Arthur Middleton on the desire for God
Julian of Norwich claims that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this: ‘God of your goodness give me yourself, for you are sufficient for me… If I were to ask less I should always be in want.’ This is what it means to have a deep desire for God and this is the reason for using the word ‘devotion’ and deliberately avoiding using the modern word ‘spirituality,’ a word that Lancelot Andrewes himself did not use. Today, this word has come to be associated with ‘feelings,’ ‘feel-good feelings,’ a self-regarding fulfilment or self-realization, self-transcendence, and not sufficiently with the desire for God. It has become a word that is used and understood in a vague, fuzzy and self-regarding way about uplifting feelings. The dictionary is more precise in defining ‘spirituality’ as ‘a distinctive approach to religion or prayer.’ To deliberately use the word ‘devotion’ is to focus on this distinctiveness in the classical Anglican approach to religion and prayer, where the focus is not on experiencing a ‘feel-good factor,’ but on living the dogma of the revealed Christian mystery in such a way that, instead of the mystery being assimilated to our mode of human understanding, it is allowed to effect an interior transformation of spirit that enables it to be experienced mystically. It changes the heart and mind, renewing one’s whole mental and emotional attitude, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit, so that one’s life becomes conformed to the doctrine. In the scriptural sense it purifies the character like gold in an ‘assayer’s fire.’ That is repentance. Here lie the seeds of Anglican mystical theology that is consonant with the Christian Mystical Tradition.
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 individualistic pietism; always, it is concerned with dogma, doctrine, life, worship, and Christian discipline, which must colour and inspire the whole of life, where personal devotion and personal life are inseparable from liturgy and theology. In the people who produced this literature, prayer was their primary concern, their abiding preoccupation, and so it was 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 (1613–1667), Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626), Richard Baxter (1615–1691), Thomas Ken (1637–1711), William Laud (1573–1645), George Herbert (1593–1633), John Donne (1571–1631) and Thomas Traherne (1636-74) et al, John Byrom, in his SLG pamphlet The Glowing Mind, tells us ‘all of them spoke the same language, at least where prayer is concerned; the language of loving desire for God.’
Anglican devotion is life as 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 ‘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, belief, 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, settles our consciences, directs our lives, mortifies our corruptions, increases our graces, strengthens our comforts, and 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 a person ‘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 accountancy. 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 is within the devotional writings of this period a general agreement with the Latin maxim, Lex orandi, lex credenda: the rule of praying is the law of believing. The fuller version is Lex orandi legem statuat credenda, let the law of prayer establish the law of belief. This expresses a characteristic of the Anglican mode of paradosis, present throughout our Anglican heritage. It is the close connection between theology, doctrine, and Christian worship. We find Hooker describing what we believe very much in terms of how we worship, particularly in Book V of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, where after expounding the Chalcedonian Christology he discusses the sacraments as the logical outcome and the extension of the Incarnation, the ‘medicine that cures the soul.’ Michael Ramsey describes it as Anglican theologians doing theology to the sound of church bells and encourages us to ‘continue to do our theology’ in this way ‘for that is what theology is all about—worshipping God the Saviour through Jesus Christ in the theology of the apostolic age’ (A. M. Ramsey, The Anglican Spirit, ed. Dale Coleman (SPCK, 1991), p.19). So there is a strong sense of tradition, continuity and order, alongside a rich ecclesiology because it is the Church which holds in trust the liturgy upon which order is centred. So the Book of Common Prayer established the fundamental outline and spirit of Anglican theology and practice with a perceptive understanding of human nature being disordered by sin, but not lost, because of the centrality of the Incarnation, the natural outcome of which is sacramental grace that reorders a new creature in the way of salvation and sees the logos at work in science, culture and the arts. Despite the disordered condition of the created order, for these divines, it is a universe drenched with divinity.