Evelyn Underhill: Middle-Way Within the Media?

by Todd E. Johnson

“‘Souls who live an heroic spiritual life within great religious traditions and institutions, attain a rare volume and vividness of religious insight, conviction and reality’—far more seldom achieved by the religious individualist.”  Evelyn Underhill applied this quote of Baron von Hugel to the Oxford Tractarians and their spiritual revitalization of the Church of England. As Underhill describes the work of the Tractarians—those heroic souls whose vision of a church filled with mystery and awe created a renaissance within Anglicanism—one is struck by the similarity to her own life almost a century later. Underhill describes the Tractarians as restoring a sense of the Catholic tradition to the church, of reviving liturgical and sacramental worship, advocating a disciplined life, and emphasizing Christian sanctity. The examples of Underhill’s writings which square nicely with each of these four areas are numerous. However the context in which they were written was very different.

The Anglican communion is often described as a via media—a middle-way between the Roman Catholic tradition and the Protestant reformation. Yet within the church of England in Underhill’s day there were various theological schools, a variety of liturgical fashions, and sharp disagreement over the essentials of the faith. It becomes clear when examining these issues that Underhill steers an irenic middle way through the turbulent waters of her day.

The most obvious division within the Anglican communion was over worship. At the turn of the century Anglican worship styles ranged from simple “Evangelical” worship with an emphasis on preaching and hymnody to elaborate “Anglo-Catholic” worship reflecting the Catholic tradition both past and present. The result of this variety of worship styles and their supporting theologies led to the attempted revision of the Book of Common Prayer in both 1927 and again in 1928. No revision was found to be ‘common’ or acceptable to all of the camps within the church, failing to create the unity sought. Controversial issues were over the reservation of the Eucharistic elements, whether the principal Sunday service should be Morning prayer or Eucharist, and the form of consecration used in the Eucharistic prayer, either the Words of Institution or the epiclesis, a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit upon the elements as in the Eastern liturgies.

Although Underhill’s preferences were squarely within the Anglo-Catholic camp, she showed a breadth of appreciation seldom seen in her day. Her work Worship is a strong defense for the validity of all forms of worship, which still emphasizing the primacy of the tradition and the sacramental. Likewise, she was a public advocate of Prayer Book reform, yet she hoped to keep both Morning Prayer and Eucharist as complementary services, striking a healthy balance between Word and Sacrament.

Underhill’s most unique contribution to these issues was her understanding of the Eucharist. Like the “sacramental socialist,” she saw the Eucharist as being an offering of one’s self for the service of God. Yet she is clear that the best way to fulfill the Second Commandment is to fulfill the First. She clearly saw Anglican worship as “Catholic,” but her understanding of this term covered the Catholic church ancient, medieval and modern, Eastern and Western. In fact it is through her understanding of the liturgies of the Eastern church that she recovers the presence of the Spirit in the liturgy, avoiding controversial pitfalls involving the presence of Christ. Underhill’s most astute political and theological middle-ground is found in the issue of consecration. While an advocate of the recovery of an epiclesis in the liturgy, she maintains that it is neither the epiclesis nor the words of Institution which consecrate, and quotes St. John Chrysostom in arguing that it is the entire act of offering which makes both the gift and the givers sacred.

In a time when the Church of England was distinguished by its political and theological controversies, Evelyn Underhill charts a steady path through these conflicts in such a way that she both distilled the vast riches of the Christian tradition into manageable categories, as well as synthesized disparate views and defined a middle-ground on which both mutual understanding and dialogue can be founded. Underhill in her day, like the Tractarians before her, attained that rare perspective of religious insight that came from constructing her theology within the Anglican communion in a most tempestuous period.

Todd E. Johnson is a Ph. D. candidate in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation is entitled “Pneumatology, Modernism and Their Relation to Symbols and Sacrament in the Writings of Evelyn Underhill.”