Since the beginning of the modern era, westerners have typically divided the world into two categories: natural and supernatural. The natural world is thought to contain everything that can be proven by science, can visibly be seen; it’s the world of evidence, facts, and reality. In other words, it’s the “real” world. The supernatural is then considered the realm of fantasy and magic: ghosts, luck, even useful “fictions” like morality. However, according to the English Reformers, it’s safe to say there isn’t as clear and solid a distinction between the natural and the supernatural in Anglicanism. This isn’t just true for Anglicans; in many ways this is the conviction of all Bible-believing Christians. To clarify, though, let’s dive in and take a look specifically at how early Anglicans described their view of the supernatural, why it mattered to them, and how it can make a difference in our lives today.
An Enchanted World
Anglicans’ foremost theologian Richard Hooker saw our world as enchanted with God, held together and governed by his divine law embedded into its structures. In The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker described a natural world of physical objects, stars, planets, soil, water, plants, and animals ordered by God. He describes man as living in this natural world and perceiving the law of God embedded in the actions and purposes of creation and of creatures. Hooker also described a “celestial realm” of spiritual beings. He states,
“Angels are immaterial and rational spirits, the glorious inhabitants of the sacred palaces where there is nothing but light and blessed immortality, no cause for tears, discontentment, grief, or anxious passions, and where they dwell forever and ever, all is joy, tranquility, and peace.” (The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Davenant Institute, 59.)
These angelic beings or “heavenly hosts” live in this unseen realm, and in God’s presence they voluntarily obey his law with the desire to “resemble him in his goodness.” However, he states that “through the voluntary breach of the law,” several of these spirits fell from grace into pride and, having been cast to earth and dispersed, strive instead to “bring about disobedience to the laws of God.” (Ibid., 60.) Hooker asserts that “pagans honored these wicked spirits as gods, calling them “infernal gods” and seeing them in oracles, idols, household gods, and nymphs.” (Ibid., 61.) Interestingly, according to Hooker, pagans and (Anglican) Christians inhabit a shared universe; our most high God and their “gods” war with each other.
We inhabit an enchanted world: a natural realm permeated and governed by the Spirit of God, which intertwines with an unseen realm right beneath our noses, itself inhabited by celestial spirits, both good and evil. Why does this matter to us?
God and Us
First off, this matters to us because we can encounter the spiritual God through the physical means of the world. The supernatural God can be known through his created world that he both upholds and permeates by his own presence. Think about the incarnation: God necessarily used the physical world to save us. In the incarnation, God worked through the material world (human flesh and blood nailed to a cross, raised physically from the dead) for us and for our salvation. This alone is a bridge between the spiritual God and finite, material human beings.
The most apparent way that we see the spiritual overlap with the physical in the Church is the preaching of the Word of God. Written words are lifted off the pages of the Bible and projected as soundwaves in the air into our eardrums, and it’s clear that this Word read and preached aloud has a supernatural effect on humans: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Those who’ve heard a compelling sermon and felt themselves pierced to the heart can attest to this power! Also, if we think about it, dead sinners being brought back to life is nothing less than a supernatural miracle. Paul speaks of the good news that he preached: “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)
The Sacramental rites of the Book of Common Prayer clearly lay out other physical means by which we experience God. Through water baptism, we are “made regenerate by the Holy Spirit,” we are “cleansed from sin, […] born again,” and made “members of [God’s] holy Church.” (BCP, 189.) As Romans says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3) Through communion, we also “eat the flesh of [his] dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood,” and we “feed on him in [our] hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” (BCP 119-120.) It’s through this meal that we receive the benefits of Christ’s passion. (1 Corinthians 10:16) Christians can experience God through other sacramental rites as well. In the rite of “extreme unction,” the consecrated Oil of the Infirm is accompanied by prayers for healing for those that are sick. (BCP, 225.) I’ve personally seen God answer prayers for healing using anointing oil.
Also, through our lives of prayer and participation in the life of God, he supernaturally works through us as well. In the Post Communion Prayer in the “Renewed Ancient Rite,” we pray for the Father to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” (BCP 137) Anglicans believe, along with charismatic Christians, that God imparts spiritual gifts to his people for the building up of the Church community. This can be demonstrated in both the rites of Confirmation and Ordination, but also in the “Homily on the Coming Down of the Holy Ghost”:
“The holy Ghost doeth always declare himself by his fruitful and gracious gifts, namely, by the word of wisdom, by the word of knowledge, which is the understanding of the Scriptures, by faith, in doing of miracles, by healing them that are diseased, by prophecy, which is the declaration of GOD’S mysteries, by discerning of spirits, diversities of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.” (Homilies, XVI)
Anglicans affirm that the Holy Spirit is living and moving in his Church today, and acts in ways that we could only describe as “supernatural.”
As mentioned previously, there exist fallen spiritual beings opposed to God and his heavenly host. We call this struggle “spiritual warfare.” In the Prayerbook, there is language indicating that spiritual warfare is an active part of the Anglican Christian’s life today. The following collect comes to mind:
“Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP, 63)
This prayer recognizes that both angelic and demonic forces are all around us, and are waging a war for our souls here and now! Though I imagine most Anglicans would not say they’ve seen any sort of deliverance of someone from wicked spirits, built right into our baptismal service is a rite of exorcism: “Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness and evil, and lead you into the light and obedience of the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP, 164) For any bystander watching by, they might ask, “What just happened to this little baby?!” We are caught in the middle of a spiritual war between God and his host, and the fallen powers and principalities that are seeking to take us down with them. Exorcism is simply God reclaiming broken people from the enemy.
This past December, we had a “house blessing” in our newly purchased home, using the service from the Book of Occasional Services. Though it was a great excuse to get friends and family together, make no mistake: it was an exorcism. My priest anointed the front door with oil, sprinkled holy water throughout the house, and we all prayed prayers of deliverance throughout. We were cleansing and dedicating our home for God’s use. Yes, even something as ordinary and menial as a home can become reclaimed as a “military base” for the spiritual war.
Now, within the Anglican world there are more extensive rites of deliverance and exorcism, though I’d note that only those experienced and authorized by the bishop ordinary should undertake these rites. (A Minister’s Manual for Spiritual Warfare, 119)
The Supernatural and Our Lives
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is the world we live in. When we’re bombarded by the 24-hour news cycle, with social media, by the ubiquity of technology, and the constant busyness of the modern world, we might be tempted to ignore, forget, and let our guard down with regard to the spiritual forces at work in our lives. We may forget to draw near to God, to listen to his Word, to abide in him sacramentally, and to seek after the spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ. We may neglect to ask God to deliver us from evil, to protect us through his angels. We may forget that we do not war against flesh and blood, and who our real enemy is in this world. We might even forget that we have a real, personal enemy. However, as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesian church,
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Kelly O’Sullivan is deacon and Assistant Pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd, Bermuda Run, as well as Graduate of Gordon Conwell—Charlotte and husband to his better half, Lottie. In his spare time, he enjoys beer, reading, and laser tag.