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The Faithful Remnant: Martin Thornton’s Ecclesiological ‘Middle Term’

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Student: Ronald E. George

Faculty: Dr. Ellen Babinsky and Mr. Timothy Lincoln

CCB.706, Theological Reflection and the Practice of Ministry

August 15, 2002

Slightly more than a century after the Oxford Movement (1833-1845)[i] challenged conventional ecclesiologies in the 19th-century Church of England, minor theologian Martin Thornton proposed in a series of works from 1956 to 1963[ii] that the ecclesiological principles of the movement be put into pastoral practice by acknowledging “the Faithful Remnant” and focusing pastoral care on its vicarious ministry of worship and prayer.[iii] Thornton claimed not to have developed an innovative ecclesiological principle but to have discovered a dynamic with roots in Jewish and Christian biblical theology and history; indeed, he would argue that the Faithful Remnant is essential to the “Body of Christ.”[iv]This paper will examine Thornton’s doctrine of the Faithful Remnant to determine whether it rises to the level of ecclesiological principle. The question will be not whether Thornton’s theory is valid but whether its theological basis is sufficient to sustain Thornton’s claim.

Thornton was a mid-20th century pastoral theorist, not a systematic theologian. His primary interest was ascetical theology, especially the role of worship and prayer in the Christian community. The thrust of his published work was to educate Anglican clergy and laity and to advocate reform of Anglican parochial life. He claims to have invented the term “applied theology,”[v] which he saw as a body of knowledge and practice that leads the church and individual Christians to “the Vision of God.”[vi] He preferred to think of ascetical theology not as a subject within Christian theology but as spiritual practice, viz., applied theology.[vii] Clergy, he believed, should be knowledgeably trained to apply “Christian ascetic” in much the same way physicians are trained to apply principles of medicine.[viii] He believed clergy ought to be trained as spiritual directors, practitioners within a tradition of knowledge and technique though not necessarily gifted spiritually; indeed, Thornton distrusted those who might be called nowadays “spiritual stars” as ultimately ineffective for the church as a whole.[ix] Given his academic and pastoral predispositions, it was inevitable that Thornton would enunciate a doctrine of the church. He claims to have found the Faithful Remnant in his examination of Jewish and Christian scripture, Christian ascetical tradition and modern philosophy.[x]

Thornton’s theological roots are in the Oxford Movement, which he consistently calls “Oxford Reform.” These “Tractarians” had called a Latitudinarian church to return to its Catholic roots by reclaiming early theologians of the “undivided church” and reaffirming the church as a divine institution not subject to the state.[xi] Thornton had inherited as well further development of high church theology known as the Lux Mundi school, the guiding light of which was Charles Gore,[xii] although he seems to have disregarded the latter movement’s serious regard for historical-critical study of the Bible. Thornton, then, was a 20th-century “high churchman,” perhaps somewhat of a throwback, who embraced the theological convictions and spiritual values of such Anglican divines as John Keble and E.B. Pusey. His deepest sympathies, however, lay with the Caroline theology and the medieval Catholic spiritual tradition that preceded it.

He wrote:

… granting a true greatness to the leaders of the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement, they teach us little that we have not already learned from the medieval and Caroline periods. The best in William Law is Caroline; the Evangelicals return us, in ascetical ethos, to St. Francis and St. Bernard; and the best of pastoral Tractarianism looks back to medieval English Catholicism. The example and writings of John and Charles Wesley, of Froude, Pusey, and Keble, may inspire us, but if we seek a solid basis of ascetical theology upon which a twentieth-century spirituality can be built, then I think we must regard the fourteenth- and seventeenth-century systems as our most recent sources.[xiii]

Thornton was no ritualist, and he was not alone in lamenting that “aping” late 19th-century Roman Catholic liturgical practice became the outward and visible sign of Anglican high churchmanship. It wasn’t as though Thornton was opposed to ritual – he was no Puritan – but he believed that Anglican high church theology ought to have produced something of deeper significance than controversy over whether to wear chasubles.[xiv] He lamented most of all that the Oxford Movement had not provided the church with specific marching orders, as it were, for bringing high church theology into the choir stalls and pews of English churches. “The Faithful Remnant,” Thornton claims, is the missing “middle term” between describing the church in theological terms and its practical impact upon individual Christians practicing their faith.

It is known well enough that, in the face of Erastianism, convention, and moralism, the Oxford Reform was centred around the doctrine of the Church; not in the sense of what the Church teaches but of what it is. It sought a return to the traditional idea of the Church as a supernatural organism: the Vine, the Bride, the Body of Christ. From the distance of more than a century it seems pretty obvious that such doctrine, arising in that particular age, would have important social and political consequences. Whether the upheaval it caused was foreseen in Oxford it is difficult to say, nor is it fair to accuse the great Oxford figures of a lack of pastoral sense; yet the Movement was, and remained, essentially intellectual. It was in the best and proper sense of the term “academic”, and, if circumstances turned it into a matter of national importance, it never seriously concerned itself with pastoralia – or even with pastoral theology. But if the Reformers were not over concerned with the parishes, the parish clergy became intensely interested in the Movement. Two stages which are absolutely fundamental to any healthy ascetical progress were omitted, and, again being wise only after the event, that must mean pastoral chaos. First is the omission of the essential “middle term” between the individual Christian and the total Mystical Body – the local, parochial society. Secondly, there is the most blatant example of the academic-pastoral gulf … [xv]

It is curious … that while the Oxford Reform was almost exclusively concerned with the doctrine of the Church – with what the Church is – its local manifestation, this “middle term” of progression, is continually left out of account in modern pastoral thought. In all our varied discussions about “indiscriminate” Baptism, or marriage, about divorce, liturgy, evangelism, and discipline, the health, strength, and needs of the local Church are invariably omitted. Either we discuss first principles, which is a wise step but which remains “academic”, or each “case” is treated in a vacuum ¼ Individual decisions can rightly be made only when the needs of the local Church have been considered ¼ Needless to say such a “local Church” must first exist in a practical, tangible form: again, the Remnant seems to be the only possibility.[xvi]

Martin Stuart Farrin Thornton was born November 11, 1915, in Hockley, Essex, son of Alfred Augustus Thornton, a chartered patent agent, and Ida Farrin Thornton. He was graduated from Dulwich College (1934), King’s College of the University of London (1946) and Christ’s College, Cambridge University, with a B.A. (1951) and M.A. (1955).[xvii]

Autobiographical notes are few in Thornton’s works, but in passing he writes that before seeking ordination he worked as a farmer, journalist, professional athlete and pub owner, all of which “failed lamentably, although the last seemed to offer embryonic prospects.”[xviii] Ordained deacon in 1946 and priest in 1947, he served as curate and vicar of several churches in the Diocese of Chelmsford and then the Diocese of Ely while at Cambridge. Two years after he was graduated from Cambridge, Thornton moved to the Diocese of Cheshire.[xix]

While at Cambridge, he published his first book,[xx] which advocated “farming, or farm work, as the right occupation for the country parson, and I vaguely hoped for a small East Anglian benefice with a couple of hundred acres of glebe.”[xxi] It is significant for Thornton’s ecclesiology that he had this idyllic view of parish ministry. Again and again, he would use images from English village life to illustrate his theological work.[xxii]

Thornton’s professional career may be summed up as a series of ecclesiastical and academic appointments: Subwarden of St. Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden, 1960-1970; St. Mark’s Lecturer in pastoral theology, General Theological Seminary, New York, 1960 and 1965; John Bohlen Lecturer, Episcopal Divinity School, Philadelphia, 1970; Canon-Chancellor, Truro Cathedral, Truro, Cornwall, 1975-1985. He died on the Feast of St. Alban, June 22, 1986.[xxiii]

Thornton’s theological impulse to bring ecclesiology to the level of practice is implicit in all discussions of the nature of the church.[xxiv] Contemporary ecclesiological reflections are weighed in large part not only by dint of their theological insight but also as to their practicality for parish ministry. To the extent that this or that systematic disquisition on the nature of the church falls short of practical application, pastors are unlikely to take them seriously. Miroslav Volf, for example, holds:

Salvation and the church cannot be separated. The old formula was extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Freed from its element of exclusivity, which rightly tarnished its reputation, the formula does accurately express the essentially communal character of salvation ¼ To experience faith means to become an ecclesial being. Nor can it be otherwise if the church is to be the proleptic experience within history of the eschatological integration of the entire people of God into the communion of the triune God.[xxv]

To which a black pastor in Austin, Texas, might reply otherwise.[xxvi] Discussions of the purpose of infant baptism and “closed communion” are never very far from their ecclesiological roots of sacramental theology. Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff argues ecclesiologically in favor of meeting a pastoral need – an overwhelming shortage of clergy in Brazil – and in so trying to allay hierarchical fears of invalid sacraments, develops a schema for understanding the church that sweeps from the plenary chambers of the Second Vatican Council to the slums of Sao Paulo.[xxvii]Ecclesiogenesis includes an appendix couched in theological terms describing in explicit detail “the rite of celebration of the Lord’s Supper as actually held in a basic church community in the interior of Brazil on a Holy Thursday.”[xxviii] Elizabeth A. Johnson’s ecclesiology, viewed through her reflections on the communion of the saints, describes humanity’s connection with God-as-feminine,[xxix] a vision that would be incomplete without practical imagery. Boff’s

The communion of the saints is comprised [sic] first of all of the current generation of living Christians who respond to the promptings of the Spirit and follow the way of Jesus. In the circumstances of their own historical time and place, these women and men try to be faithful friends and courageous prophets, taking seriously the invitation of love God and neighbor and pouring good purpose into their lives. Some work anonymously in fidelity to duty; others speak loudly in the assembly; some risk the wrath of the powerful by engaging in structural analysis and action on behalf of justice, for the poor and for women; others are the powerful converted to their responsibility; [etc.] ¼ Any combination of the above situations is possible; the diversity of circumstances is amazing.[xxx]

Martin Thornton’s vision of the church is less florid but no less specific than Johnson’s, but it is less inclusive, more traditional and no less passionate in its cranky Anglican way.

Thornton’s Faithful Remnant occupies the most interior of three parochial rings. Its membership comprises the prayerful core of the parish but also of the universal “Church Militant.” It adheres to what Thornton calls “the Rule of the Church”, viz., the Daily Office, Eucharist and private prayer under spiritual direction. Thornton maintains that such parishioners and what might be called the universal Remnant through Christian history are ordinary people of extraordinary devotion but more proficient than spiritually gifted. It would not be uncommon to find among the Remnant oblates and associates of religious orders; indeed, Thornton saw the revival of English religious orders subsequent to the Oxford Movement as evidence that the parochial Remnant, too, had resumed its place in English spirituality. The role of the Remnant is that of vicariously representing the whole Church – the parish, the universal Body of Christ – in daily worship and prayer, which Thornton regards as the church’s first order of ministry from which all else derives.

The Remnant, far from being an amputated segment – the clique detached from the whole – is at the centre of the parochial organism and of power extending beyond it. It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; the heart of the Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to its environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps the blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savours the whole. ¼ There is nothing so contagious as holiness, nothing more pervasive than Prayer. This is precisely what the traditional Church means by evangelism and what distinguishes it from recruitment. … The Remnant concept is more than the “nice little nucleus” backed by a comfortable theory. True representation, real vicariousness, the whole process of Christ’s redemption of creation by the redeemed in him, is to be ascetically achieved.[xxxi]

Thornton grounds the Remnant’s vicariousness in the systematic theology of E.L. Mascall, Thornton’s contemporary and a fellow priest of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd.[xxxii]

It is not, however, merely the human part of the created order that receives redemption and makes its true self-offering to God by joining “with angels and archangels” in the heavenly worship. The whole material realm is involved, for man is “nature’s priest” ¼ Not only man, but the universe, will be transfigured and glorified, and in this transfiguration the great mystery of the Resurrection of the Body will be brought about.[xxxiii]

Thornton has no specific terminology for the next parochial ring, although he elaborates its existence and purpose theologically and historically. Briefly, it comprises “enthusiastic supporters, learners, or the generally ‘up and coming.'”[xxxiv] This circle of the church is more interested in programs than prayer and is probably more numerous than the Remnant. Their faith may be sturdy or not, but they tend to have neither the time nor inclination to engage the Rule of the Church. They are faithful Sunday worshippers, financial supporters[xxxv] and would have no qualm about considering their membership in the church on par with their participation in other organizations devoted to good works.[xxxvi] Some may aspire to become one with the Remnant.[xxxvii] Thornton, an avid cricket player, is not averse to considering this parochial circle second-string in the athletic sense.[xxxviii]

The outer parochial circle would be “the rest, spectators, the apathetic or the antagonistic,”[xxxix] Christian and non-Christian alike, all of whom are related to the parish and the universal Church in negative and positive ways. Thornton makes no theological distinction between the church in place – the parish – and the universal Church in the world. The greater is recapitulated in the lesser and the lesser is necessarily part of the whole. In practice, it is not unusual for this third circle of parishioners to make strident if infrequent demands of the church, especially with regard to such “rites of passage” as baptism and marriage; in which case, Thornton contends, accommodation smacks of “multitudinism,” which he regards as ineffective pastoral practice with no basis in Christian theology.

Plainly, our parishes contain the few really faithful, the occasional “churchgoer”, and everyone else; parochial theology seeks a comprehensive pattern of relations between [sic] these three strata. What I have called multitudinism fails to face the facts, pretending that its parish is a uniform mass …

The parish seen as organism, elaborated into what I propose to describe as the Remnant Concept, arranges its three strata as concentric circles in which power from the centre pervades the whole. “The fact remains that the human race is not the Christian Church, even although the Church is meant for all men and claims them all, and although there is no man who is altogether excluded from the Church’s redemptive life, which, like a river in flood, overflows its formal boundaries and irrigates the surrounding land.” [FN: Mascall, E.L. Corpus Christi 12.] Parochial theology must give practical expression to this theological fact.[xl]

Thornton’s claim that the Remnant is of the essence of the church is rooted in Jewish and Christian scripture. The term “remnant” comes from Jewish prophetic literature. Thornton is at pains to show that the term need not connote exclusivity.

It must be insisted that the “Remnant” is a highly technical term with roots embedded in Hebrew prophecy and … branches spreading through the Christian tradition. The principle is held and the term used successively by Elisha, Amos, Micah, First Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, and Ezra; reaching its fullest consummation and clearest exposition in the Deutero-Isaiah. This insistence is needed because in plain English the word has an “exclusive” sound and a numerical import, both of which we have rejected.[xli]

Thornton interprets Israel, the chosen people, as the Remnant of humanity, “the elect, the priestly caste.” Israel’s prophetic tradition consistently calls upon the Remnant within Israel to maintain is purity of worship and faith; indeed, “the salvation of the world depends upon the faith of Israel the chosen instrument, which in turn revolves around the faithful Remnant. So we are faced with the tremendous implications of the vicarious principle.” This tradition, which Thornton says is most profoundly expressed in “the Servant poems” of Isaiah, shaped the mind of Jesus and the first generation of his followers through the “prophetic of the Cross.”[xlii]

Thornton finds the Remnant principle operating in Jesus’ selection of the twelve.[xliii] He sees in such stories as the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus had a message for the multitude but that he turned to the twelve to give further instruction of a pastoral nature insofar as it explained the parables of the kingdom.[xliv] Jesus himself, as the incarnation of God, was an expression of the Remnant principle and its vicarious implications.

Further, Christ is the Saviour of the whole world, and it is important to realize that apart from a few square miles in the Middle East, he did not bother to look at it. Here is the ultimate answer to “narrow” parochialism: in the prayer and worship of Jesus the environs of Bethlehem is the world, his little social group is both is cure of souls and the microcosm of humanity of all ages, creeds, and classes. In his first thirty years of perfect obedience, prayer, and adoring worship, all infancy, all childhood, all humanity, and all creation are recapitulated. Bethlehem is the epitome of every parish and every home; all is sanctified in him whose own sanctification is “for their sakes.” [FN: John 17:19][xlv]

Jesus’ ministry was not to the gentiles but to “the lost sheep of Israel,” which Thornton interprets as an expression of the Remnant concept.[xlvi] The very term “church,” ekklesia, referred in Jesus’ day not to an inclusive, universal entity but to a portion of the general body “called out” of it, especially, in Jewish scripture, for the purpose of worship and prayer.[xlvii] Jesus’ ministry was above all one of utter devotion, which the church is called to recapitulate and without which nothing else Jesus did makes sense.

He alone prayed without ceasing, he alone was never distracted, he alone achieved perfect recollection. Furthermore – and this seems to have been forgotten from Eusebius of Caesarea until the seventeenth-century French Oratorians – Jesus alone is the perfect worshipper of the Father. The wholein the world of humankind it was an adoration which burst forth into every aspect of life and carried the whole world with it. His perpetual adoration is as vicarious as his defeat of sin in the wilderness, and a great deal of confusion would be avoided if all his pastoral activities were seen against this background. His preaching, teaching, healings, absolutions, and miracles are all meaningless if they are isolated from adoration.[xlviii] life of Christ was one of unbroken adoration, but because it was spent

The church was Jesus’ “pastoral plan.”[xlix] Its development, the form it took and the methods it adopted were by divine design. “The one constant theme of the Gospel story – as background to the Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – is his direction of the Twelve …”[l] Jesus “implanted faith, developed prayer, and at Pentecost sent the Holy Ghost to guide, direct and govern. ¼ So we can believe that the Twelve as Remnant organism have the authority of Christ’s direction, and what they did in the Spirit is the fruit of that direction.”[li] At this critical juncture in developing his theology of the Faithful Remnant, Thornton writes: “If we could find an historical correspondence between the pastoral form of our Lord’s ministry and that adopted by his Church, then we might humbly claim that the Remnant concept as parochial theology stands on firm ground.”[lii]

Thornton denies that apostolic missionary activity, “if it implies nomadic evangelism alone,” is of the essence of the church. The assembly, the ekklesia, doesn’t wander. “The Church is missionary in precisely the same sense as her Lord, who in saving the whole world, wandered little more than twenty miles from his birthplace.”[liii] The peripatetic apostle Paul embraced the Remnant concept in his doctrine of the Body of Christ. “His letters are not only pastoral but essentially parochial, they deal with ascetical and moral theology, with Church order, and with

the relations between the Church and the world.”[liv] The apostolic “Remnant in transition,” “the primitive Church of the Apostles’ lifetime,” left in place overseers, episkopoi, leaders in contrast to apostoloi, who by definition were travelers. “Here in embryo is the future pattern of the Church; the germ which is to develop into the ascetical tenet of stability ¼ the Body of Christ in microcosm, localized in place, localized in bread and wine, priest and Remnant, in Prayer and in place: this remains the pastoral norm of missionary power.”[lv]

Thornton sees the Remnant concept operating in such first-century writings as The Epistle of Diognetus (Chapter 6): “… what the soul is to the body Christians are in the world.” Tertullian’s Apology (Chapter 39) expresses what Thornton sees as the primary work of the Remnant: “We are a body formed by our joint cognizance of religion, by the unity of discipline, by the bond of hope … we come together in a meeting and a congregation before God, as though we would in one body sue Him by our prayers.”[lvi] Multitudinism, according to Thornton, was born with the conversion of Constantine in 313 B.C.E., and thus began a dialogue of some 1,600 years between “two distinct views … of the nature and function of the Church,” controversy that actually had followed the Decian persecution, when the church was confronted with the complex issue of whether to restore those who had lapsed from faith in order to save their lives. At this point, Thornton contends, “the vicarious Remnant began to resemble an exclusive sect,” and the “humanist element began to see the Church as a kind of educative society.”[lvii]

Thornton’s history of Remnant theology digresses at the birth of “multitudinism” into a lengthy discussion of predestination and election, historically controversial subjects rendered less so, Thornton contends, by a proper understanding of the nature of the church, viz., his doctrine of the Faithful Remnant. Of interest here is his train of thought, viz., the method by which Thornton uses his theological construct to descend from overarching theological issues to parochial praxis. It is of the essence of Thornton’s work that “dogmatic theology” be applicable in particular.[lviii]

To Paul, a Jew, election was “neither ultimate nor personal” but corporate. Thornton suggests that “we stop thinking of what we may be elected to and consider what we are elected for.

Then predestination becomes, as it was to Isaiah and the Twelve against St. Augustine and Calvin, vocational; we are called into the Church, which implies not final salvation but a job. Neither does the apparent absence of such vocation to Church membership imply damnation; it obviously cannot when we see this calling, this job, as vicarious, as spiritual work on behalf of those who are – for the present – outside.[lix]

Likewise, “conversion, like election, has very little to do with soteriology … [It] is imply the vocational experience of desiring membership of the laity by baptism …

Vocation to the medical profession and conversion to the Body of Christ are of comparable origin; but a doctor would not regard the fostering of such vocation in others as his main work. The direct agency of conversion is the fruit of the work of the profession; in religion it is worship and works rather than preaching and exhortation. ¼ The only positive method of attaining conversions is epitomized in the worshipping Remnant that forgets all about trying to convert.[lx]

Thornton finds a developing Remnant in the ebb and flow – reform and decline[lxi] – of monastic history from roughly the fourth to the sixteenth century.[lxii] The church would have died without the religious movement of the Desert Fathers, which created a kind of ecclesiastical dualism between the established church and those few – the Faithful Remnant – who rejected such worldliness.[lxiii] Beginning, however, with Basil the Great (ca. 330-379) in the East and Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 550) in the West the dualism was reduced while the monastic traditions maintained the essential Remnant doctrine of rule.[lxiv] In particular, Thornton finds in 12th-century Cistercian reform telling evidence of the Remnant dynamic; viz., the conversi, peasants recruited into monasteries for farm labor.

So we have the original choir-monks, whose job was opus Dei, the work of God in Prayer and praise, with farm labour as an essential part of it; and then the conversi, whose vocation was admittedly agriculture but with Prayer as its natural corollary. This was monasticism in the closest contact with the surrounding secular populace ¼ Here we have a plain admission of pronounced vocation in some and little vocation in others, but the pervading idea of progress from any point to the Vision of God makes any rigid standard unmeaning. On the one hand the only Christian standard is perfection, on the other there are progressive standards of infinite multiplicity. But all the while a pastoral distinction exists between the Remnant bound by Rule and the crowds.[lxv]

Thornton concludes that the Remnant as an expression of lay parochial practice would have succeeded medieval monasticism in England had monasteries not been dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century. “By this accident of history the Church of England was left with the corpse of an ancient Remnant and the unborn embryo of another. The monasteries were destroyed a hundred years before the alternative Remnant pattern was complete.”[lxvi] The English church – Anglicanism – emerged from Protestant reform with the Book of Common Prayer that “clearly points to lay Rule …

And out of all this developed a line of pure and specifically English ascetic: through Lancelot Andrewes, William Law, Jeremy Taylor, George Herbert, thence to the Oxford reform, we can trace a direct line back to Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and St. Gilbert of Sempringham.[lxvii]

For two hundred years, however, from Herbert to Keble, the Remnant lay dormant until resurrected by the spirit of Oxford reform, where Martin Thornton claims to have picked up the thread in post-war, 20th-century England beset by economic hardship, declining church membership and a shortage of clergy.[lxviii]

At root, Thornton’s Remnant theory is an apology for a specific model of Christian ascetical practice compatible with high-church Anglican ecclesiology. Thornton considered himself a “mild rebel”[lxix] with “unconventional views,”[lxx] but he was allied with some of the more conservative high-church elements of the Church of England, the least evidence of which may be seen in his admiration for neo-Thomist E.L. Mascall. Thornton represented not only a minority view within the Church of England but also a minority within the minority. Anglo-Catholics of the mid-20th century were notoriously divided over reform of the Book of Common Prayer.[lxxi] The more liturgically-minded majority believed prayer book reform hadn’t gone far enough to restore Catholic practice and so compiled an “enhanced” prayer book, The Anglican Missal, first published in 1921.[lxxii] Thornton had high regard for the English prayer book, though not its 1928 lectionary.[lxxiii] His published work provoked coverage by the church press and criticism in theological journals.[lxxiv] Perhaps by its very nature, however, the Remnant theory didn’t spark a movement.[lxxv]

Ecclesiology[lxxvi] provides a rationale for experience, a way of critiquing the praxis of the community of faith either to call for change or to defend the status quo. Compelling reflection on the nature of the church argues successfully from scripture, tradition and reason, a tripartite method regarded as foundational in Anglican theology since the 17th century but which by no means is unique to Anglicanism.[lxxvii] Thus would Elizabeth Johnson change Roman Catholic Church praxis by recovering the church’s memory of significant women embedded scripture and the communion of the saints,[lxxviii] by expounding a doctrine of God that reinterprets the significance of the Holy Spirit as a feminine principle[lxxix] and by arguing with conviction from the ideas of freedom and justice that it is of the essence of the church to liberate the oppressed and resist exploitation of the earth itself and all humanity.[lxxx] Thus would Leonardo Boff defend lay eucharistic celebration in Brazilian base communities by arguing from scripture that Jesus founded no institution,[lxxxi] by laying a biblical basis for “raised consciousness” regarding social, political and ecclesiastical issues[lxxxii] and by arguing from church tradition that there is no exclusive warrant for ordination as a requirement for presiding at the Eucharist.[lxxxiii] Thus would Miroslav Volf argue for the catholicity of free church congregations by defining catholicity with biblical “soteriological and ecclesiological statements”[lxxxiv] and by drawing together the terms “catholicity” and “ecclesiality,” citing Ignatius of Antioch and Vincent of Lerins,[lxxxv] to conclude that the catholicity of local congregations depends not on their institutional affiliation but whether their structure corresponds with trinitarian theology.[lxxxvi]

Martin Thornton argues from scripture that the Remnant is of the essence of the church, but his exegesis is flawed. He ignores historical-critical methodology that by Thornton’s time had concluded, among other things, that the post-resurrection church had shaped gospel passages to establish apostolic authority.[lxxxvii] Thornton argues, for example, that the church’s “three strata” are biblically confirmed in John 17, Jesus’ high priestly prayer. He ignores the likelihood that Jesus didn’t say the prayer at all but that it probably was composed by the author of John’s gospel.[lxxxviii] Although it might be argued that it is irrelevant whether the prayer was in Jesus’ actual words, provided John 17 preserves authentic tradition, Thornton argues literally from the text:

… the prayer is addressed to the Father of all, yet this is not multitudinism because all is arranged in order; prayer is made for three distinct strata: three concentric circles, a pattern which embraces all, but which remains a pattern. Prayer, intercessory and vicarious, is firstly “for those whom thou hast given me” (v. 9), secondly for “them also which shall believe on me through their word” (v. 20), thirdly and vicariously for all the world eternally: “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself” (v. 19).[lxxxix]

Such commentary works as meditation but not as exegesis upon which to establish ecclesiological principle. Again, Thornton argues, citing the work of J. W. Bowman,[xc] that Jesus came not call the “lost sheep of Israel” but to establish a Faithful Remnant.

Throughout the New Testament he is the Paschal Lamb and the sacrificial Priest in one; a comparison between the words he used at the Last Supper and the institutions of Exodus 24 leaves no possible doubt on the point. This is important, because if the prophetic element means religion-as-activity or prayer as living power, priesthood implies a stabilized liturgical system as central to it.[xci]

One readily suspects that Thornton’s “standardized liturgical system” would be that of an English high churchman reciting the Daily Office and celebrating Eucharist in a rural parish church. Such isogesis erodes the foundations of Thornton’s ecclesiological principles.

Thornton makes a stronger case for the Remnant arguing from tradition and, to some extent, from reason. It is important to recall that his primary interest is the practice of religion, which he always sees in ascetical terms. Christian prayer is the point of all. Without it, there is no church, and Thornton further maintains that the prayer of the church is rendered ineffective to the extent that it is not of the right sort. In Anglican terms, according to Thornton, this would be the Daily Office, the Eucharist and private prayer under spiritual direction. Thornton’s ecclesiology, if any there be in a formal sense, is at the service of his concern for effective spiritual direction of the Remnant who engage the Rule of the Church.[xcii]

Thornton couches his discussion of the Trinity in ascetical terms, using a traditional statement of the doctrine as a diagnostic tool for spiritual direction.[xciii] “The health of the soul depends upon the health of its Prayer, which in turn depends upon the adequacy of its conception of God.”[xciv] Thornton’s theme is balance, and the doctrine in ascetical terms keeps Christian prayer properly attuned to the triunity of persons. Imbalance, Thornton maintains, leads to conceptions of God that fall short of Christian orthodoxy, such as Arianism, Apollinarianism, Deism and the like. Thornton understands “orthodoxy” literally, as “the right way to glorify God”:

… the Rule of the Church in full provides for a complete Trinitarian concept of God, and ¼ fragments of such Rule without balance and proportion provide for every conceivable kind of chaos. All prayer, ideally, is to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit; but ascetically and analytically the Office tends to emphasize the first objectively, the Mass is the mutual loving embrace of Christ, and prayer in private depends upon the Paraclete’s indwelling.[xcv]

Even though Thornton is at pains throughout his body of work to insist that, theologically, there is no such thing as an individual Christian,[xcvi] he expresses the private dimension of Christian prayer as “the loving embrace of the soul with Christ, [which] comes by first purging and unifying the subjective self in the Holy Ghost and then offering an objective adoration to the Father,”[xcvii] a pattern that “underlies all the ascetical writings of Christian spirituality, though it is presented in various ways with different emphases.”[xcviii]

I would claim, therefore, that the only pastoral outlook which does justice to the Trinitarian concept of God ascetically is the Remnant concept, because only here do we find the Body of Christ, parochial and microcosmic, as focus or fulcrum between the whole multitudinous creation and the Spirit indwelling in all things.[xcix]

Thornton saw dreary prospects for the Church of England of his day,[c] arguing that it made no sense for the church to be no more than a charitable association of like-minded people, which he maintained would be the outcome of “multitudinism.” He complained, for example, that the church’s outreach lost credibility when evangelism became recruitment into church organizations with little or no basis in worship and prayer. It was no wonder, he argued, that vocations to ordained ministry lagged far behind the need when training was focused on maintaining the apparatus through recruitment and fund-raising rather than bringing competence to the practice of spiritual direction. He tried to show that the Faithful Remnant was not only a preferable pastoral model, but that it was of the essence of the church for its primary ministry of prayer to be vested in a devoted core group at the heart of the community.

Thornton’s appeal on behalf of what might have been called “Remnant Reform” went virtually unheeded. His critics complained that his Remnant doctrine would lead to creation of an elitist sect. Wilfrid Browning wrote:

Mr. Thornton’s book does not, like the Jansenists, hold those outside the holy community to be condemned; but the whole spirit of the book is Jansenist and sectarian. It is reminiscent of the (isolated and unrepresentative) saying of Kierkegaard: “Christ only gained eleven men in three and a half years; one apostle got three thousand disciples in an hour.” It would turn the Church into an esoteric group with closely guarded secrets, like the community at Qumran.[ci]

Browning attacked Thornton’s exegesis of scripture[cii] and, though acknowledging Thornton’s gifts as pastor and spiritual director, suggested that “a host of lesser men [would] use what is in Thornton’s case a dynamic philosophy born out of the Church’s failure as pious escapism or a high-falutin’ excuse for idleness.”[ciii]

Thornton’s “dynamic philosophy,” however, does not rise to the level of ecclesiological principle. Compared with more successful works by theologians with interests other than ascetical theology,[civ] Thornton’s claim that the Faithful Remnant is of the essence of the church fails for lack of sound biblical evidence and theological reflection as such. He may have identified, however, an authentic dynamic in the history of Christian prayer. The Faithful Remnant, indeed, is a helpful template for interpreting the apparently continuous cycle of church reform from the perspective of the development and practice of prayer, which Thornton called “Christian ascetic.” His analysis of the development of English spirituality through Western monasticism provides practical insights rooted in diligent, prayerful reflection upon traditional Catholic doctrine that would be of value to the practice of spiritual direction. Such an orientation would have narrow appeal, but Thornton appears to have ploughed for depth even though his ecclesiology fails as general principle.

Which is not to say that Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation and Thornton’s subsequent volumes fail to provide a “middle term” for the practice of religion expressed in theological terms by the Caroline divines and Oxford reformers. Thornton’s scheme is developmentally consistent with the implications of these movements within Anglicanism. An argument in its favor need not rise to ecclesiological levels. Thornton would have proved that Christianity is the Remnant at prayer. He failed, but he did show that Anglicans may with confidence embrace their liturgical and spiritual tradition as firm ground from which to engage the world in Christian ministry.




“Oxford Movement.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1994 ed.[ii] There will be discrepancies in this paper between original publication dates in Great Britain and later editions cited herein that were published in the United States. The original publication years are as follows: Pastoral Theology, 1956; Christian Proficiency, 1959; Feed My Lambs, 1961; English Spirituality, 1963.[iii] Martin Thornton. Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation[iv] E.g., Thornton, Pastoral Theology 23-25.[v] Martin Thornton. Feed My Lambs: Essays in Pastoral Reconstruction (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1961) 20.[vi] The phrase is not uncommon in discourse about Christian prayer, but Thornton acknowledges the influence of Kenneth E. Kirk, whose 1928 Bampton Lectures were published under the title, The Vision of God: The Christian Doctrine of the Summum Bonum (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947).[vii] Thornton, Lambs 18. (London: S.P.C.K., 1964), e.g., 122.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 131-146.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 14-17.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology, 29-128. This paper will not deal with Thornton’s claim to have found rationale for the Faithful Remnant in the philosophies, e.g., of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz and Alfred North Whitehead.



Owen Chadwick, ed. The Mind of the Oxford Movement (A Library of Modern Religious Thought. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1960) 12-14.



Chadwick 60.



Martin Thornton. English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (London: S.P.C.K., 1963) 282.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 11-12.



Thornton, Lambs 28.



Thornton, Lambs 60-61.



Compiled from Contemporary Authors (Gale Research Co., Detroit, Mich., 1964); The Author’s and Writer’s Who’s Who (Hafner Publishing Co. Inc., Darien, Conn., 1971); and The Writers Directory (St. James Press, Chicago, Ill., 1986).



Thornton, Lambs 77.



This information comes from a Dulwich College record provided by J.R. Piggott.



Martin Thornton. Rural Synthesis (London: Skeffington, 1948).



Thornton, Lambs 77-78



E.g., Thornton, Pastoral Theology 136. The author compares the empirical selection of a farming method with the application of ascetical principles in spiritual direction.



Courtesy of Carol Wood, archivist, Church of England Record Centre, South Bermondsey, London.



Ronald E. George. Class notes, CCB.706, June 10-21, 2002. Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.



Miroslav Volf. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998) 174.



George, Class notes, June 18, 2002. Students vigorously discussed whether the church was, as Volf maintained, a necessary “means of grace” in Christian praxis. The Rev. W.C. Irving III, a third-generation pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, argued passionately from personal experience and church tradition that “oppressed people must have direct, immediate access to the Lord, above and beyond the structure of the church.”



Leonardo Boff. Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books., 1986), e.g., 61-62.



Boff, Ecclesiogenesis 73-75.



Elizabeth A. Johnson. Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of the Saints (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1999), e.g., 40-45.



Johnson, Friends 222.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 23-25.



The oratory is an order of clergy and lay Anglicans founded in 1913 by a group of Cambridge chaplains “who were looking for some form of disciplined life in the comfortable circumstances of the University of those days,” according to the order’s Internet Web site,



E.L. Mascall. Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and Its ConsequencesPastoral Theology 25. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955) 164, qtd. in Thornton,



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 21.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 74.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 144.



Thornton, Proficiency ix.



E.g., Thornton, Lambs 61.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 21.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 21.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 22.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 22.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 37.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 39.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 32.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 49-50.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 34.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 31-32.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 36.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 59.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 59.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 59.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 60.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 62.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 63.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 64.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 65.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 6.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 66.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 68-69.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 82.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 75-92.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 79.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 80.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 89.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 103.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 104.



Thornton, Lambs 86.



Thornton, Lambs 17.



Thornton, Lambs 6.



“Anglo-Catholicism.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.



The Anglican Missal (London: Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1921).



Thornton, English Spirituality 257-281.



E.g., Wilfrid Browning, “Sect or Church?”, Theology 61 (January 1958): 3-8; C.R. Forder, rev. of Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation, by Martin Thornton, Theology 60 (April 1957): 166-68.



Which is not to say Thornton didn’t inspire a small but loyal cadre. The Church Development Institute, founded in Philadelphia in 1978, lists Thornton’s pastoral theory with that of Bruce Reed, Jim Anderson and Urban T. Holmes III as being influential in its training of lay leaders. ( ) Thornton’s Pastoral Theology was republished after his death as The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1989).



The history of this term is of interest. It was first used in the 19th century to refer to “the science of building and decoration of churches … when interest in ecclesiastical buildings was much increased by such groups as the Cambridge Camden Society,” a group allied with the Oxford Movement, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.



E.g., Paul Elmer More, “The Spirit of Anglicanism,” Anglicanism: The Thought and Practice of the Church of England, Illustrated from the Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, eds. Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross (London: S.P.C.K., 1962). “Experience” is often added to this theological framework, but Anglicans have tended to consider experience as part of reason.



Johnson, Friends of God 141-159.



E.g., Johnson, Friends of God 262.



E.g., Johnson, Friends of God 155.



E.g., Boff, Ecclesiogenesis 52-53.



Boff, Ecclesiogenesis 41-42.



E.g., Boff, Ecclesiogenesis 65.



Volf, After Our Likness 266.



Volf, After Our Likness 265.



Volf, After Our Likeness 214-220.



Gunther Bornkamm, Gerhard Barth, Heinz Joachim Held. Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963) 46-49.



Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John (London: Oliphants, 1972) 515-518.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 56-57.



J.W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (Westminster: S.C.M. Press, 1943).



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 35.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 165.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 192-204.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 192.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 196.



E.g., Thornton, Proficiency 14-15.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 201.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 201-202. Thornton’s list includes Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, A.E. Taylor and the Oratorian tradition.



Thornton, Pastoral Theology 202.



Thornton, Lambs 85-98.



Browning, “Sect or Church?” 6.



Browning, “Sect or Church?” 4-6.



Browning, “Sect or Church?” 7-8.



E.g., Johnson, Boff and Volf.


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