A Tale of Three Priests, or, the Christian Life Embodied

Recently I was reading a little book by Kenneth Leech, Subversive Orthodoxy: Traditional Faith and Radical Commitment. Father Leech, who died last year, was a priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, who, although he spent his entire ministry amongst the most marginalized in London’s East End, was one of the best known and influential Anglican theologians of the late twentieth century.

In the passage that struck me most forcefully,¹ Father Leech describes three priests whom he met in the East End during his early ministry, “whose ministries,” he says, “were to have a permanent effect on my life.”

Of the first of these, “a shy Franciscan priest,” Father Leech says: “More than anyone else he taught me to pray, by example rather than method, and to see the unity of prayer and action, contemplation and social struggle… From him I began to learn that the servant church must be a prayerful church…, and that the church, located in a situation of conflict, must be a silent, listening community before it becomes a community of discourse.”

The second of these examples of priestly life Father Leech describes as a “flamboyant, charismatic figure… who campaigned for the demolition of slum housing” (St Barthians might recognise here a kindred spirit to our own Father Greene!). “He saw the church not as a sanctuary to be protected against contamination, but as a resource centre from which he and others were sent forth into the mess and danger of the battle.”

Finally, Father Leech speaks of a third priest, who, “of the three, was the most disturbing, the most prophetic, and the most visionary… He believed that the church’s social and political witness began with raising the consciences and consciousness of the local Christian community, and therefore saw theology as a vital component of the church in the back streets.”

Father Leech was fortunate to have had these three examples of priestly life, each virtuous (or excellent) in his own unique way, and each contributing to the building up of the Church in the East End precisely through the living out of his specific gifts and emphases, which, in their very specificity, were complementary to those possessed by the others.

Whether or not Father Leech realised it, however – and it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t, given his context and the breadth of his reading – the reason that these three priests together presented such a complete example of priestly (and indeed simply Christian) excellence, is that each in his specific virtue represented one of three important elements of religion generally, and specifically of the Christian Spiritual Life – namely, the mystical, the institutional, and the intellectual.

These three elements of religion – the mystical, the institutional, and the intellectual – were first enumerated as a group by the Baron Friedrich Von Hügel, an Austrian Roman Catholic theologian, who had an enormous influence on Anglican, and specifically Anglo-Catholic, spirituality in the early twentieth century (e.g., Von Hügel was the Spiritual Director of Evelyn Underhill, the well known Anglican popular theologian and historian of mysticism). A religion that lacks any one of these elements, Von Hügel believed, is fundamentally incomplete; a religion that does not possess a proper balance amongst them will be distorted.

What is true of a religion is, mutatis mutandis, true of the Spiritual Life. Without an adequate development of each of these elements, one’s spiritual life becomes unbalanced and one’s spiritual growth deformed. This analysis of spirituality was popularised in Anglican circles by the well-known author and spiritual director, Reginald Somerset Ward, who wrote under the pseudonyms ‘A Priest’ and ‘The Author of The Way‘ (The Way was Somerset Ward’s best-selling book on the spiritual life, for which he was always best known).

It is my belief that not only the individual spiritual life, but also the life of any parish, depends upon a certain balance between these elements – the mystical, the institutional, and the intellectual. Such a balance can be achieved only if, on the one hand, individuals within the parish are advancing in their life in Christ in a balanced way (i.e., in such a way that the development of all three of these three ‘elements’ is nurtured), and if, on the other, the parish has individual members who excel in each one of these areas. If all members of a parish are committed to their intellectual growth, for example, but none are particularly interested in prayer, then the life of the community will become less spiritual, less about the fulfillment of human lives in God, and more about preserving a set of ‘facts’ to be taught but which are unlikely to change lives. Likewise, if everyone wants to pray, but no one ever wants to learn about the God to whom we claim to pray, then the community’s worship will become vague and unfocused, and the parish will lose its centre.

The healthy growth of our parish, then, will always require two things: 1) individual spiritual growth and 2) a deepening of our appreciation for one another in the diversity of our spiritual gifts, which are given to us by the one Spirit of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:4-31). The first (spiritual growth) must always be prior, for it is only as we are drawn closer to the God who is Love that we can truly appreciate one another as equally created according to the Image of God, who, as individuals, reflect aspects of that Image to the world in a variety of ways, all of which must contribute to the Church’s proclamation of God to the world.

¹ Perhaps because it reminded me of the description in §§ 3 and 4 of St Athanasius’s Life of Antony of the Father of Monks’ acquisition of the fulness of monastic virtue from his contemplation and imitation of specific virtues as embodied in several ‘old men’ (gerontes).

This is the first in a series of reflections on spiritual aspects of parish renewal. Please check back for further posts. Father Hannam is available for spiritual direction and pastoral conversations by appointment.

A Tale of Three Priests, or, the Christian Life Embodied