This is the first post in a four-week series on Anglican spiritual formation.
Perhaps the most pressing mission for the contemporary Church is the development of good doctrine and practice in the realm of spiritual formation. While there has been renewed interest in Christianity “on the ground,” many pastors and church leaders have given up theological reflection as a source of spiritual formation, with the implied claim that doctrine doesn’t really matter all that much in the life of the Christian. We see this in our bookstores, with titles emphasizing self-discovery, self-help, and self-sufficiency, and more people than ever are choosing to leave the Church in favor of pursuing their own visions of religious life.
We face this crisis in the contemporary Church because we have separated Christianity into the two spheres of theological and practical. This is, without doubt, a false dichotomy. And this false dichotomy really, truly hurts people, not only because it keeps people from knowing God as deeply as they could, but also because it fractures the human person. It relegates religious experience to the emotional realm and discourages the use of the intellect. It divorces the head from the heart. We have forgotten that orthodoxy does not really mean “right thought,” but “right worship.” It is a word concerned primarily with seeing God for who he is and worshiping him in accordance with that vision. “Orthopraxy,” a favorite word among some spiritual leaders today, is actually an unnecessary word, because practice is a necessary ingredient for orthodoxy.
Anglicanism is a tradition that—at least in theory—attempts to bridge the divides between “thought, word, and deed.” Martin Thornton, a twentieth-century Anglican priest and spiritual director, defines the Anglican approach to spiritual formation as “Christian doctrine interpreted and applied by a teacher of prayer together with the mental and physical disciplines which nurture and support it.” This means that spiritual formation doesn’t only rely on practicing spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, solitude, etc.). In fact, I think it’s fair to say that spiritual disciplines are only beneficial because they are embodied expressions of Christian theology.
The Anglican approach to spiritual formation tries to remember this. We are not just minds, nor just bodies. God invites us to use both to know him more deeply and worship him more beautifully! Because of this, Anglicans believe that people are growing and being formed all the time, even in the most seemingly mundane activities. Bible study isn’t the only thing there is! We see Sunday morning worship, meeting for coffee with a mentor, and academic study as equally valuable contributors to spiritual formation. We believe that, when making the sign of the cross, our bodies are saying their own kind of prayer, and that participating in the Lord’s Supper does something real and important. Doctrine and prayer, minds and bodies, theology and discipline: all of these are necessary and beneficial for the Anglican Christian. All of these are good gifts from God.
Next week, I’ll talk a little bit about Anglican worship, and how/why we believe it is the primary place where spiritual formation occurs. Then, Lord willing, the following week’s post will discuss the communal focus Anglicans given spiritual formation. The following week, I’ll discuss why and how to apply the doctrine of the Trinity to spiritual formation.