The famous dictum of the revered Lancelot Andrewes on the sources of Anglican theology goes like this: “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, and five centuries and the fathers who wrote therein.” Most modern Anglicans have encountered the first three—the last two we’re a bit sketchy on. Myself included. I’ve never had a course in Patristics and I’ve got not one but two seminary degrees. (Neither of them were Episcopal schools, for the record—but both schools also had Anglican Studies programs. Even those seemed to be light on what I would consider a decent Patristic foundation.) So—in light of this, where do you start if you’re an Anglican and want to start encountering the Fathers?
[An aside—yes, “Fathers” is male. Yes, the “Mothers” were important too—but we have very few writings from them. When we talk about early church practice it may well be best to say Mothers and Fathers but as for the texts that have survived and come down to us through centuries of male copyists—then “Fathers” is accurate despite what we might want to say. And don’t worry—I’ve provided for the Mothers below…]
Here are my first thoughts towards a more-or-less organized plan of studying the writings from the first five centuries that ground both Christian theology and—potentially—Anglican identity. I’ve found these things helpful as I’ve stumbled around and tried to get a sense of things myself. I’ll warn you, this list reflects things I’m familiar with so is skewed towards the Monastic West. I’d love to see some other suggestions especially from those better read in the area than me…
- John Cassian’s Institutes. This two part work gives first an overview of the lifestyle of Egyptian monastics, then teaches the grammar of the moral life—the eight vices and the virtues that overcome them.
Have on hand:
- John Cassian’s Conferences
- Jerome’s Letters
Read these two intermittently sprinkled through the rest of the reading, especially if you feel things getting kind of dry. Cassian’s Conferences should be read again and again and not necessarily in order—read what you need… Jerome’s letters are like spiritual cheese: they’re sharp, pungent, and give some great local flavor. That is, he often talks about the realities and details of life in the early church. Often his correspondents were women so here we get the best view I know of into how women lived and practiced Christianity during this time.(Here are your Mothers…)
Then go to:
- Augustine’s Enchiridion (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love)
- Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis
- Ambrose’s On the Mysteries
- Vincent of Lerins’s Commonitory
Why these writings? Well, when you study literature or writings you have two options—read a survey about them, or read the works themselves. I don’t know a good introductory survey so here are the works themselves. Specifically, though, these works were intended by their authors to be introductory. Most of them are catechetical and therefore were addressed to regular Christians—often the newly baptized—not the religious professionals.
So—that’s my list. What are your thoughts?