At some point any serious, committed Anglican—particularly someone who has heard that Anglican identity, despite what others may say, can be 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 takes us to the the heart of an increasingly important question: what is authentic Anglican identity? Anglicanism has a decades-long crisis of identity on a variety of fronts, but none more important than our spiritual identity. With the emergence of the Anglican Ordinariates, the stakes have been raised. Historic Anglicanism in communion with the historic See of Canterbury needs to have its true patrimony (spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral) brought to the foreground of common Anglican life, in order to recover and rebuild what otherwise is 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 be repeated widely in parish adult formation programs. Fisher’s statement is profound, scriptural, patristic, and humble. Its truth guides our tradition.
Yet while intimately related, there is a difference between doctrine and theology. To put the matter perhaps too simply: Doctrine (and dogma) constitutes the “what” of Christian belief; on the other hand theology emerges when doctrine is worked with in or “kneaded” in prayer according to pastoral realities. Theology manifests in the life of particular traditions or spiritual schools. Theology indeed rightly becomes spirituality, seen as a corporate phenomenon: or more specifically, as “spiritual theology.”
Indeed, Archbishop Fisher’s insight remains correct: Anglicanism has no unique doctrine of its own. But at the core of Anglicanism is something unique: not doctrine, but rather a “school of Catholic spirituality.” Spiritual schools do not concoct new official doctrines. Rather various Catholic traditions work with, or again, knead, the doctrines of 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.”
Anglican doctrine is Catholic doctrine, as believed everywhere, always, and by all (which is never to suggest its use is merely static and perfunctory). The foundational doctrines include the Doctrine of God, Creation, the Church, Atonement, Blessed Mary, Sacraments, and many more. These are reflected in the Catholic Creeds and in the Liturgy (both Mass and Offices).
But the nature of Anglican spiritual theology flows from Catholic doctrine as it has lived and breathed in the British lands and her ecclesial heirs. And it is in this sense that we are entitled to claim a particular “theology.” Saint Anselm defined “theology” proper as faith seeking understanding. To expand upon that: 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. The Church lives out doctrine in different ways according to time and place. It is by virtue of being an incarnational religion that different theologies emerge in the working out in actual Christian lives of doctrine universal to the whole Church from its first moments to today. Different schools have their differing languages and differing practices—within the Mystical Body of Christ exist a constellation 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 historic Anglican experience and worship?
ENTER FATHER MARTIN THORNTON
I propose that Martin Thornton has given Anglicanism—and the Church—a permanent gift, which is articulation of the contours of the English School of Catholic spirituality in his text, English Spirituality. This text is already well-loved and appreciated in Anglicanism, certainly in the United States (although also in many quarters effectively unknown). It is the go-to book to discuss ascetical theology and is a resource for pastoral theology. Yet neither application exhausts the book’s gift. The true significance is still more profound: it is nothing less than a thorough map of the “English School,” of Anglican patrimony in its thickest sense; that is, of Catholic Anglican theology in its lineage, prepared for ressourcement and pastoral application within parish life.
What does “ressourcement” mean? The French theologian Yves Congar defined it as conscious movement from “a less profound to a more profound tradition; a discovery of the most profound resources” (Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012), 4–5). From Fr Thornton, we have a clear sense of what the core curriculum for rediscovery of our most profound resources might be for Anglican theology. Fr Thornton’s might be the very first instance that the contours of our school of spiritual theology have been thoroughly and concisely articulated.
My master’s thesis details this argument at length. The term “ressourcement“, to be sure, is nowhere his corpus, because the term only came into fashion in recent decades. 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). Here, rather, is a broad diagram Thornton’s ressourcement map. 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 commentary to follow:
The middle column is the primary strand of theology whereby today’s living expression of Anglican patrimony corresponds with the New Testament Church. Overall we see a series of “divines,” or periods of flourishings led by theological writers. Building on Patristic and Monastic Divines, there were in Thornton’s view 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. Let us call this group our “Medieval Divines.” The second flowering was the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer and the resulting Caroline Age, the “Caroline Divines.” Fr Thornton 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.
The there are also “Evangelical Divines” (Wesleyans), “Tractarian Divines” (Keble, et al), and “Ecumenical Divines” (Mascall, Ramsey, Macquarrie, et al). 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. Additionally we see how the English School, and hence Anglicanism, has within it Franciscan, Dominican, Victorine, and especially, Cistercian influences.
Speaking of Archbishop Ramsey, he 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 spirituality—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.
REDISCOVERING OUR TRADITION
Rediscovery always involves returning to the sources—or, “back to basics”. How do we bring about rediscovery of the English School at the parish level, where the rubber meets the road?
The works that make up our tradition do issue in a curriculum that is comprehensive and, in one sense, large. Just look at the map. But to be well-acquainted with it does not present itself, at least to me, as a thoroughly impossible task. There are many texts, but there aren’t that many. In even rougher outline — Augustine’s Enchiridion, Benedict’s Rule, Anselm’s Proslogion, Julian’s Revelations, Margery Kempe’s Book, Jeremy Taylor’s Rules for Holy Living, and Macquarrie’s The Faith of the People of God, all guided by the Book of Common Prayer — and that is plenty good food for a parish journey. (See also Fr Thornton’s “Syllabus for Anglican ressourcement“, which is longer yet intended for study over multiple years.)
And of course, the concrete texts are not the whole story. Our theological tradition emerges from the marriage of texts within Anglican communities over our history. Our tradition, like any tradition, is what some call a “cultural-linguistic phenomenon”. That is fancy jargon. What is means is simple, however. How our conversation, as Catholic people in a variety of life situations and contexts, relates to the texts is as important as the actual words on the page. We are a family that lives around The Word. This life is through space and time. How we as Anglicans encounter The Word liturgically, sacramentally, corporately through the history of the Body of Christ makes for what we might call “our conversation”—all Anglicans, all Christians, all Saints, gathered around the table in conversation—listening to, feeding upon, and responding to, The Word. As Julian writes, “And what can make us rejoice in God more than to see in Him that He rejoices is us, the highest of all His works?” This is the essence of our conversation.
How do we communicate authentic Anglicanism to others? Before we talk it, we must know what “it” is. That is to say, we first must be able to identify our tradition. Hence the map, as a rough estimation of our tradition of theology as it has unfolded through history. That is the first step.
The second step, after we know what “it” is, becomes clearer: we must “live it.” We have to put our prayer in dialogue with these works, as best we are able, and make them our own (i.e., “appropriate” the texts). This happens through competent guidance by parish priests and lay catechists. The texts of our school, any school in fact, do not easily present themselves for use in prayer as easily as we might like.
Nonetheless, rediscovery is a matter of acquainting ourselves with our tradition, as our tradition. Start with Augustine, Benedict, Anselm, Julian, Taylor, Macquarrie, and proceed as you will to the others. Perhaps this seems imposing. It has to me, to be honest.
Yet the task of doing so starts with an immediate recognition: we are already acquainted with this map—because of the Book of Common Prayer. We are “Prayer-Book Catholics.” And because we are, we are participating in the “Anglican conversation”, the ressourcement map, by virtue of our liturgical life—what Thornton calls “threefold Regula.” Our liturgy is both the source and summit of our experience. It follows that our liturgy is the source and summit of our school of spirituality, in its fullest, most supreme, most actualized sense. O Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say The Word, and my soul shall be healed. Our liturgy feeds us. Furthermore, our liturgy is a school; it teaches our conversation.
To rediscover is to listen. “Listen!” is the first word of The Rule of St Benedict. Thus the “how to reacquaint” method perhaps emerges: within our liturgical life in Anglican parishes (which in its fullest sense is both Mass and Office), we read devotionally in our parish study groups works from the map. We talk about them in our small groups, and we allow the Holy Spirit to feed us, lead us, and unite us. We simply intend, and follow through with, to listen to the Holy Spirit through the works of our tradition. Doing so does two things: (1) it renews our understanding of who we are as Anglicans—the nature of prayer in the Anglican tradition, and (2) it gives us vocabulary that builds upon the vocabulary supplied by parochial formation courses.
These steps seem reasonable to me because we are already doing them. Yet to have the goal at least sketched out—the goal is to be able to respond to God in conversation with others—would seem to me to make the whole enterprise cleaner and more purposeful. Thornton, as usual, captures our task perfectly: “Any satisfactory spirituality . . . especially Anglican spirituality, can only evolve by serious study of our ancient tradition, plus bold experiment.” The task is ours to perform.
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 Evangelical Divines, the Tractarians and in particular Newman, and the Ecumenical Divines.
Acknowledging possible amendments to this diagram, let us not make it too complex. Or better, let it grow more complex through bold and devout experiment knowing the rootstock and key flowerings of our spirituality. 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.
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