Tag Archives: Christ

Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess


Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…

What has happened to the UK?

We live in interesting times!

On the Sunday morning after the UK voted to leave the European Union the lectionary epistle reading was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy; these were the words being used as the ripples of the UK’s decision were felt by all of us. Both major political parties went into melt down as David Cameron resigned triggering a leadership race and then the Labour party followed suit with several resignations and a leadership coup. Scotland began rethinking their independence which, strangely UKIP are dead against because they feel Scotland is better in a union than out… No one seemed totally comfortable with the way things were turning out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s announcement was downbeat to say the least. The political jostling had begun!

Throughout the debate it was clear that what the voting public needed were facts, but who do we trust to give us the facts? As Michael Gove interestingly stated,

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.

Although we needed facts what we wanted was ‘passion’. The ‘Trump Effect’ (which is sadly now a well known phrase!) is the replacement of intellectual reason with courage in conviction.

They aren’t afraid to say it as it is.

They are passionate about their beliefs.

Nigel Farage, the main force behind the referendum, has now resigned having achieved what he wanted in politics. He worked tirelessly to achieve his aim and ambition with great zeal but at what cost? To be more specific; in what manner? For me passion and zeal, unbridled by reason, faithfulness or stability leads to division. This is what is being outlined in the Galatians passage above.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

When you sow in division, you reap in division.

I want to be clear that, despite my vote to remain in the EU, my concern and disappointment is rooted not in the outcome of the vote itself but in the nature that the debate was done and the precedent it has set for the future of our society. As always my judgement on the morality of a decision is based not on the decision itself but on the process and means by which the decision was arrived at. If the vote had gone the other way, I’d have still been upset and uncomfortable about the decision (albeit less intensely).

I have, as regular readers of this blog will know, for a long time been criticising the direction of our society in the UK over the last few decades. At the heart of my criticism and concern is the liberal, individualised approach to politics which places the individual desires and passions at the heart of all conversation. What matters most in debates is not reason but what a person thinks and feels. The subjective voice is unassailable and if someone’s beliefs are criticised then the opponent is labelled ‘intolerant’. Opinion is held higher than than fact or truth because there is no longer any objective truth. It comes down to what we ‘reckon’. This leads to us ensuring we get what we want but never paying the cost to get what we need.

What was obvious throughout the debate and in the aftermath of the referendum was that we the voters, en masse, didn’t know what we were doing. We were not told all the information we were fed lies from both sides and as the reality hit we were all as confused as before. We talk about the value and success of democracy but what the referendum did show me was that democracy doesn’t work because it relies on the generally uninformed voter making a decision which inevitably goes to the person who is charismatic and not for the one who is able to make the change to society that most of us don’t know we need. The referendum was won, not by truth but by personality.

Plato, in his book ‘Republic’, depicts democracy as a denigration of strong governance and places the democratic regime just above tyranny. The democratic man, which he uses to portray the character of democracy, is a man who is free to do what they want and live how they want. This democratic man is ruled by his passions and base desires. He is uneducated with little self control. Democracy is painted as self-autonomous units fighting and competing to survive… sounds like the UK at the moment!

When reading Galatians a day after the referendum it was this depiction of democracy that came to mind as I prepared to preach into a society where the political, economic and social stability of our nation was in chaos. Markets were uncertain. Communities were divided and a rise in xenophobia and racism became prevalent. Families were divided deeply and there was no sign of any leadership. This is the fruit of living life by our flesh, our passions.

The alternative, Paul argues, is to die to the flesh.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

The referendum was also a debate about identity. We, as a nation, are struggling to articulate a shared identity due to the aggressive pursuit of the individual identity in our capitalist, neo-liberal culture. There is no longer a shared narrative to our lives together. This is why the concept of family, community, fellowship is eroded and there is such high levels of loneliness, mental health issues, depression, anxiety and violence; and it is that one word which describes the debate and the fruit of the vote to leave, on both sides: ‘violence’.

Violence is rooted in fear. Violence is the response when we feel threatened. Violence is characterised by the cross. So what should our response be? How then do we live?


This is not the love that allows people to live how they want but the love which desires that people belong and are brought together. This love is not just allowing others to exist nearby but a desire for transformation and growth. This love is rooted in the monastic vow of stability, obedience and ongoing transformation. Esther de Waal writes,

Genuine love is free from exploitation or the manipulation of others. Where this is missing love becomes a delusion, a subterfuge, a means to an end. The patience and gentleness of verse 5 are again virtues which Benedict admires and which he has been encouraging. This is the opposite of that violence which is not limited to aggressive behaviour but may be a reflection of the hidden violence of feelings which comes out in tone of voice or the glance… The ‘wicked zeal of bitterness’ must refer to the rivalries and power games that can tear communities apart, the sort of competition that is unsuitable in the body of Christ. If you must compete, he seems to say, at least compete in love! (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.211)

Paul contrasts the life lived by the passions of the flesh as a life guided by God’s Spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To live by the Spirit one must die to the flesh. This is what is being outlined by St. Benedict in this penultimate chapter of his Rule.

Let them, “in honour prevent one another” (Rom 12:10). Let them accept each other’s frailties (of body and soul). Let them try to outdo each other in obedience. Let no one do what is best for himself, but rather what is best for another. Let them expend the charity of brotherhood in chaste love.

I’m a passionate person; I feel things powerfully and I have strong convictions but I know I must learn to control and master that passion by deliberately and intentionally dying to self and being drawn into the community of love and respect. I must establish my identity in Christ and allow him to form me in his likeness.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.(Phil 2:3-8)


…salvation is not an individual project, but one we undertake with and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. We work out our salvation not only in fear and trembling, but also in community. It is in our care for, and interaction with, one another that we become the body of Christ, now and forever. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1990) p.267)

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to be re-trained in living with others. There was a great cry, after the vote on the UK membership in the EU, to come together and be united. It sounded so simple but we have lost the art of doing that. Living with others is a cost to our personal sense of freedom. We have heard a lot about freedom and our own sovereignty over the referendum debate but I repeat Paul’s words to the Galatians,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

It is the paradox of the Christian life that we have been given freedom to choose to become slaves to one another in Christ. Community is not easy and so the need for guidelines is so important. The Rule of St. Benedict is the greatest example of such guidelines which hold people together when every passion and zeal is telling them to flee or worse do violence in thought, word or deed. A Rule of life must cover every aspect of one’s life; the thoughts (orthodoxy), the feelings (orthopathy) and the actions (orthopraxis). It must be shared with those you live with in order that everyone exists within the same narrative because with no shared story there is no shared values, direction, destination and ultimately no shared character/identity.

We have voted to leave the EU to regain our own sovereignty so how do we now build a common life together? On this issue there remains silence or rather there remains a competition for ideological power or individualised tolerance. The Kingdom of God is established when we allow our political ideology, our self-identity, our sexuality, our gender, our class, our weatlh or status to become secondary to the identity which brings joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I appreciate that may be interpreted as another subjective option of many in this pluralistic society but, as a Christian, I can see no other option offering such hope.

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it…. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the “lenses” through which they are able to understand and cope with the world. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 2004) p.227)

The New Monastic movement is a fresh call from God to intentional place ourselves in the environment of community under a framework that will shape us into the character of Christ. That was the goal of St. Benedict and the other monastic fathers and mothers and it is the goal of this new wave of monastics. The sharing of a way of life challenges the individualised culture we now suffer within. We need to commit to a Rule which is not shaped by me or my desires but is shaped for me and my transformation and in which my passion and zeal will be focussed solely on seeking God’s will in our life together; redemption of my flesh to be guided by the Spirit.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified:hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in our vocation and ministry we may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name. Raise up leaders of character who will lead us to inhabit your story of hope and in which all of us find our rest.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 69: no one shall presume to defend another in the monastery


Take care that, no matter what, no monk presumes to defend or protect another…

How should we teach?

I was sat with a large group of young people leading them in a Bible Study on cutting off limbs (Mt 5:30, Mk 9:43) and there were a lot of questions being asked. I had not been a leader for longer and, althoguh I had experience of being a teacher, I felt out of my depth. I looked across at the paid youth worker who headed up the team I was on and looked pleadingly at him. I desperately needed his help to answer and guide us back on track as I was flailing in the metaphorical brambles! Instead of jumping in and either closing down the questions or deftly answering them he remained silent staring back at me.

Well, thank you very much!

I thought as I clumsily fought back the probing questions and steered us to end the time together to start an unplanned game.

After the young people had left I cornered the youth leader and said,

Could you not see I was in trouble there. I needed your help and you just left me to fail and it was really embarrassing!

He smiled and replied,

How are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet if I keep propping you up. You need to find your own way out of those kinds of messes.

It was one of the best lessons I learnt.

Skip forward eight years and I’m now ordained and leading a youth group in another church. I have a new leader who I am helping to train up and she was surrounded by young people asking difficult questions about miracles. She stuttered and struggled and then she turned to me and said,

I have completely lost track of what I was saying. Ned, how should I end this?

For a moment I was back at that moment when the youth leader let me struggle on my own and I learnt the valuable lesson of finding an ending on my own. As this student leader stared at me, totally overwhelmed, I faltered and stepped in to defend her. Afterwards I regretted doing that, remembering the great lesson learnt when someone didn’t protect me from embarrassment or failure.

It seems harsh reading this chapter, to be told not to defend another person. To leave them struggling doesn’t seem that kind or, to be honest, very Christian. The instruction, however, is to enable monks to learn the lessons they need as they journey the path of righteousness. How often we step into help someone and in so doing refuse them the opportunity to grow or deepen their faith?

As humans we love the opportunity to instruct and teach others in some weird narcissistic attempt to make them more like us. Imparting advice is a way we can extend our influence and intellectually procreate. In doing this, though, we rob another of growing or maturing. It’s the problem with our established pedagogy (way of teaching).

Paolo Freire, a liberation theologian and practitioner articulates, for me, the fundamental problem with the way we teach one another. The church is not immune to the oppressive approach to education which ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.’

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive , memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.72)

Students become passive participants who are, by the manner in which information is given to them, encouraged to accept the world as it is and not to hope for new revelations or transformation in reality.

Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator not re-creator… he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.75)

Discipleship must be shaped around a new way of teaching. A teaching, outlined in Freire’s writing, which encourages students to journey alongside another student. It is a focus on modelling how to interact, with curiosity and wonder, with the world around us. The teacher is no longer set apart, up front, depositing information but rather in amongst, a student amongst students, learning and asking questions with them about what they see, hear and experience around them.

In another book, ‘We Make The Road By Walking’, he summarises his point concisely.

The other mistake is to crush freedom and to exacerbate the authority of the teacher. Then you no longer have freedom but now you have authoritarianism, and then the teacher is the one who teaches. The teacher is the one who knows. The teacher is the one who guides. The teacher is the one who does everything. And the students, precisely because the students must be shaped, just expose their bodies and their souls to the hands of the teacher, as if the students were clay for the artist, to be molded. The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. And in doing that, he or she lives the experience of relating democratically as authority with the freedom of the students.(Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) p.181)

Within this liberation framework we begin to see a way in which the abbot’s authority explicit throughout St. Benedict’s Rule, can be executed without taking away freedom from the monks. The guidance and teaching is one of accompaniment; yes, firm and un-wielding when necessary but allowing God to transform them through a process. Thomas Merton understood this approach.

A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (Boston: Shambhala, 2005) p.258)


I suspect that discipleship crisis in the Church (which has led us to mission and evangelism crisis) is rooted in the approach to how we teach. The time has come to throw away the educational philosophy described above as the ‘banking concept’ for what it creates is followers who are dependant on ‘experts’ to feed them the information they need. If they manage to fight through the passivity that is forced upon them they become oppressors themselves with the catalogue of deposits they have collected over the years.

We leaders and teachers must relearn how to guide people to become the person God intends for them to be. This is going to be hard for most of us as we are products of this old and autocratic educational process. We must come to see God through Jesus the teacher who allowed mistakes and failures, who brought out free enquiry in story rather than a syllabus of knowledge that needed to be memorised. The first disciples were not given, like the other rabbis of the time, a textbook to be learnt but instead received the Holy Spirit to inspire.

This new form of teaching must ripple through every aspect of the Church; through the pulpit, into small groups, into evangelism. Can we imagine the Church being at the forefront of education again by establishing this inquiry based, liberation approach to teaching the younger generation how to engage with the world?
Guiding God, through your son, Jesus Christ, we see you teaching us amongst us. You do not deposit diktats from above but instead walk life with us encouraging and leading with all gentleness, strength and faithfulness. We thank you that your desire for us is not just to know about you but to become like you and in that, find our freedom.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 62: priests of the monastery


He will keep his entrance rank except in service at the altar…

Where is the discipline in our discipleship?

Again and again the Rule of St. Benedict causes me to reflect on my vocation to the priesthood. The ordering of the church with it’s various designated roles and callings which overlap and yet remain distinct is a confusing subject and it gets increasingly so as people try to re-order and make room for individuals as they explore their specific ‘charism’.

After the last two week’s reflections I begin to see clearly the challenge and, potentially, the call of God on the Anglican Church.

Where is the discipline within our discipleship?

This is a particularly important question when it comes to vocation. There seem to be so many different ‘ministries’ available but with our commitment to ‘the three fold order of ministry’ there is a natural hierarchical view of ministry built into the Church. We can try and promote the work of the laity but Canon Law, which governs and shapes us, forces us to hold the offices of bishop, priest and deacon higher than others. These three offices have wide ranging specifications outlined in the ordinals that it begs the question what is it that designates a priest from the rest of the people of God.

I have sat with the ordinal many times and prayed through it. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by everything I am asked to be and do. I’m glad that the response to whether I can fulfil all that is asked of me is,

By the help of God, I will.

But even after I relinquish some of the responsibility onto the grace of god I still have to ponder when non-ordained members of the Church take solemn vows to participate in the work of the Church? If all these tasks fall on to the ordained only what is left for the laity to do and participate in?

My question is about how to value properly the work of all the people of God and not demand that, in order to be able to do any ministry, you need to be ordained. To put it another way: how do we stop the personalising of ordained orders in order that all vocations are rightly affirmed.

Changing tack, or rather to focus in on a particular issue; I am not against the Fresh Expressions movement nor the role of Pioneer Ministers (indeed I am active within it!) but there is a real challenge that is raised by the mixed economy of what exactly constitutes a call to the diaconate, the priesthood and to episcopal office. There is an argument that Ordained Pioneer Ministers are being given ‘time off’ to pursue the work that all people and ordained ministers should be doing anyway. ‘Non-pioneer Ministers’ argue that they would love to be creative and missional if only they had the time but their diaries are full of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of ordained ministry. Specifying ‘Ordained Pioneer Ministry’ from the ordained ministry has caused many to feel excluded from the work of contextual mission.

I have always and continue to argue that Ordained Pioneer Ministry is a necessary move by the Church of England in order to raise these questions and conversations and I feel we should be looking to use the questions to solidify our view of the three fold order of ministry. The experience of Ordained Pioneer Ministers should be helping to release and encourage ‘Non-pioneer Ministers’ to be pioneering. Whether this pioneering is done by laity or ordained ministers is a real question. For what it’s worth I suspect most of it should be done by laity but that does not release clergy from the responsibility to participate too.

If I was to be bold in putting forward a real pathway to fruitful debate it would be to propose that all disciples should be pioneers as we respond, through the Spirit, to the call of God to all his people to share the good news and herald in his kingdom. All disciples ordained or not should be looking at ways to do mission and evangelism in their particular context. Once our discipleship bears its fruit in the form of outreach and kingdom building we can then re-examine the role of deacons, priests and bishops within that.

As it stands we are trying to solve a problem in the wrong part of the system!

Like St. Benedict’s monasteries, the call to the priest comes from an established discipleship programme where everyone is subject to the same training and discipline. From this place, 62 chapters in, we then discuss the practical role of presiding at the Eucharist and leading the disciples in prayers. The role of priest does not change their need to follow the discipline of the community. They are priest at the table.

Here priesthood is not the same as leadership.

To be a leader you do not need to be a priest. It is thought that the abbot was not necessarily ordained as a priest and this makes for a fascinating insight into hierarchy in these religious communities. The abbot remains as spiritual leader whilst the priest has a different function. Terence Kardong explores this differences in his book ‘Together Unto Life Everlasting’, proposing that,

…the power of the bishop/priests is of sacramental order, that of the abbot is charismatic. The first power comes from the church: the second comes from the Holy Spirit. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the rule of st benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p232)

That distinction is worth noting. I have been struggling to articulate that feeling for some time. My understanding and call to the priesthood is a sacramental order, a function of sorts. My call to specific areas, people or contexts is a charismatic one. All disciples are called to charismatic ministries; ministries that are contextual and unique within the shared call to share the gospel. Some are called to sacramental roles and that is a church function.

The Church, in my mind, should explore specifying better the three fold order of ministry so that those not called to a sacramental role are still encouraged in participating with equal anointing to the life and mission of Christ’s Church. There must be a greater articulation that those given an ordained office in the Church are not seen as of a higher rank or calling. They remain disciples but with a particular, sacramental role. Other disciples are called by the Holy Spirit with charismatic roles which should be honoured and encouraged.

There are parts of my job which I do because it’s my office (presiding at Holy Communion, visiting the sick and baptizing new believers, etc.) but there are other things I do because I feel the Holy Spirit calling me to do at that time and place (community chaplaincy, encouraging artists in the city, gathering and leading a small home group, etc.). Some are tasks that I alone can do in our community because they are sacramental, but many other tasks that I do as a disciple and not as a priest to which others may also be called to do. The specifying of these different tasks needs to be done more intentionally to release disciples into the work that they are called to do as disciples, ordained or not.


As I contemplate moving from my curacy into a parish of my own, I think about how I will minister in the new context. There will be sacramental tasks I am called to do because God has called me to be a priest and the Church has acknowledged that. There will also be other things that I will discover God is calling me to, not because I am a priest, but because I am a disciple.

Our question should be, within the parish, should there be a distinction between the abbot and the priest? I would argue there’s room for this framework. It would require a rethink of how the Church views and discusses ordained ministry and that of lay ministry. I think God is already moving in this area as increasingly stretched ordained ministers find themselves forced into ever-widening job specifications and expectations. As more churches find themselves in longer interregnums and more multi-parish benefices are created, less ordained ministers feel ‘called’ to the struggling (mostly rural) contexts due to the ‘killer workloads’ and overwhelming pressures, as well as not fully understanding the discipline of discipleship. I speak from personal experience, here. It was in the intensity of college that I discovered the cost of discipleship (and I came from a ‘successful’, growing church).

We can any longer hide the charismatic call of all disciples to contextual mission in its infinitely varied forms. The praise and holiness of ‘leadership’ and the pursuit for better equipped leaders is futile as we increasingly discover that what is being asked of them should be the work of all disciples. To require a title like ‘leader’ or to need ordination to encourage someone in doing the work of the kingdom is a failure on our discipleship. Leaders come from a fully functioning discipleship programme (as we’ll explore in two weeks time). Naming someone a leader and then asking them to find followers is illogical to me.

You’ll be aware that I am convinced that only a focussed, intentional re-examination of the real life of discipleship where commitment is paramount and better more systematic re-ordering of God’s Church to ensure the discipline of humility is at the heart of all we are and do is needed!

Loving Father, gracious and powerful, you call us to be converted from our old life to new life in Christ. You have adopted us as your children and grant us true peace, found when we know our identity in Christ. Continue to call us closer to you that we would live in the freedom of your grace and that others would see your good work in us that hey to would respond to your call on their lives also.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 59: sons of noblemen or of poor men offered to God’s service


…if the child is under age, the parents should write out a petition as above.

What is the role of godparents?

Whilst introducing some members of our church to the Anglican baptismal theology in the hope that they may join the baptism team, I found a great oversight in our basis for preparation policy. At our church we currently invite parent(s) to come along for an evening to talk about what baptism is and to ‘help them to work out if baptism is right for them’ (to which the snowier seems to always be “yes”!) This ‘preparation evening’ is a great opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them and to encourage them to consider the life of a disciple and to answer the call to follow him. No problems so far…

Then I looked down at Canon Law B22.3 (you know the one, right!?)

The minister shall instruct the parents or guardians of an infant to be admitted to Holy Baptism that the same responsibilities rest on them as are in the service of Holy Baptism required of the godparents.

This assumes that due instruction has been given to the godparents; that the godparents are aware of their responsibilities and can,

…faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.(Canon Law B23.2)

In our parish we currently only ask that the parents speak with the godparents about their responsibilities but we have no contact with godparents prior to the baptism.

I asked some other clergy to send me their baptism preparation process to see where we could develop and improve ours. Of the 6 shared with me none of them do any instructing of the godparents on their role and responsibilities and of the 5 churches where I have been aware of their preparation process none of them did either. Bearing in mind that we struggle, in my current parish, to get godparents who are baptised let alone practising Christians we are a long way off. We have long since wavered the requirement of confirmation as set out in Canon Law B23.4!

So here is my question (and it is a question): Would it be so bad to adopt a stricter policy of admission to Holy Baptism based on the requirements laid out regarding godparents?

Let’s take the idea of looking at the admission to Holy Baptism through the lens of a monastic model in a parish church. If a parish church’s baptism policy was connected into a more monastic understanding of discipleship then the approach to infant baptism could be viewed in similar terms as St. Benedict does in this chapter of his Rule. This would be no different to the theology behind infant baptism outside of a monastic understanding of discipleship with parents and godparents taking on the responsibility of making vows on behalf of the child.

In practice, the parents of a child being offered to the monastic life would need to write the petition, an unbreakable contract agreement, with the same understanding of the commitment being made if the child was of age. This would mean the same sort of rigour of instruction before an offering of the child was made. In Canon Law it states that,

No minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents in these Canons are observed.(Canon Law B22.4)

For every child to be baptized there shall be not fewer than three godparents, of whom at least two shall be of the same sex as the child and of whom at least one shall be of the opposite sex; save that, when three cannot conveniently be had, one godfather and godmother shall suffice. Parents may be godparents for their own children provided that the child have at least one other godparent…No person shall be admitted to be a sponsor or godparent who has not been baptized and confirmed. Nevertheless the minister shall have power to dispense with the requirement of confirmation in any case in which in his judgement need so requires.(Canon Law B23.1&4)

Now, whenever delaying baptism is discussed there are some who get uncomfortable with placing ‘hoops’ in the way. They feel that the parents will feel shunned or rejected by the church and that experience of ‘not being worthy,etc.’ will impact in their view of church in general. I understand the fear of this and can see the complex pastoral issues this raises but this is what happens when you develop such an open door policy in the first place. How do these pastoral minded objectors interpret Jesus’ challenge in Luke’s gospel,

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)

William Barclay suggests,

It may well be that we have hurt the Church very seriously by trying to tell people that Church membership need not make so very much difference; we would be better to tell them that it must make all the difference in the world. We might have fewer people; but those we had would be totally pledged to Crist. (William Barclay,The Gospel of Luke: the daily study bible (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1961) p.133)

I had a young man contact me wanting to be baptised and so I eagerly met with him to talk about it. I asked him why he felt he wanted to get baptised and he ‘just wanted to’, his family had all ‘been done’ and he had ‘missed out’. I asked if he had any experience of God. He answered by saying that he once prayed for something and it happened. I talked about what he would have to promise if he wanted to be baptised and talked about the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I sent him away with homework; to read Mark’s gospel and to write down any questions or confusions about what he read. I asked him to contact me in a week and we’ll chat about what he had discovered. I also invited him to come to church and to experience worship and prayer in the context of a community of believers.

He never came to church and I still wait for him to get back in touch. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I have had three previous conversations which have ended after our first meeting. All of them began with a request to be baptised. After these conversations I feel guilty that they hadn’t taken the opportunity to explore faith, I questioned whether I was putting too many barriers in the way and I beat myself up that I wasn’t able to share my faith i a way that was attractive or exciting for them.

Then I remind myself that for each of these encounters I also have stories of when I have sat with someone and share my faith with them and they now stand as faithful, practising Christians. God can and does use me sometimes!

I read the gospels and I see there Jesus asking people to follow him and many turning away and not taking him up on it. These refusals to follow Jesus don’t make Jesus change his admission policy but rather to pray and love them nonetheless. We should do the same. Keep the challenge to be a disciple but love those who feel it is too costly for them. There’s nothing wrong with being the crowd, Jesus still loved them, they just weren’t disciples with the responsibility and cost involved.


We can all feel great pressure to make everyone we meet a Christian. The focus on mission and evangelism can be heard as a drive to increase membership in our churches but there is a distinction which needs to be heeded to stop us from selling grace too cheaply. Evangelism is not about the results. Evangelism is only about proclamation of good news; the word in greek for ‘evangelist’ means messenger, someone who speaks a message of good news. How the hearers responded was not their job, their sole purpose was to say the good news to the people. Let us not change the message so that it is favourable to the hearer. Let us instead proclaim the message faithfully and allow the hearers respond how they wish; some will hear, others won’t. Jesus knew this more than any of us.

Mission is more about establishing God’s Kingdom in our hearts and proclaiming it with our mouths and transformed lives than it is about increasing our market share. The results of mission and evangelism must remain out of our control if we are to not become manipulative or manipulated. This should not hinder the passion with which we engage in mission or evangelism we must still do it with all our heart and lives but God builds his Church. He must encounter people by his grace and he has always given humanity freedom to choose to respond or not. Allow him to take the heart ache of all those who do not listen to his voice.

Gracious Father, you came and met us in your Son, Jesus Christ, and called us to live a life as your disciples. You told us the cost and warned us of the challenge but you also showed us the glory of your resurrected life and the power of your Spirit. May we never forget reward of being in you and having you dwell within us. May we not sell that powerful experience of grace short with the people we meet.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 58: the admission of new brothers


Admission to the religious life should not be made easy for newcomers.

What does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

It seems to me we have reached, in this chapter, another pivotal moment in the Rule. The issue raised in this chapter comes close to my central thesis (that sounds too pretentious) to this whole ‘parish monasticism’ project: what does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

One of the trickiest parts of my role as a minister of religion in an established church is baptisms. You can choose any Anglican church in this country and ask the minister about their baptism policy and I can guarantee that they will speak, at some point, about it being ‘complicated’ or ‘disappointing’. It is on this single issue that I begin to consider disestablishment as a useful proposal!

I don’t want to go into my baptismal theology (it’s more Baptist than Roman Catholic but I understand the role of infant baptism) but I have never seen baptism as a legitimate evangelistic opportunity. The reason it remains disappointing is that we continue to delude ourselves that the majority of people bringing their baby to be ‘christened’ want anything to do with God. We invest time in ‘preparing’ babies to be ‘christened’ because we cannot refuse but in the end a small number of these families take the promises made at the baptism service seriously or anywhere close to understanding what they are committing to. The service becomes a theological farce in my mind and it forces me to ask: what is actually going on at those secular celebrations of our profound mysteries of God’s grace?

So, yes, I’m pretty distressed about this and easily slip into emotional rhetoric on the subject but to try and outline a positive response to the dilemma I will return to the question: what does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

I ask this question at preparation evenings we host for potential baptism families. The phrasing of the question is important; I ask,

If your child, when they are 7 or 8 years old, comes up to you and asks, “Mummy/Daddy, are we Christian?” What will you say? And they ask, as they are likely to do, “why?” What will your response be?

From my year and a half of asking this question I have yet to hear any answer other than,

Yes. You were christened.

My heart sinks when I go month after month desperately hoping that one day someone will articulate in some way their desire to know Jesus. After they’ve answered I talk, quite passionately, about being a Christian, about following Jesus, wanting to be transformed into His likeness, to acting, speaking, loving like Jesus, to inviting him to direct my life, my behaviours and my attitudes. I, like many ministers, comfort myself with the only thing left to us: the ‘planting seeds’ analogy.

It is not that I don’t understand the sowing analogy but I have major theological issues when we’re sowing seeds at the point of baptism, our welcoming of new Christians into the Kingdom of God. Infant baptism, for me, relies, in part, on the faith of the parents and/or godparents. Of course, baptism relies on the grace of God and God’s relationship with the child but there remains big questions over whether salvation can be removed from someone; can someone turn away from God’s grace? It is about free will and choice in the matter of relationship with God. If choice is taken away from baptism then we may as well go round pouring holy water over people and proclaiming faith over them!

No, it will not do, for me!

Here, in the Rule of St Benedict, we hear of the admission to the religious life not being made easy for newcomers. In my heart I believe that baptism into the Christian faith ideally should be akin to taking up monastic vows. This does not deny infant baptism for the commitment made in that instance still takes the vows of the parents and/or godparents.

But, Ned, that’s monasticism and not ordinary folks!

Why do we still differentiate so much in this respect? Why can we not take the model of monasticism for general faith? Why must there be different levels of holiness, one level reserved only for the ‘monks’? Why do we not expect all Christians to be holy?

I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer recently and studying his views on ‘new monasticism’ as well as discipleship. I’ve recently been skimming through his ‘Letters and Papers From Prison’ in which he begins to outline a book he never had the chance to complete. In this book he begins to formulate a ‘religionless Christianity’. The argument, for me, is persuasive but, unfortunately, he never fleshed out the practical implications of his theories. If I ever return to academic study I would probably base my dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s use of monastic models in his view of Christian discipleship.

His use of monastic metaphors began well before his time in prison of course. It was in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ that I first came across his explicit use of monasticism.

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost. The world was Christianized; grace became common property of a Christian world. It could be had cheaply. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness… Here on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved. People left everything they had for the sake of Christ and tried to follow Jesus’ strict commandments through daily exercise. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christiantiy, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p.46-7)

This whole section from the chapter on ‘Costly Grace’ jumps from the page and into our time. He attacks the division of the church into ‘a highest and lowest achievement of Christian obedience’. The work of the monks was used to justify the lack of discipleship of the many in churches.

But the decisive mistake of monasticism was not that it followed the grace-laden path of strict discipleship… Rather, the mistake was that monasticism essentially distanced itself from what is Christian by permitting its way to become the extraordinary achievements of a few, thereby claiming a special meritoriousness for itself. (Ibid., p.47)

Prior to his publication of ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother and proclaimed,

The restoration of the Church will surely come from a kind of new monasticism, which has in common with the old kind only the uncompromising nature of life according to the Sermon on the Mount, following Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)

If you put these two writings together you can see Bonhoeffer beginning to formulate an ecclesiology which broke down the cloistered walls and brought the discipleship of the monastic life into the wider Church. Bonhoeffer goes on to use the biography of Luther, himself a monk, who ‘escaped the monastery’ to bring the discipleship to all the world.

By the time he reached prison, Bonhoeffer was grasping the implications of this ‘new form of monasticism’ which was based fully in the world. Part of Bonhoeffer’s argument for a ‘religionless Christianity’ centres on the un-biblical premise that Christianity is a cosmic escape plan from this world to heaven. In this schema Christianity is a religion interested only in metaphysics and individual salvation. His prison letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, critiques our modern view of Christianity which desperately attempts to preserve itself against an increasingly forceful argument against the existence of God. In an baptismal homily written for Bethge’s son, Bonhoeffer writes,

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christina thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM Press, 2001) p.105)

If the reality of faith in Christ that God does not desire us to leave this world or be concerned with other worldly things but to follow Christ in committing to this world in all its suffering and challenges then what place does something as religious and metaphysical as prayer have in this faith?

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world–watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; that is how one becomes human and a Christian (cf. Jer: 45!)(Ibid., p137)

I know I’m quoting alot of Bonhoeffer but I think it’s important to show his thorough study towards an ecclesiology which I find helpful in pursuing this disturbing experience of baptising, wholesale, babies to parents who show no indication of any desire of relationship with Jesus Christ.

It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, “Like it or lump it”: virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn’t biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. (Ibid., p.369-70)

And so here it is, what I’ve been building upto!

Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the “Discipline of the Secret” in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable…The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.91)

Baptism is not an opportunity to teach people the faith. Baptism must remain the result/ the response to an encounter with the resurrected Jesus in this world. Baptism is the secret admission of another into the community which professes by its prayer and action the reality of God amongst us, reconciling and restoring this world.


I believe, now more than ever, the reformation of the Church will come through a new form of monasticism which breaks down the cloisters and is embedded in the lives of all Christians. By Christian I mean those who seek to know God in the world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. This means a Church which knows itself as disciples living contrary to the world around them but still remaining embedded in it as Jesus once did. Jesus remains enfleshed in the very reality of God and so there will never be any division between flesh and spirit.

Jesus also differentiated between the crowd and the disciples and was unashamed in the distinction. We are not disciples to sell Christ as a product. We are disciples to seek Jesus and to be more like him. The established church has lost this distinction in our baptismal theology and we continue to cheapen the power and transformation of grace by colluding with it.

Having said all of this, I fall into silence at the horror and pain of my feelings and pray earnestly for wisdom. I know that I am at the very first stages of understanding and may be heading down a treacherous path but still that dissatisfaction for where we are now.

Gracious Father, let me not be pushed down the wrong path but rather be led by your Spirit into your will and right thinking. May my mind be your servant as well as my heart and life. I pray, have mercy on us all and lead us into the path of righteousness for your Sons sake.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 57: artisans and craftsmen


… if anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labor.

Who am I?

As June 2015 approaches and I come to the end of my official curacy, marked by a final assessment panel and an interview with my bishop, I am finding it hard not to think about the reports that will be gathered about me and my suitability to minister. On the bishops desk will be a minimum of 9 reports assessing my progress over the last three years, my competences, my character and every aspect of who I am. It is a pretty daunting thing if you think about it too much!

I have also been undertaking some intense ‘soul searching’ and reflection for the last few months guided by a counsellor. This has helped me to understand a little more as to what makes me behave and think like I do. I am acutely aware of the complexity by which God works through my own free will and psychological and genetic tendencies to reform me. When is something to be named as ‘God-given’ and when is it not?

I find it hard to accept that all talents and skills are to be ascribed to the spiritual realm. There are things that I’m good at which are there because I have worked very hard at learning and perfecting them. When I was an atheist I would get frustrated with religious people saying God gave them that ‘gift’ when it could be taught without involving God at all. I’m not saying that God can’t use those skills that one learns and does courses in but that we shouldn’t ascribe all skills to God for there are some skills which do not honour him nor would he want us to use. Take learning how to torture someone. It may seem facetious to say this but there are some people who are very good at taking other human beings to the edge of their life but holding them on the brink to force them to speak on the desired issue. This is a skill which not everyone can do. We wouldn’t dream of saying,

They’re really good at that it must be a god-given gift.

What is the distinction? Is it in the purpose of the activity? If someone learns a skill without knowing God and uses it to actively deny God is that still God-given? Is everything we are and do because of God? If this is true then why does he change us? In saying that all skills and talents are God-given, to me, denies the wonder and power of God’s redemption.

There are things that I have picked up through my experiences that are not healthy. I respond badly in certain situations which are not edifying and I am not proud of and I wouldn’t dream of turning round to the people I hurt and say,

This is the way God made me so you can’t complain.

It would be nice to say that because it takes all the pressure for me to change off and to blame God for making me ‘this way’. The truth is God didn’t make us ‘this way’. We were made by flesh and blood and we’ve been shaped by an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. Some parts of me are messed up and need reforming and that’s also true of you.

When St. Paul talks about spiritual gifts he is both vague and specific. The lists of gifts are not, in my mind, exhaustive, nor are we meant to be focussing on the list of gifts but rather the point of these passages (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and, some would argue, Ephesians 4 but I have my questions on that!) is to highlight God the giver of grace through his Holy Spirit. God equips us for the tasks he calls us to. In my view and my experience, God never equips us for no reason. God calls first and equips after. This order makes more sense for God wants us to serve and behave dependent on him not on ourselves. Naming and blessing all our capabilities on behalf of God is not the same as truly experiencing the transformation of God via his Spirit.

That’s why, in The Rule of St. Benedict, I think it is clear that the ‘artisan’ is described as having a ‘skill’ and not a ‘gift’. But, you may protest, what about Bezalel!

The Lord spoke to Moses: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” (Exodus 31:1-5)

My reading of Exodus 31 is that Bezalel is given ‘skill’ for a specific task. The call comes first the skill second. God helps Bezalel to learn the necessary skills with the other aspects of the gift, ‘wisdom, understanding and knowledge/intelligence’ (from the original Hebrew).

Now, I’m not saying that these skills are not important and can’t be used by God; quite the opposite! It is a testament and a witness to the redemption of God and how God works that he does use those things we learnt before we received his gift of grace. The distinction I am wanting to make is between that which God has given to us and how God uses us. The former is perfect for it comes from God and the latter is imperfect but redeemable if we choose to obey God’s will. Does this distinction need to be made? I would argue it does for we can easily slide into blessing everything we do as ‘God-given’ and controlled by God without considering the important aspect of our own fallenness and brokenness.

When it comes to questions of my identity I struggle to communicate such a concept because of the confusing assumptions of both myself and the hearer. When I sit before the panel assessing my vocation and competences and I talk with my bishop, I will struggle to communicate seemingly simple questions about discernment. This is not about what God is calling me to specifically but about how he has equipped me. What of my personality is God-given? What part of who I am is from God?

What it comes down to is I can only be sure of this: I am in Christ being renewed for his glory all the rest is debatable.


The most significant challenge in this chapter of the Rule is the guidance,

…if anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labor.

As I face the panel I will be sensitive to my own pride and, as with most days of my life, pray that God will humble me, that he will remind me of my identity in him and to speak only of that.

We are so keen to establish our self esteem because we all are confused about who we are at the deepest level. We feel we should know ourselves but the truth is we don’t and that’s scary. Thomas Merton suggests,

The reason we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly or openly hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God. (Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (London: Burns and Oates, 1976) p.9)

In his extended commentary on identity in ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ he says,

In great saints you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972) p.99)

Humility, Merton asserts,

…consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are alike, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. (ibid.)

For Merton the practical things of everyday life should not be items of conflict,

The saints do not get excited about the things that people eat and drink, wear on their bodies, or hang on the walls of their houses. To make conformity or non conformity with others in these accidents a matter of life and death is to fill your interior life with confusion and noise. (ibid.) (my emphasis)

My personality and my preferences are ‘accidents’ not to be seen as static like some perfect idol but rather to be sacrificed before God to used and changed as he wills. My skills and competences, likewise.

Genes, parenting, and spiritual forces do condition who we are. But for believers whose spirits have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit these conditioning factors cannot determine who we are unless we choose to allow them to do so. (Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: a biblical introduction to the open view of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p.147)

In order to know who we are we must know who God is and discover who we are before him.

But under the steady bombardment of meaningless propaganda that is always directed against us, we surrender our privilege to think and hope and make decisions for ourselves… And we will never find God if we are not ourselves mature persons. To find God one must first be free.(Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (London: Burns and Oates, 1976) p.11)

Freedom comes when we follow Christ into his death and live in his resurrection and new creation. Death of our ego, death of our personality, death of everything we think defines us which is not Christ. In uniformly being in Christ we find we are uniquely ourselves.
Abba Father, you call us to life in you through participating in the death and new life of your son Jesus Christ. We humbly approach you and ask that you take every aspect of our life and use it for your glory. We ask you keep our eyes fixed on you and to continue the work of discipleship.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 53: the reception of guests


All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ…

Where is this all leading to?

After 59 weeks of praying and working through the Rule of St. Benedict, we come to the reception of guests. We have spoken about hospitality before but it has been practice for the main event; receiving strangers into our home.

It is said that hospitality is a Benedictine practice (having been on the receiving end of it I can confirm they do it like no other!) The opening maxim of the chapter to see all guests/strangers as Christ and to welcome him thus is a strongly Biblical idea. In Genesis we have the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers at Mamre and discovering that they are either angels or the God Himself (depending on your reading of the text.) Jesus tells of the analogy of the sheep and goats with the central idea being,

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40b)

We also have the story of the disciples walking to Emmaus and offering hospitality to the stranger who joins them on the road only to discover it was the risen Christ all along.

Sarah and I have a quote from the letter to the Hebrews on our dining room wall which is located at the front of our house,

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)

Our guests often comment on it. Once a guest laughed and turned to us saying,

That’s a bit dangerous, isn’t it? What if complete strangers in the street see it and take you up on it?

That’s kind of the point!

I have yet to welcome in a complete stranger and fed them, clothed them, washed them, etc. It’s hard to know whether I’d be totally obedient to that radical hospitality or not. I suspect I would fail and back out of the opportunity. I suspect I’d justify my decision by saying how dangerous it is and our home is not set up for housing strangers. I have, however, shown hospitality to strangers and welcomed them in for an hour or two, listened to them and given them refreshments (in the form of a beverage!) This form of hospitality, though, is limited and I have always sent them on their way and never invited them to stay for a meal.

Maybe that’s enough sometimes. I have been struck by Esther de Waal’s comment on this chapter,

He has prepared me to welcome all, regardless of rank, and yet to treat each according to need, so that there is no uniformity but consideration for weakness or infirmity. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.155)

It was this quote from de Waal that has given me pause for thought.

…each according to need…

Hospitality has the same root as hospital. The latin word, ‘hospes’ means ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’ and hospital means ‘guest house’. There is the well known socialist phrase which many use when talking about the NHS,

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need

It seems to me, however, that this socialist phrase has been used to bring about uniformity. If we are to live out the socialist maxim of ‘to each according to his need’ then we are required to look at the individual and serve the person in front of us. It causes us to not ‘process’ the patient but to meet the person. The principle requires we connect with the stranger.

One of the issues with the NHS and the welfare system is that it has been treated, for a number of years, as an organisation and not as a service. The sheer size of the operation (excuse the pun) cries out to be treated as a machine which needs to be increasingly efficient and ‘successful’. Successive governments, in my limited opinion, have fallen for this temptation and have brought in increasing measures to streamline and improve.

There was a fantastic article on the NHS recently which articulated the point well. At times the NHS is clumsy and waiting times in Accident and Emergency are at breaking point but the solution, for me, is not to set targets and put pressure on the workers, it’s to do the complete opposite. The opposite, to encourage the medical professionals with fair wages and dedicated support would cost money but would also increase the uptake of people choosing the profession, then giving medical staff sustainable working hours and saving money on the administration of stress related issues, etc.

I’m no expert in the inner workings of the NHS nor of other welfare services but I know enough to say the main complaint from us users is that the welfare system is becoming more and more faceless and we feel ‘processed’ not known.

I volunteer at a local foodbank and I meet with all sorts of people in crisis. Many are recipients of benefits and only a few do I seriously question the legitimacy of their claim (I’d say one or two in the last two years!) I am surprised by that experience purely because, if all the experiences of the system by the users are true then I’d have thought the figure of abuses should be more. Those receiving benefits generally feel abused by an uncaring system who process them on numbers and finance and not on personal stories. This is not due to the lack of desire on behalf of those working for DWP but by their lack of ability to engage with those in need due to pressures put on them by management.

It is time we challenge the way we all use the welfare system and that includes how we see it being managed. The reason the church is stepping in on this issue and why the two Archbishops have spoken out about it, is because we have over a thousand years of experience in how to show care for the needy and hospitality to the stranger. We, as Christians, have a intrinsic maxim to how to do ‘hospitals’, ‘according to need’. This cuts out abusers of the system who would seek to take that which is needed elsewhere for themselves.

A quick personal story to finish:

Sarah is a major beneficiary of the NHS and so is her brother. Without this service in place, they’d both be dead! As a family they have a lot to be thankful for the NHS but they are proud supporters of the service because they see on a regular basis the work of those serving within it.

We sat down this week to discuss a major operation for Sarah with all the staff on their specialist CF ward. Each of the six professionals around the table knew Sarah, not her numbers and statistics but her personality, they cared for her. They know her life, her passions, her weaknesses and they know what would be good for her. In short they know her abilities and her needs and care for her accordingly. For those six people and for the hundred workers in that ward and for the thousands of workers throughout the NHS, from me, “THANK YOU!”


Hospitality to the stranger should be at the top of all parish churches mission statement; it is that simple!

Welcome in the practical way outlined by St. Benedict protects us against those cringey, heavy-handed welcomes that make you feel slightly stalked through worship and the opposite danger of feeling overlooked and unworthy of attention. It is not just about welcome on a Sunday, though. Hospitality should be extended to all according to their needs. This will mean we serve those in greater need first and more often than those without but at all time we look to meet the person not process the number.

Hospitalable God, you welcomed us into your family and called us your children. Teach us to welcome others into our lives and serve them with the same love and grace that Christ showed to his people.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 50: brothers who work at a distance from the oratory or are traveling


Brothers who cannot come to the oratory at the appointed hours – because of their distance labor – should say the Divine Office where they are, kneeling in fear of God.

Who do I pray with?

Part of my personal reflections as I read the Rule of St. Benedict has been on my place within the Northumbria Community. My noviciate process has been stalled for two years now and recently I have been revisiting my future of the journey with them. I called a stop to the noviciate process due to my difficulties with the dispersed nature of the community. Despite having local groups that meet to encourage living out the Rule of Life and to have fellowship with, I have never found a group local enough. As a parish minister I feel a strong connection with my geographical location, serving and praying for the people in the area I live and work. I feel I would benefit from a community who walk the Rule of Life in that location asking the question, ‘How then shall we live… here?’

I still find the Rule of Life for the Northumbria Community enriching and challenging and I find myself returning to it and wrestling with its questions. I still say the Daily Office regularly and have settled into a sustained rhythm embedded over five years. I have made annual retreats to the Mother House over the years and contribute a relational tithe to them each month. I still feel a deep connection with the Northumbria Community and value their friendship and prayers but is the season changing now?

Part of my reflections on my relationship with the dispersed community has been the question of prayer and how it connects me into the community. Each morning, lunchtime and evening when I sit down to pray the Daily Office I feel a connection with the community, mainly those praying at the Mother House in Northumberland. I think of them often, sitting in Nether Springs, preparing meals, cleaning rooms for guests, leading workshops, pausing to say those shared words that I too am saying several miles south in my parish. It is the rhythm of prayer that connects me most; connects me into the established relationship with specific people and, in a smaller way to unknown members of the community across the world.

Over time, however, I find that I think of them less as my mind turns to my more immediate community in the parish. I now consider those who sit with me in situ regularly praying the Daily Office with me. My prayer ‘home’ is no longer up in Northumberland but here in York.

I have moved.

This is significant when considering what rhythm you pray to. I am feeling less and less of a relational connection with the people in Nether Springs (the Mother House of Northumbria Community) not because I love them any less or that I don’t desire to be with them more but because my rhythm of life has had to change. The Rule still stands as root for me to return to but the Daily Office has become less of that connection than it did. I don’t pray at the same time as my fellow journeyers up in Nether Springs due to the different work days that we have. I no longer pray for the same people as I focus my prayers on the local area with the prayers of the people around me.

Where does this leave me in my relationship with the Northumbria Community?

Many would say it doesn’t matter where you are, you engage with the community when and where you like; that’s what it means to be a dispersed community.

You’re expecting too much. It is too idealistic.

Maybe that’s true but I still have a deep call to be part of an intentional community which is rooted in the monastic tradition and part of that call, for me, is about location.

Another question I have is about the alternatives. I have yet to see God leading me to start an intentional community where I am at this point in time. I will soon be moving on from current role and it would be foolish and impractical to start anything now. I have, however, sensed there is a group of people orbiting the idea of this form of community discipleship in York and there is the potential bubbling up. What that looks like, how it would work and what Sarah and my role in that is has yet to be discerned. As my mind thinks over this possibility I think less of the Northumbria Community and more about the people who seem to share a call to intentional community in York.

Having prayed for over a year now around this subject all I can say is that I feel called to be a part of a group of disciples who live and work close to one another, who live out a life of prayer, study, dialogue and worship with one another, who have a passion for reconciliation, healing and creativity. I want to explore this with people who live close to me who can share my life as I share theirs and we share the life of Christ with the world.


Parish life lends itself to a community at prayer in and for a specific location. Each morning and each evening I pray for my geographical area, I lift their needs and questions to God on their behalf and I am privileged to share that task with a small group of others who sit with me and support me. When I am unable to meet with them I still pray, wherever I am or they are and I do not feel alone… Of course I am not alone in prayer as thousands (if not millions) of others are praying with me at the same time, they’re just not in that room with me physically and that is where my reflections return.

Where is my physical community at prayer? Where is the community who not only say prayers with me but live out the prayers with me, who know me, know my heart, challenge me, pray for me and speak God’s word into my life?

Father, you are with me and by your Spirit you pray through me. You have called me to this place with a particular vocation and ministry. Keep me faithful to your timing and rhythm. Lead me in the way of Christ and gather round me the Body of Christ that I may play my part in it.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 46: offences in other matters


If the cause of the sin is secret (hidden in the soul), the monk should confess to the abbot or one of the spiritual fathers.

Who can I tell?

When the Lord comes,
he will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness,
and will disclose the purposes of the heart.
Therefore in the light of Christ let us confess our sins.

This is a seasonal provision in Common Worship for an invitation to confession from the First Sunday of Advent until Christmas Eve. I’ve been saying this for four weeks as I’ve led services in different contexts. The wording is from 1 Corinthians 4:5 and is a great image of bringing everything into the light.

Darkness, after the initial shock, can be quite comforting. No one can see what you’re doing and so no one can judge your behaviour. You are alone with your thoughts and those probing eyes of others are gone; you can do whatever you like. You’re free. Darkness brings this sense of privacy where you feel in control, released from judgement.

Darkness is also scary, isolating and lonely. With no sense of sight your other senses are heightened and, those of us who are reliant on our eyes most of the time, struggle to interpret the sounds, smells and other sensations that we are now aware of.

I’ve been involved in many a party game where someone is blindfolded and asked to feel an object and guess what it is. Part of the thrill or anxiety that is created is the unknown, the unseen. What if the worst thing imaginable is placed into our hands? Not knowing what the object is means you cannot prepare yourself for the possible movement of the object or the danger that it might be. There’s a great wave of relief when you see, even if you don’t like it, what the object was. When it comes into the light there’s a fuller understanding of what it is you were dealing with.

St. Benedict has returned to discussing issues of mistakes, faults and offences in community life. We all make them, they all have an impact beyond ourselves and we should all be prepared to admit them and try and make amends. In this chapter St. Benedict reminds us again that there is no difference between what happens in the ‘sacred’ to what happens in the ‘mundane’; we are to behave in the kitchen, cellar, garden, bakery, refectory, etc. as we do in the chapel/oratory. If we make a mistake or offend God or neighbour then we should treat it as if we did it in a ‘sacred’ space such as a church building. We are to go and make a public admission in front of abbot and the community so that no one is left in the dark over such matters.

Like the previous chapter, we are encouraged to admit quickly before the issue becomes larger by deceit and covering over the fault. It is easy to try and keep mistakes private out of fear of being seen to have failed and stumbled but greater is the shame if you are found to be using the darkness to cover such mistakes. The darkness is easy to use as a tool to select what others see of you and to build the false image of yourself but this creates a kind of division within yourself of that which others know about and that which you’d rather hide from them out of fear you will be judged.

In our culture we demand that no one judges another but we do it all the time and judgement is a necessary part of growing and developing. Imagine education without anyone telling you when you get an answer right or wrong, the same is true of the development of character and behaviour. If you want to be a part of a society then you must act within the framework and worldview of that society, if you do not then you are not united in behaviour and outlook with those around you and the bonds are broken. Judgement helps us to connect with others and to learn how to live and behave with those around us.

The problem arises when mistakes and ‘failures’ are seen to be feared and resisted. This view leads to the inevitable hiding of faults and a desperate and futile attempt at being perfect in the eyes of others. Judgement, in this culture, becomes a devastating rejection of a person into the abyss of eternal damnation. The community portrayed within the Rule of St. Benedict, however, is one rooted and established on grace and a desire to be humbled (‘humiliated’ in the truest sense of the word.) With grace, mistakes and faults are to be expected and open to redemption by God who, when invited to, can cleanse us from all faults and make us perfect by his Spirit. Judgement, in this culture of grace, is seen as a diagnosis of a problem that is curable by the great Healer. The rejection of judgement is the resisting of full force of grace and healing within the Body of Christ.

In the issues of mistakes in the ‘mundane’ parts of communal life, St. Benedict is essentially saying in this chapter,

See above.

Although there is one difference in this chapter which has not been said in previous chapters,

If the cause of the sin is secret (hidden in the soul), the monk should confess to the abbot or one of the spiritual fathers. (my emphasis)

Throughout the Rule so far, the advice is to take confession to the abbot and he shall make judgement on the form and severity of correction. Here, however, there is the option of not going to the abbot but ‘one of the spiritual fathers’. When the fault is internal, i.e. not a tangible, which does not impact the community in a practical way, then the monk can go and admit it to another with authority granted to them by the abbot. This must be done, as with other sins, quickly before it becomes habitual or longer lasting.

This is characteristically practical of St. Benedict. I know that I have thoughts and temptations each day which pass, unseen by others, through my mind which effect my behaviour and attitude towards others. I can keep them private out of fear of being judged for thinking or feeling such things and no one would be any the wiser, their opinion of me would still be good and I wouldn’t upset or hurt them and thus cause them to reject me in some way. I justify the hiding of these mistakes by saying I don’t want to upset my brothers or sisters and cause them to act out of anger but it’s not the full truth.

In the Apprentice this year, one candidate made a mistake which cost the team dearly in the task. He was obviously ashamed of his failure and, instead of admitting it to the others, he ‘made a business decision’ and ‘for the morale of the team’ to not tell them: he lied. In the boardroom the truth came out and he continued to persuade the others, Lord Sugar and himself that it was solely for the morale of the team. I was surprised to hear, after he was ‘fired’, that others said this was a reasonable thing to do and was an established ‘technique’ in business. It was hiding in the darkness out of fear of the idol of himself he had made would crumble and he would be humbled.

Going to another and confessing the thoughts or inner sins stops us from building the idols of ourselves whilst, at the same time, protecting those who may not yet have the grace to forgive and pray for our healing from the mistake. The hearer of the confession may feel that the wisest thing to do in order to be healed is to go to others who may be affected by the inner mistake and admit it to them without involving others in the community. That other person may be the abbot and so it would be wise to time that admission for the danger is, the abbot still being human and able to fall themselves, might respond rashly out of anger or fear.


I had a good conversation with someone this week about the frustrations of church and they were keen to express their disappointment and anger at the irrelevance of church services to the majority of the population of this country. They had no problem with the Church, the people who make up the Body of Christ, but the worship services were a waste of time. I wonder whether the division between these two things is the problem here. What I mean is, if you don’t engage in the worship services of the Church then how do you engage with the other aspects of the Church’s life? You should have the same attitude when you go to a Sunday service (if your church meets on a Sunday) as you do when you meet together for social times because worship encompasses both activity/tasks and the devotion of time in the presence of God. God should be involved in all that we do, no matter where we are as individual disciples or with other Christians. We know this, so why is it that we say in one instance,

This particular group is my church.

and in another,

I don’t get that group of believers or how they express their faith (if indeed they have one)

The Church is the Church. It is, at it’s most basic level, a gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ. When we meet together we remind ourselves of the Body of Christ and we re-member Christ amongst us by his Holy Spirit. In this posture we humble ourselves before him and lay down our wills in favour of his and we worship, either by enacting his commands or proclaiming his greatness and majesty to position ourselves firmly beneath his will and command.

This should happen whenever we are with other followers of Jesus. Everything we say and do therefore should be worship in these two sense: reminding ourselves and each other of who we serve and to be humbled before him and also doing Christ’s work on earth/building his kingdom and not our own. The kitchen, cellar, garden, etc. then become places of worship because where ever we are we worship God.

If everywhere is sacred does this mean we no longer need specific places of worship? I would say that if we didn’t meet in one place we’d meet in another space and it would become sacred, therefore, we will always have specific sacred sites which we congregate in to intentionally praise and re-member Christ amongst us and receive from him. If we close our church buildings we’d need to find other buildings in which to meet for worship and if we moved we’d lose the connection with the two thousand year history and tradition of our faith and re-member with those ‘saints’ which have gone before.

Indeed, the whole of the worship service as passed down from generation to generation is a tool to connect with the saints throughout the ages to have relationship with the past, the present and the future. It is the mysterious work of God’s Spirit to bring us into the communion of Saints who will all stand, one day, in glory to sing God’s praises. Our worship services are, whether we feel it or not, a foretaste of this heavenly reality. We want to hold onto tradition, not because we are fearful of change, but because we want to honour our brothers and sisters before us and worship with them. It is a lesson we must heed in our time, to lay down our own preferences and choose to honour others before ourselves. This is painful and difficult thing to do because sometimes it feels like a one way street but we enter, in part, to Christ’s approach to us that when we were still sinners he came to meet us. He chose grace and became in the form of a servant and was obedient… to the point of death on the cross.

When we don’t appreciate the sacred in the mundane there is the danger that we will make the sacred, mundane. We stumble into our times of worship together and informality leads us to laziness and blindness. Samuel Beckett writes in his play ‘Waiting for Godot’,

But habit is a great deadener.(Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 2000) p.83)

We all find it easier to differentiate between ‘work’ and ‘life’; we talk of achieving the work/life balance but in the life of faith everything is work and everything is life. When you head into the office, the school or wherever you ‘work’ you do not leave your discipleship at the door. You’re going to that place with the mission of Christ ringing in your ear. The priority for disciples, over and above the job description, is to build God’s Kingdom here on earth, to make disciples, to be light in the world. In this mindset we approach worship as a duty that we feel forced to do in our ‘spare time’, there is then the pressure of making it beneficial and for us to feel something. When the service doesn’t live up to that expectation we reject it and complain and grumble. If we were to approach it with the knowledge that we should always be worshipping and encouraging one another as disciples then whenever we meet it is a joining in of what is going on in all of our hearts. Worship then is not the shop window of the community but the factory, the powerhouse at the centre. We return to this place of communal re-membering of Christ to be fed and to be sent out. Inviting people into the community is through the thresholds of the community and via the waters of baptism.


This chapter is a bridge between two important points. We are moving from the discussion on the need for swift admission of faults and mistakes, firmly establishing an attitude towards judgement within the framework of grace and humility. We are moving to a discussion on the erasing of a sacred/mundane divide which protects us from the demands of discipleship. The establishing of a distinction between sacred and mundane is done for the same reason we find we want to maintain both light and darkness. In one we can do what we like and behave without judgement and shame whilst still being able to enter into the other controlling what others see and what they don’t.

Those who argue that darkness must exist in order to appreciate the light are trying to justify the maintaining of that small corner of our lives that is useful to feel comfortable and in control. The problem is, without the light reaching those parts we cannot appreciate the full force of grace which transforms and heals us to be the fully resurrected people of God. The Refiner’s fire must burn into every aspect of our lives and change us. This is a painful experience but until we go through it we cannot know the full brilliance of our God who we invite to lead us to holiness and peace.

Our communities must be rooted and established in grace. In this we intentionally seek to be humbled and then to see judgement in the right way as a means to be in the right position before our God who we worship in every aspect of our lives. This means to be actively seeking to be in right relationship with other Christians and trusting in the vehicle of grace: God’s Body, the Church.

If we are not channels of grace then we have no right to call ourselves church… The body of Christ the ultimate vehicle of grace. (John Barclay, a lecture on the wisdom of the cross in 1 Corinthians, Tuesday 4th June 2013, Diocese of York Clergy Conference)

Gracious and healing God, bring into light those things we long to keep hidden in the darkness. We invite your judgement onto us knowing that you are tender and loving towards those that fear you and you have come, in the person Jesus, to heal sinners like me. May our communities be places where mistakes and faults are dealt with quickly so we can experience more fully your grace and love for us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 44: how the excommunicated are to make satisfaction


He who has been excommunicated from oratory and the community table is to prostrate himself in front of the oratory door when the Divine Office is concluding.

Do we need penance?

It all sounds very severe and humiliating to literally lie face down for an extended period of time in front of others. Two things to quickly note: one, to prostrate yourself has similar roots to the word ‘worship’ we prostrate ourselves before God, is this also ‘humiliating’? The second point is about the role of humiliation.

Humiliation means ‘to be humbled’ or ‘to be brought to a lowly position’. Prostrating oneself is going to the lowest one can go physically. What a wonderful enacting of a metaphysical positioning of the heart; we make visible that which is invisible, like a sacrament,

A Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, instituted for our justification (Cathech. Trident. II. i. 4)

Many commentators point out how alien this concept of physical manifestations of repentance is to our modern day sensibilities and it made me wonder, “why?”

Firstly there is a historical aspect to the thought of penance in this way. When we think of repentance we think of saying “sorry” but as my Mum used to say,

It’s no good just saying sorry, you have to mean it.

I’m afraid, Elton John, you might be wrong: ‘sorry’ isn’t the hardest word to say!

Repentance, in the Bible seems to require some physical acting out of the inward turning back, ultimately to God. John came to proclaim a baptism of repentance. To be baptised, therefore, is to physically and publicly enact your turning towards God with the symbolic burying (in the water) and the rising to new life (out of the water). As baptism cannot be repeated in fear of denying God’s eternal adoption of us into His Kingdom, the Early Church, and still in the Roman Catholic Church (amongst others), the role of penance became that symbol of re-turning after some sin or grievance had been made. Often these were a set of prayers or a pilgrimage to a particular holy site or relic.

During the time of the Crusades, however, the Church began to develop an idea of ‘indulgences’, a form of tax on repentance; one would pay for forgiveness/pardon from the Church as a form of penance. This was very lucrative and paid for the war against the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. Later, Pope Leo X needed funds to complete the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and so encouraged official pardoners to ‘cash in’ to cover the costs of the building project. These abuses were one of the primary causes of Martin Luther’s Wittenberg protest which officially started the Reformation.

We, in the protestant West, feel uncomfortable with St. Benedict’s use of ‘satisfaction’ for grievances because it flies too close to penance and indulgences. We want to reject that and proclaim freedom from such arcane understandings but we can’t fully believe this freedom to be true. We still have, in post-reformation religion, the language of penal substitution. Penal Substitution is the idea that Christ, by his freely chosen and perfect sacrifice on the cross, was penalised for sins we, ourselves should suffer for. Christ satisfies the demands of justice and pays the price of sin; death. The language of this theory is so transactional: payment of debts, satisfying an angry God who demands we repay Him for grievances against Him. It is too karmic for me and not enough of the power grace.

Luther was protesting against a system which had abused this ‘transactional’ approach to forgiveness and so used the language understood by the people to say,

Christ has paid off your debts. You don’t need to pay money or do anything except accept the forgiveness. If you need to feel that the indulgence or penance is completed then think of it as Christ doing it for you.

This is correct; we don’t need to pay someone to earn forgiveness from God, it is freely given by His grace. The problem, however, is we have not fully grasped the reality of the end of the transactional view of God’s justice. Grace, in my reading of Scripture, doesn’t say Christ participated in a real transaction with a wrathful God who is waiting for us all to balance our books. Grace speaks of Christ belittling and revealing the weakness of such an approach altogether. God was not separate from the cross, He was on the cross. God wasn’t receiving payment for sins, He was entering into the stupidity of that sacrificial system to end it, making it obsolete.

I don’t think Christ was paying God for my sins because I don’t think God is needs something to balance out my bad deeds before he forgives; he surely isn’t that petty. God does not withhold his mercy, that’s the wonderful truth about grace.

This notion of substitution centres in on Paul’s words in Romans 6:23,

For the wages of sin is death…

Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t see where this literal idea comes from. I read these words as meaning that if we sin, i.e. we turn away from God, reject God, deny Him, we die. This makes sense if God is the giver and sustainer of life. God offers us, in relationship with Him, life and if we move away from the source of life we will die. Where did we get this notion that if we sin God will actively cut us off as a punishment?

To put it in another way, we don’t need to pay God for our sins because He isn’t asking for payment. The wages aren’t coming from God. We will receive death, not from God but as a natural consequence of refusing the payment of life. As Paul goes on to say in Romans 6:23,

…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We want to live under the stick and know punishment. God wants us to live in true freedom and to know His free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, the source of abundant life.

Try reading Matthew 25:31-46, the image of the sheep and the goats, without the concept of karma (we need to have more good deeds by our name than bad) or balance books or any form of transactional justice. We naturally want to see this view of judgement as God, sat on His throne in heaven, with a list seeing who’s been naughty and nice. God is not Santa so let’s start believing that fact! The wonderful truth about God’s grace is that He’s not counting. He offers us the free gift of life which we can receive with joy or opt out of.

St. Benedict’s proposed ‘satisfication’ may strike us as too petty and humiliating but some of us still hold too much to a similar view when we preach the cross as ‘satisfaction’ of an angry God.


The Liberalism Delusion

The second aspect to why our modern sensibilities think this concept of physical manifestations of repentance is alien is cultural.

This Christmas there’s one book that I would really like (no pressure!) and that’s John Marsh’s book, ‘The Liberalism Delusion’. Regular readers of my blog will know my blatant disagreements with the form of liberalism prevalent in British culture today. John Marsh, in his synopsis of his book, sums up my questions concisely. He suggests that the flaws in liberalism are: ‘human nature is good and rational’, ‘the more freedom the better’, ‘morality is unnecessary’, ‘the individual is of overriding importance’, ‘greater equality is always beneficial’, ‘science is certain and benign’, ‘religion is untrue and harmful’, ‘history and tradition are unimportant’, ‘universalism and multiculturalism are beneficial’ and ‘we are shaped by our experiences not by our genes’.

I might, if I get hold of the book, write a full review of the book but for now it would be worth taking three of these ‘flaws’/‘delusions’ and outlining his proposition in our current discussion on penance and repentance.

Firstly, ‘human nature is good and rational’.

At the heart of liberalism – and of its forerunner the Enlightenment – is the rejection of the Judeo-Christian belief that human nature is flawed, believing instead that we are born good and wise; although later warped and corrupted by parents and society. These ideas became popular in the 1960s, especially in areas like education, which became child-centred. This led to the decline of discipline and undermined parental authority. However recent scientific discoveries in genetics – including the Human Genome Project – and in psychology have shown that human nature is indeed flawed. In religious jargon we are sinners; and science has proved it. (John Marsh, “‘The Liberal Delusion’ by John Marsh – synopsis”, Anglican Mainstream, December 2 2014, http://anglicanmainstream.org/the-liberal-delusion-by-john-marsh-synopsis/)

With this view of human nature, sin becomes an unnecessary and dirty, guilt inducing lie to keep us trapped, unable to flourish, rather than the fact of our own brokenness and need for healing. If human’s are essentially good then we are innocent until proven guilty. The problem, however, is that liberalism also promotes the idea that ‘morality is unnecessary’.

If we are good we do not need morality, restraints, regulations or religion. Many liberals regard moral rules as unproven, unscientific and having a traditional or religious basis; they maintain children should be free to make up their own minds on morals, without the influence of parents or schools. So undermining morality is consistent with liberal principles; the outcome is a society that is non-judgemental, value-free and amoral. (John Marsh, “‘The Liberal Delusion’ by John Marsh – synopsis”)

If we desire a society which is value-free and non-judgemental then the sort of penance that St. Benedict is proposing is bound to be out-dated and alien; this is religion at its most harmful! The wisdom of the Christian tradition, however, witnesses to our deep need to enact, embody and manifest that which is internal. We are symbolic creatures who benefit from ‘making visible that which is invisible’. This tradition of physicalising repentance is much more than proving to one another the truth and completeness of a transformation or ‘rebirth’, it is also about proving it to ourselves. We mark in history, physically, the momentous occasion of a decision; we sign a document, we submerge and re-emerge from water we gather witnesses to testify to a declaration of belief and change of heart/mind.

Our liberal culture would refuse this, however, because ‘history and tradition are unimportant’.

Many liberals regard the past as an era of ignorance, superstition and darkness best forgotten, and strive to free people from history and tradition. So in liberal societies there is a tendency for the past to be forgotten, and for history to be downgraded as a subject in schools. However history is necessary for our self-understanding and identity.

In my mind there is a more dangerous characteristic of our liberal society and it, ironically, shares this with other fanatical ideologies such as fascism and communism and that’s not only the forgetting of the past but the re-writing or re-interpreting of the past.

I have already outlined my discomfort of the projecting onto of the story of St Aelred of Rievaulx, reframing his ideas and ministry as overtly pro-homosexuality. Some have even gone as far as proclaiming St Aelred as ‘gay’. It’s wrong. Imagine, if I were in fifty years time, to promote the idea that Alan Turing was straight and he the way he lived his life was not what he truly wanted, there would be uproar and rightly so. If we view our travel through time as one of pure progress culturally, always becoming more and more enlightened then we will always feel the need to correct the stupid, narrow-minded ancestors and re-interpret them saying to ourselves,

What they meant to say was…

We cannot tell what they were thinking or seeing. We cannot teach them how to look at the world because they were different to us, not worse, different. We cannot colonise the past with our culture.

Indeed, when you explore monasticism as just one example, you discover that our fore-fathers and mothers made discoveries and solved problems we are struggling with today. There is a well-spring of wisdom we’d do well to draw from the past. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we reject the past as uninformed and bigoted; maybe it is us who have stepped back in our understanding of the world and ourselves as humanity.


Making amends is a natural desire of human beings. We want people to show us that they regret their actions or words against us. Before we forgive we want to know that we can trust them again. In this way, the ‘satisfaction’ St. Benedict is proposing is legitimate and understandable. The problem comes when we project that onto God in His dealings with us.

God does not require us to prove to Him our repentance for He knows our hearts and knows when we are truly turning to Him or not. Penance is for each other not God. In this way the ‘satisfaction’ is about reconciling the community together and not about the earning the reality of God’s mercy upon the sinner. The prostrating is not about earning forgiveness but about rebuilding trust and re-bonding the division made by the transgression.

In our churches there are times when we divide ourselves and others off from one another. We say something, or do something which hurts, disappoints and upsets a brother or sister. Saying “sorry” doesn’t rebuild trust, it may help, but it doesn’t complete it. Physicalising regret communicates a genuine change of heart and mind to the other and rebuilds relationship. If someone is unable to suffer public humiliation they will never achieve humility, which, as we are continually reminded of in the Rule of St. Benedict, is the very heart of healthy communities and the very centre of the Kingdom of God.
Merciful Father, we confess our sinfulness and praise you for your unending love, grace and forgiveness of us. We thank you that you are the source of life and we are invited to drink from that well. We thank you for the perfect revelation of your love through Jesus Christ on the cross. We thank you for suffering in that way to show us your character and desire for relationship with us.

Come, Lord Jesus.