The Anglican tradition and the balm of Gilead

Rowan Williams: And coming back to that theologian we both rather treasure, John Calvin, I think people who looked hard at what he says about the image and what he says about the love that’s required of us, I think there’s a lot there, isn’t there, in Calvin, about just that. It’s not all about depravity. It’s not all about the obliteration of the image. Depravity is in a sense much more to do with the fact that if this is what we really are, if this is how God is and we are, what a loss there is in our lostness, because there is such joy on the other side of it.

Marilynne Robinson: Yes. And he has also this Renaissance assumption of human magnificence.

RW: Yes.

MR: I mean, look how spectacular we are, you know, solving these problems in our sleep and all the rest. And then he says, basically, this is dust and ashes compared to what we would be. So it’s an a fortiori comparison, catapulting the human image beyond human experience. Which I think is very beautiful. 

This exchange between Rowan Williams and Marilynne Robinson came to mind when reading John Milbank's recent Twitter critique of Gilead:

I finally read Gilead. Cannot decide whether I am beguiled or nauseated. It’s a remarkable attempt to describe how a rich culture could be contrived just out of the Bible and the prairies. It reflects subtly and well on the relationship between eternity and time. It has beauty.

And honesty about the sheer difference and impenetrability of human chapter. And yet something feels wrong. I think its the suggestion of an aestheticised Calvinism. We just have to receive multifarious gifts and respond artistically. Grace is unearned. Forgiveness unilateral.

So where is the ethical drama of life, the real need for repentance and reform? The terror of evil and the possibility of defeating it and of personal transfiguration? Or the flash of goodness and glory that is more than than small-town peace?

Milbank is echoing recent Roman Catholic criticisms of Robinson's theology as seen in the Gilead series.  As one such critic has stated:

A counter to Robinson would be the Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. If there is any writer that Robinson abhors, it would be O’Connor. And, rightly so, given Robinson’s dissenting theology. In O’Connor’s fiction, evil is unavoidable and often stares back at you from the mirror. Grace costs, in an O’Connor story. 

It is rather easy to detect Milbank's echo of this.  So much so, indeed, that it seems to be - despite Rowan Williams very clearly indicating the alternative - that the Protestantism of the Gilead series and the influence of Calvin must mean that the novels have to be criticised by Anglo-Catholics after the manner of fashionable Roman Catholic thought.

What this entirely overlooks is how Gilead can resonate and cohere with the Anglican tradition. 

Anglicanism and the "small-town"

The dismissive reference to "small town peace" sits very uneasily with the Anglican experience and imagination.  Gilbert White, we might think, would have much in common with the Reverends Ames and Boughton, and could be rather content with small-town prairie life.  Wordsworth's celebration of the English the parsonage would not be out of place in Gilead:

A Genial hearth, a hospitable board,

And a refined rusticity, belong

To the neat mansion, where, his flock among,

The learned Pastor dwells.

And then there is Barchester.  Not, of course, directly equivalent to a prairie town but yet a not dissimilar expression of provincial peace, seen not least in its ecclesiastical establishment:

Hitherto Barchester had escaped the taint of any extreme rigour of church doctrine. The clergymen of the city and the neighbourhood, though very well inclined to promote high-church principles, privileges, and prerogatives, had never committed themselves to tendencies, which are somewhat too loosely called Puseyite practices. They all preached in their black gowns, as their fathers had done before them; they wore ordinary black cloth waistcoats; they had not candles on their altars, either lighted or unlighted; they made no private genuflexions, and were contented to confine themselves to such ceremonial observances as had been in vogue for the last hundred years. The services were decently and demurely read in their parish churches, chanting was confined to the cathedral, and the science of intoning was unknown. 

Anglican communitarianism was a small-town experience.  It was in small cathedral towns, provincial towns, and rural communities - places in which there was, as historian F.C. Mather has described it, a "well-established communal life" - that both the Anglican experience and the Anglican imagination found a particular expression of ordered life, centred around cathedral or parish, with the commonweal shaped and defined by Anglican teaching on shared duties and obligations.  

Author of peace and lover of concord

Underlying this Anglican attraction to "small-town peace" is the traditional commitment to communal and civic peace.  The address provided in the Book of Homilies for the Rogationtide procession offers a quietly beautiful expression of this:

We have occasion ... given us in our walks on those days, to consider the ancient bound and limits belonging to our own township, and to other our neighbours bordering about us, to the intent that we should be content with our own, and not contentiously strive for other's, to the breach of charity, by any incroaching one upon another, or claiming one of the other: further than that in ancient right and custom our forefathers have peaceably laid out unto us for our commodity and comfort ... to strive for our very rights and duties with the breach of love and charity, which is the only livery of a Christian man, or with the hurt of godly peace and quiet, by the which we be knit together in one general fellowship of Christ's family, in one common household of God, that is utterly forbidden.

Jeremy Taylor, addressing his clergy who ministered in the provincial towns and the townlands of counties Antrim and Down - following the traumas of rebellion, civil war, and Protectorate - urged them to minister the balm of Gilead:

Receive not the people to doubtful Disputations: and let no names of Sects or differing Religions be kept up amongst you, to the disturbance of the publick Peace and private Charity ... Let the business of your Sermons be to preach holy Life, Obedience, Peace, Love among neighbours, hearty love, to live as the old Christians did, and the new should; to do hurt to no man, to do good to every man ... Let not a Curate of Souls ... meddle not with controversies, but such by which he may be enabled to convince the gainsayers in things that concern publick peace and a good life.

Almost exactly century later, on the other side of the Atlantic, parson Jonathan Boucher addressed his Virginia parish, giving thanks for peace at the end of the Seven Years War:

Peace is welcome to us on ten thousand accounts: and I do most cordially congratulate you on the joyful occasion of the day.  The ordinary occupations of life are now returned; and the swarms of young men, heretofore so frequently taken from you to go to war, now return to the common hive, to make and eat the honey of peace.

For Taylor, Boucher, and those to whom they ministered, "ethical drama" and the "terror of evil" were no abstractions.  They had experienced the havoc wreaked by such drama and terror - which could be inspired by religious enthusiasm - on the blessings of ordinary life and loves. They knew that "small-town peace", rather than being dismissed as conventional and banal, was a gift of grace to be received with thanksgiving, to be nurtured and protected.

'Grace hath use of nature'

James K.A. Smith has noted how some Roman Catholic critiques of Robinson - such as that offered by Jessica Hooten Wilson - fail to understand the mainline Protestant relationship between nature and grace set forth in the novels: 

This is the kind of thing that Jessica Hooten Wilson dislikes in Robinson's novels, but I think she's wrong. She simply can't imagine how mainline Protestantism is its own outworking of grace. What looks to Wilson like soppy accommodation is actually the outworking of an incarnational logic.

There is, of course, a certain irony in Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic readings of Robinson sounding rather Barthian in this regard.  And it is here that Robinson's portrayal also reflects a traditionally and classically Anglican vision of the relationship between nature and grace.  The 1662 Catechism reminds us that the duty to love our neighbour is not to be found in the "ethical drama of life" but in the ordinary relationships and obligations of domestic and communal life:

My duty towards my Neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the Queen, and all that are put in authority under her: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt nobody by word nor deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men's goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.

In Jack, the son's recollection of his father, the Reverend John Ames, almost perfectly captures the emphasis of such teaching on the relationship between nature and grace, on how the commandment is lived out in the ordinary routines of communal relationships and obligations:

Thou shalt not steal - a categorical prohibition. A violation of the courtesy we owe one another, his father said.

The absence of 'enthusiasm', of the 'Weird', is another way in which life in Gilead provides an echo of the Anglican tradition.  The words of Jeremy Taylor could act as a preface to Robinson's novels:

whatsoever is infused into us is in the same manner infused as other things are acquired, that is, step by step, by human means and co-operation, and grace does not give us new faculties, and create another nature, but meliorates and improves our own.

Likewise, Thomas Secker (Archbishop of Canterbury 1758-68) could be giving a description of the lives of the Reverends Boughton and Ames, and of their flocks:

Not that either the affections or the appetites of our nature are to be extirpated, but only confined within due bounds. The necessaries of each one's condition in life are still to be provided, because they are necessaries. The duties, which we owe to each other here, are diligently to be done, because they are duties. The comforts of life too, as they ought to be thankfully received, may doubtless be cheerfully used. Nay, even as to the lighter amusements, if we make them not a business, but a relaxation only, at fit times, and in a fit degree; since our infirmity may demand a little of them, that little cannot but be lawful. It is, in truth, if we would consider justly, a very humbling reflexion to think we need them; but since we do, so much as we need must be innocent. And to perplex ourselves with scruples about small matters of this kind, would be at once distrusting the goodness of God, instead of enjoying it properly; and making our lives uneasy to ourselves, and religion unamiable to others. 

To say of Gilead "where is the ethical drama of life, the real need for repentance and reform?" is to repeat the standard critique of Anglicanism uttered by Enthusiasts over centuries.  It is to disregard the wisdom of the Anglican experience, of the quiet, ordinary rhythms of grace shaping character and relationships over time, so that - in the words of the Apostle - "we may lead a quiet and peaceable life".

'Our bounden duty'

One way in which we can illustrate how Robinson's portrayal of Gilead coheres with Anglicanism is to imagine an Episcopalian church in the town.  The rhythms of Anglican liturgy in the Episcopalian 1928 BCP would not at all be out of place in life in Gilead.  When the parson would read the opening exhortation at Mattins, it would reflect the expectations and concerns of Gilead: 

when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

The reading of the Commandments in the Holy Communion would set forth the moral foundations of the civic liberalism of the small-towns of the prairies, superbly described by Robinson in her essay 'Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism':

a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to the liberality to the poor.

This too would be heard when the communicants were invited to approach the Sacrament, being "in love and charity with your neighbours".

Perhaps once a month this imaginary Episcopalian church in Gilead would have Choral Evensong, a service described by Andrew Davison as embodying a "humane, intellectual" theological tradition, "thoughtful, liturgical, concerned about the whole person, communitarian": an ethos surely at home in Gilead.  After Evensong, the Episcopalian rector could call with his friends Boughton and Ames, bringing the words of the Book of Common Prayer and the thoughts of Jeremy Taylor to the friendly debates over baptism and predestination.

"All things are therefore partakers of God"

To miss, or to deny, how Robinson's portrayal of life in Gilead coheres with and reflects some of the most enduring characteristics of Anglican tradition is itself suggestive of a phenomenon she has highlighted elsewhere.  Lamenting "the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their own origins, theology, culture and tradition", Robinson states that these churches were "evading ... the influence cultural history would have given them".   A similar judgement might be made of an Anglo-Catholic tendency to follow fashionable Roman Catholic thought in a critique of life in Gilead. To reject the balm of Gilead is to reject the wisdom of the Anglican tradition for in Gilead we see - to use a phrases from John Milbank - the "hidden coherence" of Anglicanism, above all the refusal to engage in "facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature".

In one of those imagined Sunday evenings spent with Boughton and Ames, the Episcopalian rector of Gilead might turn to the description offered by C.S. Lewis of Hooker's glorious vision of that "hidden coherence", a vision in which, no doubt, they would have delighted, a vision of the balm of Gilead:

It is this conviction which enables Hooker, with no anxiety, to resist any inaccurate claim that is made for revelation against reason, Grace against Nature, the spiritual against the secular.  We must not honour even heavenly things with compliments that are not quite true: 'though it seem an honour, it is an injury' (II.8.7).  All good things, reason as well as revelation, Nature as well as Grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally, though diversely, 'of God' ... All kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences, and disciplines come from the Father of lights and are 'as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they rise' (III.8.9) ... We meet on all levels the divine wisdom shining through 'the beautiful variety of all things' in their 'manifold and yet harmonious dissimilitude'.


  1. Sir, for all the disagreements we have had in the past, I have to confess that you have been slowly winning me over with your calm vision of social life and the Church, not just in relation to the world but also as an integral member of it as a part of the whole of creation. Perhaps I'll never quite be wholly convinced of the Erastianism that has such a steady role in your thinking, coming from such different backgrounds (political, cultural, etc.), but what a beautiful and temperate image you weave for us.

    1. What a wonderful comment - thank you. Yes, there has been an Erastian character to my thinking over the past while. I am mindful of its weaknesses, but your description of the "calm vision of social life and the Church" perfectly points to what I think is the most attractive aspect of this stream of thought.

      There are, of course, other visions of social life and Church which can be compelling and beautiful. Gracious exchanges between these visions should be a key characteristic of contemporary Christian discourse.


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