The key features of “English spirituality”

Martin Thornton: English Spirituality

The complete consort dancing together.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.

I’m currently reading Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality. So far, it’s proving far less hard work than might be suggested by its rather forbidding subtitle: “An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition”.

Part of the problem is getting past the word “ascetical”. Thornton does not use the word to refer to an austere, gruelling spirituality in which it is “always winter but never Christmas”. Rather, “ascetical theology” is about the application of Christian doctrine to prayer. As he puts it in an early chapter:

ascetical theology is Christian doctrine interpreted and applied by a teacher of prayer together with the mental and physical disciplines which nurture and support it. (p.24)

Ascetical theology is thus, for the Christian, “the key to the art of living as fully, creatively, and indeed joyfully, as mankind is capable” (p.25).

Thornton’s particular focus is on “the English school” of spirituality: the spiritual tradition whose origins Thornton finds in Saints Augustine, Benedict and Anselm; whose golden ages were those of the fourteenth century mystics (such as Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich) and the seventeenth century of the Caroline divines; and whose most enduring liturgical expression is found in the Book of Common Prayer.

What, then, are the distinctive features of “English spirituality”. In a preliminary chapter, Thornton identifies six:

1. The speculative-affective synthesis.

English spirituality maintains an “extraordinary consistency” in combining “the theological and the emotional, doctrine and devotion, fact and feeling”. It insists:

…that prayer, worship, and life itself, are grounded upon dogmatic fact, that in everyday religious experience head and heart are wedded. (p.49)

English spirituality is thus neither coldly rationalistic, nor exuberantly ecstatic. It is the spirituality of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, with its combination of “disturbingly affective meditation” with “almost a treatise on the doctrine of the Atonement”.

2. The unity of the Church Militant.

English spirituality sees “a deep family relationship … between priest and layman, monk and secular”. This is the origin of its distrust of clericalism and authoritarianism, and “underlies the ascetical structure of the Book of Common Prayer”:

Seen as a system, not a series of services, it is the common basis for the Christian lives of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Superior of Mirfield, and all the schoolgirls who were confirmed yesterday. It embodies the pastoral spirit and domestic emphasis of the Benedictine Rule. (p.49)

That emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer as a system rather than what we would now call “a resource for worship” is a key concept for Thornton.

3. A unique humanism and a unique optimism.

English spirituality “is neither sentimental nor lax”, but always retains “the tremendous virtue of unquenchable hope”. Even at their most rigorous, the main figures in both the 14th and 17th century retain a “calm optimism” far from the “satanic sulphur and fiery brimstone analogies” of some other traditions. As Thornton observes:

St Benedict’s family theme remains constant: it may be a hard home but it is not a barracks. (p.50)

4. Liturgical and biblical devotion

English spirituality inherits from the Benedictine tradition an emphasis on the Mass and the Office as “the foundation of Christian life”, from which flows “personal devotion based on the Bible”. This is perhaps the area where the “Benedictine” nature of the Prayer Book “system” can be seen; as Thornton observes:

Before the conquest England was known as “the land of the Benedictines” (in spiritual theology rather than monastic order I think it still is). (p.46)

5. Habitual recollection

Neither St Benedict nor the Prayer Book say much about private prayer: they simply assume it will happen, as will meditation on the Gospel narrative and (following the Reformation) the vernacular, “open” Bible.

However, formal private prayer is not emphasised in English spirituality. Instead, the emphasis is on “habitual recollection”: the “constant recollection of Christ’s presence”, and the practical doing of God’s will in everyday life (think of Herbert: “Teach me my God and King  / In all things thee to see…”), are what link us to the Offices and liturgy, rather than detailed and systematic methods of personal devotion.

6. Spiritual direction

Thornton sees this as “central to English spirituality”, though with an “empirical” emphasis rather than being “dogmatic”, “juridical” or “authoritarian” in nature.

Weaknesses in English spirituality

However, there are dangers in “the English school”, as Thornton identifies: the desire for “balance” can easily degenerate into “the miserable heresy of ‘moderation in all things'”; the lack of formality in private prayer can lead to legalism (“going to church” as the be-all and end-all of Christian life) and a laxity in which “the sterner duties of Christian discipleship are apt to be overlooked in favour of a vague ‘good life'”; and its individualism can mean a lack of the safeguards against error that the Dominicans (say) find in their “deep and disciplined learning”, or that the “strongly affective schools” have found in “a strongly authoritarian priesthood” (pp.52f.).

Overall, though, the English school represents an attractive and deep-rooted approach to Christian life and devotion – one which I find particularly congenial, particularly the emphases on Office and “habitual recollection” over formal methods of private prayer. I’m looking forward to learning more about it as I continue reading Thornton’s book.

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2 thoughts on “The key features of “English spirituality””

  1. I found this very enjoyable to read, especially in its exploration of the wedding of fact and feeling (a very Eliotian theme). One is reminded of Bragg’s “sweet moderation, heart of this nation”, but that might be too much of a stretch. Certainly there is something cheerfully pagan about English spirituality, a determination that we all mind our own beeswax which, for me, explains the otherwise deeply perplexing good relations with Hindu India, given our history there. It is hard to imagine a Hinduphobic Englishman.

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