Church of England

The Community of St Anselm – satisfaction and spirituality


A few months ago the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced a new initiative at Lambeth Palace: the establishment of the Community of St Anselm, the objective of which was to “gather a group of adventurous young adults from all walks of life, hungry for a challenging and formative experience of life in a praying community”. He explained: “Members of the Community will live in a way the ancient monastics would recognise: drawing closer to God through a daily rhythm of silence, study and prayer. But, through those disciplines, they will also be immersed in the modern challenges of the global 21st century church.”

And so Archbishop Justin appointed a Prior, the Rev’d Anders Litzell, to direct its worship and mission. He will be working under the guidance and authority of the Archbishop, who will be Abbot of the Community. “Archbishop Justin longs that Lambeth Palace be not so much a historic place of power and authority, but a place from which blessing and service reach to the ends of the earth,” explained his Chaplain, the Rev’d Dr Jo Wells.

This might all sound a bit monkish and archaic, but the Archbishop is determined that Lambeth Palace will beat with the heart of a cathedral: it will be a house of prayer, Eucharist, service and spiritual renewal – from thence to the Church, from the Church to the community, and from community to the nation and into the world. The Community of St Anselm will “learn and borrow from all the traditions, ancient and modern,” says the Archbishop. “It might be linked to some of the great movements of the past – for example, those led by Benedict, Francis, Clare and Wesley – yet I expect it to look different, as a new renewal for new times. God’s created community is always perfectly designed for its time and place. Yet it almost always begins from below: when Christians get serious about seeking Christ, together.”

But, short of a brief paragraph about the ‘Religious Life‘ and five-and-a-half lines about St Anselm, the Community’s website doesn’t tell us much at all about who this Benedictine monk was, or anything at all about his spiritual and doctrinal significance to the Church. And what does Anslem of Canterbury tell us about Justin of Canterbury?

Anselm was among the first philosopher-theologians to challenge the pervasive ‘ransom’ theory of atonement – the notion that Christ offered himself as a ransom for our sin, and by doing so set us free from the power of Satan. Others had quibbled with how and to whom the ransom had been paid, but in Cur Deus Homo (1098) Anselm stressed what Christ as man does in acting toward God, as opposed to what God does through Christ, thus focusing on the idea of God’s voluntary response to God. An act of satisfaction is different from that of paying a ransom. Anselm proposed that that either punishment from God toward humankind was necessary, or a satisfaction offered by man to God. In the act of punishment it is the offended who would make good; in the case of satisfaction it is the offender.

Anselm set forth a dilemma: humankind must pay the debt of satisfaction for its sin, but it is not able. “He who does not render this honour which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonours him; and this is sin,” he wrote. He sees that the sinner must repay God, but that it is impossible for God to overlook this – “..if sin is neither paid for nor punished, it is subject to no law” – because God “maintains nothing with more justice than the honour of his own dignity”. There is nothing within humankind that could possibly be of sufficient value to give God the honour due to Him: since the debt is infinite, it can be paid only by God; and since it is man who owes it, it must be paid by man.

This is where Anselm proposes the absolute necessity of Jesus – the “God-man”. Only God could give something of greater value than the offence committed by humankind, so God as man must make the necessary satisfaction. Christ’s divinity gives infinite value to the sufferings of the God-man: Jesus’ sinless life of obedience to the Father here on earth and His willing act of offering Himself up in death more than equals the offence humankind had committed toward God. Sin ‘coerces’ God, who punishes in the interest of universal order, and if He were not to do so, in some sense “he would appear to be deficient in his management”. In order to restore order to the world, God finds Himself in some sense ‘forced’ into the act of redemption. This notion of the necessity of redemption became, from the time of Aquinas, the scandal of Anselm’s doctrine of salvation, however great the efforts he expended attempting to take the edge off his conclusion by a stricter clarification of this concept of logical necessity.

Anselm’s theory finds scriptural support in passages such as Colossians 2:13f, but his emphasis on the cross is largely at the expense of Christ’s incarnation, ministry, resurrection, ascension and return. He does not totally ignore the “hope through the Christian faith, ‘which works by love’, that (one) may be saved”, and neither does he miss Christ’s victory over Satan, the parallel’s between Adam and Christ, or the value of the example set by Christ. But all of these are portrayed only in the context of the atonement significance of the cross. While his theory of atonement may fairly be judged to be incomplete, even a flight of speculative imagination; and while his logic does not always bear the weight placed upon it, Anselm does present a clear perception of the gravity of sin as a wilful rebellion against God, the unchanging holiness of God, and the unique perfections of Christ.

Archbishop Justin clearly understands the cultural and doctrinal confines of the medieval Western world: he grasps that Anselm’s doctrine of atonement is partial, but clearly admires how successfully he contextualised his theology in the thought-forms of his day. In an era characterised by feudal loyalty, the commoners would find themselves hopelessly indebted to their lord, and so strive their whole lives to bring him the honour due him. To understand Anselm we must imagine the atonement as taking place not within the framework of public law, but rather within the framework of the feudal loyalty.

But it is perhaps Anselm’s spirituality that gives the greater insight into Archbishop Justin’s priorities. Anselm’s inner life is the key to understanding his theology of atonement and his exalted view of God’s dignity. His reasoning was nurtured in the Benedictine monastery, which he found a congenial venue for the divine purposes he embraced: man was made to see God but had been “banished to this world of blindness”, he wrote in Proslogion. Anselm was left to quest for God, which was the only worthy vision. The monastery afforded him the space and time for such a pursuit, placing his whole existence in divine context, through obedience according to the ‘Rule of Benedict’, which has long guided Archbishop Justin.

By that monastic profession, Anselm embraced a perpetual and unending obligation to glorify God in all things, to do his good works within the environment of the cloister and stability of his monastery, and to seek God truly – before and above all else. His ‘Prayer to Benedict’ portrays Benedictine life as a continuous turning to God – this is the ebb and flow of Anselm’s whole perspective on divine accessibility. Man must offer an absolute gift of self, but God must bring it to its conclusion. By this precept, the quest for God – an enterprise desired by both God and man – is rendered cooperative; divinity must be relied upon to bring the soul’s good intentions to a proper end. What is impossible for man alone is imminently achievable in cooperation with the God who has called the person to that end.

Anselm places the effects of Christ’s sufferings and death wholly in their moral results. The love of God in giving up his son kindles a responsive love which becomes the ground for the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the greatest love kindled by Christ’s passion, a love which not only delivers from the bondage of sin, but also yields the true freedom of children where love instead of fear becomes the ruling affection.

Anselm often addresses the redemption theme in extreme states of mind – in prayer, in meditation, or in connection with those themes lying closest to his heart; in the agitated crises of his striving for God, in hopelessness and despondence, as something beyond his reach, or a reality to be hoped for in the next life. On some occasions, face to face with God, Anselm’s exile from God is apparent. The distance is in him, not in God; God is not the source of the distance, but Anselm. At other times, he addresses it in a burst of exuberant joy. This duality of pain and joy originates in his deep awareness of God’s immanence and transcendence, and of the other Divine paradoxes which spring from this source. This is exactly the context in which Anselm’s theology can be understood. In the restoration, all is harmonised. Redemption, God’s supreme act, becomes a “splendid order”.

If this is but half the spiritual expression of the Community of St Anselm, Justin Welby will go down in history as the Archbishop who restored the Religious Life to Lambeth Palace. The incomplete doctrinal theories of the pre-scholastic medieval worldview are mirrored in the partial soteriology of postmodern paradigm. You may yearn for a systematic theology to correct behaviour and refute error: Archbishop Justin seeks to understand in order to believe, and in believing he sets a noble example of prayer and a bold gesture of divine love, thus arousing our own ability to live justly, obediently, and humbly.