Anglican Spiritual Formation: Community

This is Andrew Russell’s third installment in his mini-series on Anglican Spiritual Formation for our “Ecclesia Anglicana” series.

“There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God.”

Though this comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it rings true for Anglicanism as well. Christianity has always been communal, and the depiction of the Church in Acts confirms this: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”  Christ is to be found on earth in his body, which is the Church, and there are no Christians who exist apart from the Church (though it is true, of course, that in some cases a Christian may not have physical access to a local body of believers).

Practically, Christian community is important for the building up of fellow believers and for providing loving instruction and, when necessary, correction. Anglicans are committed to caring for their brothers and sisters, even when it is uncomfortable. This comes from a long tradition that began in the monasteries, communities in which Christians submitted themselves to the loving authority of the abbot. St. Benedict’s Rule, the golden standard of Christian communal structure and a deeply influential one in the English monastic tradition, highlights this function of community in its preface: “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.”  Anglicans believe that submission to ecclesial authority is beneficial for spiritual formation.

The unique contribution of Anglicanism to spiritual life, however, is the emphasis on the spiritual director-directee relationship. Not only is a right relationship to the community at large necessary for the Christian life, but an intimate relationship with an older, wiser mentor is also invaluable for the development of Christian character. The English monastic tradition understood the importance of this, as even many of those who dedicated themselves to the solitary religious life served as spiritual directors for the laity in their area (St. Julian of Norwich is probably the most famous example).

Spiritual directors help parishioners with their individual struggles, encourage them in their individual victories, and provide for their spiritual needs. Their primary role, however, is to guide the parishioner in her understanding of Christian doctrine and to help her integrate her theology into her prayer life (see my first post for Martin Thornton’s definition of spiritual formation). This, of course, includes theological education—and this must never be downplayed in a discussion on spiritual formation! In a day and age when people are looking for immediate “practical application,” we do well to remember that all theology is practical. What we believe deeply impacts how we live our lives.

One of the most significant ways this theological instruction will express itself in the life of the faithful is an encouragement to practice spiritual disciplines—the Daily Office, personal reflection on God’s character and activity throughout the day, silence, solitude, fasting, confession of sin, etc. It is the role of the spiritual director to hold those under her care accountable for practicing the disciplines, to help them practice the disciplines fruitfully, and to assign or suggest appropriate disciplines for them at times in which they may benefit most from their practice. In this way, Anglicans assure that each member of the congregation receives appropriate and beneficial care and further “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” as Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians.

Though the implementation of this vision has not been perfect in the local church, the Anglican vision of spiritual formation via spiritual direction is consistent with the biblical witness and most effectively contributes to parishioners’ growth and ministry in the Church. Robert Mulholland, author of Invitation to a Journey, has described spiritual formation as “a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  Anglicans agree with this, but we also insist that this definition does not go far enough. Spiritual formation is not only an individual enterprise; it is intimately connected to the work of the Church and must not be separated from the liturgical and sacramental worship of the Body of Christ (as I discussed in my last post).

It is only through participation in the Mystical Body of Christ that the Christian grows in godly love, wisdom, and holiness. We need each other—our spiritual brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and all the faithful who have gone before us—to live the Christian life. If you do not have a spiritual director, I strongly encourage you to seek one out. I can personally attest that it is one of the most important relationships I have had in my life as a Christian. God made his Church to be a community—a family of adopted sons and daughters who support, guide, and encourage each other on their path to final union with God in the new heavens and the new earth. Without our community, we cannot live as God intended us to live, but perhaps even more importantly we cannot fully express the image of the God who created us, the one God who exists as a community of three persons.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Next time, we will discuss why the Trinity is central to an Anglican understanding of spiritual formation. Until then, I’ll leave you with a collect that helps us thank God for our Christian community and ask him to help us strengthen each other:

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy; for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.

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.

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