Pioneers of Modern Spirituality: a review

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality. The neglected Anglican innovators of a “spiritual but not religious” age by Jane Shaw: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2018. Further details.

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What is the church’s past for? How far might it hold examples for today’s Christians, and how easily are those examples translated into our present context? This intriguing book, by the principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford and a former cathedral dean, is one answer. Based on the Sarum Lectures for 2017, in its brief compass it demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of church history as a resource for the present church.

Jane Shaw’s aim is to show that in the early twentieth century there were Anglican figures whose life and work might be a resource now in reaching those who might think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Before moving to Oxford earlier this year, Shaw ministered for several years in California, and she rightly notes a similarity in Anglican missional strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. Mission is too often concentrated on deepening the faith of those who are already in some way engaged with the church, she argues, to the neglect of those who are not. Are there resources within historic Anglicanism that might help engage those who might never otherwise consider crossing the threshold of a church? Among these seekers, she argues, the things that are sought are: an engagement with the beautiful as something that points beyond the self; ways of dealing with the hyperactivity and over-connectedness of daily life; a sense of community; agency in building a juster society, and a seriousness about fundamental questions of human life. All these the tradition can provide, if only these seekers can find pathways into it.

Shaw focusses on four Anglican figures of comparable ages, all active either or both before and after the First World War, some of whom are reasonably well known, others not at all. Rarely, if ever, have they been juxtaposed in this way. The book is pithy and engagingly written and has the cardinal virtue of sending the reader back to the texts themselves, to which end there is a useful guide to further reading.

It opens with Evelyn Underhill, perhaps the most important English writer on mysticism of her generation, whose most significant books were written during a very wide-ranging intellectual journey which only later ended in Christian conviction. As both author and as a leader of retreats at a time when few women did so, Underhill stressed that spiritual experience was not the preserve of elite practitioners but could be open to all. Crucially, her practice was to allow those under her direction to use prayer and meditation on the truths that they could understand and accept as a pathway towards those doctrines which seemed more difficult. Demanding but forgiving, practical and gentle, Underhill’s example offers much of value.

More exacting was the spiritual direction of Reginald Somerset Ward, who left parish ministry to work as a ‘freelance’ spiritual director for over forty years, counting bishops and archbishops among his several hundred directees. In Ward’s stress on the importance of a regular rule of life in which prayer is the first rather than the last priority - a discipline of time and attention – Shaw finds a possible means to manage the demands of modern life. That many will find their way into the full rigour of Ward’s practice is harder to imagine.

Third among Shaw’s subjects is Percy Dearmer, and his work in the renewal of Anglican worship. Through his writings, not least The Parson’s Handbook, and through the model of St Mary Primrose Hill in London, Dearmer promoted an art of public worship (the title of another of his books) that demanded the best in all its aspects: its music, its words and its movements, its architectural and decorative setting. Shaw focusses rightly on Dearmer’s theology of beauty as articulated in Art and Religion (1924), and notes contemporary experience in San Francisco and elsewhere of the response of seekers to the arts in church settings. This ‘high’ theology of beauty as sacrament was taken up by others, notably Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, but not all parishes can hope that their building and their music may be beautiful (supposing for a moment that we could agree on what was beautiful in the first place). However, I would argue that Dearmer’s thought and practice also points towards a more achievable aspiration that is no less useful and likely to be as attractive in a different way: that the way in which public worship is conducted is a demonstration that it is important, that attention has been paid to it, that time and effort has been expended on it, as a means of pointing to the One to whom it is all directed.

The final chapter is on the novelist Rose Macaulay. After a conventional church upbringing, Macaulay spent nearly three decades out of contact with the church as a member, only returning to faith at the age of 69. However, she continued to draw on what she called ‘spiritual capital’, describing herself as an‘Anglo-agnostic’ who (had it come to it) might have been an ‘Anglo-atheist’. This identification was a matter of ‘taste and affection’ but also in her ‘blood and bones’. Art, music, architecture, liturgy, the company and conversation of Christian friends (many of them clergy); all these remained sources of delight and meaning throughout. It is the existence of this spiritual capital in the British upper and middle classes that allowed Underhill, Dearmer and Ward to operate, and arguably this chapter might have been better placed first in order to frame the argument. But it is telling that Macaulay features little in Shaw’s conclusion, since we surely now face a different situation, in which that spiritual capital is not there to be drawn upon, but must be invested afresh.

Specialist historians may well be left with questions that Shaw raises, but which (quite understandably in a book of this size) it is not her aim to pursue. Shaw is quite right to draw attention to a critique of ‘institutionalism’ voiced by Underhill and Dearmer, but there is work to do yet to establish how widespread this understanding was. As well as that, I would question how far this impatience with certain aspects of the way in which churches operate can be equated with the self-conscious identification as being of ‘no religion’ that characterises our current situation. The conditions are now quite different, and to project them back risks distorting our sense of the inter-war period.

Shaw also perhaps overplays how marginal some of her subjects were. Underhill and Macaulay clearly were, but Percy Dearmer, while not holding an appointment within the Church after leaving Primrose Hill (to his discomfort), was still a widely read author, an academic in a university setting in which ordinands were trained (King’s College, London) and eventually a canon of Westminster. Somerset Ward was certainly not well known in public, but the array of the great and the good who gathered for his memorial service surely demonstrates that he was far from marginal.

More generally, the book is marred by a great many small mistakes – personal, organisation and place names misspelled, titles of books given incorrectly – which could have easily been ironed out and are a distraction. This is a shame, as Jane Shaw has brought four neglected figures to our attention again in a fresh and fertile way. This book deserves to be widely read.

Peter Webster

Dr Peter Webster joined the Fulcrum leadership team in 2018. He is an historian of contemporary British Christianity, with particular interests in evangelicalism, the Church of England and its relationship with the state and the law, ecumenism, and the religious arts. His study of Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, appeared in 2015; his most recent book, on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. He is also owner of Webster Research and Consulting Ltd, helping libraries, archives and universities make better digital services for research. He is a member of Chichester Baptist Church.

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