Chapter 64: election of the abbot


He must be knowledgeable in Divine Law so as to know when to “bring forth new things and old”

Should we be trained and ordained locally?

I have written a lot on leadership and ordained ministry on my journey through the Rule of St Benedict. As I read this chapter on the election of an abbot I can see some of my own personal journey to ordained ministry in it but there are differences which mainly focus on the Benedictine understanding of leadership within a local context. It calls me to ask questions about our understanding of leadership:

Is it better to be called from and to a local community? Should we be training people to serve in their local church?

Currently in the Church of England one is called to ordained ministry to the national Church. It is the laity, on the whole, who are called to the local church. There is a growing sense, however, of the local call of ordained ministers with the rise of training programs offered by St Mellitus and St Barnabas Centres and other local training courses. I have mixed views about these.

I still fundamentally believe that residential training for ordained ministry is the ideal due to the opportunities and space for deep reflections and theological study. The local training is fantastic in preparing deacons and priests for the practical work of ministry but, from conversations with those trained in these ways, there is little time and space given for the possibility of adaptation and growth in personal theologies.

For me training was done in the common room where I learnt to hear opposing views of theology in the context of a lived out community. There was little escape from having to eat and serve those who you disagreed vehemently with. It was in the common room experience where I learnt the practical way to love in disagreement; something the Church of England desperately needs to explore and work out.

The residential model of training does leave gaps in training particularly, as I say, in the more practical experience of leading, preaching and long term pastoral work and mentoring. Yes, curacy picks up these gaps but expectation gives little room for mistake and genuine learning on that. The local forms of training, with the long term placements of over two/three years, give more space to learn such skills.

It is here that the difference between monks and ordained ministers in the Church of England must remain distinct. A monk chooses stability and their life is one dedicated to a community over their life time. Clergy dedicate themselves to itinerant ministry going where God calls them. Their stability is to the order of deacon and priest and to the institutional church.

Treasures Old and New

Having reflected on how an abbot is chosen in Chapter 2: the qualities of the abbot, I was struck, when reading this chapter, the instruction that an abbot ‘must be knowledgable of Divine Law so as to know when to “bring forth new things and old” (Matthew 13:52).’

This passage from Matthew was used for the title of a conference which gathered traditional and emerging communities within the Anglican tradition (Treasures Old and New). The couple of days in Whitby earlier last year was an important gathering for those of us who are sensing a movement of the Holy Spirit to a renewal of religious life in different forms.

I was sad not to be able to make it to these days but continue to hear from many of my friends who went about what God is beginning to reveal amongst us. I have had the privilege of journeying with many of those present and gaining from the wisdom gleaned together.

The title says something important for me of where God is speaking to us in the Church of England.

As I wrote in Parish Monasticism: a conference, I have an unsettling feeling about our current culture within the Church to create new groupings, new labels, to be new, fresh, relevant, cutting edge, etc. Yes, God creates and brings new things to birth but for me new comes from the old. I said,

In our desire to be relevant to the present, I feel, we have sold our inheritance and we have no sight on our descendants.

I am deeply concerned that we are throwing babies out with bath water in our desperation to remain in step with the world. The Church, particularly the Anglican Church, is feeling much pressure to keep up with the world, its ‘wisdom’ and its progress. We make knee jerk responses to questions and challenges posed by the people outside the Church, whom we serve in love. We have a selective replacement theology in every wing of our broad family, and a view of Jesus as someone who came and said,

So that Jewish thing hasn’t really worked, so let’s start again.

Yes, Jesus preached a ‘new’ commandment but ‘new’ is ironic because what he preaches is right at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures: Love God, love your neighbour.

The sound system in one of our churches was quite old and temperamental and there had been cries for a new one for over four years. I had often joined with these calls to throw this old system out and get a brand new one. I was asked to look at the system and make some recommendations. In looking at it and studying it careful I realised that it was perfectly fine as it was. The problems stemmed from not using it right. The wrong cables were plugged into the wrong inputs and the speakers are not powerful enough for the amplifiers but when you use the system as it is meant to be used it works well. The problem was we wanted to throw it out and get a brand new one without asking the question: are we using it right?

I think there’s a similar problem with the Church.

We are not spending enough time thinking and studying how the Church is meant to work and we all presume it’s no longer fit for purpose. In fact, I think a lot of what the Fresh Expressions movement has discovered is what we knew before but had forgotten. The New Monastic movement (or whatever name you want to give it) has discovered what Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others already identified.

This does not mean that I am suggesting blindly clinging to the old, the fatal choice to remain faithful to a potentially sinking ship. There is much need of re-newing and discovering how God is adapting his plans to accommodate the world’s freely chosen direction. The world is changing and we can’t allow our world to become so alien to us that we can no longer communicate with it. Jesus shows us God is a being who loves us enough to enter into our lostness in order to be with us and save us. We must go to where people are, often places and situations where the Church has not been before because people have not been before.

The danger is allowing the new situations to change who we are in Christ. The danger, as it has always been, is to return to the life of the flesh and darkness when we have been given a life in the Spirit and of light.

I have been reading the biography of Oscar Romero and the following quote sums up what I feel God calling me to say in this generation,

The Church, then, is in an hour of aggiornamento, that is, of crisis in its history. And as in all aggiornamenti, two antagonistic forces emerge: on the one hand, a boundless desire for novelty, which Paul VI described as “arbitrary dreams of artificial renewals”; and on the other hand, an attachment to the changelessness of the forms with which the Church has clothed itself over the centuries and a rejection of the character of modern times. Both extremes sin by exaggeration. Unconditional attachment to what is old hampers the Church’s progress and restricts its “catholicity”… The boundless spirit of novelty is an impudent exploration of what is uncertain, and at the same time unjustly betrays the rich heritage of past experiences… So as not to fall into either the ridiculous position of uncritical affection for what is old, or the ridiculous position of becoming adventurers pursuing “artifical dreams” about novelties, the best thing is to live today more than ever according to the classic axiom: think with the Church. (Oscar Romero quoted in Morrozzo Della Rocca, Roberto, Oscar Romero: prophet of hope (London: Dalton, Longman and Todd, 2015) p.22-23)


At this point in the Church of England’s history with so many questions over our inner polity and interactions with the world in mission, we desperately need leaders who are knowledgable of Divine Law, who are virtuous, sober and merciful, prudent, moderate and humble. Above all of these things spiritual men and women who are wise in administering the Rule of Life for all disciples. Servants of the gospel who can bring forth treasures old and new so that the Kingdom of God can establish itself amongst us.

Loving Father, the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of your children who grow in the likeness of your Son are who are led by your Spirit. You did not give a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you gave us a spirit of adoption to future glory. Elect men and women from amongst us who will guide us through temptations and live out a stable and pure life.

Come Lord Jesus