1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Father Nathan Baxter
Is Augustine Right?
By Father Adam Gosnell
Last Sunday, our Cross Training was on Compline, one of the services in the Common Prayer tradition. And I was really encouraged by that. In this time of formation, one of my recurring questions has been, Is Augustine right? Saint Augustine of Hippo (born 354 AD) was a brilliant, brilliant bishop in northern Africa. But I’ve been troubled by one of his pastoral strategies.
For Augustine, there were basically two tracks of Christian growth, the monastic model and the parish model. In the monastic model, Christians would take a spiritual director, they would fast and pray services throughout the day. In short, they’re expected to pursue the historic path of spiritual growth. The parish model is really different. In the parish model, the priest’s task is only to (a) train Christians in the very basics of the faith (“catechism”) and (b) administer the sacraments. In short, because you can’t reasonably expect Christian lay-people to pursue the path spiritual growth, the parish model is about bare, bare minimums. (In Augustine’s defense, maybe that’s not what he preferred. Maybe that’s just what he observed.)
Fast forward to the English Reformation. Thomas Cranmer (born 1489) is Archbishop of Canterbury, and his task is to reformulate an English Christianity separate from Roman Catholicism. And he uses this opportunity to take aim at this pastoral strategy. He starts to write the Book of Common Prayer. And one of the things he does is simplify the monastic prayer-services for lay-people. It’s almost as if he’s replying to Augustine. No. The path of spiritual growth MUST be available to Christian lay-people. Not only are they capable of doing the work, they ought to.
That’s all fine and good in theory. “Woohoo!” we say, “Cranmer’s on the side of the lay-people.” But how many of us are living a life of Common Prayer? How many people are going to say Compline this evening? When I think about the kind of priest I want to become, I wonder, Is Augustine right? Is the extra effort just a waste? Maybe we should just do catechism and sacraments and call it a day…
I want to be careful not to equate spiritual growth with this historic path. But I do want to recognize that there exists a historic path of spiritual growth, and one of the central beliefs of Anglicanism is that it ought be available for the lay-people.
And I want to encourage you. You have a rector who’s on your team. You could almost hear the echo, as he taught about Compline, The historic path of spiritual growth must be made available to lay-people. Let’s teach them about Compline. Augustine may be brilliant, but he’s wrong about this.