With several in charge, no one will have the opportunity to become proud.
Is it democracy?
All commentaries on this chapter begin by stating the obvious tension found here in the Rule… I will do the same. It’s pretty clear that St. Benedict does not see the benefits of a prior/provost in the monastery and believes that the abbot should govern with a group of deans as outlined in the chapter on that subject. St. Benedict, however, brings in balance and allows common practice to continue but not without some warning and dangers.
This is how to compromise. St. Benedict warns of the dangers but leaves the decision to the vote of the monastery. He adapts his vision to allow people the freedom to explore and develop but doesn’t leave them to walk down the perilous path alone, rather he continues to guide and help them to survive. It’s obvious that St. Benedict would rather monasteries decided against appointing a prior/provost but if they do decide he has some safety nets to put up in case the dangers become apparent and hurtful.
This is the strength of collegial governance and is why Synods, chapters and the like are so crucial in church. These forms of government are not democracy as we know it we know where that leads to! Democracy is about opinions and opinions can be easily swayed and manipulated; if one is not careful people lose sight of, forget or rashly change the rules and laws that govern said democracy if majority of people decide to. In the monastery the abbot decides but he decides within the confines of counsel.
After the previous chapter and throughout the Rule so far, the role of abbot is clear. It is not to be about wielding power, forcing agendas or manipulating the community but is about care, safeguarding and protecting the life of community together. The role of abbot is also totally reliant on the Rule of Life. The abbot is there to ensure all monks live under it and are guided by it. This is why the Church of England’s governance works (much to the frustration of many!)
The Church of England is “episcopally led and synodically governed” which means that the vision is set out by bishops (plural, in a college/house in which Archbishops are the first amongst equals) but they are constrained by the Synod (either General or Diocesan). This means that Bishops have final say over every matter but must decide based on the policies of General Synod. This should protect the Church from individuals or popularist thought to dramatically change the beliefs and/or practices rashly. A Bishop is there to uphold the common life and faith of the entire people of God under their care. Bishops set the pace and tone of the Church but they are accountable to Synod who can challenge decisions. Decisions are then arbitrated through Synodical Measures, Canon Law and Articles of Faith.
So why has the role of prior/provost continued if it is clear that St. Benedict was not a fan?
Practically because it works. In large communities abbots struggle with the sheer workload and pressure put upon them to oversee every aspect of the life of the monastery. He cannot be everywhere involved in everything. The other roles, outlined by St. Benedict, have some responsibility but not about decisions. Even with the appointment of Deans, each with their own opinions, it is a tiresome challenge to reach consensus let alone then to pray and make a decision that is right before God and may not be popular with the Deans and monks who advise you. The role of prior/provost is to take some of the smaller decisions off the list of things to be involved in to ensure the abbot is free to give proper time and attention to those big decisions. The relationship between prior/provost and abbot is key and St. Benedict is clear in making that a priority.
What is important in the life of the monastery is the realisation that,
…the church is radically not democratic if by democratic we mean that no one knows the truth and therefore everyone’s opinion counts equally… That is why authority in the church is vested in those we have learned to call saints in recognition of their more complete appropriation of that truth.(Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character:toward a constructive christian social ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)p. 85)
It is here that I place a word of caution on a theology termed ‘ordinary theology’.
‘Ordinary theology’ is the sort of God-talk that comes first to the lips of all Christians when they reflect about their faith. Its main auditorium is not the lecture hall, or even the church building, but at home or at work; in the pub or in the garden; on the bus, at the shopping centre or on a country walk. Unlike the more ‘extraordinary’ theology of the academic world, it is ‘just ordinary’ and employs no technical jargon or philosophical ideas. It is, rather, couched in story and anecdote, using everyday language (which includes metaphors – without which we could hardly talk at all) and powerful images to express our deeply felt commitments and – sometimes – our agonized concerns.
We don’t have to go to college to learn how to do this. We only have to be ourselves, and to speak of what we feel and of what we know. To express in our own stumbling, inadequate way what we believe about God.(from ‘After Sunday’, “Ordinary Theology”, 2nd February 2016, https://www.aftersunday.org.uk/about/thinking/ordinary-theology)
There are a lot of things I think and feel to be right but on which I have little to no knowledge. Opinions are easy and everyone has them but they don’t always lead to wisdom. Wisdom is found after wrestling and study; reading and listening to each side, weighing up the different views and arriving, one hopes, after prayer and reflection at the right conclusion. I have the privilege of time to study and an intellect that can handle difficult subjects (I also love doing it!) I find, however, there is little desire to hear the fruits of my study in ‘ordinary life’. My reading and learning, my observations and testing of ideas is rarely requested or respected because ‘ordinary people’ don’t want to know or hear it. I sit in decision making bodies and hear a lot of subjective opinions which are all fascinating and important but I want to know the right opinion not just the good ones. Due to the shying away of many ‘ordinary people’ to deep thinking and reflecting, in a life that is busy as it is, decisions are made from a sense of utilitarianism rather than wisdom. What is going to make this decision quick and painless?.. We’ll go with that; usually the majority view.
The Bible is full of the prophetic speaking out against the majority view against the popularist opinions. Where then is their authority? I find myself reflecting a lot on the interplay between minority and majority views. In the UK it seems the minority view is heard a lot at both ends of the spectrum; we are developing into a polarised society which demands our population speak in extreme tones in order to be heard. I don’t hear much wise authoritative voices much these days; voices of those who have reflected deeply and share their views like Jeremiah, reluctantly and with great pain and struggle.
I know that I’m coming across as arrogant and demeaning (I genuinely don’t mean to be) but what I’m trying to articulate is that just because you believe something to be right in the deepest part of your being, doesn’t mean it’s right. We are fallen, broken, fallible creatures whose desires and instincts must be curbed to protect others. We need the counsel of others and we must work out our salvation in the company of strangers (those that are different from us). It is this reality we must become more aware of in are society at the moment.
I am concerned that we are allowing opinion polls direct more decisions within the Church. It is how politics is done in our country at the moment but I’d rather hoped the Church would defend itself against such simplistic ideas. It seems we are being constantly tempted to simplify our message so that those outside the church can understand us; we must remain relevant and jargon differentiates us from the world. I have quoted this before but it is worth repeating,
We are cultural refugees. The beautiful monastics throughout church history were cultural refugees; they ran to the desert not to flee from the world but to save the world from itself… Much of the world now lies in ruins of triumphant and militant Christianity. The imperially baptized religion created a domesticated version of Christianity – a dangerous thing that can inoculate people from ever experiencing true faith. (Everyone is a Christian, but no one knows what a Christian is anymore.) Our hope is that the postmodern, post-Christian world is once again ready for a people who are peculiar, people who spend their energy creating a culture of contrast rather than a culture of relevancy. (Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: politics for ordinary radicals (Michigan: Zondervan, 2008) p. 238-240)
Orthodoxy is a dirty word it seems and, as our culture rejects more and more institutions and positions of authority in the continual backlash from totalitarian regimes in the 20th and now in 21st century, one must defend against being told what to think or believe. This leads to a subjective life relying on whims and opinions and defending those out of fear of being changed against our will. Our free will is of prime importance no matter where it leads us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Loving Father, whose authority rests perfectly in Jesus Christ your Son, guide us to fuller knowledge of your will and call us closer to you that we may be changed.
Come, Lord Jesus