Spiritual direction in the nonconformist tradition

Posted on July 2, 2009

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There has been a recent, and welcome, tradition of the various Principals of our Baptist colleges in the UK publishing jointly-authored books (something of the story of how this came to be is told in a chapter in Fiddes, et al., Doing Theology in A Baptist Way (Whitley, 2000)); the most recent contribution is in the Regent’s Study Guides series, Fiddes (ed.), Under the Rule of Christ: Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality (Smyth & Helwys, 2008). The various chapters in the book treat various themes, not including spiritual direction: Paul Fiddes and Steve Finnamore look at ‘Baptists and Spirituality’; Richard Kidd looks at suffering; Nigel Wright at ‘Spirituality as Discipleship: the Anabaptist heritage’; Jim Gordon treats Scripture; John Weaver the Eucharist; and Chris Ellis Mission.

There are many good things in the book; one of the repeated emphases, however, perhaps more powerful because it is apparently unconscious, is the assumption that, for Baptists, spirituality happens in gathered community – the local church congregation. Of course, there are those (Christopher Jamieson, Abbot of Worth, for one) who would claim that the classical spiritual disciplines only make sense in community, but the recent emphasis of the retreat movement has been on personal spirituality.

This is perhaps particularly the case when it comes to spiritual direction – a quintessentially personal relationship, one-to-one, confidential, and ideally removed at some level from broader life (the advice I have seen seems to suggest that a spiritual director should be someone you never otherwise encounter in your life). I began to wonder, where is there a history of spiritual direction in our Baptist (and broader evangelical and nonconformist) traditions?

We can find examples of ‘soul friendships’ from various points in history, which can be mapped onto the concept of spiritual direction, certainly – and I do not want to minimise or decry that; but it is not something natural to us. But if we understand spiritual direction as a process where the disciple is able to give an account of her walk with Christ, and to receive guidance, wisdom, encouragement, and prayer in furthering that walk, then, it struck me, reading the Principals’ book, it is something that is native, and central, to various Baptist, evangelical, and nonconformist traditions. It is just that we do it corporately, not individually.

The purest example is perhaps Wesley’s vision for the Methodist class meeting; this was precisely spiritual direction, but in community – members sharing with and supporting each other. There is at least something of this vision in the theory, if less often in the practice, of Baptist church meeting, however, and the recent proliferation of small group ministry in evangelical churches, whilst usually ill-thought out (small group meetings are too often held to be a Good Thing in themselves, which rather obviously they are not – no meeting is, ever – they have value to the extent that they are useful means directed towards valuable ends), introduces something of this into church life when, by accident or design, it works.

What to say about this? I want to support it – it is native to my tradition, and I believe in the notion of the body of Christ, the local church, being the basic agent of discipleship (and of course of mission) in the world. But I wonder about the practicality of it; in just over twenty years, now, of Christian discipleship, I have been a member of two small groups that have worked on this level, and one church fellowship – places where there were sufficient levels of trust, maturity, and openness to enable honesty about doubts, struggles, fears, joys, and hopes. Easier, far easier, to find a spiritual director who one can trust…

…but ease is never a good criterion for gospel faithfulness.

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