No fervour please, we're English

English Spirituality Volume 1

December 13, 2002

Gordon Mursell's English Spirituality is bound to invite comparison with Martin Thornton's classic work of the same title and publisher that appeared some 40 years ago. As it turns out, the two books could hardly be more different. Thornton was focused and polemical, with the clear practical aim of writing a guide for spiritual directors, "to teach the clergy to be teachers of prayer", as Archbishop William Temple had put it. Mursell, by contrast, is encyclopaedic and all-embracing, almost to the point of self-contradiction. He allows rival spiritual claims and ideals to lie side by side, with no attempt to unify them or justify their selection.

Where Thornton was writing a manual for professionals, Mursell has produced a treasure store for everyone. And a magnificent achievement it is: 1,000 pages of text; more than 6,000 notes; bibliographies for each chapter, covering both primary and secondary sources; and the great bulk of this written - as he tells us - while working as a full-time parish priest. It is a triumph of application and dedication.

The organisation of the two volumes is simple. A brief introductory chapter is followed by two comparatively short ones, covering Anglo-Saxon and medieval times up to 1300. The remainder of the work is divided into five long chapters, each dealing with a period of one or two centuries.

Mursell's style is inviting and engaging, and the decision to put the notes and references at the end of each chapter means that the general reader can follow the main text - and benefit from the many excellent quotations - without the distraction of academic clutter.

The vast amount of material is broken down and made accessible in two main ways - one thematic, the other personal. Thus the chapter on late-medieval spirituality (1300-1500) includes sections on the growth of lay spirituality, with themes such as pilgrimage, the cult of the Virgin and the suffering Christ. It also has extended individual studies of key authors such as Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. The next chapter (1500-1700) is divided into thematic sections on the spirituality of the Church of England, of Catholics, and of Puritans, followed by detailed discussions of representatives of each of these traditions, including Thomas More, John Bunyan and George Herbert.

Mursell points out the way in which the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was at this time distinctive of Puritan (and also of Quaker) spirituality, but relatively neglected by Anglicans and Catholics. This raises the question of what the role of the Holy Spirit in "English" spirituality is. Thornton would have said that the English spiritual tradition is an almost Platonic idea, which we find embodied more or less authentically in any spiritual exercise or piece of writing. So he could have said with some confidence whether, at this time and on this point, the Puritans and Quakers, or the Catholics and Anglicans, were closer to that ideal. Mursell attempts no such judgement. He acts simply as a chronicler, faithfully recording what was going on, pointing out key features, but making no moral or theological judgements.

Given the general breadth and inclusiveness of the work, I was struck by the lack of mention in his Reformation chapter of Foxe's Book of Martyrs . I found just a solitary footnoted reference to this immensely popular and influential book, which, although a work of propaganda with much of its detail now questioned by historians, undoubtedly helped to establish the Protestant settlement of English religion in the 16th century.

In the second volume, there is a heavy emphasis on literary figures, not all of whom would spring to mind in connection with a history of spirituality. They include Defoe, Coleridge and Dr Johnson in the 18th century; Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Eliot and Dickens in the 19th; and - perhaps more predictably - Chesterton, C. S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers in the 20th. There is even more than a passing reference to Kenneth Grahame, including an extended quotation from The Wind In the Willows . T. S. Eliot, also receives a mention in both volumes in connection with earlier spiritual writers whose work he drew on. Everyone knows that "All shall be well" in Little Gidding comes from Julian of Norwich, but the familiar opening of The Journey of the Magi is also borrowed, from one of Lancelot Andrewes's 17th-century sermons on the Nativity: "A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali , 'the very dead of winter'." There is something Churchillian about that last sentence. Perhaps we are close to a truly English spirituality after all.

A book such as Mursell's has countless gems such as this among its plentiful quotations and anecdotes. Many of these are pertinent today. Among my favourites was the following categorical command of Frederick Faber to his Victorian audience: "Never keep a spiritual journal, a record of pious thoughts, any vestige of a religious autobiography. I do not mean to say that the saints have not done so. But you must not do it." His reason is intensely practical: "The infatuation of keeping a journal is entangled with every root and fibre of self-love." It is far better that you "forget yourself, and what you have gone through. God remembers. Surely that is enough." That is a splendid riposte to today's introspective tendency.

Then there have been some strange ideas as to what heaven will be like. The 18th-century dissenter Isaac Watts, who wrote the still-popular hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross , deserves a special mention for his vision of a kind of celestial University of the Third Age. Adam will be there, explaining what went wrong in Eden, while Saint Paul is giving lectures in collaboration with Moses. The aim of the apostle's classes will be to illuminate "the dark places of his own writings, better than he himself once understood them". Many of us will warm to the notion that even Paul himself did not know what he was talking about, but being lectured by him sounds more like most people's idea of hell than heaven!

With such a diversity of ideas contained in the pot labelled "English spirituality", one is bound to return to the question of whether the concept has any definable meaning or practical application. Mursell acknowledges that there is some truth in Thornton's conviction that there exists an English school of spirituality, one that is marked by a "striking synthesis of the speculative and the affective, scorning the extremes of both". But he also insists that there are sides to English spirituality that are different from what "middle-class Church of England figures" such as Thornton had in mind. The two characteristic marks of English spirituality to which Mursell draws attention are that it is verbal rather than visual or aural, and that it is above all an adventure. This latter he describes as "the surest mark of its authenticity, and the best possible reason for studying it".

I wonder, however, whether the essence of the English expression of religion is not best summed up in St James's blunt anti-ecclesiastical assertion: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the father is this, to visit the widows and fatherless in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." This was a view endorsed by two eminent Victorians with otherwise very different outlooks. Mursell tells us that the liberal Anglican F. D. Maurice saw concern for the poor as a key mark of Christ's Kingdom, and believed that "there is something distinctively English" about the belief that Christianity is primarily a way of life. Meanwhile, Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was assuring his pious congregation: "A church in London, which does not exist to do good in the slums of the city, is a church that has no reason to justify its existence." And a few decades later the fiery Frank Weston told the Anglo-Catholic Congress: "It is madness to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the sacrament and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the bodies and souls of his children."

That this is the authentic voice of English spirituality is tacitly acknowledged by Mursell, in the quotation from another Victorian, Dora Greenwell, with which he opens his work: "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."

Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

English Spirituality Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1700; Volume 2: From 1700 to the Present Day

Author - Gordon Mursell
ISBN - 0 281 05408 8 and 05409 6
Publisher - SPCK
Price - £30.00 each
Pages - 548 and 580

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