Ways to Personal Holiness

We are only too familiar at the present time with the problems of a Church which seems to have lost its hold on the nation and is no longer regarded as the guardian of reverent and ordered worship. But if we look back a few centuries, we find the Church of England in danger from its own strength and its State authority. The Restoration in 1660 bought back the Established Church as well as the Monarchy, and two years later the Book of Common Prayer was issued in the revised form, which is still the central deposit of Anglican doctrine and worship. Every other religious allegiance was regarded as Dissent and was subject to legal restrictions and sometimes to active persecution. Relief at freedom from the oppression and the warring sects of the Commonwealth years brought a desire for moderation in religion, obedience to the prescribed forms without impinging too much on private life outside the church services.

Holy Living

However, there were some who recognized that public worship was the proper and necessary corporate expression of faith, but not the whole of Christian commitment. The liturgy of the Church should not be something separate from daily life, but a continual source and support for holy living. There was a way of faith between the sometimes excessive scruples and formal exercises of contemporary Roman Catholicism and the life-denying austerity of the extreme Puritans. One of most influential devotional works was William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728). Law was a Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge, who refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to George III in 1714 and became a Non-Juror. He expounded at length, with careful arguments and examples, the need for Christians to examine every aspect of life, seeking the will of God in relation to personal circumstances. We should look to the early Church for a model of piety and discipline:

But how far are you from this way of life, or rather how contrary to it, if, instead of imitating their austerity and mortification, you cannot so much as renounce so poor an indulgence, as to be able to rise to your prayers! If self-denials and bodily sufferings, if watchings and fastings, will be marks of glory at the day of judgement, where must we hide our heads, that have slumbered away our time in sloth and softness?

You perhaps now find some pretences to excuse yourselves from that severity of fasting and self-denial, which the first Christians practised. You fancy that human nature is grown weaker, and that the difference of climate may make it not possible for you to observe their methods of self-denial and austerity in these colder countries.

But all this is but pretence: for the change is not in the outward state of things, but in the inward state of our minds. When there is the same spirit in us that there was in the Apostles and primitive Christians, when we feel the weight of religion as they did, when we have their faith and hope, we shall take up our cross, and deny ourselves, and live in such methods of mortification as they did.

The call to discipline, as the sign of a temperate and wise but sincere piety, was made also by Jeremy Taylor, Chaplain to Charles I and later a bishop in Ireland, whose books The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living (1650) and The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying (1651) are still Anglican classics and also models of English prose. Writing about the proper use of time he reminds his readers:

He that is choice of his time will also be choice of his company, and choice of his actions, lest the first engage him in vanity and loss, and the latter by being criminal be a throwing his time and himself away, and a going back in the accounts of eternity.

William Beveridge, (1637-1708) Bishop of St Asaph and an early supporter of SPCK, also urged the performance of regular and faithful duty:

Set upon the work which God sent you into the world about; put it not off and linger, and make no more vain excuses, but from this day forward let the service of God be your daily, your continual employment and pleasure; study and contrive each day how to advance his glory and interest in the world., and how you may walk more strictly, more circumspectly, more conformably to his laws than ever.

Samuel Crossman (c1624-1684), best remembered as the author of the hymn ‘My song is Love unknown’, gave similar advice on how life is to be lived to the full in this world without ever forgetting the eternal purpose:

Be in God’s name frugal of all the just comforts of this life, flight them not, waste them not, they are the dear gifts of God, the God of all our mercies, the portion that is given us outwardly under the sun. But if the Lord be willing to sanctify these and bestow yet greater than them upon us, let us not neglect, let us not despise our own advantages: but accept it with all humble thankfulness, that our water may thus be turned into wine.

Only through Grace

The great message of these devotional writers is that, although public conformity is not enough, personal holiness can be found only through the grace of the sacraments and the shared prayers of the Church. Baptism is not a mere social duty, but a cleansing from original sin, which makes repentance for actual sin ever after effective. Simon Patrick (1625-1707), Bishop of Chichester and of Ely and another founder of SPCK wrote that ‘they that are baptized into Christ do thereby receive a pledge, that no sin that they stand guilty of shall bring the anger of God upon their heads if they will keep his covenant.’ One of the most influential works to come out of this period was An Exposition of the Creed (1669) by John Pearson, Bishop of Chester. Taking each article of the Apostles’ Creed he showed them to be not just formularies to be repeated at a certain point in the service but also guides for Christian living. Confession of faith in the forgiveness of sins is linked with baptism:

As those which are received into the Church by the sacrament of baptism, receive the remission of their sins of which they were guilty before they were baptized, so after they are thus made members of the Church, they receive remission of their future sins by repentance.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is the greatest and essential source of holiness. As we receive in faith the Body and Blood of the Lord, we become open to grace that we cannot claim by our merits, and strength, which is far beyond our own. Jeremy Taylor wrote:

The church and the holy table of the Lord, the assemblies of saints and the devotions of his people, the word and the sacrament, the oblation of bread and wine and the offering of ourselves, the consecration and the communion, are the things of God and of Jesus Christ; and he that is employed in these is where he loves to be, and where Christ is to be found.

The Eucharist

Roman Catholic apologists have sometimes accused the Church of England in the period after the Reformation of reducing the significance of the Eucharist and subordinating it to the office services. But there is ample evidence of a high doctrine of the Eucharist around the time of the revised Book of Common Prayer. Richard Allestree, Professor of Divinity at Oxford and Provost of Eton, is the most likely author of the anonymous work The Whole Duty of Man (1657), a manual of instruction, which held its place for many years. It commands a recollected and reverent approach to Holy Communion. Communicants are to be well informed in the meaning of the covenant made in their baptism, and to seek instruction if they are doubtful.

If thou hast hitherto approached to this holy sacrament in utter ignorance of these necessary things, bewail thy sin in so doing, but presume not to come again until thou hast by gaining this necessary knowledge fitted thyself for it, which thou must hasten to do. For though no man must come to the sacrament in such ignorance, yet, if he wilfully continue in it, that will be no excuse to him for keeping from the holy table.

He adds that the sincere believer should make frequent communion, following the command of Christ to do this in remembrance of him and so ‘to omit no fit opportunity of partaking of that holy table’. Simon Patrick exhorted communicants ‘to look upon the bread and wine, thus blessed, and representing Christ unto you; and accordingly to receive them, not as mere bread and wine, but as things deputed by Christ to be instead of his body and blood and to communicate them to worthy receivers.’

In our own time, when the restoration of the Eucharist to the centrality of worship has brought more frequent acts of communion, the need for careful preparation and reverent reception is a priority in our instruction of the faithful. Another duty which needs to be explained is the observance of the holy days. Not many of those who are faithful in Sunday worship pay regard to the Sanctorale, yet the two cycles of Sundays and festivals together make up the continual yearly worship of the Church.

Festivals and Fasts

We should turn to the words of Robert Nelson, a layman who joined the Non-Jurors and wrote a magisterial Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England (1704). If we ask what these have to do with the ordinary Christian, we are told that on saints’ days we should ‘constantly attend the public worship, and partake of the blessed sacrament, if it be administered’ and ‘in private we should enlarge our devotions, and suffer the affairs of the world to interrupt us as little as may be’:

If we commemorate any saint, we should consider the virtues for which he was most eminent, and by what steps he attained to so great perfection; and then examine ourselves how far we are defective in our duty, and earnestly beg God’s pardon for our past failings, and his grace to enable us to conform our lives for the time to come to those admirable examples that are set before us.

Ministry of the Word

The pursuit of personal holiness through our membership of the Church could not be more clearly enjoined. But lest the essential ministry of the sacraments should marginalize personal attention to the ministry of the word, we have the counsel of an earlier Anglican writer, Lewis Bayly (1565-1631), Bishop of Bangor:

While the preacher is expounding and applying the word of the Lord, look upon him; for it is a great help to stir up thine attention, and to keep thee from wandering thoughts; the eyes of all that were in the synagogue are said to have been fastened on Christ whilst he preached … Remember that thou art there as one of Christ’s disciples, to learn the knowledge of salvation by the remission of sins, through the tender mercy of God. In hearing, apply every speech as spoken to thyself, rather by God than by man.

The desire for holiness did not disappear in the eighteenth century, which was by no means the totally barren period depicted by some former historians of the Church of England. Against the undoubted degree of Erastianism and place-seeking, there must be set the deep piety of John Wesley, sadly lost to the Anglican tradition against his own desire, and of William Wilberforce whose Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians was published in 1797. Guided by these and other leaders of the Evangelical Revival, and later by the great men of the Oxford Movement, the Church of England was saved from the casual conformity which pays no heed to personal spiritual growth. Our Church today urgently needs to rediscover and maintain this heritage of quiet but sincere devotion, seeking to be reformed from within through the personal holiness of her members.

Raymond Chapman is a writer, an Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London and a priest in the Southwark Diocese

Pull Quotes:

The great message of these devotional writers is that, although public conformity is not enough, personal holiness can be found only through the grace of the sacraments and the shared prayers of the Church.

In our own time, when the restoration of the Eucharist to the centrality of worship has brought more frequent acts of communion, the need for careful preparation and reverent reception is a priority in our instruction of the faithful.