Monday, 8 July 2013

Either/Or Spirituality

My first significant encounter with Anglicanism came with an enormous dose of the Charismatic. Renewal had touched the Established Church via John Wimber of the Vineyard, USA, and was coming to a church/conference near you. I was immediately struck by the singing, which was intense and personal. To say I was bowled over would be an understatement. Power, intimacy and abandonment were not qualities I had honestly encountered in (non Conformist) church life up till then. 

Simultaneously discovering singing in tongues AND sung Eucharistic liturgy presented no particular problems at the time - I was unaware that later on in my life they would sadly come to be seen, or at least practised, as 'either/or' options. The tendency for some 'charismatic' worship, though, to settle for nothing more than endless repeated choruses eventually drove me to explore the depths of liturgical worship, and the C of E selection and training process would lead me along paths of settled prayer, silence, solitude and stillness. To the sacramental.

Sacramental theology had completely passed me by till the DDO* got hold of me. I read Baptists and Catholics. John E. Colwell's phrase 'no unmediated immediacy' stuck in my mind (after I'd spent a fairly long time working out its meaning). 
There was no means by which grace could be mediated to humanity save through outward, physical 'stuff'? It seemed like a good idea at first, offering protection from spiritual self delusion, but not everyone was agreed on what 'stuff' could mediate God's salvation. The Catholics said there were seven sacraments, the Anglicans two** - the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I reluctantly concluded John E Colwell had never been in a renewal meeting lying on the floor while the Holy Spirit ministered inner healing directly to his soul. But each to his own (or was it?)

Sacraments, spiritual direction, silence, solitude, annual retreat  - all these became, not optional, but vital for spiritual/ministerial life. I was drawn to Ignatian reflection and two years on from ordination made a silent retreat at the Jesuit retreat house, Loyola Hall.

There was no singing in tongues - surprise, surprise - but God was powerfully there in the steady, measured silence (though I was never fully convinced the Catholic hierarchy would have embraced the fact that half the retreatants were gleefully taking Holy Communion with less than a fully Roman view on what that really meant. So far, so divided).

Ffald y Brenin, Retreat Centre and House of Prayer.
Chael with domed roof (left).
But either/or spirituality is ultimately unsatisfying. Last year I read of a miraculous healing that a clergy acquaintance received at Ffald Y Brenin in Wales. She too had been seeking God through Ignatian reflection and almost stumbled across the retreat house whilst on holiday in Pembrokeshire. She posted a photo of herself standing in front of the remains of her now defunct wheelchair.

I sensed a pull. Set prayers were said four times a day in the tiny stone chapel. Miraculous healing AND a Celtic style rhythm of prayer? Streams of sometimes divided spirituality, united?

The earth is never far away, even in chapel.
I went. And discovered our Celtic Christian ancestors were right - God is not an either/or God. Yes, we said Morning Prayer (of sorts!) and Midday Prayer, and Evening Prayer...and there were plenty of long silences, waiting on God in worship. But there was also spontaneous, glorious singing in tongues, prophetic words and inner healing. One evening I went into the chapel at 5.30pm for Evening Prayer (30 mins) but nobody got beyond the first song...God's presence was so palpable, inhabiting the music, interrupting, and then bringing silence, like waves...I emerged three hours later to discover I had missed supper.

There perhaps remains an innate tension between the breaking in of the Spirit and set liturgy. But St Paul was right - order in worship is as important as the exercising of gifts. The Corinthian Church lacked order. Individually empowered members of the body were falling over each other to give a word, prophecy, sing/speak in tongues. If I'm honest I don't generally see that problem in English rural church worship. 

Pembrokeshire coast
The Spirit is like the wind, blowing where He wills, or like waves crashing on the shore one by one, with expectant stillness in between. He also grows in us the fruit of self discipline, though. It's not either/or.

And all through the worship the clear chapel windows let the hillside stream in and the Welsh wind said God is in the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'. It's not either/or. He's the God of creation and re-creation. And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
*DDO - Diocesan Director of Ordinands: medium-to-strongly scary person who prepares you for selection to the C of E training process.

**It seems to me that once you start counting sacraments, it's difficult to know where to stop. Either Christ is the only sacrament ('mysterion') or everything is 'sacramental'. Do we have to itemise them?  In fear of Episcopal discipline, however, I am, of course, perfectly happy with two sacraments. Love two.


  1. It's the paradox of being Anglican. They say two, Rome says 7 and if we count The Word as a Sacrament, The Church as a Sacrament, than most other things are Sacramental from the food we eat to the work we do the things we create and so on.

    I'm a former Catholic, who is thoroughly Anglican, but accepts that The Sacramental is something to be lived and to enjoy. After all, they are free Gifts of the Spirit and I see why we shouldn't accept them for what the are Outward signs of Inward Grace.

    And I love the idea that God isn't either/or, he is Just God. If we could keep it that simple than even the trinity becomes more present and understandable (and as another Sacrament).

  2. I wonder if any of your readers would shop you to the Episcopal disciplinary body (that sounds pretty scary to me) for stepping outta line? I have no idea on the theological implications of this and have not spent years dwelling on it but as a punter in the pews it strikes me that the more we (well, ok you guys.. the keepers of the traditions and the status quo!) draw lines keeping people in or out, things sacramental or not, we ultimately limit the Almighty, the reach of love and grace and our ability to see and enjoy the thin places between 'heaven' and 'earth'.. if you'll excuse a metaphor that rather draws another line!

  3. I'm grateful to Mark Godson, Director of the London Institute for Spirituality for the following helpful link: