Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality proposes that Anglicanism preserves the English ascetic tradition. He argues that the Anglican ethos developed from the medieval villages that formed around monasteries, overwhelmingly Benedictine. Until their Dissolution in 1536, villagers often attended the Hours on their way to and from their fields and workshops. After the Reformation, a sublimated “lay monasticism,” became responsible for the rhythms of church life. As a result, our “speculative-affective synthesis,” unites the active life of the laity with the contemplative life of religious. The BCP is a distilled regula for laity. The State destroyed our monasteries, but it left behind a people who were deeply formed by monastic habits. The English choral tradition arose to sing in English what monks had chanted in Latin.
When I first read the book, I wasn’t convinced. It sounded as if the author was catholicizing the Reformation out of a secret belief that we are wrong. Then I started writing this essay, and wondering what it was about Anglicanism that protected us from the bizarre, fringe antics of some other religious groups. Extreme Protestants read the Bible so literally that they have no grace with themselves; Convert Orthodox tend to tack exotic habits onto their lives and reject past spiritual formation, especially if it was healthy. Even if they are right, these rigorists consciously reject virtue. The faith never does them any good. In a way, their conversions are a rejection of sanctification.
But Anglicans? For all our sins, we are boringly reliable. We don’t attract explosive extremists. When we do, they tend to settle down (or leave). Why? Well, I sometimes meet very pious ladies who mention offhand what part of the Bible is covered in the week’s Daily Office readings. They say the Office so often that they assume everyone does it! It was this sort of woman who first greeted me at an Episcopal church. As with all those who display virtue, it was what she didn’t do which defines her in my mind’s eye.
She didn’t seek attention by talking about her beliefs and her evangelism and her witness; she didn’t sound off about her conversion and her chrismation and her theosis. She welcomed me, sat me down and prayed with me. Years after I became a regular worshiper, she died so quietly after living so well that I hardly believed she was gone. The gifts of Anglicanism are balance, good sense and decorum. Those values only sound secular if you don’t think about it. Restated, at least two are Cardinal Virtues.
An essay recently reminded me of the one assertion Thornton made that immediately rang true for me as a refugee Episcopalian: Our ethos is so perfect that “challenges to [our] spirituality include an over-reliance on ‘moderation in all things’ and a legalist attitude to participation in parish life in response to the temptation to laxity.” This was a perfect description of me and the body I left! Shamelessly, some of its remaining members believe that even heresy is fine, as long as nobody takes away the routine of tasteful liturgy in the Gothic church that their ancestors funded. Thornton won a convert. If we recognize the Anglican ethos as the living tradition of our remnant community, we will go from strength to strength.
We never resorted to rootless narcissism, conspicuous consumption and trendy statements. This is why. The beliefs, behaviors and attitudes proper to Christians are just part of the Anglican atmosphere. Unlike most other denominations, we have a viable religious culture. A living tradition.
Some, misunderstanding linguistic relativity, call Anglo clergy wives “Matushka,” or “Khouria.” I once asked a friend why nobody called them “Mother.” He said, “Because it would make too much sense!”