“There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God.” Though this comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it rings true for Anglicanism as well. Christianity has always been communal, and the depiction of the Church in Acts confirms this: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Christ is to be found on earth in his body, which is the Church. There are no Christians who exist apart from the Church (though it is true, of course, that in some cases a Christian may not have physical access to a local body of believers).
Practically, Christian community is important for the building up of fellow believers, and for providing loving instruction and, when necessary, correction. Anglicans are committed to caring for their brothers and sisters, even when it is uncomfortable. This comes from a long tradition that began in the monasteries, communities in which Christians submitted themselves to the loving authority of the abbot. St. Benedict’s Rule, the golden standard of Christian communal structure, highlights this function of community in its preface: “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.” Anglicans believe that submission to ecclesial authority is beneficial for spiritual formation.
The unique contribution of Anglicanism to spiritual life, however, is the emphasis on the spiritual director relationship (some call this mentorship). Not only is right relationship to the community at large necessary for the Christian life, but also an intimate relationship with an older, wiser mentor is invaluable for the development of Christian character. Spiritual directors are capable of helping parishioners with their individual struggles, of encouraging them in their individual victories, and of providing for their spiritual needs. Their primary role, however, is to guide the parishioner’s understanding of Christian doctrine and to help him integrate his theology into his prayer life (see my first post for Martin Thornton's definition of spiritual formation). This of course includes education in theological matters, but most importantly involves instruction in the spiritual disciplines. It is the role of the spiritual director to hold those under his care accountable for practicing the disciplines, helping them practice the disciplines fruitfully, and “assigning” appropriate disciplines for them at times in which they may benefit most from their practice. In this way, Anglicans assure that each member of the congregation is taken care of, and further “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” as Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians.
Though implementation of this vision has not been perfect in the local church, the Anglican vision of spiritual formation via spiritual direction is consistent with the biblical witness and most effectively contributes to parishioners’ growth and ministry in the Church. Robert Mulholland, author of Invitation to a Journey, has described spiritual formation as “a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” Anglicans agree with this, but also maintain that this definition does not go far enough. Spiritual formation is not only an individual enterprise; it is intimately connected to the work of the Church, and may not be separated from the liturgical and sacramental worship of the Body of Christ (as I discussed last week).
It is only within her place in the community that the Christian grows in godly love, wisdom, and holiness. We need each other—our spiritual brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and all those who have gone before us—to live the Christian life. Worship, which I discussed last week, is a communal activity. It is something the entire Body of Christ does. And this communal identity of the Church is based in the real character of God, who exists as a community in three persons in one God. Next week, I'll talk about why the Trinity is central in an Anglican understanding of spiritual formation. Until then, I'll leave you with a collect (collective prayer) so that, this week, we can all thank God for our Christian community and ask him to help us strengthen each other:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy; for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.