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Anglican Spiritual Direction

Anglican Spiritual Direction

by Peter Ball

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Peter Ball looks at some of the leading figures from the past to illustrate the roots and development of Anglican spiritual direction: George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, John Wesley, Somerset Ward, and Evelyn Underhill. More recent influences in the revival of interest in the subject have been Kenneth Leech, Alan Jones, Gordon Jeff, and Margaret Guenther. This


Peter Ball looks at some of the leading figures from the past to illustrate the roots and development of Anglican spiritual direction: George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, John Wesley, Somerset Ward, and Evelyn Underhill. More recent influences in the revival of interest in the subject have been Kenneth Leech, Alan Jones, Gordon Jeff, and Margaret Guenther. This is an updated version of a book first published as Journey Into Truth. New material will include developments in Australia and the US, and the increasing role played by women, as well as updated resources.

The Spiritual Directors International Series – This book is part of a special series produced by Morehouse Publishing in cooperation with Spiritual Directors International (SDI), a global network of some 6,000 spiritual directors and members.

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Anglican Spiritual Direction


Church Publishing, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Peter Ball
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2254-1


By Way of Introduction

I welcome you to yet another book on spiritual direction! Bookshop shelves groan with a whole range of titles covering more aspects of the subject than you could have thought possible. So, why this one?

It is written to help current spiritual directors and those preparing for the ministry to recognise the value of the Anglican inheritance and to refer it to their own practice. It presents the experience of the past through the writings of some notable Anglicans, and shows that the recent flowering of the ministry of spiritual direction has strong roots in the traditions of the Anglican Communion. Although there are many fine books on the development of English and Anglican spirituality, mine has a narrower focus, concentrating on ways in which spiritual directors can offer counsel to their clients from the rich and varied perspective of the Anglican tradition.

At its heart spiritual direction is about telling and listening to stories. The story of how I came to write about it goes back quite a long way. I was working with a Jesuit colleague and talking about the great Anglican spiritual director, Reginald Somerset Ward. My friend asked what tradition he was in and I couldn't answer. I didn't at that time really know what he meant by the question. For me RSW was simply a fine, experienced priest, with great gifts of insight and wisdom, not to say holiness. Now, looking back, I realise that the conversation was a meeting of two kinds of tradition. For my Jesuit friend the model of direction was there in the text of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and in the centuries of commentary and development by his followers. For me within the Anglican tradition there was something far less clear-cut. It seems to me more like a watercolour, painted in many different tints, some of them quite fluid and running into each other.

My intention is to give a picture of what the relationship of direction has meant to Anglicans over the centuries and what it means for us today in the Anglican Communion. I hope to celebrate and also to encourage: celebrate the gifts with which God has blessed us and encourage men and women to use those gifts. I hope also to give some feeling of the spiritual ethos of our church and show some of the features that distinguish it from other traditions, both in the Church of England and in other provinces.

Upsurge in Direction

The later part of the twentieth century saw an astounding growth in the ministry of spiritual direction in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. It has become a normal topic of conversation in religious circles. But this is quite a recent phenomenon. I suspect that many of the people whose work I quote in the following chapters would not publicly have called themselves spiritual directors, nor used the name spiritual direction for the personal ministry to which they were committed. Edward Pusey, a wise and holy giver of spiritual counsel in the nineteenth century, refused the title with some vehemence.

What these people from past centuries were engaged in, I have no doubt, follows the same direct line of accompanying people on their journey in faith and through life that I and thousands of others practice as directors.

What is Spiritual Direction?

Although for many people the practice of spiritual direction is well-known, there is plenty of room for misunderstanding. It is conversation about spiritual things with someone who has made it his or her business to acquire some knowledge and skill in the ways of prayer. But to accompany people on their journey of faith, to help them grow into the fullness of what God has it for them to become, is also to be concerned with every aspect of being, which implies openness to God and response to God's invitation.

Words like "spiritual" and "direction" carry all sorts of open and hidden meanings. I see spiritual direction as a relationship within which one Christian accompanies another along the journey of faith towards maturity as a follower of Jesus Christ. It takes place in conversations that cover all aspects of life. It is privileged and confidential; its aim is to be as honest and open as possible. There is a clear recognition that God is important and present as a third party in the relationship, which unfolds against a background of prayer. It is based on respect and a deep concern for the other person. Evelyn Underhill described this kind of healthy detachment as "love without claimfulness," a deliberate listening for and seeking after God's interests in the other person's life.

Other Names

There are alternative ways of describing this ministry. John Wesley and the early Methodists talked of "spiritual guidance," while Reginald Somerset Ward and his successors have used "spiritual counsel," drawing on the phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, "ghostly counsel and advice." In 1974 Kenneth Leech's fine, influential book with that name popularised the idea of "soul friend." But "spiritual direction" is the title that most people seem to recognise and is the one I intend to use.

Difficulties can also arise over the concept of director and direction. In the way we normally use them, the words carry a sense of authority, even authoritarianism. A director directs, is in charge. Directives are orders; you are supposed to comply with them, to obey. Obedience to a director has in the past been seen by some people as an essential part of the relationship, but that is foreign to many who are involved in spiritual direction today. What is essential is that the person seeking direction is fully respected as an independent human being. The director may discern, advise, and guide, but the other is free to decide.


Even "spiritual" may cause some problems. For most people it implies something to do with the soul, with prayer, with spirituality. "Spirituality" is itself an interesting word. Its use as a handy technical term is comparatively modern. Nowadays it is used to mean a person's inner life. Spirituality describes how people pray, their deepest beliefs about God and about their own nature. It is about their religious life or their spiritual life, spilling over into the way they live and the spiritual characteristics that mark their life. It goes without saying that the life of prayer is a proper, central concern within spiritual direction, but only as one aspect of our discipleship and service of Jesus Christ as whole persons.

Every aspect of life is open to review. Prayer, work, family life, interests, leisure activities, relationships, fantasies and fears, hopes and disappointments are all the subject matter of spiritual direction. The revival of Ignatian spirituality has had a strong effect on Anglican spiritual direction. It has brought a renewed emphasis that God can use anything and everything for people's growth in holiness and faithfulness. So, spiritual direction is about more than simply helping others with their prayers. It is to walk and work with people as they relate their faith with the practicalities of living the life that lies before them day by day and to help them to relate their faith in the context of the society and the relationships in which they live.

The Client

There is difficulty too over what name to give the person who goes to someone else for spiritual direction. I have a personal reluctance to talk about a "directee." It is a word often used by British and American Roman Catholics and sometimes by Anglicans, but to me it feels foreign and a bit impersonal, with overtones of passivity. "Client" is also used frequently; it has advantages in the way that it indicates the independence and authority of the individual. It also, however, has strong overtones from the different disciplines of social work and psychotherapy. The nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century directors spoke of "souls," but today this sounds rather too religious. Simply to say "friend" is, I would hope, true, but is rather vague.

Perhaps the only clear way to describe the client is to use verbs. But which verb? Again there are overtones. Does one "consult" the director? "Go to" the director? "Use" the director? Is one "with" a director? Or "under"? All these alternatives are commonly used and each gives a different colour to the relationship.

Varied Ways of Accompanying the Searcher's Journey

The experience of pastors suggests that we are living at a time when more and more people are looking for some kind of guidance. They value an opportunity for space and confidentiality to explore deep questions about the meaning and purpose of their life. This is true both within the church and in society at large. Spiritual direction is a ministry that the church can offer to these searchers. Certainly one of my aims in writing this book has been to give people who offer spiritual direction or those who are in training for it some idea of their Anglican inheritance. But another is to assure enquirers that help is available, and to encourage clergy and lay people within the church to make use of this ministry.

Spiritual direction is essentially a relationship in which God is at work using one person to help another on the journey of faith. There are infinite varieties in the way it happens, from the very simplest everyday chatting between friends who would never think to describe their conversation by such a grand title, to formal sessions of spiritual counsel with someone who is skilled in this ministry.

In my work of helping people come to and grow in the Christian faith I am continually struck by the way God works through ordinary personal relationships. Family members, friends, and friends of friends, and even people you hardly know seem to be used to raise awareness of God and his love and to trigger a response. Occasionally it is some clear teaching or advice given by Christian friends that has this effect; more often it is something far less tangible. There is something about them—their character, the way they accept you, the way they give you space, the sense of respect and value you receive from them. It is the experience in one way or another of being loved for who you are.

Let me illustrate what spiritual direction can mean with words from interviews borrowed from an earlier book. People described direction in very different ways:

It's having someone focused on me for an hour. That sounds very indulgent, but it is important. When you talk with friends you get ten minutes, then you have to listen to your friend in turn. Here you get an uninterrupted time to go through the layers. I find I get very deep, because I trust my director. I don't want to mess about. If I'm not going to be honest, I'm cheating myself I don't sense any reticences, which is an incredible freedom. That doesn't happen with more than one or two people in my life.

It's been a time when I could talk about how it was for me. Most of the time you've got to keep that locked up and get on with what you're there to do. I am freer to be myself whoever that is with my director than with any other person in the world. This is a huge privilege. With my present director I feel able to say anything and know that I am safe, that I needn't hold back (within the bounds of courtesy) because nothing has the power to hurt her as I could hurt someone in my family, no matter how dearly loved.

The Context of Spiritual Direction

In today's world religion is a matter of free choice. Whether or not our image of what happened in the past is true, we have to recognise that faith is no longer automatically handed on through family links, cultural heritage, or national identity. Like many other choices in life, faith is a matter of personal assent. The attitude that marks people in our society is not so much one of atheism or indifference as one of a perplexed uncertainty. Religious questions are not absent from people's minds; they just do not occupy an important place.

The past thirty years have witnessed a steady decrease in the number of European churchgoers, including those in Britain. Many but by no means all people who still do go to church show a more open relationship to their religion than before, with a greater desire for autonomy and more tolerance of different sorts of behaviours and attitudes. In many places people are beginning to recognise that the church is open to criticism from its own gospel. This recognition is, however, balanced by an opposing tendency that results in many new forms of fundamentalism.

We see an increased respect for personal responsibility, which has always been one of Anglicanism's basic tenets. People are often willing to consider what Christianity means without necessarily wanting to become a practising member of any church. Faith is regarded as an aid in a personal search for a purpose and for a better quality of life. The Christian tradition is seen as a source of meaning from which one can draw freely, while at the same time preserving one's freedom and critical distance.

At its best, today's culture allows people to determine their own path in their search for meaning, free from any sort of coercion and indoctrination. Our secular and pluralistic society is faced with a superabundance of information and a wide variety of opinions, all constantly changing and often contradicting each other. It is deeply suspicious of bigotry. Any search for truth has to involve dialogue. Many, but by no means all, distrust any kind of proselytism.

Faced by this kind of society, the church has two choices. It can be in the business of providing clear-cut, exclusive formulae for people to accept, which is the way many of the more conservative churches approach evangelism and Christian nurture. Or it can offer to accompany men and women as they are on their individual quest for meaning in life, in their search for truth, and in their openness to a faith that contains both of these. The key values of this second and essentially nonviolent attitude are open communication against a background of religious freedom; a willingness to adapt to people's different religious experiences and questions; and a profound willingness to stand where they stand and to respect their individuality. All these are qualities that I should look for in spiritual direction at its best.

The Anglican Tradition

I write as an Anglican raised in and belonging to the tradition and inheritance of the Church of England, and it is largely within that tradition that I am looking for particular insights into spiritual direction. There are many other Anglican streams to draw on. Though the main thrust of this book is the tradition of the Church of England, I also look for evidence from the Episcopal Church in America, together with the churches in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Any tradition in the realm of spirituality and of spiritual direction draws on a wide range of insights and sources. Borrowings and adaptations from many different approaches and teachings within the wide-ranging Christian inheritance have helped to form our distinctive attitudes and approaches to this ministry. No tradition of spiritual direction stands alone. The Church of England's inheritance in this area, as in so many others, draws on a number of sources beyond its own limits. There are deep currents of influence from eastern and western Christianity both before and after the Reformation. There is the inheritance from the faith of England in the Middle Ages. There are the insights that came through the upheaval of the Reformation on the Continent and in Britain. There is the life of the great Roman Catholic religious movements after the Reformation and the rediscovery of the relevance of Ignatian spirituality for today. There is a mass of new academic and practical work. All these have a bearing on the contemporary Anglican scene.

What interests me is to trace some lines that mark a specifically Anglican approach to spiritual direction and to note how people in our church show a particular attitude in the way they select and marry elements from this wide range of sources. To do this I look at a selection of some leading figures from our distant and recent past. Over the centuries the value given to spiritual direction and its effectiveness have varied greatly. I doubt whether there has ever been a time when Anglicans used this ministry as freely as they do nowadays, though I believe we can claim that in practising and making use of this ministry we are being utterly true to our roots.

Anglican Flavours

While my loyalty to my own church pushes me to try to outline what has distinguished our way and marks it out as something special to thank God for, this is not to claim any exclusivity for the Anglican way, nor to say it is better than any other. It is simply to try to present it as one branch in the tree whose roots reach out to the one great River.

As you read through the chapters I hope you will get the same strong impression I did in my research: that the Anglican tradition of spiritual direction, though it may not always have been known by that name, is one of openness to people, respect, and a genuine, loving desire for their good. Humane is a word that springs to mind to describe this tradition. The language it employs is one of healing and of growth rather than the language of the law court. Few of the people we will look at could be called woolly or soft-hearted, but the pastoral roots of the Anglican tradition of spiritual direction mean that its practitioners are counselors, confessors, and physicians of the soul, not judges. There is warmth and a lightness of touch.

Excerpted from Anglican Spiritual Direction by PETER BALL. Copyright © 2007 Peter Ball. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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