Pioneers of Modern Spirituality, by Jane Shaw

by
30 November 2018

Today’s questions are not all new, Terence Handley MacMath finds

THERE is, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, nothing new under the sun. As a subtle critique of many 21st-century attempts at fresh expression, or the despair of the zealous at the frequently self-indulgent “spiritual but not religious” party, this book invites us to take a fresh look at four early- to mid-20th-century Anglicans.

Although not always understood or appreciated by their contemporaries, the spiritual lives of Evelyn Underhill, Percy Dearmer, Reginald Somerset Ward, and Rose Macaulay none the less had a profound impact on them, and on the Anglican Church, as public worship and respect for institutionalised religion steadily lost allegiance in Britain.

In these four portraits, Jane Shaw looks specifically at their response to God (or flight from God, in Macaulay’s case) and their often uneasy relationship with the Church rather than their greatest achievements.

Somerset Ward was unknown to me, although, interestingly, Susan Howatch has written an introduction to a 1994 reprint of his book To Jerusalem (first published in 1931), and quoted him in her novel Absolute Truths. Perhaps his pioneering calling as a freelance spiritual director is beginning to inspire a new generation?

Meanwhile, the comfortably faded covers of Dearmer, Macaulay, and Underhill line my study shelves as their work from a pre-digital age has shaped my own search for God and perceptions of the Church, and still address issues that perplex me today. Why is so much worship ugly and unattractive? Why would I commend it to anyone else? Where, in this internet-driven age, can I find helpful spiritual teaching and a rule of life for my development which is also Catholic and Evangelical, and lets the light get in? How can I offer this to my contemporaries?

Shaw reminds us that these four people pursued the same questions, albeit with different temptations to forsake the Church’s traditional responses; and, in her interesting epilogue, she discusses some contemporary expressions of the same search.

As a former Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, known for its pursuit of beauty, creativity, and inclusive worship, and as a professor, and working both in Britain and the United States, Shaw is aware of the longing of many people for “beauty, justice, ways of organising our over-committed lives, a relationship with something beyond us, seriousness about existential questions, and joyous community that can support us in our brokenness and give us hope”.

While she admits the inherent dangers of the churchy trying to be unchurchy to church the unchurched, she gives examples of excellent churches both in the US and the UK where all these longings are at least honoured and addressed.

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality: The neglected Anglican innovators of a “spiritual but not religious” age
Jane Shaw
DLT £12.99
(978-0-232-53286-9)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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