The Rev’d. Martin Thornton (d. 1986) was an Anglican priest, spiritual director, and lecturer on Ascetical theology, active for much of his life in the Diocese of Truro, England. He wrote books like Spiritual Direction (1982), English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (1963), The Rock and the River: An Encounter between Traditional Spirituality and Modern Thought (1965), and Prayer: A New Encounter (1972), but my mind is presently being re-mapped by his book Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (republished in 1989 as The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant).
His basic thesis is that pastoral activity focused on the accumulation of numbers of souls, of “recruitment”, as Thornton puts it, is misplaced, and that our focus as shepherds ought rather to be on the development of the “Remnant”. Many of these thoughts have occurred to me before, but I have never seen them so well articulated, put together in this fashion, or defended so logically. I am thoroughly enjoying the read, though I would comment that I frequently have to read various paragraphs three or four times before moving on with a solid grasp of the argument.
If the excerpt below does not exercise your imagination, you might also find the book intriguing for its discussion of what ascetical theology is (dogma applied, to unfairly summarize) as compared to moral theology.
“…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; epitomized in the Servant poems and prophetic of the Cross.
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.
Strange as this may seem in its context, it is pertinent to notice how reasonable it sounds in almost any other context. A “good cricket school” is not one wherein all pupils are good at cricket nor even one where all play cricket, but one whose first eleven wins most of its matches. … But we have stopped thinking of religion in terms of training and proficiency for the service of others. Multitudinism has reduced Christianity to a conventional mediocrity, in which the hard things, and consequently the inspiring things, have no place.
Once religion is held really to mean something, once it is seen as specific activity with its relevant arts and sciences, then a Christian parish ceases to be the dream—or nightmare—of a hundred-per-cent nominal, conventional “church-people”, but rather becomes a virile organism pervaded by the power of the Remnant’s Prayer. It is a parochial organism with a good first eleven: coached, disciplined, trained, and bound together as a representative team. The school match is won or lost directly by its selected players, yet because a school is a unity there is a real sense in which it is won or lost simply by “the school”. After a game between twenty-two players, untold thousands declare that “we” have won….
A parish of a thousand souls, under multitudinist policy, is not really a parish at all if only nine hundred and ninety-nine are present at the altar; yet a parish of ten thousand souls is truly before God, both organically and so individually, if the Remnant of three recite the Church’s Office. It is interesting that whereas Sunday services are thought of in terms of numbers, an element of the vicarious is often imputed to the weekday Office of the priest. Yet Anglican theology insists that the creative channel of Grace in the world is not the priesthood but the Church; thus there is a most vital distinction between the priest alone and priest plus Remnant of one. There is no such particular distinction between priest plus one, and priest plus two, sixty, or six thousand. Those who are worried over lack of support might substitute ascetic for arithmetic. 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.”
– Martin Thornton. Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (pgs 23-24)
The opportunities for comment here are multitude. But I shall come back to this text numerous times, I’m sure.