Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.
Upon admission, in the oratory, before all, he is to make a promise to stability, conversion (of behaviour/morals/life) and obedience,
I have been rather tarry on my writing for the blog this week due to the topic of today’s post. As part of a Lenten discipline I’ve decided to take up writing for 20 minutes a day again. A project which started me on this blog some two years ago! Instead of just writing a diary which led me to overly introspective and unhealthy depressive cycles of thought, I have decided to set myself outward focussed writing tasks. I have been writing fairytale versions of gospel narrative which I started for Burning Fences and I have been gathering material from this blog to put into a book (I know another book project which will probably not get finished and I’ll move on!)
One of the chapters I have tried to collate this week has been the chapter on ‘obedience’. This has meant I have looked through my blog on Parish Monasticism and picked out any material which touches on or has guided my reflections on the theme of obedience. The problem is: the whole of the Rule of St. Benedict is about obedience!
Most of the chapters have been me wrestling with what obedience looks like in 21st century western culture. I have returned again and again to issues of authority, leadership and individualism. In fact, if I were to sum up what I’ve been learning about through my reading and meditating on St. Benedict it has been the need for clear authorities in our modern day society.
At this point I’d direct you to a link on a previous blog post to highlight the salient point but, I can’t choose from so many. Type authority into the search bar at the top of the page and you’ll find the wealth of material there. Type obedience in and you’ll have more… enjoy!
The challenge of evangelism in our current age is the call to submit to an authority which is not the self. Life within the character of our Triune God demands that we relinquish power of our lives to someone/thing else, otherwise it bears no fruit. Anglican pews are used to the bottoms of the lukewarm non-committed, in fact they are pews because no one has felt the need to sit on them for a long enough time for them to be painful! (I’m being deliberately provocative, I’m sorry!) The challenge for the Church is to be bold in living out the life of obedience in a way that shows its fruit.
Let me be clear, this obedience is difficult and painful. We can easily romanticise, as with the whole religious life, what it means to commit to a life of obedience. I have only lived out ‘diet obedience’ or ‘obedience lite’ and that’s tough but I long for the environment to delve deeper into it.
True obedience requires stability and the intentional conversion of opinion, thought, behaviour and life. Obedience can only be experienced within the relationship of the other two vows that we’ve explored just as each of the other vows require the balancing of the rest in order to be fully experienced.
Brian C. Taylor helpfully writes,
We tend to think a balanced life means one in which there is no tension – a perfectly placid existence. But, in fact, it is quite the opposite. A truly balanced life, if it is to embrace the paradox of truth, is one which is in tension: not destructive and stressful but healthy and dynamic.
Approaching the vow of obedience after reflecting on ‘stability’ and ‘conversion’ it can seem that these first two vows are in unhealthy tension and the vow to ‘obedience’ brings about a dynamic tension and frames them harmoniously. This would be too limiting. In fact if you approach any of the three vows through the other two vows you’ll come to the same conclusion: Trying to live within the tension created by a vow to obedience to a particular person or Rule and the vow to conversion creates an antagonistic relationship of discernment and interpretation. When discovering stability as a third point of reference eases that battle and brings an extra dimension to the life lived within these vows. The same is true with discovering the power of conversion via the tension of stability and obedience.
In this way the trinitarian model of life asserts itself in practice.
Authority is abused; that’s a fact of life. We can all reel out stories of how someone in authority has abused that position to meet their own needs. No area of life has been immune to this experience and that needs to be said and heard. This does not mean, however, that authority is, in itself bad or negative. I have had problems with authority personally but I have found it helpful to put a face to those problems and rather than dismiss ‘authority’ because it hurt me name the person in that position who hurt me (on a side note, the Church doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people!)
Life without authority is actually just as painful and difficult and it is in the vacuum of authority that extremist views step in. As human beings we hunger and thirst for an authoritative voice to get behind and we’ll find it wherever it may be found. Charismatic leaders, like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Russell Brand, etc. can sound authoritative when their opponents lack depth and experience. Sadder still is those amongst us who’s only authority is themselves and their own egos and desires. With these as sole authorities no learning or change can occur, cynicism and skepticism hinders any depth of relationship and all of life becomes precarious and unstable.
Authority is needed to teach and grow us beyond our immediate beliefs and opinions. Authority, ironically it seems, gives people freedom to explore and exist. Culture and Societies only develop and deepen when there is a shared narrative; to prove this I point you to the current character of public discussion and the temperature of the exchanges. Our examples of philosophical discourse is loud, abusive, fear centric, cyclical and, above all, non-sequential (the great example of this is David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time when in response to a question he’ll change the subject as his answer!)
Obedience is other focussed. Obedience is about placing your life, your choices, your future, however difficult it is, into the hands of another. This is risky; there’s no escaping that fact. Obedience is about inviting someone to act in freedom upon you and you to take on the consequences of their decision. This is so alien to us that it will take the Church to start to live it out to be an example that will save our world.
I want to finish this short romp through potential vows around which many new monastic communities may gather to explore briefly how our culture desperately needs to participate in a triune life. What I mean by this is a life which is beyond polarised, extreme binary terms of reference into a dynamic dance of ideas and discovery.
We are increasingly finding combative language and views as we’re forced into extreme, entrenched political, social and religious viewpoints. Our debates have become antagonistic fought between two sides; political right and political left with the centre being an attempt at mixing the two in different concoctions, liberal and conservative wings of the church with the ‘middle of the road’ churches being different grey mix of the two at the whim of that particular people. I have quoted Oscar Romero recently,
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)
Romero’s call to ‘think with the church’ has haunted my thoughts for the last few weeks. I have come to discover that what he might have meant is to think Trinitarianly (that’s a new word I’ve just made up!) not in binary on a flat spectrum but in a three dimensional balance. We don’t fit on a continuum between two points but a matrix within three.
I am a vocal supporter on the Anglican approach to authority and it is Richard Hooker’s balance that finally convinced me of my Anglican calling. We do not limit ourselves to Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) nor to Sola Traditio or even to Sola Spiritus but a beautiful balance between them all. Univocal authority tends to lead to oppression of those under it. With only one authority power becomes unbalanced and blind loyalty is required. Bivocal authority creates stand offs, the likes we have seen within both political and ecclesial debates. It is once you reach three or more that power is released and shared. This is what I have discovered within the Rule of St. Benedict and what I am keen to press into more within an umbrella construct to feed new monastic communities across the Church of England and beyond.
So what might the call to obedience look like for the different forms of community? For most of these broad categories it will come down to the individuals involved, to what/who they are obedient may need to be fleshed out in the context.
For more intentional gathered communities, obedience will look very different depending on the individuals who participate within it or, rather, will be more or less of an issue depending those within the community. Taking on a vow of obedience would need to be done within a multi-authoritative framework. Obedience to a particular role of authority whose job it is to interpret a communal narrative which is another authority and, finally, a community of people who live out said narrative who are an accountable authority to the others.
Obedience will need to centre on accountability frameworks which will be contextual but the practice of obedience will be the same. These communities will need to figure out to what they are obedient and how they encourage the living out of the vow.
The parish church has authority structures in place but encouragement and teaching on obedience is somewhat lax amongst us. Synod and Bishops are not always agreed with and local expressions tend to follow differing practices depending on conscience; such as it naturally is within a place like the Church of England. This challenge to obedience has led to some difficult and painful discussions but the challenge has come from a perceived abuse of authority.
How do we ensure power is not abused within a large, established institution? I think a detailed exploration of the understanding of leadership is vital in this discussion. When leadership is seen as ‘driving forces’ then we are in difficulty as it is a force to be reckoned with and is unhelpful in relationship. If leadership is seen more as one who is under authority, a first amongst equals then we’re on our way to a healthier tension. That is why a model like that proposed for sodal communities can also be adopted in the modal.
Obedience within the monastic/mendicant form is to a particular tradition and so naming those things, be they, General Synod, Articles of Religion, Canon Law, a Bishop, a Rule of Life within the parish context is key to encourage the practice.
For networks of autonomous groups, obedience becomes very tricky as we have seen in the Anglican Communion recently. Establishing, early on, not only what are the authorities but also how they relate with one another is absolutely essential. If we neglect the long process of exploring together the details of how authorities relate and hold that important balance then disagreements will become increasingly difficult. This is where the Rule of St. Benedict becomes an example in the same way as the Sermon on the Mount is. St. Benedict explores, in many areas of life, how to discern the way forward, how the authorities of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and tradition interplay to develop a community which deepens the individual as well as communal character.
It is also important to have shared authorities, particularly so in nodal communities. It could seem as though I’m suggesting just having lots of authorities to defend against dictatorial forms of dominance but actually too many conflicting authorities and the balance is lost also. The authorities need to interact in a creative and dynamic way rather than creating a new kind of destruction.