Hoping for a Community of Poetic Sensibility

In a spring time / Easter season fit of mental refurbishing, I have been reading an excellent book on Anglicanism by Bruce Kaye, titled, Reinventing Anglicanism. It's well done and provides a perspective from Australia where the struggles over the form and content of Anglican identity seem to rage every bit as much as they do in the United States.

Kaye states early on in outlining what is to come in the book, "I argue that Anglicans should seek a confidence appropriate to an attempt at persuasive resonance with what God is doing in the creation, that Anglicans should be nurturing a community of interdependent diversity and that their engagement with their fellows should be that of respectful visionaries." (p.10, Church Publishing ed)

On my night stand I also have a small essay by Octavio Paz, La busqueda del presenteIn Search of the Present. It is his 1990 Nobel Lecture, a wonderful short venture into the exploratory life of the poet. It is a rich and evocative essay and I find myself returning to it again and again. As with many poems (the good ones in particular) it is hard to lift this or that phrase and let it stand alone, but two in particular seem to me worth the risk:

"The present is alternatively luminous and somber, like a sphere that unites the two haves of action and contemplation. Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and the future, of eternity and of the void, tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences." (p.33, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition.)

"The instant is the bird that is everywhere and nowhere. We want to trap it alive, but it flaps its wings and is gone in a spray of syllables. We are left emptyhanded. Then the door of perception opens slightly and the other time appears, the real time we had been seeking without knowing it: the present, the presence."

Keys and Paz know something: There is a role in the world for respectful visionaries, poets, those who see in the realities of the present moment something of the presence.

Anglican though has often been guided by women and men who know the presence – the incarnational presence, and who know it in the present – in the "bird that is everywhere and nowhere." In all the efforts to define Anglicanism, to make a list of things to be part of a covenant or compact that we would all adhere to this poetic exploration of the incarnation gets missed. Yet Anglicans insist that its belief and its worship are one, and worship is always present, always poetic, always "a spray of syllables" that leave us emptyhanded, yet with perception of the "other time."

In an article I wrote for Louie Crew's pages in 1998, titled "Prologue for Stepping Through the Door", I wrote this:

"Anglicans might serve the faith well if it were to become a community of poetic sensibility. By this I envision Anglicans as having a Christian vocation to understand the Word, Biblical and otherwise, and compassionate action from a poetic standpoint, expressing their meaning in ways that open for our imagination the new world for which they are the signs. The poetic sensibility will be vital if we are to carry the Good News in Jesus Christ into the postmodern world.

It is a primarily poetic task to point the way to new languages, new words, new idiomatic phrasing, for faith. Those who take on that task are involved in a vocation to provide us a way out of the inherently violent, exclusive, text bound and pious, theological languages we have produced. We can see it in the cross cultural efforts to say something more about faith than what was brought by the first bearers of the Gospel to our lands. I believe this vocation can find a home in the Anglican fellowship and can prosper there, to the benefit of the whole Christian community.

There is, of course, a problem with poetic sensibility. Its practitioners are those we call poets, singers, prophets and visionaries. When worldviews are stable and seemingly comprehensive, these people are interesting or merely troublesome. When our sense of things is changing their visions can be unsettling and they be dangerous. They pry open the door so that we might look beyond the limits of the normal. This normality is always culturally, intellectually and religiously bound by the instruments of successful states who embrace an established worldview. Poets, prophets, singers and visionaries are therefore always suspected of being abnormal, irrelevant or immoral. At times of serious disjunction in societies they are often considered revolutionary or as anarchists. From the standpoint of the status quo, this may be a correct assessment. But it is always the society that is falling that thinks this; it is the court of the condemned that most strongly condemns."

I followed up on that thought in an article for the Witness Magazine, titled "Tyger!" Anglicanism and William Blake, written in 2005 as a reflection on the decisions of General Convention 2003. In it I tried to place the notion of poetic sensibility in the context of a vision for a future for Anglicanism. It interestingly parallels what Bruce Kaye writes about in Reinventing Anglicanism and Octavio Paz says about the Present. I said then,

"Anglicans ought to practice a mutuality that does no violence and that is not arrogant. We must practice incarnational awareness, seeing in others and in all creation the presence of God.

Anglicans ought to practice compassion that does not avert the eyes, but sees the suffering, and in that responds with the heart of Love. We must practice compassionate presence.

Anglicans might serve the faith well if it were to become a community of poetic sensibility.

By an agenda of "poetic sensibility," I envision Anglicans as having a Christian vocation to understand the Word, biblical and otherwise, and compassionate action, from a poetic standpoint, in which we expressed their meaning in ways that open our imagination to the new world for which they are the signs. The poetic sensibility is vital to the project of carrying the Good News in Jesus Christ into a world beyond the edges of western enlightenment thinking, in which the same "dull round" of theological debate continues ad nausea."

So now, in 2007, as the supposed clock ticks towards September 30th, a date in the future made sacred in the eyes of those who want a definitive faith delivered with all the force of the past, I look again at this peculiar hope – the hope for a visionary, poetic, incarnational opening in the present whereby the Presence can be found.

Whatever we do about covenants, compacts, codicils, accords or any other agreements, we will do no service to God unless we remain a community of poetic sensibility, always more interested in the door that opens into the present, and the Presence.


  1. I was having a conversation with a (non-Anglican) friend yesterday, and we talked about how to present the Christian message in a world that is seemingly moving past words and language as primary tools for communication. We wondered what an entirely image-driven evangelistic message would look like, or if such a thing is even possible without any words at all. I'm curious about your thoughts on this, Mark, because I think your desire for a poetic sensibility could be an interesting bridge towards a completely word-free gospel, if that makes any sense.

    I think it's important that we not neglect words and language, but this little thought exercise of mine is more an attempt to marry word and image in an aesthetically pleasing, but practical and effective (poetic?) way...

  2. this is a great reflection on anglican identity. since i moved in to TEC two years ago and have been going through discernment i've spent an awful lot of time exploring this question. i'm gonna keep this one for future reference.

  3. What a wonderful appreciation of anglicanism that should be so self-evident. Catholic anglicanism has always been an expression of poetic and artistic sensibility but even in the sparseness of puritan religion and lifestyles the King James bible itself provided the only aesthetic expression and outlet.

    I came to understand more "truth" in exploring and reading the bible as literature and poetry then divining some dogma within.

  4. Yes--I agree; William Countryman has a good book on just this topic--titled "Anglican Spirituality" I think--wherein he argues that our spirituality is best seen as poetic.


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