Modern Anglo-Catholic Spirituality
a very superficial introduction
First - let's clear up three misunderstandings
I thought Anglo-Catholic meant 'old fashioned'.
No! Absolutely not! Admittedly there are some Anglo-Catholic churches that are dreary and old fashioned – but others are modern, exciting and lively. It really depends on the priest and people of each individual church.
Aren't Catholics just evangelicals who do vestments and lots of bowing?
No. You could be alone on a desert island without anything churchy and still be deeply catholic. It is true that Catholics are into symbols and prefer to use holistic worship to express things too deep for words but being catholic is not about externals - it’s something in the soul – it’s a different way of looking at things
Do Anglo Catholics really pray to saints and worship bits of bread and wine?
No! You can 'ask' anyone including the saints to pray for you but you can only pray to God.
Nor do we worship bread and wine – when we genuflect or bow towards them we are welcoming and worshipping Jesus who uses them as channels of his presence and love.
So what are the key components of Catholic spirituality?
A mystical approach
Catholics have a more mystical approach to life and worship. For us this physical world is wafer thin and that behind it stands a reality so different and so wonderful that it cannot be expressed except in symbolic words and images.
Key to this approach is our understanding that matter and spirit are not in opposition. Matter can be pregnant with the presence of God. When this happens matter behaves differently.
For us physical matter can be transformed by the presence of God – for example in the bread and wine of the Eucharist - but it’s important to realise that we do not worship the ‘material thing’ but the living God who comes to us through it.
We passionately believe that God is able to come to us in and through the things he has made. That in different ways and to different degrees, God can somehow become incarnate or present in the things that he has created and so make them channels of his presence or healing grace.
Incarnation is a central concept in catholic theology and key to our understanding of God and the sacraments. The historic incarnation is seen as typical of the kind of thing that God is constantly doing. On a different level it is also an example for us to follow in our own daily lives.
We believe that whenever we gather together to worship we are somehow joining the worship already taking place in heaven. When we worship we do so in the presence of angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.
This colours how we ‘do’ worship. We try to be natural in all that we do but we do try to avoid certain caricatures. Worship is something we offer to God rather than something that is there to entertain us.
For us worship isn’t just something happening in the ‘here and now’ it is something that is both indwelt and caught up in eternity. (That doesn’t mean that we don’t have fun or degrees of unpredictability – especially at our All Age mass!)
We believe in being holistic and using the whole body - including all our senses in our worship. What could be more natural than to genuflect and bow when you know yourself to be in the presence of the loving but also all-powerful and ever living God? It’s also quite natural for us to cross ourselves to embody our prayer to belong, to be protected and to say yes to all that Jesus has done for us.
In the same way our worship also uses lights and smells and sounds as well as touch and taste. We celebrate with our senses and are happy to use aspects or parts of God’s creation as symbols that help to think beyond the present and remind us that in some mysterious way we are joining the worship of heaven.
Externals that help us to stay focussed
Externals like candles, crucifixes, holy pictures, Holy water and devotional aids (such as the stations of the cross or the Christmas crib invented by St Francis) can really uplift us and help us to focus as can the deeper symbols we us to express the inexpressible.
Having said this it’s important to remember that sacraments and symbols are not the same thing in catholic theology – a symbol is a pointer whilst a sacrament is an encounter and a direct means of grace.
The Eucharistic encounter
The Eucharist or mass stands at the heart of catholic worship and spirituality. It is both an expression of Christ’s incarnation and an encounter with the risen Lord. Through it we are connected with all that God has done for us through the saving death and resurrection of Jesus and, as we gather together as the eucharistic community, we receive manna for our journey and have a chance to welcome our Lord and invite him into our lives as we receive the bread and wine.
We believe in the miraculous.
Catholics are not gullible when it comes to miracles and we’re naturally suspicious of religious show offs and attention seekers but we do believe that God is alive and active within his creation. The early church was biblical, sacramental and charismatic and even in times of spiritual coldness the saints have kept this truth alive.
Death doesn't divide us
Catholics don’t buy into the notion that death separates us from those who have gone before us. When the New Testament talks about the heroes of the past it uses the picture them being like the crowd who gather along the route of a long distance race to support and shout encouragement to the runners. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says,
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12.1 NIV)
This idea of the people of the past being both awake and witnesses of the present is further reinforced by the experience of the disciples on the mount of transfiguration when Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah. The account is significant because we have heroes from the past, standing in the present talking about the future. The fact that they are able to discuss current and future events with Jesus shows us that they are not only consciously alive but also aware of what is happening on earth.
Naturally this influences the catholic understanding of the Saints who have gone before us. It would be strange indeed if the heroes of the Old Testament are alive and active whilst the apostles and saints are in deep freeze until the end day. Catholics believe that at the very least the saints – the ones who have been specially open and close to Jesus - are amongst the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ and, if we wish to, we can ask them to pray for us.
There is a theological balance to be maintained here. No one can take the place of Jesus and no ‘theologically aware’ catholic would pray to a saint (you can only pray to God) but for us it makes just as much sense to ask a saint (who stands in the presence of God) to pray for us as it does to ask our family or friends or any other person (still on earth) to pray for us.
The race, the pilgrimage or journey through life
Catholics hold fast to the biblical idea of life as a pilgrimage or journey. On this journey we travel in the company of God’s people and we are constantly fed and strengthened by the sacraments. It is not by accident that in his gospel John moves all discussion about the bread and wine from the last supper and places it around a discussion of Jesus being the true bread from heaven which like the first manna is given to sustain us on our journey. (John 6:30- 58)
Catholics believe that God has given us seven sacraments to help us on our journey, both in terms of spiritual growth and healing and also for strength and grace in our relationships with others.
The seven sacraments are
- The two sacraments of initiation – Baptism and Confirmation
- The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist
- The two sacraments of healing – Anointing and Confession
- And the two sacraments of vocation – Marriage and Ordination
For us a sacrament is not a symbol or a visual aid. It's an encounter facilitated by the Holy Spirit, with the external action or matter of the sacrament being a direct channel of grace or encounter.
The Christian life
‘Believing and belonging’ and ‘Knowing and growing closer to God’ are two phrases that you often hear in Anglo-catholic parishes.
The Christian life is really a response. It’s about responding to God’s generosity and warm-hearted love. It’s not about doing good or noble things to earn God’s approval, the good news is that God’s love for us predates all our efforts. He reached out to us while we were still lost – so everything in the Christian life is about God’s grace and our response to his initiative and invitation.
Understood this way praise and worship and trying to live the way of the kingdom are not ritual duties but natural enthusiastic responses to God’s love for us. Worship is a natural way of thanking God for his kindness as is trying to living the way Jesus taught. In essence we want to work with God, to give him some joy and at the same time avoid the things that we know will spoil our friendship with him.
Humility and the life of prayer
One of the hallmarks of Catholic spirituality is humility.
Retreats, quiet days, pilgrimage and spiritual mentors/ accompaniers/ directors are key features of catholic spirituality that are now being recognised across the whole spectrum of the Christian church.
Catholic spirituality has a profound respect for those give up worldly status and careers to become priests and an even deeper respect for those who have given up even more so as to live the life of prayer and humility as a monk or nun. We hold in awe the way they give up everything to put Jesus first in their lives.
We are ‘High Church’
We have a high view of the church (that’s why people often call Anglo-Catholics ‘High Church’). For us the church isn’t a convenient structure invented by human beings but an ‘ark,’ a vessel of grace given by God.
Belonging is key
The idea that you can be a follower of Jesus and not go to church comes from ‘the father of lies’. The New Testament always talks about belonging. Jesus talks about the Vine and the flock and Paul talks about the Household (family) of faith and the way that each one of is a part of a living body.
Catholics have a strong group identity and a strong sense of belonging to each other. Although the haziness of the Church of England sometimes militates against this, the idea of belonging is central. The emphasis is on both being and thinking in a communal way. We do not think of ourselves as being a collection of individuals but of being a community centred round the Eucharist.
The word Catholic is very revealing. It comes from the Greek – ‘according to the whole’ and it sets the whole tone of our approach.. We believe and try to do what the church has always believed ‘at all times and in all places’. We want to do things in accordance with 'the mind of the church' – the collective consciousness of the church.
Some churches emphasise the individual and individual interpretations, catholic spirituality cherishes the beauty and uniqueness of each human life but this is balanced by our sense of belonging together. We want to stay in harmony with the rest of the church.
Liberalism is when a person or group decide to reject bits of the bible or the ‘mind or experience of the church’. For Catholics the interpretation of scripture is done by communal discernment not by individual preference.
Scripture is always the measure and the final arbiter but we are also aware that God has never stopped communicating with us. He gives us additional insights through the wisdom and experience of those who have trod this path before us and he is constantly prompting and teaching us in the present through our own encounters and experience.
Noticing and discerning what is from God and what is from us takes practice and it is one of the reasons why it’s good to have a spiritual guide or accompanier.
Authority and unity
Our strong sense of church is also reflected in the emphasis on apostolic succession. People cannot simply claim authority or leadership; it must be given and legitimised by its connection to authority passed down.
On a diocesan level the legal authority and the source for commissioning ministry is that of the bishop who we see as successor to the Apostles.
In terms of unity, the notion of apostolic succession colours our desire for reunification. The hope is that we will all experience the reforming, healing grace of the Holy Spirit and one day become physically One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church.
Are Franciscan and Benedictine spirituality different from Catholic spirituality?
No, the term catholic spirituality is an umbrella term. Franciscan, Benedictine, Carmelite, Ignatian spiritualities etc all have slightly different emphases and are all ways of living out day to day spirituality within the spectrum of Catholic spirituality.
Both Benedictine and Franciscan spiritualities are major influences in catholic spirituality.
- Scripture as a meeting place with God
- Seeing God in the ordinary
- The importance of rhythm and balance
- An emphasis on listening and humility
- Order and reverence in worship and prayer
- An emphasis on Community and hospitality
- Healing and wholeness
- The holiness of the place of worship
- The role of the spiritual leader
These dominant emphases are all features of Benedictine spirituality. They are also features of Franciscan spirituality but in the latter the emphasis is also on
- Living simply
- Depending on the providence of God
- Encountering God in and through nature
- Extempore prayer
- The sacraments and an even greater emphasis on the Eucharist
- The use of externals and visual aids (e.g. the Christmas crib)
- The importance of service and ministry in society