Revised Essay on Understanding the Anglican Patrimony. Part IV: Patristic/Monastic Spirituality and the Caroline Era

[The photo is of Bishop John Cosin’s Almshouse on Palace Green, Durham. (The photo is from the Durham World Heritage Site, which provides a history of the Almshouse.) Cosin’s Almshouse is a reminder that the Caroline Divines were not only theologians and poets but also pastors.]

Links to parts of this essay: Part I (The Monastic Charism); Part II (England’s Monastic Roots); Part III (Patristic/Monastic Spirituality and the English Reformation); Part IV (Patristic/Monastic Spirituality and the Caroline Divines). Yet to be published: Part V and Part VI]

Foreword to Part IV

Since the influence of the monastic charism is important in English spirituality, the first part of this essay examines unique characteristics of the monastic charism in contrast to other charisms of consecrated religious life.  The second part of this essay looks at some of the ways in which monasticism played a much more influential role in England than in other parts of the west, thus laying the foundation for an English spirituality that is heavily monastic.  The third part of this essay presents historical evidence that shows that even as monasteries (and houses of other religious institutes) were dissolved and razed to the ground in the Dissolution, the deeper roots of monastic influence in English culture and religion proved resilient during the English reformation.

This fourth installment of the essay briefly considers the period in Anglicanism identified as the Caroline era or the era of the Caroline Divines.  The Caroline Divines were prominent Anglican theologians most active during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II (and during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, to the extent they were able to make their work known during the Interregnum). 

It was during this period that the Carolines set about addressing a distinctly Anglican theological perspective.  While I acknowledge that some of these writings were polemical (as were, similarly, the works of some Catholic and continental-Protestant theologians), my focus is on a few examples from the collective thought of the Carolines that affirm the importance of patristic sources and even express regret over the loss of monastic life in England.

Given this narrow focus, what I present here fails to do justice to a very rich period in Anglican history.  This narrow focus within a brief discussion also sets aside any consideration of those influential people in this period—especially the Puritans—who had little interest in, or strongly opposed, anything related to patristic/monastic spirituality.  But the evidence of strong appeals by Caroline Divines to patristic sources and, implicitly, to monasticism’s role in maintaining this theological outlook through the Middle Ages, indicates that the Church of England’s identity during this period affirmed, once again, the role of patristic/monastic spirituality as an important element of English spirituality.

In the fifth installment of this essay, I discuss specific examples of similarities between patristic/monastic spirituality and the Anglican ethos as well as a few differences.  In the final installment of this essay, I posit a few implications of the patristic/monastic influence in English spirituality as it applies to the Ordinariates established according to the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus.

Patristic/Monastic Spirituality and the Caroline Era.

The Caroline Divines—theologians who wrote in support of the Church of England during the period running roughly from 1594 to 1728—produced the “first flowering of the Anglican tradition”[1] that consolidated a sense of an Anglican identity for centuries.  It was not until the nineteenth century that a fuller concept of “Anglicanism” as a theological position more than a merely national connotation developed.[2]  It was also in the nineteenth century that, in Anglicanism’s High Church wing, appreciation of patristic texts and spirituality came into sharper focus and the presence of vowed religious life in England shifted from being a wistful dream to a concrete reality.  But the Carolines both affirmed patristic theology’s place in Anglicanism and fostered an essentially monastic aspiration of “alternating periods of prayer and work issuing in an habitual sense of the presence of God.”[3] 

The Caroline era also produced the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, which, after the alternating versions in previous years, remained a relatively stable text in shaping Anglican identity.  This “first flowering of the Anglican tradition”[4] thus laid the basis on which England’s religious establishment and the country’s cultural identity were able to settle into a widespread Anglican identity.[5]

It is precarious, though, to refer to a settled national sense of religious identity in this period.  Even referring to prominent seventeenth-century Anglican writers as a group of “Caroline Divines” is “ambiguous and strictly inaccurate.”[6]  This inaccuracy is due to at least two reasons.  The first is that the timeline of this period proposed by some, a timeline that runs roughly from the publication of Richard Hooker’s On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in 1594 to William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life in 1728,[7] predates the reign of Charles I and extends beyond the reign of Charles II. 

Another reason the term “Caroline” is inaccurate is that it ignores the fact that this theological activity straddled Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth.  A motivation of pre-Commonwealth writers among the Carolines was the desire to assert a position in response to the more extreme Protestant views in English religious life as this view gained power.  These efforts resulted in a temporary failure in the sense that Cromwell’s Commonwealth suppressed the Church of England for over a decade.  But the Church of England’s restoration inspired post-Commonwealth writers to crystallize certain pre-Civil War religious traditions and theological writings into a clearer notion of the Church of England.[8]  In a sense, then, the Puritans helped the Caroline Divines achieve a greater cohesiveness among themselves than might otherwise have been the case.

An important aspect of this theological cohesiveness was a recognition of the authority of the Church Fathers, not only their theological writings but also the spirituality of the patristic era.  As noted in the section above on the period of the English reformation, the authority of the Church Fathers was appreciated not only because of their theology, if theology is thought of in the modern sense as a compartmentalized discipline.  Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century Anglican theologians read the Fathers as touchstones for “whole patterns of thought and practice.”[9]  Also worth reiterating is the canon—issued by Convocation in 1571 and thus only two decades before the Caroline era—that “obliged pastors to refer not only to the Scriptures but to the ancient Fathers of the Church,”[10] thus affirming patristic spirituality not only among prominent theologians but also in cathedrals and parishes throughout the land.  As in the period of the English reformation, the Caroline Divines were selective in the passages from patristic literature on which they relied.  But as has been noted above, this reliance on patristic authority and spirituality is “probably without parallel in the official literature of … Continental Protestantism.”[11]  Because of this respect for the Fathers, Protestantism as a theological position in its own right—which could be said of the forms of Continental Protestantism—never became part of the religious establishment in England.  On the contrary, as the conversions of High Church Anglicans to Catholicism in the nineteenth century and subsequently have shown, this respect for the Fathers was dangerously Catholic.

To provide only two examples of Caroline Divines who appealed to the authority of the Church Fathers, Lancelot Andrewes is famous for having stated “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period – the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”[12]  Though Andrewes regarded only the first five centuries as authoritative (which would include many writers involved in, or appreciative of, monasticism) his language about the Fathers he quoted shows no doubt as to their importance in his rule of faith.  Throughout his sermons, “one constantly meets expressions such as, ‘The rule of the Father is,’ ‘So say the Fathers with uniform consent,’ ‘There is not one of the Fathers that I have read, but interpret it thus and so,’ … and so forth.”[13]  Indeed, the indications are that Andrewes’s initial wariness about the Fathers as a means of interpretation of Scripture broadened over time so that he “later relied on them very heavily.”[14]

Andrewes had less respect for the writings of the scholastics.  His library contained “such stalwart scholastics as Aquinas, Suarez, Cajetan, Canisius, Stapleton, Richard Middleton, Albertus Magnus, among many others.”[15]  And he certainly referred to them.  But he frequently did so with a “quasi apology by saying, ‘as the schoolmen call it,’ or ‘as the schoolmen term us,’ and so forth.”[16]

From the Catholic perspective, this is unfortunate because scholasticism, especially that of St. Thomas Aquinas, excellently complements patristic theology.  But Andrewes’s perspective is yet another example of the fact that scholasticism and spiritualities associated with the mendicants and clerks regular did not attain dominance in English spirituality.

The other example of a Caroline Divine who appealed to the authority of the Church Fathers is Bishop John Cosin, consecrated bishop of Durham at the Restoration in 1660.  Cosin “played a leading part in the 1662 revision of The Book of Common Prayer, thenceforth the standard of Anglican worship,” and is considered “one of the fathers of Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England.”[17]

One of his statements is as follows:

“But if anything is maintained by an individual, though he were a saint, or a learned man, a bishop, confessor, or martyr, without the authority of Holy Scripture and the consent of the Church, and he has handed this down to those who came after him, without having himself received it from the Fathers, and Christ’s Apostles, that must be put aside as a private opinion, unauthorized by the common, public, and Catholic or universal sentiment; but we think that no one can refuse to submit to this sentiment when it is thus universal without being guilty of great arrogance and temerity.”[18]

As for the perception of monasticism in the Carline era, though the landscape of seventeenth-century England included recently-razed monastic foundations, there was not as much anti-monastic sentiment as might generally be supposed.  The semi-monastic community at Little Gidding, though it did encounter some suspicion and was not to survive the death of its founder, Nicholas Ferrar, was peacefully tolerated and even admired by prominent writers and theologians.[19]  John Bramhall, seventeenth-century Archbishop of Armagh, admitted that covetousness was a “great oar in the boat” of the reform, “and that sundry of the principal actors had a greater aim at the goods of the Church than at the good of the Church . . ..  I do not see why monasteries might not agree well enough with reformed devotion.”[20]  Another Caroline Divine, Herbert Thorndike, is less reticent on this topic.[21] “It is certainly a blot on the Reformation when we profess that we are without monastic life.”[22]

In this period, England was marked by intense religious turmoil, which was intertwined, of course, with all aspects of English culture.  Whether in spite of this turmoil or as a response to it, the Anglican answer emphasized listening and quietness—or, one might say, hesychia, to use the term that came to be applied to the spirituality of the Desert Fathers.  An instance of this encouragement to quiet peace is in the fact that every day, regardless of controversies or turbulence that might have marred a worshiper’s inner peace, the Prayer Book (the 1662 version), by its petition to God in the second collect at Evensong, reminded attentive souls to be open to God’s “peace which the world cannot give” and to “pass our time in rest and quietness.”  Religious polemics and battles there were, but the daily appeal was, as it had been for the Desert Fathers, to be still and listen profoundly to God’s word.


[1] Martin Thornton , “The Caroline Divines and the Cambridge Platonists,” in The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 432.

[2] Haugaard, “From the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century,” 3; Paul Avis, “What is ‘Anglicanism’?” in The Study of Anglicanism, 461.

[3] Thornton, “The Caroline Divines,” 433.

[4] Martin Thornton , “The Caroline Divines and the Cambridge Platonists,” in The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 432.

[5] Haugaard, “From the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century,” 24.

[6] Thornton, “The Caroline Divines,” 432.

[7] Martin Thornton , “The Caroline Divines and the Cambridge Platonists,” in The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 432.

[8] Judith Maltby, “Suffering and Surviving: The Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and the Formation of ‘Anglicanism,’” in Anglicanism and the Western Christian Tradition, 143.

[9] McGowan, 121.

[10] Aidan Nichols, Catholics of the Anglican Patrimony (Leominster: Gracewing, 2013), 39.

[11] Aidan Nichols, Catholics of the Anglican Patrimony (Leominster: Gracewing, 2013), 39.

[12] Lancelot Andrewes, Opuscula Posthuma, 91, quoted in Robert L. Ottley, Lancelot Andrewes (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 163, and in Maurice Reidy, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Jacobean Court Preacher: A Study in Early Seventeenth-Century Religious Thought (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1955), 78-79.

[13] Maurice Reidy, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Jacobean Court Preacher: A Study in Early Seventeenth-Century Religious Thought (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1955), 48.

[14] Reidy, 38.

[15] Reidy, 49.

[16] Reidy, 49-50.

[17] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “John Cosin, English Bishop and Theologian.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica.  11 January 2019.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Cosin – accessed 9 July 2019.

[18] John Cosin, Religion, Discipline, and Rites Of The Church Of England, chapter V.  https://patristicanglican.blogspot.com/2010/11/role-of-church-fathers-in-anglicanism.html—accessed 25 June 2019.

[19]  Stephen Neill, Anglicanism (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1958), 148.

[20]  John Bramhall, Works, vol 1(Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844), 118-20.

[21] Thorndike held views that tended to be more Catholic on a number of matters.  His “theological position was by no means always typical of the Caroline divines. In the Epilogue he conceded a certain superiority to the Pope in the Western Church, and while his insistence that scripture should be interpreted with reference to the custom of the early church led him to condemn many developments in Roman doctrine, he supported the practice of prayer for the dead, argued for a return to the discipline of penance, and insisted on a mystical but objective presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.”  “Herbert Thorndyke, Writer and Priest,” Westminster Abbey website. 

https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/herbert-thorndyke—accessed 7 July 2019.

[22]  Herbert Thorndike, Works, vol. 5 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1842), 571.

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