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History of Spirituality

Definitely consult our reviews of McGinn's works.

English Spirituality: From Earliest Times to 1700 by Gordon Mursell (Westminster John Knox Press) English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present by Gordon Mursell (Westminster John Knox Press) This wide-ranging historical survey provides an indispensable resource for those interested in exploring, teaching, or studying the mainlines of English spirituality. These two stand­alone volumes trace the history from Roman times until the year 2000.

Contained in both are the main Christian traditions and a vast range of writers and spiritual themes, from Anglo-Saxon poems to late modern feminist spirituality. These two volumes present the astonishing richness and variety of responses made by English Christians to the call of the divine during the past two thousand years. Centered on biblical theologies and the central teachings of the  Church of England, these studies capture close biographical and social historical detail in a continuous narrative. The methodology, and the way in which spirituality is understood, are considered in the first chapter (some of which is included in our excerpt below). The volumes are only less than satisfactory if one wants a more fulsome account of British spirituality that recognizes the unique contributions of the dissenting churches as well as non-Christian influences.

The sheer quantity of material, which might be thought relevant to the subject inevitably increases in more recent centuries, and the need for some judicious abridgements becomes unavoidable so that large amounts had to be left out. In the final chapter in particular, it was impossible to explore some aspects of the burgeoning contemporary interest in spirituality but. Mursell manages a difficult task by maintaining his middle course. The work reads well as an introductory narrative to British spirituality as it remained homegrown in the British Isles. The biographical sketches of principle religious mystic, scholars and saints form the backbone of Mursell’s approach. Recommended for home and church libraries.

Content synopsis:
Volume 1
A HARD AND REALISTIC DEVOTION: English spirituality: Context and background
THE SEAFARER: Anglo-Saxon spirituality
ST GODRIC AND THE DEER: Medieval spirituality (1066-1300)
THE QUEST FOR THE SUFFERING JESUS: Late medieval spirituality (1300-1500)
THE FELLOWS OF ST ANTONY: Spirituality, Reformation and revolution (1500-1700)
Volume 2
ENTHUSIASTS AND PHILOSOPHERS: English spirituality in the eighteenth century
KINSHIP AND SYMPATHY: Spirituality and the Victorian age
LOSING OUR ABSOLUTE: Spirituality in the twentieth century


There is no country in Christendom in which there is so little false devotion as in England, the national character being too hard and realistic to lend itself easily to ecstatic fervours, and too practical to take much interest in abstract intellectual speculation on religious subjects.

These words were written by the nineteenth-century English writer Dora Greenwell. She went on to observe that England's spiritual men are still in an eminent degree her practical men, only practi­cal on a higher level than that of ordinary routine and convention.'

The early-twentieth-century prime minister Stanley Baldwin noted another English characteristic: `a profound sympathy for the under-dog'.' In 1932, Sir Stephen Tallents suggested some others:

In international affairs --a reputation fordisinterestedness.
In national affairs --a tradition of justice, law andorder.
In national character --a reputation forcoolness.
In commerce --a reputation for fairdealing.
In manufacture --a reputation forquality...
In sport--a reputation for falrplay.

These impressionistic reflections could be multiplied many times over, and they cer­tainly do not add up to a coherent summary of the English character. Indeed it is highly unlikely that such a thing as `the English character' could be authoritatively described anyway. It could tentatively be suggested that the particular mix of Celtic, Roman, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and (more recently) Asian and Afro­Caribbean blood which have contributed to that character appear to have imparted a pragmatic combination of eclecticism with a certain stubborn independence of spirit which has inevitably influenced its spirituality. And it could also be suggested that that mix underlines a crucial point, not always acknowledged, let alone celebrated, by the English: that the narrow English Channel has not prevented the country from being in continual contact with other nations and cultures; and that the island of Britain is home to two other states, with their own distinctive spiritual traditions.

Dora Greenwell's observations are certainly borne out by some aspects of the explo­ration of English spirituality undertaken in this book. There is a robust empiricism about much of it, a marked absence of grand systematizing theological schemas in the manner of an Aquinas or a Karl Barth: the very title of Richard Hooker's massive work (Of the laws of ecclesiastical polity), perhaps the closest equivalent to St Thomas' Summa, makes the English writer's far more precise and specific objective clear. There may be even be some truth in Ronald Knox's exasperated reference to 'the English­man's incurable dislike of dogma', even though Knox's fellow Catholic G. K. Chesterton set out vigorously to prove him wrong. And there is certainly truth in Martin Thornton's conviction that the 'English school' of spirituality (which for Thornton was supremely represented by the medieval 'English mystics', the Prayer Book, and the seventeenth-century 'Caroline Divines') achieved a striking synthesis of the speculative and the affective, scorning the extremes of both.'

Yet all this still brings us little nearer any overall sense of what 'English' spirituality might be expected to denote, still less to define. And even the broadest generalizations such as those noted above require extensive qualification. The passionate spirituality of Richard Rolle; the vigorous heterodoxy of the Lollards; the rich byways of Puritan mysticism; the English Pentecostal tradition -all these, and many more besides them, will reveal, as we explore them in this book, aspects of 'English spirituality entirely different from what middle-class Church of England figures like Dora Greenwell or Martin Thornton had in mind.

We may therefore do best to content ourselves with a few modest preliminary remarks. First, England is part of an island; and its insularity has undoubtedly been a significant factor in shaping its outlook and character, giving rise to a distinctive com­bination of self-reliance, suspicion of foreigners, and enterprising fascination with what lay beyond the horizon.

Secondly, the English literary tradition is of an exceptional richness. This is not simply reflected in the astonishing achievement of great writers like Chaucer, Shake­speare, and the compilers of the King James or Authorized Version of the Bible: a love of words, from high literature to crosswords and journalism, appears to be a promi­nent characteristic of English culture. By contrast, the few outstanding English composers and artists, such as Purcell and Turner, scarcely invite comparison with Bach or Raphael. In part this must be the result of climate: a wildly unpredictable northern European climate may not be most propitious for a highly visual culture. In part, it must be the consequence of the development of the English language into an extraordinarily versatile resource. In part, too, it is the result of history: the Reforma­tion set little store by images, but a great deal by words.

This predilection for words, both spoken and written, goes some way to justifying the overwhelming emphasis placed upon word-based spirituality found in this book. We shall glance at other manifestations of 'the spiritual' as well: jewellery, sculpture, music, paintings, landscape and architecture will all find a place. But there is another, more profound, reason why the word must continue to find a central place in any exploration of Christian spirituality; and that is its formative role in the Bible…

Before we explore it, it is worth briefly considering how the word 'spiritualiy itself has changed its meaning over time.' In Piers Plowman, the fourteenth-century writer William Langland uses the word in the context of describing the bitter quarrels between friars and secular clergy:

I, Wrath, walk with them and tell them of my books.
Thus they speak of spirituality (spiritualte),
Who each despise one another,
Till they be both beggars and by my spirituality live,
Or else all rich and ride about.

For Langland, the term denotes ecclesiastical properties, endowments and income (such as tithes); Wrath is suggesting that by arguing fruitlessly over such things, the warring clergy and friars end up with none of them and have to put up with living off the endowments that Wrath himself provides for them. The same meaning appears in a Lollard text of perhaps a century later, Of poor preaching priests, where the writer demands that'all clerks live cleanly on spiritualte, as Christ and his apostles did'."

The term 'spiritualiy came also to refer to the clergy. In the sixteenth century, Sir Thomas More uses the word in this sense, describing the clergy as 'the chiefe of the spirituality'. And a contemporary Protestant bishop, Hugh Latimer, does the same:

Further, we pray that the priests, the spirituality, or the churchmen, as they call them, do their duties.

By the seventeenth century, the word is beginning to acquire its twentieth-century meaning. Thus the Puritan Richard Baxter tells his readers to 'be sure to maintain a constant delight in God, and a seriousness and spirituality in all his worship'." His fellow Puritan John Bunyan uses the term to mean the spiritual dimension or nature of something;" and their Anglican contemporary Jeremy Taylor uses it similarly:

This is the verification of that great prophecy which Christ made, that 'in all the world the true worshippers should worship in spirit and in truth;' that is, with a pure mind, with holy desires, for spiritual things, according to the mind of the Spirit, in the imitation of Christ's intercession, with per­severance, with charity or love. That is the Spirit of God, and these are the spiritualities of the Gospel, and the formalities of prayers as they are Christian and evangelical.

Elsewhere Taylor explores the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, arguing that we eat his body spiritually, for 'the changing all into spirituality is the greatest increasing of blessing in the world'.

By the eighteenth century, the word is being used as it would be in the twentieth. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been among the first explicitly to criticize the older use of the term to denote the exercise or possession of secular power by reli­gious authorities:

This is a gross abuse of the term, spiritual ... Our great Church dignitaries sit in the Upper House of the Convocation, as Prelates of the National Church: and as Prelates, may exercise ecclesiastical power. In the House of Lords they sit as barons, and by virtue of the baronies which, much against the will of those haughty prelates, our kings forced upon them: and as such, they exercise a Parliamentary power. As bishops of the Church of Christ only can they possess, or exercise (and God forbid! I should doubt, that as such, many of them do faithfully exercise) a spiritual power, which neither king can give, nor King and Parliament take away. As Christian bishops, they are spiritual pastors, by power of the spirit ruling the flocks committed to their charge; but they are temporal peers and prelates.

The Nonconformist Isaac Watts uses the word to denote a concern with spiritual things: `spirituality and heavenly-mindedness, should run through the whole of this duty [of prayer]. The Evangelical clergyman John Newton says in a letter that

 To those who have a due sense of the spirituality and ground of the divine precepts, and of what passes in their own hearts, there will never be wanting causes of humiliation and self-abasement on the account of sin.

And Newton's friend, the poet William Cowper, describes the Reverend William Bull (1738-1814), the Independent minister at nearby Newport Pagnell, as a man whose eminent spirituallity [sic] would recommend him to any man desirous of an edifying Companion…

We need finally to return to the spirituality of the Bible. There is throughout scripture a tension between structure and spontaneity, between priest and prophet, between the institutional and the charismatic, which all authentic Christian spirituality must reproduce. Two quotations from modern theologians bring this out. The Orthodox writer Olivier Clement, writing about the theology of the patristic period, sets this tension in the perspective of the doctrine of God as Trinity:

The Spirit comes from the Father in the Son and manifests him. The Son is born of the Father in the Spirit and is manifested by the Spirit. And both reveal the Father. In the Church the same reciprocity and the same mutual service must exist between the priesthood, which bears witness to the sacramental presence of Christ, and prophecy, which reveals the freedom of each conscience in the Holy Spirit.

It is of the very essence of the Church that that tension find expression: without it, there will be no spiritual life worthy of the name. And the German Protestant theolo­gian Johannes Baptist Metz, reflecting on the psalms of lament, writes:

Speaking about God always stems from speaking to God; theology comes from the language of prayer. That sounds pious and subjects me, in the eyes of those who choose not to understand me in other contexts as well, to the suspicion that I, the political theologian, have made another turn­about, this time to piety and pious submission. But let us make no mistake: the language of prayer is not only more universal, but also more exciting and dramatic, much more rebellious and radical than the language of current theology. It is much more disturbing, much more unconsoled, much less harmonious than that . . . Have we, perhaps, oriented ourselves far too well to the tamed prayer language of church and liturgy, and nourished ourselves on too many one-sided examples from the biblical tradition?

The point is crucial. Spiritual life, the life of the people of God, is supremely conceived of in scripture as a journey. Much of that journey is spent in exile; from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden onwards, individuals and communities con­stantly find themselves where they would prefer not to be. The life of faith means precisely to do what Abraham did: to `set out, not knowing where he was going.

Scripture never pretends that life is fair; and many faithful people will have experi­enced the puzzled jealousy of St Peter when they appear to have received, as he did, a vocation which did not attract them, and wonder why others have not received it too: 'Lord, what about him?'  Furthermore, in the life of exile, there is no going back home: the gates of Eden are barred. So home is always on ahead, always in the future, our experience of it now a transitory one. Hence the tremendous power of the words of God through the prophet Jeremiah to the Jews, exiled at Babylon and doubtless encouraging one another with nostalgic memories of an idealized past:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new cove­nant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, `Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

In the Bible, and for those courageous enough to embark upon it, the spiritual journey is always oriented to the future, however unpalatable that appears. For the Christian, unlike the Greek, the soul was eternal, not immortal; there was no `return after death to a familiar homeland. The Celestial City that ends the Bible is not at all like the Garden of Eden that begins it. And that gives the journey of those who seek it the character, not of a predetermined routine, but of an adventure. It was and is that quality above all others that imparted to the Christian spiritual tradition a dynamism that even the most terrible suffering or appalling ecclesiastical bigotry could never quite extinguish. Its presence at every turn of the long history of English spirituality is the surest mark of its authenticity, and the best possible reason for studying it.

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