This morning I was reading the first couple of chapters of English Spirituality by Martin Thornton (1963), something of a minor classic of synthesis in its field. Ideas of national character or genius are incredibly slippery and should be used with care, but I am intrigued by the notion that collective memory or deeply ingrained collective habits can shaped – but also be shaped by – the layer upon layer of a country or community’s spiritual tradition.
Thornton sees English (Christian) spirituality as having six core characteristics:
1. a synthesis of the ‘speculative-affective’ (bringing theology and emotion, doctrine and devotion together in balance)
2. an instinct towards family relationship rather than hierarchy in relationships between ordained and lay, regular and secular, under a single whole
3. a Christian humanistic/optimistic tone – one that is not full of fire and brimstone but neither lax nor sentimental
4. a focus on liturgy and personal devotion in prayer and bible reading (rather than through schemes of spiritual exercises such as the Catholic Reformation produced)
5. Habitual recollection – a total Christian life in the world, rather than piety primarily through set periods of prayer
6. Empirical (rather than dogmatic and juridical) spiritual direction
All of this makes a lot of sense of the temperature of ‘mainstream’ Christianity I have tried to explore in a forthcoming book (http://www.boydellandbrewer.com/store/viewItem.asp?idProduct=13970): the impulse towards ‘balance’ and against excess (particularly emotionally-charged spirituality); the mutinous respect shown to many clergy by their congregations; the pragmatic/pastoral/historical rather than systematic nature of much English theology; the focus on public worship rather than systematic private prayer (which very few churches teach deliberately) – I particularly liked Thornton’s critical observation that ‘there is still something a little magical about ‘going to church’ (p. 53) – something which particularly applied to the Anglican via media of the 1940s and 1950s. Thornton’s own catholic spirituality leads to him arguably somewhat underplaying the evangelical-puritan spiritual legacy (which he tends to see as a matter of ‘outbreak’s, rather than a continuous strand of a culturally innate spiritual tradition). However, he is astute enough to note that his outline of ‘English spirituality’ may relate as much to cultural and social norms as to theological ones: a ‘speculative-affective synthesis’ can look a lot like ‘English reserve’, whilst a reluctance to become too subservient to church professionals could be traced as much to the English yeoman/shopkeeper ideal as to any particular theology of priesthood and laity.
But what struck me as much as the content of the book itself was its date of publication: 1963. Thornton’s sense of a relatively stable, definable ‘English’ tradition of Christian spirituality would have been considerably more difficult to reconstruct even ten years later. Without getting too Larkin-esque about the date (not everything changed in 1963), this was a period in which inherited cultural norms were frequently challenged, in which the influence of other cultures and ethnic groups began to be much more pronounced within both church and society; in which a profound cultural crisis in inherited notions of national character and virtue was taking place.
This made me wonder what of Thornton’s six-sided description of the English Christian spiritual temperament would still characterise the contemporary churches, and, in a more diffuse way, capture those values which are frequently to be found in common in society at large. The instinctive wariness of over-systematising is still here; as is the reluctance to place oneself too full at the beck and call of authority – be that political, religious or whatever. The attempt to balance ‘head’ and ‘heart’ has slipped a little – in church and popular culture in the direction of the affective, in intellectual culture in the direction of the rational/cognitive. Whether we collectively display an instinctive optimism is more difficult to say: the best of contemporary Christianity has a healthy appetite for personal and societal transformation whilst on the other hand we are frequently mired in concern about falling numbers. In society more generally an expectation of continuous growth and improvement continues to be influential even whilst in the next breath figures on both left and right complain that Britain is not the place it used to be.
Finally, all this made me wonder what of Thornton’s synthesis can be rescued, reimagined and reincarnated within the contemporary church. How can we balance a passionate commitment to learning and understanding with a deep desire to pray (which Richard Foster calls ‘original research in unexplored territory’ (Celebration of Discipline, p. 30)). How can we balance a certain, free-flowing, democratic spirit in faith and discipleship with the valuing of structured prayer and worship (both personally and collectively)? And how can we achieve such ‘balance’ in a way which enables depth and commitment, rather than just a tame ‘not going too far’?