Anglican Spiritual Formation: An Introduction

This post represents the inaugural contribution to the new series, “Ecclesia Anglicana.” This series will focus specifically on any category or topic related to Anglicanism. Here you might find posts about liturgy, worship, vestments, theology, ethics, spirituality, Bible, architecture, history, polity, and much more.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of the contemporary Church’s mission is the development of sound doctrine and practice in the realm of spiritual formation. While there has been renewed interest in Christianity “on the ground” among the general population, this interest has come at a cost. Many ecclesial leaders, in focusing solely on the lived experience of their parishioners, have given up theological reflection as the main source of spiritual formation, with the implicit claim that doctrine has no import for the life of the Christian. We see this in our bookstores, with titles emphasizing self-discovery, self-help, and self-sufficiency, and more people than ever are choosing to leave the Church in favor of pursuing their own visions of religious life.[1]

We face this crisis in the contemporary Church because, to put it somewhat reductively, many have separated Christianity into the spheres of “theological” and “practical.” This false dichotomy harms people, not only because its result is an insufficient understanding of the nature and character of God, but also because it fractures the human person by relegating religious experience to the emotional realm. It divorces the head from the heart. We have forgotten that orthodoxy does not really mean “right thought,” but “right glory.” It is a word concerned primarily with seeing God for who he is and worshiping him in accordance with that vision. Orthopraxy is actually an unnecessary word because, without it, you cannot have orthodoxy.


Anglicanism is a tradition that, at its best, successfully bridges the divides between “thought, word, and deed.” Martin Thornton, a twentieth-century Anglican priest and spiritual director, claimed that the great strength of our tradition is its holistic approach to spiritual formation, an approach that engages our minds, our hearts, our need for community, and our inherent inclination toward worship. In his classic English Spirituality, he presents a concise and profound definition of the Anglican approach to spiritual formation: “Christian doctrine interpreted and applied by a teacher of prayer together with the mental and physical disciplines which nurture and support it.”[2]

So spiritual formation is not only a product of the spiritual disciplines; in fact, the benefits of the spiritual disciplines lie in the fact that they are embodied expressions of Christian theology—that they enable us to live as if what we believe were true. The Anglican approach to spiritual formation may then be summed up as the speculative-affective synthesis. Christian formation happens at that place where doctrine (speculative or theological knowledge) and prayer (affective or devotional knowledge) meet. And for Anglicans, a vital part of this formation has traditionally taken place in the context of spiritual direction, one-to-one relationships in which parishioners are lovingly guided by a person with more theological training and life experience than they possess at that time.

The concept of spiritual direction isn’t completely foreign to Protestant or evangelical circles, where it is more commonly called “mentorship.” However, there is a key difference in the Anglican approach: the spiritual director-directee relationship must be held in tandem with participation in the communal and liturgical life of the Church. The Christian life is not an individual endeavor. Those who are in Christ are members of a covenant community, a family of believers who worship the triune God as one body and work together to advance his kingdom on earth. We are not only formed spiritually by our own practice of the spiritual disciplines or by private Bible reading; rather, the corporate gathering of the Church for the reception of the Word and the sacraments is the primary locus of spiritual formation.

For Anglicans, then, there is much more to spiritual formation than “quiet times” and the occasional fast. Over the next few weeks, we will discuss three principles that are fundamental to the Anglican vision of spiritual formation: (1) spiritual formation is grounded in worship; (2) spiritual formation is communal; and (3) spiritual formation is trinitarian. Doctrine and prayer, minds and bodies, individual meditation and corporate worship, theology and discipline: all of these are necessary and beneficial for the Anglican Christian. All of these are good gifts from God. Thus, spiritual formation is the place where doctrine meets prayer, both in the individual’s participation in the life of the Church and in the spiritual director-directee relationship.

Andrew Russell is an M.Div. candidate at Beeson Divinity School. He is an ordination candidate in the Anglican Diocese of the South and hopes to serve the Church as a parish priest. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Anna. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_05.

[1]  One look at the Twitter hashtag “#exvangelical” gives all the evidence one needs to confirm this.

[2]  Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1986), 24.

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