Alan Watts, Anglo-Catholic Roshi  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Many people with only a casual acquaintance with Alan Watts (1915-1973) are probably unaware that he was an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church earlier in his life.  As a boy he was a somewhat nominal member of the Church of England, but for a time he attended Canterbury School (adjacent to the Cathedral) at a time when the Cathedral dean was a strong Anglo-Catholic.  The young Watts was an acolyte under the dean and was exposed at an impressionable age to the glories of bells and smells.  After his first marriage, he and his wife moved to the United States where he came back--for a time--to the active practice of Christianity after an intense involvement with Buddhism.  They attended St Mary the Virgin (aka "Smokey Mary's") in New York City which further strengthened his love of high-church ritual.  Watts decided to become a priest and was accepted as a postulant for Holy Orders by the Bishop of Chicago, despite his lack of a university degree.  He was able to enroll in Seabury-Western Seminary and was ordained in 1945.  Following this, he was assigned to serve as Episcopal chaplain at Northwestern University.  For a time his ministry flourished; liturgies in the chapel featured lots of incense and Gregorian chant performed by Northwestern music students.  He became a popular lecturer and attracted many in the university community.

This all came crashing down in 1950 when his marriage failed.  He and his wife were unfaithful to each other, in both cases with Northwestern students.  His wife informed the bishop of the situation, and that was the end of Fr Watts. (the sordid details are recounted by Monica Furlong in her biography Zen Effects [1986, Houghton Mifflin]).  But before Watts self-destructed as a priest, he was able to publish Behold the Spirit:  A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (Vintage 1971; orig 1947).  This amazing book was a reworking of his seminary master's thesis, and must be considered a minor masterpiece of Christian spirituality, all the more so considering the author's dedication to Zen and other Eastern traditions.  The book reveals a thorough knowledge of the Western Christian spiritual tradition.  Had Watts remained a priest, he might well have become one of the leading Anglican spiritual masters of the 20th century.

The final part of the book contains his thoughts on liturgy, some of which is excerpted below.

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On the whole...it is probably safe to say that it impresses [the modern person] as less awkward when the form of worship is very frankly archaic and symbolic.  It may still seem unreal and remote from life, but this will only be true so long as the Church fails to complement symbolic religion with mystical religion.  Given an understanding of mystical religion, we shall not need or desire to mix formal religion with everyday life or make any compromise between secular forms and religious forms.  On the contrary, we shall keep our forms separate and realize complete harmony of inner meaning.  It is highly probable, therefore, that as the mystical understanding of Christianity increases, as union with God is realized more and more in everyday life, our forms of worship will become unashamedly archaic and symbolic.  We shall keep the ancient symbols of the Christian religion in all their original purity, for our spiritual progress will not consist in a development and adaptation of symbolism, but in an increased understanding of its meaning.

By and large, a prayer meeting in a modern living-room leaves one with nothing but a bad taste in the mouth.  The characteristic mentality of our time finds this kind of thing totally awkward and absurd, not because it "brings religion home" or too close for comfort, but because it smacks of exhibitionism.  Yet at Christmas intelligent pagans go by thousands to Midnight Mass in the local Roman or Anglican church and enjoy themselves immensely...Of course, they go in part to "see the show" and to hear fine music, but there is also the attraction of the numinous, the infectious fascination of the holy which delivers the soul from its own futility.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 23, 2015 at Thursday, April 23, 2015 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

3 comments

Having grown up in the Charismatic Evangelical movement I feel a bit saddened by your comment about prayer in living rooms.

This is a fundamental part of the tradition I come from and something I that has blessed me very richly.

I gave up that for Catholicism, but I still value that part of my parents' tradition.

April 23, 2015 at 1:27 PM
Anonymous  

It's Watt's comment, not mine. I have no problem with house churches.

April 23, 2015 at 11:33 PM

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