Sunday, 23 October 2011

Anglican spirituality

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What is distinctive about Anglican spirituality at its best?

What are the strengths and limitations?

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In the first instance, Anglican spirituality is less pure and perfect than that of Christian (Eastern) Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox ideal is monastic, meditative, mystical - they aim at the highest levels of spirituality - ascetic Holy Fathers, Saints and Elders.

The 'typical' Orthodox Saint is a person of extreme holiness.

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The Roman (Western) Catholic tradition also aims higher than Anglicanism. 

Rather than a specifically monastic and ascetic ideal, the focus is on the Pope, priests and a variety of religious orders.

Although there are ascetic Western Saints, typical Saints since the Great Schism are more likely to be great leaders, scholars or altruists.

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The Church of England has not made and does not officially recognize new Saints; and perhaps has not itself produced any Saints except for (early) Martyrs.

Instead, the height of Anglican spirituality has been literary.

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The greatest Anglicans in spiritual terms have been great writers, have expressed their spirituality perhaps most in their writings.

This is a limitation; but it is also a strength - because in a corrupt society words may remain available long after higher spiritual traditions have been cut-off.

To understand the core of Anglican spirituality entails, therefore, reading, reading-out and listening to words.

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(The loss of awareness of this fact - the literary nature of Anglican spirituality, that words are its essence - has been therefore, perhaps more than anything, responsible for the spiritual decline of the Church of England. When words are at the heart of a spirituality, and then these words are casually and frequently altered, that spirituality loses its cohesion, its strength, its gravitational-pull: breaks-apart.) 

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To learn Anglican theology one could not do much better - perhaps - than read and meditate upon the Anglican liturgy: the services of the Book of Common Prayer (in its original language, naturally).

In them is superficial appeal of course - literary beauty; but more importantly great profundity of doctrine, great balance and subtlety of distinction - a lifetime's worth.

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8 comments:

Daniel said...

This rings true to me.

Dale said...

Speaking as a Lutheran whose pastor and his wife have twelve children, I would say that Anglicanism seems less afflicted by "angelism" than Orthodox and Roman Catholic spirituality.

It must be admitted, however, that the Old Testament is very pro-marriage and pro-procreation. Psalms and other texts rejoice in God's loving provision of food and wine.

The Orthodox are firm on the idea that virginity is better than marriage (I don't have my copy at hand, but was reading that just today, in Orthodox Spirituality by A Monk of the Eastern Church, from St. Vladimir's Press); and that it is better to pray, fast, and give alms from what you didn't spend on that meal, than to eat with thanksgiving. I think Anglicanism would do a better job of shying away from saying X is better than Y when it comes to things that God gives to His people.

Dale said...

The book Orthodox Spirituality, p. 52, states (with evident approval) that Jovinian was "condemned and excommunicated" because he taught that "virginity and marriage are, in themselves, equally good and meritorious." He was also "condemned by the Church" because he taught that "the use of food with thanksgiving is as good as fasting" (p. 53).

The book also explicitly demurs from the idea that it's a matter of vocation -- that some have a vocation to marriage and family while others have a vocation to virginity. No; for the Orthodox, virginity is better. So says "A Monk of the Eastern Church" in this book from St. Vladimir's Press.

I don't think Anglicanism typically endorses such "angelism." It looks like Father Abraham (who rejoiced to see Jesus' day) would be more welcome in the Anglican Church of a George Herbert than he would be in Byzantium or Rome....

Where my own sympathies lie will be obvious, but aside from the question of how one feels is an matter simply of where Canterbury differs from Byzantium and Rome.

bgc said...

@Dale - I agree that for the Catholic tradition, celibacy is a higher path - but I think this is simply a truth.

The very greatest Saints (excluding Martyrs) were celibate, while the non-celibate denominations simply never reach such heights of sanctity.

Protestant spirituality simply excludes the higher levels of sanctity which are sometimes attained via monasticism - on the other hand, the average level of sanctity among Protestants may be higher than among Catholics, that has been true in some times and places.

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(Consider Mormons, the average sanctity of Mormons - as expressed in devout living and behavior - is higher than for any other large religion in the USA; on the other hand there have not been (I think) any Saintly Mormons since Joseph Smith. This seems to be a consequence of an organization where all men are priests but there are no religious orders.)

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Orthodox priests are either celibate monks, or (mostly) already married - and for the non-celibate married Priests in Orthodoxy, there is a pro-natalist ethic (traditionally I mean) with often large families. They are Patriarchs in the secular meaning.

And when a married Priest is widowed, he may become a monk; or a married Priest may become celibate (and also his wife) if he becomes a Bishop.

Dale said...

Lutherans, Anglicans, and others should recognize that some people do have a vocation to the monastic/conventual life. (Anglicans revived monasticism in the 1830s or so, and it is not quite utterly unknown in Lutheran circles, though extremely rare.) But that is the point: it is a matter of vocation. To say that virginity is simply superior to marriage and family is not, I believe, of divine Tradition; it is a tradition of men, and I think Anglicans may be better at recognizing this than Orthodox or Roman Catholics have been.

I am studying Orthodoxy at this time, & my reading includes a revisitation of Palmer's Notes of a Visit to the Russian Church in the Years 1840, 1841 (London: Kegan Paul Trench, 1882). Palmer was an Anglo-Catholic who regarded the Orthodox Church in Russia as being simply The Church in Russia, as the Roman Church was The Church in Rome and its various domains, and as the Church of England was The Church in Britain.

But Palmer notes of the Russian Orthodox, "Their fastings are said to produce a reaction afterwards towards excess, even in the higher classes and among the religious. ... Here the people make themselves ill with eating and drinking after their fasts" (p. 57).

This is an instance of the kind of thing that happens when churchmen lay burdens on people beyond what they should -- often beyond what they themselves can bear, something Our Lord warned about and that St. Paul contested. With the Orthodoxy that Palmer describes, it is as if the Apostle never wrote Colossians 2: 16-23.

bgc said...

@Dale. These are all good points. Nonetheless, I think that Saints have a vital role; and a Church without a 'sufficient supply' will drift away from the Truth (even *with* Saints this happens - without Saints it seems inevitable - or at least much more likely, because of course anything is possible).

Dale said...

Of course, the New Testament doesn't make that classification of a few exemplary "saints" vs. "non-saints." All baptized believers are saints, Christ's holy ones. Perhaps the best Anglicanism has done a pretty good job of balancing that fact with the Orthodox/RC usage.

bgc said...

@Dale - fair point. But the Catholic tradition has never made the absolute distinction between scriptural and non-scriptural - indeed this is itself a recent idea in the history of Christianity - more recent than Saints!

Indeed, there is no distinction between (what might be called) Saints and saints - it is a continuously variable scale.