A Few Notes on the Anglican Patrimony and Praedicatorial Style

Rather than develop the following into an essay, I simply share a few notes on the Anglican patrimony and preaching style. 

Once again, I (Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.) lay my cards on the table by stating that my understanding of the Anglican patrimony as it has been embraced by the Catholic Church in Anglicanorum Coetibus is that it draws heavily from Anglicanism’s Catholic roots—which pre-date the movements of the English Reformation period by a millennium and therefore were more woven into English identity than even the most Protestant of the English Reformers recognized—and from developments based on those Catholic roots since the English Reformation.  This means, in my view, a wider scope than the heavily Ritualist perspective that was not—as is often thought—at the heart of the Oxford Movement in its beginning years.  (I recommend reading Peter Nockles’s The Oxford Movement in Context for a scholarly dismantling of the notion that “High Church” or “Anglo-Catholic” is as uniform and as narrow as some who use the term assume.)

Roughly and simplistically, High Church worship emphasizes sacraments, Low Church worship, preaching.  Again, that is a crude distinction, but if we use it as a heuristic device rather than as a precise measuring tool, it can be helpful.  In that simplistic distinction, then, is preaching in the High Church tradition not important?  The enduring appeal of Newman’s excellent sermons is answer enough to that question.  But another question is whether there is such a thing as a High Church preaching style or ethos.

Again, I offer the following not as an essay but as nothing but a few notes towards identifying the roots and rationale of a High Church praedicatorial style.

  1. Anglicanism’s monastic roots mean approaching Scripture not primarily as a source to aid discursive reasoning but for prayerful reflection, not debate or persuasion but contemplation.  Homilies composed from this perspective will tend towards inviting the congregation to meditate (ruminate, as the Church Fathers would say) on the texts more than leading the congregation into discursive arguments or stirring up transitory feelings.  The deeper the preacher reads Scripture and the Church Fathers, the more keen the preacher is to step out of the way and let Holy Writ speak for itself.
  2. The Oxford Movement gave new meaning and depth to what has been called the Doctrine of Reserve.  This is an ancient theological tradition that embraces the tension of God as both unknowable and—thanks to the Incarnation—knowable.  The more one reflects on this “impossible union of two spheres of being” (to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase), the more reticent one is about diving prematurely into divine mysteries.  As St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John Henry Newman, St. Edith Stein, and other men and women of deep prayer have written, Secretum meum mihi (“My secret to myself”).  Likewise, St. Paul had to lay down his pen when it came to “Things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Corinthians 12:4).  Not that this kept any of these people from writing and speaking—prolifically, in most cases.  (St. Bernard himself regretted that he did not rein in his pen and his tongue a bit more than a healthy dose of prudence would have counseled.  His moments of being un peu de trop are no doubt part of why Martin Thornton feels more at home in identifying the two Cistercian contemporaries of St. Bernard, William of St. Thierry and St. Aelred of Rievaulx, with English spirituality than St. Bernard, great doctor ecclesiae that he is.)  But the more a preacher reflects on this paradox of being invited to know the unknowable God, the stronger the inclination towards choosing fewer words and choosing them well, the better to, again, step out of the way so that sacred texts and reflective silence can play their part.
  3. This Doctrine of Reserve as a means of interpreting, understanding, and celebrating the liturgy, has played a role in important literary influences in the Anglican tradition, especially in the High Church tradition.  See, for example, Ramie Targoff’s exploration of the Prayer Book’s influence on the poetry of George Herbert.  (R. Targoff, Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001]); Andrew Armond’s “Limited Knowledge and the Tractarian Doctrine of Reserve in Christina Rossetti’s ‘The Face of the Deep,’” Victorian Poetry 48, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 219–42; and again, T. S. Eliot’s acknowledgement that the Incarnation is an “impossible union of two spheres of being,” which means it cannot be pinned down in words (try though the poet must).  Since good preachers are well read, and since those of Anglican backgrounds will have read Eliot, Herbert, Rossetti, and others, this Doctrine of Reserve plays a role in a High Church praedicatorial ethos.
  4. Finally, a few quotes and observations from Fr. Hunwicke’s blog;  From Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, The Watsons: “I don’t know when I’ve heard a discourse more to my mind. He reads extremely well , with great propriety and in a very impressive manner; and at the same time, without any theatrical grimace or violence. I own, I do not like much action in the pulpit — I do not like the studied air and artificial inflexions of voice, which your very popular and most admired preachers generally have. A simple delivery is much better calculated to inspire devotion, and shows a much better taste. Mr Howard read like a scholar and a gentleman”.  Fr. Hunwicke compares this with a description of the Reverend Sir Harry Trelawny, Bart., roughly of the same era in which Jane Austen lived: “… he performed the whole service with simplicity and devotion, and … He has nothing studied in his manner or expression; he seems himself strongly to feel the divine truths he delivers, and makes a suitable impression on the minds of his attentive audience.”.  “And,” continues Fr. Hunwicke, “we might move onwards a generation or so, to S John Henry Newman’s pulpit manner: it is recorded that he, too, never waved his arms around or sought strange vocal effects. In the days when I was free of the extensive (and largely untapped) Victorian archives at Lancing, I read a description (I can’t remember by whom) of going to S Mary’s for the University Sermon; ‘Marriot, serviceable, but not the silver voice [of Newman]’. (Perhaps it will be best if we refrain from investigating Fr Faber’s pulpit manner … there may be something in Knox’s hint that it was really rather Methodist.)”

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