The Flame of Prayerful Living

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold,
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told .

George Herbert

Anglican Devotion is the title of a book by Charles Stranks, a former Archdeacon in Durham. Like Andrewes he would not use the modern word ‘spirituality’, that today is too often associated with ‘feelings’, ‘feel-good feelings’, and not sufficiently with the desire for God. Spirituality is a nuanced word that is often used and understood today in a vague, fuzzy way. The dictionary is more precise in defining spirituality as ‘a distinctive approach to religion or prayer’.

What is distinctive about Anglican devotion, what qualities are native and integral to the Anglican understanding of devotion and religious practice? It is never an isolated pietism; always it is concerned with prayer, worship, and Christian discipline, which must colour and inspire the whole of life, where personal devotion and private life are inseparable from liturgy and theology. In the people who produced this literature, prayer was their major concern, the abiding preoccupation, and so the driving force of their lives because they were all soaked in the primitive and medieval tradition of contemplation as the normal outcome of a life of serious prayer. Jeremy Taylor, Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Baxter, Thomas Ken, William Laud, George Herbert and Thomas Traherne, spoke the same language, at least where prayer is concerned: the language of loving desire.

The Book of Common Prayer

Central to this Anglican way is the Book of Common Prayer with the Eucharist at its heart, ‘the matrix of their devotion’. Any understanding of Anglican devotion must give the Book of Common Prayer a primary role because it is informative for Anglicans not only in defining doctrine and polity but also for the content and style of devotion. The concerns and consequences of corporate worship are the concerns and consequences of personal worship. Anglican devotion always presupposes the life of the Church, meaning that Anglican spirituality is personal but never private, never detached from an individual’s engagement with the community and the world. The pattern of Anglican devotion grows out of liturgical prayer, out of the sacraments rooted in the earth. Anglican piety emerges from a life steeped in the Church’s common prayer.

Daily Mattins and Evensong in the parish churches attracted many devout lay-people and these Offices were also said in their homes with the household. When during the Commonwealth the Book of Common Prayer was forbidden, it became more highly valued in an underground use as a book of household devotion. The Restoration enabled the Prayer Book to be used openly. The effect on countless individuals and homes of the weekly or daily recitation of the Offices cannot be over-estimated. Here was a liturgy in which a piety, domestic and communal, personal and corporate, was at work moulding hearts and minds. Its mark is traceable in the poetry of Donne, Herbert and Traherne, and in its liturgical excellences set out in the very many books on the Prayer Book, which the century produced. In the words of the Eikon Basilike (1648) here ‘wholesome words, being known and fitted to men’s understandings, are soonest received into their hearts, and aptest to excite and carry along with them judicious and fervent affections.’

Those whose earlier devotional life was nurtured by the Prayer Book will have traces of its phraseology in their subconscious that were the first stirrings of religious understanding. Such phrases surface with the appropriate prompt that can echo in one’s thoughts, such as ‘the devices and desires of our own hearts’ (General Confession); ‘a godly, righteous and sober life’ (do.); ‘grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit’ (Absolution); ‘envy, hatred and malice and all uncharitableness’ (Litany); ‘hearty repentance and true faith’ (Absolution); ‘in love and charity with your neighbours’ (Invitation); ‘these holy mysteries’ (Post-Communion); ‘that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in’ (Thanksgiving); ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ (Catechism); ‘create and make in us new and contrite hearts’ (Ash Wednesday Collect); ‘serve and please thee in newness of life’ (Confession).

What do these phrases tells us about our devotional life according to the Book of Common Prayer? Could they be a kind of ‘video clip’ of what was happening through time and place to countless people throughout history as they practised their religion? Here in this liturgical and sacramental piety faith and repentance are central, where in the awareness of the Holy Spirit’s work the fundamental aim is to make us ‘new creatures’ in spite of the sins that so easily beset us. The life of devotion is a journey in which the individual is responsible for the living of life in co-operation with the Spirit’s grace. Life is oriented godwards in the service of the neighbour through Christ, the God-Man, lawgiver and Redeemer. It is a devotion which insists that Word and Sacrament are for living ‘in newness of life’, that worship is meant to send us out in the process of being remade, ‘confirmed and strengthened in all goodness’. This devotional literature underlines the Christian life as the recollected life of disciplined prayer in Word and Sacrament, that is aware of mystery and can be practised by ordinary men and women. Prayer and meditation and affective devotion to Christ are there as is the following and imitation of Christ.

Practical Divinity

This life is a way of practical divinity. Seventeenth-century Anglicans called moral theology ‘practical divinity’ to which ascetical theology was completely united. In other words the moral life and the life of prayer were inseparable. The life of prayer was to affect how the Christian behaved. Today, the life of prayer has been separated from the way we behave as the devotional life is reduced to a ‘spirituality’, where the emphasis rests on feelings as the measure of spiritual health rather than behaviour. Ascetical theology has been separated from moral theology. Anglican devotion is about the Christian-in-the-Church, the full co-operation with grace in a total Christian life.

In our devotional heritage devotion, duty, and discipline, are inseparable. How we live and how we pray cannot be separated in Christian living. Each affects the other, becoming a practical matter for the devotional life of all who live through a Life not their own, transmitted to them by the Spirit through the means of grace, the Book and the Bread, within the eucharistic fellowship of the baptized who share in the apostolic faith. The purpose of positive and practical divinity is to bring us to Heaven. So it affects our judgements, settle our consciences, direct our lives, mortifies our corruptions, increases our graces, strengthens our comforts, saves our souls. The meaning of responsible discipleship, of growth in grace, of incorporation in Christ, is that ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creature.’

The aim of such practical devotion is to make man ‘a new creature’ ‘sincere in his obedience’, a favourite phrase that illuminates what is meant by ‘the perfection of wayfaring men’. This was the ideal being presented to the members of the Church. William Nicholson gives a clear explanation of this in his Plain and Full Exposition of the Catechism (1655). He points out that in ‘the perfection of wayfaring men’, for absolution perfection is not expected from us in this life, and reminds us that to attain such a state, grace is needed. Such grace does not produce in us ‘an unsinning obedience, but it makes us ‘a new creature’, creates in us a sincere obedience to the whole Gospel’. So the wayfarer’s perfection depends upon response to grace and responsibility in obedience. ‘There is no surer way to the full perfection of the whole man than the perfect following of Christ in the communal life of the Church’.

Practical divinity requires fostering in each individual what has been called ‘a conscience made of obedience’. This is at the heart of Anglican devotion. The personal responsibility of the individual in Christian living must be guided by his own reason. Matters of conscience require a person to be a judge for himself, ready to account for himself, which does not prevent a person from seeking spiritual counsel and absolution in particular cases, as the Book of Common Prayer advises. Faith and repentance are inseparably linked in the Prayer Book (as in the Holy Communion invitation, the catechism and the Homilies), and this is essential to a devotion held up as the achievable ideal to the members of Christ’s Family.

Anglican devotion strives to inculcate a life of discipleship rather than one of spiritual book-keeping. It is a matter of standards and serious commitment, for those who are alive to their imperfections as they try through grace to follow Christ and seek a devotion which, as John Hales taught, claims every part of our life.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

There runs through the devotional writings of this period a general assent to the sense of the Latin tag, Lex orandi, lex credendi, the rule of praying is the law of believing. A fuller expression is Lex orandi legem statuat credendi, let the law of prayer establish the law of belief.

There is a richness in Anglican devotional literature, and especially in the seventeenth century, that flows from something deeper than torrential intellect, or even high poetic gifts. Dr. Austin Farrer’s Lent Book, Lord I Believe, points out that ‘no dogma deserves its place unless it is prayable, and no Christian deserves his dogmas who does not pray them.’ No article of the Creed is unprayable or remained unprayed among these seventeenth-century devotional writers. Bishop Westcott’s son described his father as reading and working in the very mind with which he prayed; and his prayer was of singular intensity. In Westcott’s episcopate it bore fruit in his continuous labour for social justice that flowed immediately and naturally from his study of the Incarnation by way of his prayer. There is an austerity of study about this commitment to prayer that affects study with the austerity of prayer and makes a grace-informed reason that makes prayer the connecting link between belief and action.

The cause and root of this connection is the Book of Common Prayer, which Jeremy Taylor called ‘a storehouse of rare divinity’ and whose living heart is the liturgy, that in the nineteenth century FD Maurice described as his theological teacher as well as the generator of prayer. John Henry Newman said that the people learn their theology on their knees. So if the law of prayer establishes the law of faith, then new forms of prayer can lead us into a deeper understanding of the faith we profess.

The Desire for God

Within this devotional literature is a massive learning and a deep desire for God. This love of learning and desire for God gives them a peculiar richness. They are tightly intertwined and cannot be distinguished, but when the lives of these people are examined, whenever any conflict arose between learning and devotion it was the love of learning that gave way. Their piety was no mere top dressing to scholarship, it was the spring and generator of their learning and its richness.

This article will be followed by others that will explore this devotional literature. It falls into three distinct categories. First, the manuals of private devotion. Secondly, the books in which practical direction is combined with devotion, an example of which is Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying. Thirdly, the catechetical books such as Henry Hammond’s Practical Catechism. This third type is concerned with what might be termed the end-product of Christian living, namely the attitude to religion and life which Anglican devotion was attempting to create in the members of the Church. All these handbooks combined with the Prayer Book to produce a distinctive approach to religion and prayer, a devotion characteristic of Anglicanism.

Arthur Middleton is the author of A Renewed Priesthood and other books