At a time when the whole notion of 'England' is threatened, this exhaustive two-volume survey of English spirituality reminds of our extraordinary religious heritage, says Andre Gushurst-Moore
English Spirituality by Gordon Mursell, SPCK, 2 vols, £30 each
At a time when "England" may be dying, and "spirituality" suggests the vague notions of New Age transcendentalism, this extensive study brings both ideas into welcome focus. In over a thousand pages of close type. in two volumes, Gordon Mursell, Dean of Birmingham Cathedral, gives vs an historical survey of the leading figures, texts and movements that constitute the spiritual life of England. from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. It seems remarkable that such an enormous undertaking should be accomplished so well, by one who was at the time of writing also "engaged in a busy parochial ministry".
It is possible to give only the briefest of outlines here of such a comprehensive work. Although the author eschews the words "religion" or "Christianity" as the controlling dynamic of the study, such that his interest is not primarily ecclesiastical or doctrinal, he provides a sense of these things in a thorough picture of the historical and social context, while keeping the focus on spirituality — in the sense of the "academic study of prayer. mysticism, and devotion", where "spirit" means the "invisible realities" that work in the physical world.
Some thoughts on the character of English spirituality also introduce the study. Dora Greenwell pointed to a "hard and realistic" devotion, and divines in whom the practical has always been a salient feature. There is, confirms Mursell, a "robust empiricism" about it, and "a marked absence of grand systematizing". Others have pointed to the tradition of medieval mysticism, the Prayer Book, and the Caroline Divines as constituting English spirituality, but this ignores Nonconformity and the continuing English Catholic presence after the Reformation. To all these groupings, Mursell adds the "island story" dimension, and the incomparable richness of English literature. His approach is broadly inclusive without being loose of mind, and he is habitually fair in his treatment of this enormous variety.
The first volume begins with the fusion
Fe-of Christian and pagan elements in AngloSaxon poems such as 'The Seafarer", where in a haunting, elegiac idiom the characteristic English themes of home, exile. journey. nostalgia and spiritual combat are established very early in the literature. The inscrutable will of God is noticeably present, to which St Cuthbert adds the search for holiness. Bede's historical mind places the Anglo-Saxon journey sub specie aeternitatis, and locates home in Rome. In Mursell's words, "AngloSaxon spirituality blends vernacular imagery and patristic sophistication, Irish exuberance and Roman sobriety, hero and holy man."
For the Middle Ages proper, from the Conquest to the birth of modernity in the 1500s. Mursell finds the story of St Godric and the deer emblematic. Here, the holiness is one of interior wisdom and beauty. rather than of power and fear. Godric was also a layman, and his story embodies "some of the principal themes of English medieval spirituality: the discovery of the self, the theology of love, the rise of lay piety, and the cult of the saints".
Anselm and Aelred are the outstanding figures before 1300, after which time the world was turned upside down. The Black Death killed almost half the population of England in the space of one year, including two important Oxford scholars, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham. The interior journey, the cult of the suffering Christ, and lay spirituality (particularly that of John Wyclif and the Lollarcis) all emerge from a new sense of the individual, set free from a hierarchical feudal order now in tatters after plague and war. Not least in this picture of profound, inward devotion are women such as Julian of Norwich and Margery. Kempe.
The period 1500 to 1700 saw the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent establishment of an English church, with its own character that notionally avoided the extremes of Catholicism on the one hand and Dissent on the other. The English Bible and the Prayer Book, and figures such as Hooker. Andrewes, Taylor and George Herbert, express this quintessence of Anglicanism — quiet and restrained. both profound and practical. Before this calm, the Reformation martyrs, More and Fisher on the one side, Cramer, Latimer and Ridley on the other, fought with an intensity that may be seen in their devotional writings. as in More's Tower works
for example. By the time that an absolutism of King or Commons had been finally laid to rest, a latitudinarian, neoplatonic contemplation of the Divine Beauty had emerged, as seen in Sterry, Traherne and Sir Thomas Browne. whose Religio Medici seems again characteristically English in being both mystical and sensible, untroubled by the finer points of dogma.
Mursell's second volume covers the period from 1700 to the present day. After the enormous upheavals of the previous two centuries, the 1700s were years of steady expansion and the acquisition of an extensive trading empire. English spirituality was marked by a tension between reason and emotion, between the "enthusiast" and the "philosopher". It is the Evan
gelical Revival we note most about this century, and the Wesleys and Isaac Watts both affirm a religion of conversion and feeling. There is something very English — precise. muted but intense — in Wesley's famous description of a conversion experience while listening to a sermon: "About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed."
But the eighteenth century includes also the non-juror William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which had a profound effect on Samuel Johnson. also a High Churchman with strong Jacobite leanings. Wesley, of course, was also High Church, and it is interesting to see this fusion of authority and emotional religion in the face of the arid rationalism and atheism that threatened religion with the materialism of Newtonian physics. A deeper reaction was to come with the Romantic Movement, for example in the works of William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
It was English Romanticism, with its roots again in neoplatonism, that was to prepare the way for the Catholic Revival of the Victorian age, although, as Mursell makes clear. figures such as Richard Cladloner kept alive a Catholic spirituality of inner feeling during the quieter times of the eighteenth century. The great divide in the nineteenth century was between utilitarian liberalism, with its emphases on justice, science, human transformation, inclusiveness and incarnation, and the authority of revelation and the supernatural that increasingly came to be identified with Catholicism.
In the twentieth century, the widening gap has been between religion and spirituality, and, as Mursell says. "it would take all the energies and intelligence of religious people if the growing fascination with all things spiritual were not to leave them high and dry". Surely this is still the case, and acutely so, when authentic spiritual yearning is a prey to so much that is bogus and infantile in the New Age. In contrast, the English spiritual tradition is intensely alive to Plato — to the transcendent and the ideal — but always tempered and balanced by the Aristotelian common sense and practicality embodied in the English common law tradition of self-rule.
These are volumes to dip into for student and general reader alike, and it is to be hoped that schools and colleges will add them to their library shelves, where they will be found highly useful as a survey rather than a work of profound analysis or criticism. The books make up a comprehensive guide to the main currents, as well as to principal figures, in this enormous topic, and an exhaustive overview of primary and secondary material is also provided. They are well produced, although the punctuation of book titles is odd, and the Renaissance scholar Germain Marc'hadour is given in the index as Gervaise Marc'hadour, These vagaries are probably due to the compositor's art being taken over by powerful and indispensable new technology.