Return to the Fathers

TO ENCOURAGE a return to the Fathers does not mean a return to mere texts and propositions. It means recovering their spirit, the secret inspiration that made them informed witnesses of the Church. It is not a backward look but a contemporary engagement with living witnesses and their significance for the present and the re-integration of the Church in East and West for which we must all work and pray. This appeal is much more than a historical reference to the past but is an appeal to the mind of the Fathers and to follow them means to acquire their mind. To acquire a patristic mind is to acquire a scriptural mind and to acquire a scriptural mind is to acquire the mind of Christ. We return to the Fathers :

… when we recover and make ours the experience of the Church not as mere ‘Institution, doctrine or system’ … but as the all-embracing , all-assuming and all-transforming life, the passage into the reality of redemption and transfiguration. This experience … is centered in the Eucharist …

Gareth Bennett’s plea (The Crockford’s Preface), is to return to prescriptive sources and to see the corporate worship of the Church as the context of Christian thinking, the source of theology. Here theology and experience, intellect and intuition, thinking and praying are kept together. Anglicanism’s ideal of theology is not divorced from prayer and liturgy, but is a way of life and worship informed and structured by theological vision. We have a patristic theology when we rediscover the Eucharistic character of the Church’s life, in which we experience the Church as “the passage into the reality of redemption and transfiguration”, a patristic perspective in which the Eucharist generates the Church’s life and informs all aspects of her life.

In 1904, H.B. Swete, Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, wrote that he wished the clergy of every school would bring their convictions to that same test of the Fathers as previous generations of Anglican divines. He went on to say that, “An adequate knowledge of the Fathers is an excellent corrective to partial views of truth, rebuking the disposition to substitute a narrower Christianity for “the faith once delivered to the saints.” He lamented the change since George Herbert wrote when, “The country parson hath read the Fathers also and the Schoolmen and the later writers and a good proportion of all.” He claimed that the priest, whether his work lie in town or country, is bound to acquaint himself with some at least of the great Christian writers who followed the Apostles, and that there is no study, except that of Holy Scripture, which he will find more profitable. Furthermore, “the parish priest of the 20th century will find in the great writers of the Ancient Church much direct help for his daily work; sermons, catechisings, pastoral intercourse, personal life will be enriched by converse with the pastors and teachers of other times.”

Reading the Fathers

This patristic dimension in their theology, gave to our Anglican divines that principle of integration enabling them to maintain the organic connections between dogma, prayer and life. This principle is essential to the life of any divine, not least, those of us in the parishes. In 1856 J.J. Blunt, the Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge, was concerned to revive the study of the Fathers among those preparing for the priesthood; and the evangelical Bishop Kaye of Lincoln had made this his priority when Regius Professor. Blunt’s lectures on the duties of the parish priest, include advice on what to read. His does not recommend a catalogue of books, a multiplication of authors which only confuse young divines. His suggests a method of reading, certain principles to govern their study. He advises the reading of Anglican divines, as auxiliaries rather than as principals, and aims to suggest a few master-keys, thereby rendering the acquisition of a few special keys less needful, to deliver them from those ruts of theology in modern names and schools. Blunt argues that in the Fathers the young divine will possess an original authority and along with the study of the original Scriptures, “will have possessed yourselves of the very quarry from which all subsequent divines of any note have derived the best materials for their arguments (whatever might be the subject of them)”. Not only will it lead the reader to his own originality of thought, it will also equip him to derive more benefit from Anglican theologians or others and impart to him a deeper appreciation of the Book of Common Prayer which is a “compendium of early tradition”, the Anglican Liturgy.

Such patristic knowledge will inform the reader of the genuine text and Canon of Scripture and enable one to see how many of the old heresies have persisted in a different key. From such first-hand knowledge, one is equipped to defend true doctrine from false, using the patristic arguments and affirming the unanimous opinion of the Primitive Church. The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils as are agreeable to the same. In these authorities one will find the source and justification for the ethos and polity of Anglicanism and liturgy, for the Book of Common Prayer and the movement for liturgical renewal in our own time is patristic in ethos and orientation because it is a return to these sources.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon. Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham