Parish Monasticism: the conference


Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam; 
et non confundas me ab expectatione mea.

Receive me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.

Emerging communities. Missional communities. Alternative Worship. New Monasticism. Parish Monasticism… What’s in a name?

I must confess that in my deep desire to be validated by others I relished the idea of having a day, gathered by a Diocesan Training Team, named after a term that I coined through this blog. I wrote about it being a ‘thing’ and it was great but ‘pride comes before a fall’.

The temptation to arrogantly believe that this blog had made an impact on the national discussion around New Monasticism was too much and I approached the day discussion this week with a divided heart. I vainly hoped, I admit, that I would be looked upon with admiration or asked to give an authoritative voice on the topic. When it became clear that I was not invited to come and offer any thoughts on the concept of ‘parish monasticism’ I sinned in my heart and dismissed the day as misguided. I booked my place with some misplaced notion that I might still be able to speak into the conversation my pearls of wisdom and insights. It tapped into my sinful pride to be seen as an expert.

Lord, have mercy upon me.

At the same time I did want to gain from the experience of others who are also exploring this ‘move of the Spirit’ to develop some monastic principles within the parish context. I desperately wanted to see people practically working out the theories I have been mulling over for nearly two years and celebrate and learn with them.
I’m going to be honest, it was difficult sitting in a circle of people, most of whom were in the early stages of exploration for whom the phrase ‘parish monasticism’ had struck a chord but they hadn’t got further than that. The day began with the facilitator saying,

We were at a gathering in Whitby and discovered lots of us were wanting to develop monastic communities in the parish. I’m not sure where the name came from.

They then asked my friend who was sat next to me who had named a Facebook group Parish Monasticism. I’m saying this, not to gain sympathy for being somehow sidelined or underappreciated but rather to gain pity for my sinful response to this. In my frailty I angrily stewed on how I wasn’t being credited for working on this concept for years. I wanted recognition. I wanted to be known and respected.

Lord, have mercy upon me.

Once I subdued my pride and arrogance the day continued with an interesting presentation on the national perspective on culture by Chris Neal and I had a series of short conversations with Mark Berry who has been part of the New Monastic conversation for many years. The conversations going on throughout the day, however, led me to ask more questions of what this thing, ‘parish monasticism’, is.
What is distinctive between this and New Monasticism? What is distinctive between this and Traditional Monasticism?

This question of distinctiveness tapped into my own desperation to be recognised as something ‘new’ and novel and this suddenly felt totally wrong. The question mark in the title of this blog became more and more important to me as the day went on. Do we need ‘parish monasticism’ as distinct from ‘New Monasticism?

I was deeply humbled by the members of traditional monastic orders who came to listen in on this conversation. I wondered what they made of this discussion, novices thinking they are discovering some revelation and new movement of God when in fact it is written into the history and tradition. I suddenly felt like a child who had understood the principle of causality for the first time and went around showing anyone who would watch. I’m sure they wouldn’t have had such a patronising and cynical thought but I still found myself acknowledging my own naivety.

At the end of my day of sustained thinking on this concept of ‘parish monasticism’ I had a deeper sense of engaging with the historic tradition. There is a huge danger with Fresh Expressions and all its offshoots that we jump to revolution and innovation rather than renewal and reform. There is value in innovation and novelty but I find it more satisfying if it is what improvisers would call ‘reincorporation’. I was reminded how Martin Luther and the Wesleys held onto their deep desire for renewal of their tradition and from that a new movement appeared. Have we really understood the historic narrative and improvising from a place of respect or are we improvisers who are too interested in being distinct and stand out but to the detriment of the relationship with other improvisers?

Is our culture too keen on finding the new, world changing idea and will pay any price?

Yes, our tradition needs renewal and reform but my deep concern is that under the name of ‘context’ we cut off a history that unites us with our past and gives us an authority that will ground us and humble us. What is it that connects us with the Early Church, the Patristic Saints, the Reformers? In our desire to be relevant to the present, I feel, we have sold our inheritance and we have no sight on our descendants. Are we Esau who sells his inheritance for short term gain?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer presented Martin Luther’s reformation as moving the cloistered monasticism into every neighbourhood. He did it from a desire to correct the vicarious religion of that age, where Christians could dismiss the call to holiness and faithfulness because the monks performed that role. In our own day we have returned to a vicarious religion for the English people and there is a genuine concern that, if we develop ‘parish monasticism’, this issue is not solved; are we not just creating a spiritual elite within a congregation?

I’m grateful for the discussion day for guiding my thoughts on the real heart of my parish monasticism question: it is this Lutheran desire to place the monastic discipleship in the heart of every neighbourhood with a missional imperative to never be satisfied with any vicariousness of faith. This desire is not new and the practical suggestions put forward by this blog are not new. The fact that I am reading St. Benedict and applying those principles to modern parish ministry is not innovation it’s rediscovery.

So what do we do, those of us who have this thought that monastic discipleship might be important in any parish church? Do discipleship. What do we call it? We call it discipleship. Is there a place in the church for distinctive calls? Yes; George Lings identifies ‘sodal’ and ‘modal’ but I will always be deeply uncomfortable with any division or branding within the church and for my part in that by this blog…

Lord, have mercy upon me.


  1. You’ve expressed many of my misgivings about new monasticism. Too many people trying to raid the monastic storehouse without understanding properly what they’re finding there and how it’s got there. And often it’s the ‘personal transformation’ bit that gets lost.
    Have you connected at all with “Monos” – facebook or website?

    Would love to continue the conversation. I’m embarking soon on Pioneer Ministry when I’m going to be living a rhythm of prayer in my house and offering prayer and hospitality as well as engaging with my council estate neighbours.

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