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Evelyn Underhill, the Parish Priest, and the Life of Prayer

Updated: Jun 5

In the early part of 1930, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Cosmo Lang, was preparing to host around 300 hundred bishops from across the Anglican Communion at the seventh Lambeth Conference. The last Conference, in 1920, had proven to be a milestone for the ecumenical movement and controversial in its treatment of the issue of contraception. The challenge of Christian unity and the question of the Church’s acceptance of contraception had not gone away. However there was another issue of utmost importance brewing. In late 1929 or early 1930 the prominent author and spiritual director, Evelyn Underhill, wrote Archbishop Lang with some unsolicited agenda items for Lambeth VII. She opened her letter directly:

I desire very humbly to suggest with bishops assembled at Lambeth that the greatest and most necessary work they could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer.

Underhill excoriated a segment of the Archbishop’s clergy whom she perceived to be merely “consecrated philanthropists…lacking in spiritual realism.”

According to Underhill, many Anglican priests were “humanitarian rather than theocentric” and consequently their dealings with the souls under their care are “often vague and amateurish.” It is no wonder that they fail to evoke the spirit of adoration in the public worship they lead because “they do not possess it themselves.” The answer that Underhill communicated to Lang and the rest of the bishops is as simple as it is difficult. The bishops must insist that their clergy’s primary responsibility be the cultivation of their own lives of devotion and prayer. Underhill understood that in most cases this will take “a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities.” She recognized that the clergy were too busy in the routine work of running parishes, and they usually did not have the necessary time to devote to prayer and the cultivation of an interior life directed toward God. For Underhill this was a dire state of affairs that would have to change if the Anglican Communion was going to meet the challenges of an already tumultuous century.

While Evelyn Underhill had been baptized in the Church of England as an infant, she spent much of her adult life in the orbit of the Roman Catholic Church. She finally recommitted herself to the Church of England in 1921 and quickly undertook a variety of lay ministries with characteristic energy. It was with the special resolve of a committed lay person as well as the eloquence of a gifted writer that she was able to regale the most senior cleric in England and the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion with these lines:

The two things that the laity want from the priesthood are spiritual realism and genuine love of souls…God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. 

Underhill placed the responsibility to improve the spiritual lives of Anglican clergy squarely on the shoulders of the episcopacy, but she left the guess-work out of it. The letter provided a number of practical recommendations for the bishops gathered at Lambeth Palace to consider. For example, she wished to see a serious program of spiritual formation become a larger part of ministerial training. 

We do not know if Lang ever read the letter to the assembled bishops at the Lambeth Conference. No record or resolution emerging from that conference indicates that Underhill was heard. What we do know is that as the 1930s went on Underhill took her message of the need for the spiritual renewal of the clergy on the road. In her magisterial, Worship, published in 1936, Underhill writes - a little peevishly, perhaps - that even though Anglican priests are required to say only two services a day, Mattins and Evensong, that too many of them perform this duty ”by intention” only, and not by a serious commitment to the Daily Office.

Underhill began offering retreats for clergy, the first woman to be invited to do so in the Church of England. In September of 1936, she gave two extraordinary lectures under the title “The Parish Priest and the Life of Prayer” at the Worcester Diocesan Clergy Convention at Oxford. The lectures were later published in the Collected Papers of Evelyn Underhill, now out of print. Despite their relative obscurity, these short lectures should join Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today and Julia Gatta’s The Nearness of God as sterling Anglican contributions to the essential bookshelf of pastoral ministry.

“The Parish Priest and the Life of Prayer” sharpens the concerns of Underhill’s letter to Archbishop Lang and transposes her suggestions into the realm and grasp of the average parish priest. Rather than excoriate her new audience, she encourages and pleads with them. While she takes pains to insist that prayer is not purely instrumental, she is clear that it is essential to true pastoral work. “The priest’s life of prayer, his communion with God, is not only his primary obligation to the Church; it is also the only condition under which the work of the Christian ministry can be properly done.” 

Underhill contends that it is not academic acumen, social graces, or socio-economic class that qualifies a priest to be “an agent of God’s love” in the parish and “an agent of God’s self-expression in the world.” Rather it is a devotion to prayer, day in, and day out. Her prime example of the Cure d’Ars is Father Jean Vianney. Vianney came from the working class and struggled in school, before and after being drafted into Napoleon’s army. He was considered too dull to complete seminary, and he was very nearly denied ordination. As a young priest, he was assigned to a small village in eastern France and he spent his entire ministry, 41 years, there. Through faithful, prayerful work, Vianney was a conduit of God’s grace that transformed the village and brought as many as 20,000 visitors a year to Vianney’s small parish church seeking his spiritual advice. Despite a demanding schedule of pastoral work, Vianney never failed to pray his Office and spend an hour of contemplation after each daily Mass. This and only this, empowered the work of the cure of souls for which Vianney is known.

A priest’s life of prayer is neither abstract nor obtuse. While it may be hard to find the time, the essential tools for a life of prayer are close at hand and available to all- the Eucharist, personal prayer, and the Daily Office. Underhill is uncompromising in this. A priest must say Morning and Evening Prayer, every day; in their parish church, if possible. Such consistency will encourage devout parishioners in their own prayers and inspire the respect of non-Christians. But, the primary benefits of the consistent use of the Daily Office are deeper still:

Surely it is a very great thing that twice every day the Christian minister must withdraw his attention from all the details and demands which beset him, feed his prayer by reading and meditation of the Scriptures, and yield to the influence of this sacred poetry - Venite, Te Deum, Magnificat - with its dominant mood of adoring and disinterested delight.

Underhill expounds on this point in Worship:

The Office is, ideally, the ordained form within which the whole Church performs from hour to hour…that unceasing praise of God which is the chief purpose of her existence. It is the “the Work of God,” as St. Benedict called it; and is addressed to Him, and not to men. Hence although many strands enter into it, including those of penitence, supplication, and intercession, its prevailing note is and must be adoration not edification.

Adoration is essential, and not just petition and intercession. Adoration is what integrates activism and contemplation, the work of the Christian minister with his or her spiritual life. Adoration is the only thing that properly orients our wills and desires - and therefore our actions - toward Reality as it really is; toward the God who made all things and to Whom all things will return. As such, for Underhill, adoration of God is “the essential preparation for all decent action.” 

Underhill rounds out her lectures by offering practical advice on how to extend and multiply the prayers of the Church and her ministers more firmly and consistently into the lives of the laity. She discusses the in-and-outs of small parish prayer groups as one who has long been involved herself. Most, if not all, of her wisdom is still pertinent. However, I suspect the Church Insurance Corporation of Vermont would not approve of her firm conviction that the door of the parish church must remain unlocked at all times, and that everyone must be made welcome to find the peace and consolation of prayer within the walls of church buildings, if church buildings are to have any legitimate purpose at all. But is she wrong? What is a bigger risk for the Church, the destruction of her property or the judgement of her God for denying refuge to lost souls? What good will insurance do us on that great and terrible Day of the Lord? 

Like Archbishop Lang before him, the current Metropolitan of the See of Canterbury is preparing to host the bishops of the Anglican Communion in the summer of 2020. A whole cataphract of serious issues face the fifteenth Lambeth Conference. Not the least of which is the continued existence of the Anglican Communion in its current configuration. But, another matter of the utmost concern, a matter that is more foundational, needs to be raised now just as before: The health of the prayer life of the Church and her clergy. 

Just as in the 1930s, some are encouraging the Church’s ministers to focus on becoming entrepreneurs, social workers, and community organizers. There are still many consecrated philanthropists who lack spiritual realism in the ranks of the clergy. So Underhill’s insistent reminder continues to ring true: the real and truest work of the Church and her ministers is prayer. Without a foundation of prayer, all our toil, as positive and important as much of it is, will prove only to be a massive exercise in missing the point. 

At the beginning of the third decade of what is shaping up to be another tumultuous century, it is still true that God is the interesting thing about religion, and that people today are still hungry for God. The purpose of God’s Church will always be to draw people into closer union with God. Ministers in the Anglican Communion, and of the whole Church, would do well to return to Underhill’s admonishment frequently, then. We cannot feed people spiritually if we ourselves are emaciated. We must not forsake prayer as our primary duty and joy and consolation, because, as Underhill told her clergy retreatants, “true devotion can only be taught by the direct method.”

The Rev. James Stambaugh is rector of Church of the Holy Apostles, Wynnewood in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

1 - Following its rediscovery, ++Robert Runcie read the letter to the XII Lambeth Conference in 1988.

2 -  Worship, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers (1957 Torchbook Edition), p. 118

3 -  Collected Papers of Evelyn Underhill. Edited by Lucy Menzies. London: Long, Green, and Co., 1946. The lectures were reprinted as a pamphlet by Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh in 1969. They can now be found online:

4 -  Worship, p. 114.

5 - Thanks to "archimago23" for a link to the letter

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