the Church’s attempt to make intellectual sense of the Gospel as it impinges—or fails to impinge—upon the practical situation. “Modern” prayer must grow out of this foundation.

The unquestioned emphasis in world-wide theological thought is now centered on the doctrine of creation. This is not “new” but a revival of a traditional strand of spirituality traceable from Saint Paul through Saint Benedict, the School of Saint Victor, the Friars Minor and the Dominicans, up to Teilhard de Chardin. There are some significant pointers as to where this movement is leading.

First, creation, including human society, is to be wholeheartedly affirmed, because God is active within it and because it has its proper share in Christ’s redemption. Thus prayer is seen primarily as a contemplative union with created things rather than as a series of discursive “acts” of meditation: it is a question of intuition rather than of intellectual understanding; more a living continuum and less of a series of pious exercises; a quest rather than a duty.

It is from this perfectly orthodox and historical strand that responsible Christians are led to reject the rigid timetables, methods, and disciplines of former times. The current concern with society and its various relationships, with the sanctification of daily work, with a continuing “holy worldliness,” all spring from the same theological source.

Secondly, it is from a revival of interest in the doctrine of creation, not from outworn controversies, that modern spirituality becomes more eucharistically oriented. Therefore other liturgical acts and cults—whether Anglican mattins or the cult of the Sacred Heart—are likely to diminish in popularity and meaning. A further decline in “church-going,” even among the faithful, could be a quite legitimate outcome, and we should not panic because it has all happened before: St Bernard criticized the Cluniacs for spending too much time in chapel; both Franciscan and Jesuit have lifted the divine office from the choir into the market-place.

Thirdly, moral disciplines, which support prayer, are thoroughly world-affirming, because creation is part of man not merely an arena in which he strives. Moral “permissiveness” and the rejection of “asceticism” are little more than new names for certain forms of probabilist casuistry: both may be unwise, but they do not necessarily spring from irresponsible laity. Saint Benedict, no less than the modern radical, was insistent that the created environment was to be loved not rejected. The Church has always warned against austerity for its own sake, and against “asceticism” in its more exaggerated forms, while the doctrine of a thorough-going “detachment from creatures” has but a fleeting place in the total story of Christian spiritualist.

Throughout history theological stresses come and go, the pendulum swings, and it has often swung too far in one direction or another. This may well be true of the present exciting, and potentially creative situation, and we should be warned of three of the more apparent dangers.

First, prayer is always response to the prevenient divine action, and this implies some sort of disciplined daily pattern of devotion. Tradition insists that the ancient ideal of “holy worldliness” is never achieved without it, and the not unhealthy revolt against too rigid methods, rules, and time-tables, could leave us only with an unattainable ideal.

Next, the intuitive, prophetic, inspirational aspects of Christian life upon which both modern prayer and theology place so much stress, themselves demand the seedbeds of quiet silence, solitude, and withdrawal. These, too, can be exaggerated and they may become pietistical, but they can never be wholly eliminated.

Lastly, is the overriding danger of immanentism: there must always be a central place for the pure praise of God Almighty, or we are in danger of bringing our God so much into the market-place that he turns out to be something less than the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

Cover image “Christ Acheiropoietos” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

Duccio di Buoninsegna - Appearance Behind Locked Doors

Martin Thornton’s Map for Anglican Ressourcement

INTRODUCTION

At some point any serious, committed Anglican — particularly someone who understands, or has been told, that Anglican spirituality is actually thoroughly Catholic, though distinct from Roman, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Oriental Catholic — is likely going to confront a simple but serious question: What is the nature of Anglican theology?

This is a good question. Perhaps for Catholic Anglicans, it is a crucial question, because this particular question might get at the heart of authentic Anglican identity. And doesn’t the Anglican communion face a crisis of identity that would be particularly good to resolve, in order to save what might be an imploding tradition?

Many Anglicans know, and all should, that Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (d. 1972) famously said about Anglicanism, “We have no doctrine of our own.  We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and these creeds we hold without addition or diminution.  We stand firm on that rock.” These words ought plaster the top of every formation handout given to Anglicans in parish formation classes. Fisher’s statement is profound, scriptural, patristic, and humble. Its truth guides our tradition.

Yet there is a difference between doctrine and theology. These are intimately related, but markedly distinct. Indeed, in my view (the point is debated, to be fair), the Archbishop remains correct: Anglicanism has no unique doctrine of its own. At its core, it reflects a “school of Catholic spirituality.” Spiritual schools, after all, do not concoct new official doctrines. Rather various Catholic traditions work with the doctrines that holy Church has defined, according to the whole — the Vincentian Canon is ever-useful: “Care must especially be had that that be held which was believed everywhere, always, and by all.” But yet again, we have the distinction between what is believed (doctrine) and how the doctrine is worked with, how it manifests in the life of a particular tradition or school (theology).

So we know what Anglican doctrine is. It is Catholic doctrine, as believed everywhere, always, and by all (which is not to even slightly suggest its use is merely static and perfunctory) — foundational doctrines include the Doctrine of God, the Doctrine of Creation, and Doctrine of the Church, and so on. But the nature of Anglican theology is another matter. And here we are entitled to claim a particular “theology”. But let’s be clear: we follow Anselm (along with many, if not most, Christians) in defining “theology” as faith seeking understanding. Or to expand this: theology is the manner by which faith in the orthodox doctrines of holy Church seeks to develop both language and practice in the dynamic life of Christian communities. Immediately we perceive that “the manner by which” presupposes a plurality of theologies. Different theologies emerge in the working out in actual Christian lives of doctrine universal to the whole Church from its first moments today. Different schools have their differing languages and differing practices — within the Mystical Body of Christ exist a matrix of complementary living theologies. This is all well and good, and thoroughly orthodox. Because there are various Catholic schools within the historic Church, it follows that there are various Catholic theologies.

So, amid this plurality, the many strands of catholicity within the Church, what is Anglican theology? What is our school of Catholic theology, born of our spirituality?

ENTER MARTIN THORNTON

I would propose that Martin Thornton has given Anglicanism a permanent gift, which is his book, English Spirituality. This book is already well-loved and appreciated in Anglicanism, certainly in the United States. It is the go-to book to discuss ascetical theology and is a resource for pastoral theology. But I would argue that neither application exhausts the book’s gift. No, its true significance is more profound: it is nothing less than a thorough map of the “English School,” that is, of Catholic Anglican theology in its lineage, prepared for ressourcement. From Thornton, we have a clear sense of what the core curriculum of renewal is, and should be, for Anglican theology. His might be the very first instance that the contours of our school of theology have been thoroughly and concisely articulated.

Thornton never used the term ressourcement, but I doubt he would disagree strongly with this analysis of his work. (My master’s thesis is on his corpus.) In any event, all are advised to pull out their copy of English Spirituality and give it serious attention in this new light. I will not rehearse here the extended argument that Thornton makes, because it is nuanced and does require participation in Anglican liturgical and sacramental life to fully appreciate (as any school would require).

All that said, at this time, I merely want to diagram Thornton’s map for ressourcement. Some of this is indicated by the Table of Contents of English Spirituality, to be sure. Yet the finer details are not, and I might add that the diagram would bear further detailing. This is a broad-brush perspective intended to orient Catholic Anglicans to the genuine root-stock of our theological breeding, which is the English School of Catholic spirituality.

Here is the diagram, with a bit of commentary to follow:

The middle column is the primary strand of theology whereby contemporary Anglicanism corresponds with the New Testament Church. Thornton saw two “flowerings” of the English School. The first was in the 14th and 15th century with the quartet of Rolle, Hilton, Julian, and Kempe—and he also saw The Cloud of Unknowing as central, as well. The second flowering was the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer and the resulting Caroline Age. He defined the latter more broadly than most: from Hooker’s Lawes through Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life—essentially the seventeenth century. In terms of the side columns, we see Sts Augustine and Aquinas as the most influential across the ages. Additionally we see how the English School, and hence Anglicanism, has within it Franciscan, Dominican, Victorine, and especially, Cistercian influences.

Let me add some additional remarks:

Importantly, Archbishop Ramsey wrote an article called “What is Anglican Theology?“. I do recommend it, yet one must immediately note his answer is not to outline a curriculum, but to describe our Anglican method. Thornton talks about method, as well, in English Spirituality — he calls our method “speculative-affective synthesis”; but this can be described different ways, so Ramsey’s piece is useful. The “how” is just as important as the “what.” Yet do grasp the difference: above is Thornton’s understanding of the core curriculum of Anglican ressourcement. Thus something of this map is how Anglicanism has been, and must continue to be, a theological tradition, and not merely a methodological tradition — again, nothing short of being one of the genuine schools of Catholic spirituality.

Again, whereas English Spirituality has been interpreted and used as a guide for ascetical theology (a good thing!), I suggest its fullest gift is as a clear presentation of our true lineage of historical theology — as well as a helpful general commentary upon each of the major theologians living in our tradition, ancient and more contemporary, which is summed up as ressourcement. I believe that discerning and then living out explicitly our true inheritance of theology (as of 1986 when Thornton died) would go a long way toward long-term resolution of the identity crisis that plagues contemporary Anglicanism, and has hobbled Anglicanism for far too long of time. It is not a panacea, to be sure, but a thoroughly helpful guide, not merely to be looked at but used. Thornton invites you to pray with the works of our tradition, and English Spirituality is an expert-level commentary to help you as you do.

CONCLUSION

Obviously one could add complexity to this map in any number of directions with myriad additions. I’m unfairly lumping all the Caroline Divines together, for example, several of whom were in significant dialogue with, and critique of, various Reform theologies, not to mention an array of Fathers. The same could be said for the Tractarians and in particular Newman. The term “Ecumenical Divines,” is chosen to echo with the common “Caroline Divines,” as well as the also used “Evangelical Divines” and “Tractarian Divines.” The adjective “Ecumenical” simply refers to the fact that these theologians—the full list is longer, of course—lived in an age of marked ecumenism and ecumenical exchange within the Church both East and West, including the Second Vatican Council, which despite ecclesial disunity, impacted the entire Church. Thornton also would add the retired archbishop Dr Rowan Williams to this list, as Thornton saw Williams’ Resurrection as an excellent work of pastoral theology.

Acknowledging possible amendments to this diagram, let us not make it too complex. What Thornton has provided is the foundational map of our school of Catholic spirituality. In other words, we can add to it — after all, our school, if it is to be a living school, must be dynamic — but we ought resist subtracting from it, because to do so risks a deformed picture of who we are and how we have tended to follow Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, seminary application of this map could spring from Thornton’s curriculum; yet at the parish level for formation courses, even this basic outline provides an ample treasury of resources for reflection and devotional/doctrinal study, not to mention endless homiletic application. Parish priests and catechists take note!

POSTSCRIPT
Here is a short “core list“, recommended as a starting point for a curriculum in Catholic Anglican theology (historical and present-day):

St Augustine: Enchiridion
St Benedict: Rule
St Anselm: Proslogion
Walter Hilton: The Scale of Perfection
Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love
Margery Kempe: The Book of Margery Kempe
Jeremy Taylor, Rules for Holy Living

See also his “Syllabus for Anglican ressourcement“, which is longer yet intended for study over two or three years.

Update 2:
Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media.” Well, all hinges on what via media actually means. For Martin Thornton, it means the “speculative-affective synthesis”—that is, Benedictine balance of thought and feeling expressed in prayerful, creative action, which for him was a primary characteristic of the English School of Catholic spirituality. And as to whether there is no via media, figures such as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, John Wesley, John Keble, Charles Gore, Evelyn Underhill, William Temple, Michael Ramsey, John Macquarrie, Martin Thornton and, well, a lot more all argue against Neuhaus’ view. And, although I am biased, I think they get the better of it, by a long shot.

Cover image “Appearance Behind Locked Doors” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original