Skip to content


The Bishop of London on Christian contemplation

BOL WebLast week I got the chance to interview the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, for my research on spiritual ecstasy. It was an informal conversation, and it was very kind of the Bishop to give me the benefit of his time and wisdom. I thought he’d be a good interviewee because of his interest in contemplative practices and in Christian mystics like Thomas Traherne. And he was!

Do you think spiritual ecstasy is dangerous?

It certainly can be. We have forgotten how dangerous religion can be. We think of it as a minority leisure pursuit – another cup of tea, Vicar. To remember how dangerous it can be, you have to go back to before religion became obstinately metaphysical, to the Civil War, when the streets around here were filled with Levellers and Fifth Monarchists and other fanatics, who had caused a social revolution.

St Paul’s cathedral is, in some ways, Christopher Wren’s answer to religious enthusiasm – God as a mathematician rather than the terrifying arbitrary God of the Civil War.

The great Bishop Butler says to John Wesley: ‘pretending to special revelations of the Holy Ghost Mr Wesley is a very horrid thing. It’s a very horrid thing indeed.’ And it is indeed a very horrid thing. Unless it’s held firmly within a community of interpretation, with a shared communal experience of discerning between evil spirits and good spirits, then it’s very dangerous.

A depiction of medieval dancing mania
A depiction of medieval dancing mania

It’s happened again and again in the Church. Montanism was a clear example of an ungovernable Dionysian spirit in the early Church. It perhaps was there in the dance crazes of the Middle Ages, and in some of the Millenarian movements of the 14th and 15th centuries, as chronicled by the historian Norman Cohn.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a fear of the irrational, a fear of the ungovernable spirit, in the Church.  As a result, the Holy Spirit was occluded, was edited out. If you look at the consecration of prayer in Cranmer’s prayer book [in the 1540s], it does not contain what all the primitive liturgies contain, which is an invocation of the Holy Spirit.

The sixteenth century, which was the century where western churches received their present shape, saw an over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics, an over-bureaucratization of the church and a cosying up to the nation state.

One of the most feared things as far as the reformed Roman church was concerned was the whole realm of mystical experience – why else did the Church put St John of the Cross in jail? The great spiritual mind of 16th century Spain was persecuted because his kind of mystical exploration is a threat to rigid control, bureaucratic church authority, and the over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics.

So you’re saying that, in reaction to the unbridled and violent Dionysian ecstasy of the late medieval and early modern era, the Church went too far, and occluded the Holy Spirit entirely?

Yes.  The truth expresses itself as an economy in which the various elements of the truth aspect and balance one another. The truth is not to be encapsulated in a neat formula. It exists as a massive symphony, where the truth is given by the interplay of the various parts. If you omit any part of it, then there is a reaction and exaggeration of the missing element.

This is exactly what happened with the occlusion of the Holy Spirit in the West, and the editing out of the Eplicesis [the drawing down of the Holy Spirit] from western liturgies, and the demeaning of the Christian faith into a list of propositions, which turns God into an idea in the mind.

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946
A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

The reaction came in the Romantic revival and finally the Azusa Street Pentecostal movement, which has reshaped the sociology of the world. The Azusa Street explosion of Pentecostalism came because, in the economy of Christianity, the charismatic element is essential to Orthodoxy. In any one life, we see only a very small part of the curve of these great historical movements. It’s our duty to try and see more of the curve, and to knit together fragments of knowledge and relate them to the whole.

The charismatic stream is part of the grand symphony of the Christian faith. And one of the wonderful things about the Church of England in London is that, for various reasons, the charismatic stream has not absolutized itself, has not decided to lead a sectarian apart life, and to leave the church. In fact it is revivifying the church within, and is being saved from folly and rigidity, which always happens when you become sectarian. If you become sectarian in your mentality, and focus on one bit of the Christian economy, what happens is rigidity and eventually disappearance and decline.

The occlusion of the Holy Spirit never really happened to the same extent in the Eastern Church, by the way. The Treatise of St Basil on the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to the Eastern understanding of the Holy Spirit as the Perfector, as the Go-Between.

I rather incline to GK Chesterton’s view – you can’t really be an orthodox Christian without having a charismatic life. That doesn’t necessarily mean special gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such gifts are given to people at various stages of people in their pilgrimage, for good reason, often to break up the crust of convention which is keeping them imprisoned. Once a real fluency in spiritual matters has been achieved, they’re no longer necessary. It’s very dangerous to hold on to some of these psychic phenomena which often attend growing in the Holy Spirit.

So how much importance should we give to Holy Spirit encounters or charismatic gifts in our spiritual life?

I have a simple map of spiritual reality. We spend most of our time at the mental ego level, on the surface, with the self negotiating the world around – a self which we have largely manufactured and confected. It is very difficult to get modern people to understand prayer is not just a form of thinking at that level. That’s one of the fundamental errors and difficulties people encounter at the beginning of learning to pray.

'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine'
‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’

At that mental ego level, there are often things of darkness which are unacknowledged. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, but often those dark things are left unacknowledged within us. And much religion is really dangerous and I would say lethal, because it is in effect the surreptitious re-ascent of the bruised ego.

We project parts of ourselves – our anger, all kinds of personal psychic material – into the middle distance, deifying it and conducting a solipsist conversation. God is very often a projection of some of this unacknowledged material.

You can see it very clearly: the God which causes people to smite and slay. Sane religious cultures which have lasted for a very long time have discerned that the real fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace and various other things. They certainly aren’t homicidal impulses.

So you have the mental ego level – and the adventure of prayer is to go beyond and beneath that – into the psychic zone, in which very often there are gifts of the spirit, charismatic gifts of various kinds – glossolalia, gifts of prophecy, and ecstatic utterance.

There is a great danger in falling in love with yourself once again as a spiritual person, in becoming too intrigued by these things, and to think ‘because I have these things I am a really serious Christian’. There has to be a continued Copernican revolution, and that revolution always turns us outwards in generosity to our fellows and in adoration to God. St Anthony the Great says we must see the Spirit in our neighbour, and love them.

But instead, what can happen when you have notable charismatic gifts, is once again a turning inwards, an admiration of the self. Lucifer the light-bringer fell, because he fell so in love with his own reflection.

Open-Heart-Open-Mind-The-Contemplative-Dimension-of-the-GospelAnd then after the psychic zone, there is what is called the heart, which for the Hebrews was not the blood pump, the heart for the Hebrews was the vitals, where the spiritual centre was actually located. And once you were quiet enough and had been educated by silence and stillness, and had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life, where the spirit is already there and praying in ways we can’t understand.

So that is the map. Part of being a follower of the spirit of truth in Christ is to make a passage through this dangerous territory, drain the shadows, and acknowledge that this thing of darkness is mine.

And it is a very dangerous thing to enterprise the exploration of the spirit alone and isolated. Unless you do it in community, you are open to delusion and have little way of checking the face of the god that is visiting you.

Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies. There is a very dangerous and dark realm, which the Christian practice navigates through, by practicing in a community, by modeling oneself on Jesus Christ, by digesting His words not just as ideas in the mind but also as sacramental practice.

Even Luther and Calvin say the Church is a community in which the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are duly administered.  It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.

Where can we look to learn contemplative practices?

Pete Greig, one of the pioneers of the 24/7 prayer movement
Pete Greig, one of the pioneers of the 24/7 prayer movement

You’re asking for other people to engage with. Of course, there is the tradition of John Main and Laurence Freeman. I’m a member of the Eckhart Society – there is a huge renewed interest in Meister Eckhart. Then there is the Eastern tradition on the Holy Mountain, where you will find monks who have gone through the psychic phase and started to live an authentic spiritual life. In the UK, the 24 / 7 prayer movement is one place one could look – Pete Greig is the real thing. He’s a good man. And there are some books one could read, such as Olivier Clemont’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, or Thomas Keating’s Open Heart, Open Mind; or Mark McIntosh’s Mystical Theology.

But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation – we are very needy.

What about academic centres where contemplative practices could be studied and practiced?

The difficulty is that academia has sold out to a methodology which really depends on something all modern people must use – the experimental method, the metrics – and in this realm, that’s not applicable. The only thing you can do is be clear about the fruits of various practices.

The tree of knowledge was so fatal because it was knowledge wrenched from its source, and lying in atomized bits and pieces. We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril. Its arrogance is enormous. It still thinks it can preach to the whole world in the name of some very limited and abstract notions. It is indeed a civilization that is deeply needy.

So now we’re looking for an authentic wisdom which is inhabiting the whole Christian economy, with the right kind of balance and poise. Being sane and poised enough to love without distortion or hidden agendas. To be able to relate all knowledge to the whole, to the Pleroma, to the purposes of God. These are some of the aspects of wisdom, as opposed to knowing a hell of a lot.

Do you think there needs to be a contemplative revival in the Church?

The church needs huge reform in this respect, but certainly not the kind of fidgeting we’ve had in the last 50 years – fidgeting about structures and regulations, about the ministry, about this that and the other, and being a dull echo of the secular consensus, which of course says that the supreme value of life is individual choice whether in goods or morals.

The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us. That’s the real truth, and that’s why people are fascinated by other ways which have remained less disturbed by the gospel that really grips this society, which is that there should be no constraint on individual consumer choice in goods or morals. That’s the very opposite of the truth. Autonomy is the story of the fall, not redemption. The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.

A lot of people (including me) believe it’s possible to have spiritual experiences in various different traditions and beyond any tradition.

Spiritual But Not Religious is a new upper middle class religion. You take a bonne bouche of Sufism, season it with Californian Buddhism. It’s delightful. And your deity of course is your taste. There is no genuine spiritual progress without committing yourself to a way.

I don’t deny there are other ways that help people to make spiritual progress. If you start honestly on a way, you find yourself in a place where there is plenty of commerce and conversation with followers of other ways, but you can do it authentically. But you have to commit yourself to a way, because otherwise the Copernican revolution never occurs – you , your ego and your taste, are still in control, and the profound bouleversement does not occur.

So you can get to God via, say, Buddhism or Islam or even humanism?

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. There is no other way to that destination.

But it would be very strange if this was a world created by God and marked by the Noachian covenant with all human flesh, in which God had left no vestige of Himself and His healing and ennobling spirit except within one strand or stream.

Mindfulness - a bestseller written by Danny Penman and Mark Williams, the latter of whom is head of the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness and also an Anglican priest
Mindfulness – a bestseller written by Danny Penman and Mark Williams, the latter of whom is head of the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness and also an Anglican priest

So I don’t find the denigration of other ways essential. It is the fact that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus Christ, that does not mean that all other ways have no element of truth within them. But I am clear that unless you commit yourself to a way, rather than being idly neutral or taking a bit from here and there, there’s no spiritual progress whatsoever.

It’s the balance of practice, conviction, generosity, compassion, community and creativity, properly related to the ultimate pole – God who no man has seen at any time, only Jesus Christ who has revealed the Father. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

If I’m a Christian, do I have to agree with everything St Paul says?

Well…I wouldn’t say that, because the Holy Scriptures are, again, symphonic. You’ve got to immerse yourself in the Biblical worldview, which begins to bring into the foreground the grand themes. Of course, bits of the Scriptures are things of their own time. But it isn’t an either / or. You don’t sit in judgement on the Scriptures.

This is the crucial thing: how do you go through the desert of criticism, with spiritual and intellectual integrity, granted that the primordial gift of innocence before the Scriptures is not possible for modern people. You arrive at a point where you develop the critical approach, because doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is going beyond, beneath, embracing, saying ‘yes!’ Grasping a vision. The opposite of faith is sin, a turning in on oneself.

Paul Ricouer
Paul Ricouer, theologian and philosopher

That’s the opposite of faith, not doubt. Doubt is extraordinarily creative, as long as it doesn’t turn into corrosive scepticism, stopping us from any kind of commitment. You can be committed as far as you can be.

This largely comes from the astonishing work of Paul Ricouer. His work on Biblical criticism is all about how you can enter with spiritual and intellectual integrity into second innocence. And it’s possible. Indeed, the ‘nubbly bits’ are extraordinary fuel, as long as you continue to live with it.

If you believe you live on a pinnacle of enlightenment and eminence from which you can judge all times and places, there’s very little hope for you. If you’re prepared to read the scriptures with people from other ages and cultures, and prepared to say ‘I can’t take that’ while continuing with engagement, you may find some of those difficult passages yield as our musical taste changes, as our understanding of life and the great pattern changes, you may find they have a different valency.

But I don’t think you have to say, at this particular point, that because St Paul wanted, in the Philemon, to return a slave to his master, that you’re committed to upholding the institution of slavery, as Cardinal Newman thought. That shows the limitation of Cardinal Newman.

What Quaker companies can teach us about well-being-at-work

Henry-RowntreeMy great-great-great grandfather, a York Quaker called Henry Isaac Rowntree (that’s him on the left), set up Rowntree’s chocolate company in York in 1862. He was an amiable young man, ‘perhaps the only Rowntree with a sense of humour’ according to one historian. He had a parrot who liked to shout obscenities from under the table, much to the consternation of the Quaker elders when they visited. Henry loved adult education and journalism, but family members feared he knew ‘next to nothing about business’.

This led to him not being invited to be a partner at the family grocery business, so instead he bought a cocoa company in York.  A few years later, the young cocoa company was in financial difficulties. Bankruptcy was the height of shame in the Quakers – indeed, you were ejected from the church for it – so Henry’s older brother, Joseph, came to help him run it. Joseph was much more sensible and meticulous, and public demand for cocoa powder and chocolate was beginning to take off.

By the 1940s, Rowntree’s had become one of the biggest confectioners in the world, making well-known brands like Aero, Rolos, Kit-Kat, Polo, Black Magic, and Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. Alas it was sold to Nestle in 1988, and Joseph had already given away all the money he made to his charitable trusts, so distant descendants inherited not so much as a packet of Smarties.

Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree's
Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree’s

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s are still relevant to my interests because the company was a pioneer in adult education, and well-being-at-work. In fact, when I went to a conference on well-being-at-work, organised by Robertson Cooper last year, the first speaker began his keynote with a slide of the Rowntree’s factory. So what can the example of Rowntree’s tell us about well-being-at-work?

1) Rowntree’s made worker well-being a priority 

Rowntree’s, like its Quaker rival Cadbury’s, was run in a spirit of industrial paternalism. The workers were treated not as mere cogs in a machine, but as characters to be developed (and souls to be saved). Rowntree’s was one of the first companies to have dedicated ‘welfare officers’ – what today we’d call human resources managers – whose job was to look after the well-being and moral character of the young and typically-unmarried male and female workers. There was also a medical officer, regular medical and dental examinations, and company public health campaigns against the evils of tobacco and booze.

The women's canteen at Rowntree
The women’s canteen at Rowntree

As the company grew to a staff of 4,000 or so, Joseph Rowntree was keen to make sure it was still ‘united by a common purpose’. To that end he introduced one of the first in-house company magazines, as well as group-bonding concerts, theatricals, meals together and field trips. One trip involved sending the workers on a walk across the Yorkshire dales. Unfortunately it rained, the workers repaired to a nearby pub, and after an afternoon’s intensive drinking, the police had to be called to eject them.

Historical accounts, like this history of Rowntree female employees, suggest workers enjoyed working at the firm

The Rowntree’s also supported workers’ education through libraries, discussion groups, the Yorkshire philosophical society, and through a network of adult schools. Quakers played the leading role in the establishment of adult education at the end of the 19th century – by 1900 there were 350 adult schools around the UK, with 45,000 pupils, of which two-thirds were at schools run by Quakers. Many Rowntree family members were actively involved in setting up and teaching in adult schools.

Some of the Rowntree staff lived in a ‘model village’ launched by Joseph Rowntree, called New Earswick. It was inspired by the ‘garden city’ designs of Ebenezer Howard, with worker cottages, a village green, and a veritable Quaker porridge of village committees – a library committee, a women’s guild, an orchestral society, a village council, a men’s social club, a musical society etc etc etc. It’s still going.

Historical records suggest that, to a large extent, Rowntree employees enjoyed working there, forged good relationships, and were happy – indeed, Rowntree women were famous for singing at work, as this short film from 1932 shows.

2) This sort of Quaker industrial paternalism was potentially patronising and illiberal

However, the strong emphasis on worker welfare could potentially be creepy – the company poking its nose in your inner life. Fry’s Chocolates, for example (another Quaker company), held an annual workers prayer service, which Joseph Fry said  was ‘often a means of observing their conduct and checking any tendency to impropriety’. The Rowntree’s welfare officers, known as ‘overseers’, were also sometimes resented (‘she sits up there like the Queen of Sheba’, one worker complained).

Workers might well feel that what they did in their own time was their own business, and that the imposition of Quaker ethics on them was an infringement of their own religious liberties. So what if they drank in their own time? Should that be a cause for sacking, as it was at Fry’s? When did religious non-conformism become so conformist?

The Quaker emphasis on character and do-gooding could be annoying and patronising, as one poem showed:

Take a dozen Quakers, be sure they’re sweet and pink
Add one discussion programme, to make the people think
…Garnish with compassion – just a touch will do
Serve with deep humility your philanthropic stew

A modern equivalent of Rowntree’s focus on worker-welfare might be something like the American shoe company Zappo’s, which also is something of a personality cult of its CEO, Tony Hsieh, and also has a strong emphasis on employee well-being. Reading Hsieh’s smug and self-congratulatory comic book, Delivering Happiness, makes me feel queasy – Zappo’s sounds like a bit of a happiness police state.

It’s important, then, for companies to think about how to balance a strong collective ethos with autonomy, how to create a culture that encourages people to be individuals rather than clones, how to create room for dissent and satire, and how to make sure their well-being programme doesn’t feel forced, patronising, conformist. or a form of illiberal surveillance.

Saracens rugby club is an interesting example here – its ethos was also inspired by a strong Christian emphasis on the well-being and personal development of its staff and players, but manages to find a way to promote this without being too patronising, and with room for dissent. Staff and players are co-creators of the culture, rather than merely automatons to be programmed.

3) Ethical capitalism always has its internal tensions

The Quakers helped to set up some of the best British companies – Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s, Barclays, Lloyds, Clarks, Friends Provident – most of which strived to be not just profitable but ethical. They were family-owned, meaning they could pursue their own values rather than trying to please distant shareholders. They were often run as quasi-mutuals, ‘as a kind of partnership between masters and men, uniting their labour for a common end’, as Joseph Rowntree put it.

In all of this, perhaps there are lessons for our own time, when corporations have come to be seen as psychopathic, and when Barclays and Lloyds have become by-words for dodgy dealing (indeed, Barclays’ CEO, Anthony Jenkins, recently suggested the firm needed to remember its Quaker history).

However, Quaker capitalism always had its internal contradictions and tensions.

Quakers blossomed in business partly because their religious non-conformism meant that historically they were unable to go into other careers like politics, partly because they had amazing networks of trust between themselves, and partly because their austere Puritanism made them very good at meticulous book-keeping and rational management. But, as Max Weber explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there was a paradox in directing this Puritan zeal towards the accumulation of capital.

An advert for Aero’s Bubbles. Not entirely Quaker.

Quaker businessmen had a constant struggle to try and balance their service both to God and to mammon. For example, Rowntree’s initially rejected advertising as insincere and duplicitous, but quickly realised they had to embrace it to compete. Both Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s used their ethical principles as a form of advertising, which works from a marketing point of view but is not really in accord with the Gospels. They also spied on each other to try and get each other’s recipes – this was the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They colluded and set prices when it suited them. Both families made their fortunes by profiting on our growing addiction to sugar – which was originally intended to wean the nation off alcohol but has become its own public health menace.

And the family-ownership model depended on having family members with the genius for business. The Rowntree heirs became increasingly interested in different things, so the company appointed its first non-Rowntree chairman in the 1930s – George Harris, my great-grandfather, who married into the family. He wasn’t a Quaker and had little time for their Puritan do-goodiness. He was more inspired by the American Forrest Mars, who once told his employees: ‘I am a religious man…I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers…Profit is our sole objective.’ Harris used marketing research to launch the very un-Quaker ‘Black Magic’, advertised as a tool for seduction!

Black Magic, a tool for seduction
Black Magic, a tool for seduction

4) So what we can take from Quakernomics today? 

– Try to run companies as mutual enterprises, by facilitating discussions, suggestions and group activities with all levels of the company. Strive for fair pay for all levels of the company, and make sure your suppliers’ values are aligned with your own.

– Provide opportunities for employees to broaden their minds, like Rowntree’s adult schools, the Google Campus, or the Saracens personal development programme.

– Support employees’ well-being through online and one-to-one advice, which should be entirely confidential rather than a means to spy on staff. Connect well-being services both to broader adult education (like Google’s Search Inside Yourself course) and to wider philanthropy and CSR.

– Provide opportunities for employees to pursue philanthropic activities and to feel they are working for a company with a moral mission.

– Provide opportunities for dissent, for disagreement, for satire and internal criticism – to make sure a strong collective ethos doesn’t turn into a cult!

– Explore new models of ownership which don’t make the company a slave to short-term shareholders.

–  Combine moral mission with empirical rigour – what works, both for the company and for employee well-being? What sort of philanthropy or social reforms genuinely work, rather than simply making the giver feel good? Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree were both more than mere do-gooders. They were scientific in their do-gooding.

– Finally, a commitment to employee well-being is entirely in line with a commitment to business excellence, although companies can expect some dilemmas and tough decisions along the way. The moral mission needs to be led  by CEOs at the top, rather than Corporate Social Responsibility reps in the middle.