Book of the Month: January 2019

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality by Jane Shaw

It’s probably not helpful to begin by calling this a perfect Christmas gift – but it was just what I needed in the gap between Christmas and New Year as I reflected on services and attendances and tried to identify what it is that seems to bring more and different people to church at Christmas than at any other time. Is it habit, because that’s still what we do? Or is it hope – hope that touches even the cynic with the sense of wistful wonder that Thomas Hardy expressed in his poem The Oxen?

Shaw’s book would seem to suggest that both hope and habit certainly play a part: that, for some the past experience of the beauty of Anglican liturgy can draw them from the edges closer to the centre of public worship. In the chapter on Percy Dearmer she talks about the importance of worship being done well: done in such a way that evoked God’s goodness and beauty, and therefore in such a way that enabled the person in the pew to worship God face to face.

And we do pull out all the stops to make our buildings and liturgy beautiful at Christmas: candle-light carol services, flowers, bells and music all come together to welcome the stranger as well as the regular worshipper. The mystery of the incarnation is made visible and accessible as we model the hospitality of God – and then the challenge is for us to extend that open, welcoming, non-judgemental hospitality through our words, worship and actions for the rest of the year. For Dearmer, as I suspect for all of us: beauty of worship unallied to the social teachings of the Gospel was sterile; the two were vital to each other and must go hand in hand. To seek to lead a spiritual life is to engage with the needs of the world, not withdraw from them.

 It is clear from reading Shaw’s book that to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ was not an easy option for her pioneers: Reginald Somerset Ward is quoted as saying that We learn by the bitter experience of temptation that the spiritual life is not a matter of devout feeling or the mere desire to be good. Living a spiritual life requires what Underhill called the education of the mystical self; the willingness to develop an intentional rule of life which includes prayer, study, spiritual direction and recreation. We all need to be reminded of the dangers inherent in the sin of overwork!

And the spiritual life requires the support of others. Rose Macaulay wrote of rediscovering the joy of being carried along, being part of the body not looking at it from the outside: participation in public worship is as important as private contemplation. We don’t have to do it on our own and the church, at its best, has the resources to support us. Knowing what we can achieve during the Christmas season, could we, perhaps, make a collective new year’s resolution to make it possible to be spiritual and religious in 2019?

Reviewed by Revd Norma Fergusson

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality is just £11.50 until 31st January 2019 (RRP £12.99). Available from our online shop + £2.50 postage, or mail order by phoning 01722 326899 or emailing

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